Gender Relationships in Latin America


The human species is divided by gender into males and females.  Human reproduction is achieved by an act of procreation by a male and a female.  In principle, the act of procreation can occur between any male and any female.  In practice, there are some societal restrictions against random copulation.  In many human societies, gender relationship is institutionalized by marriage, which is a process whereby one male and one female enter into a formal partnership.  This process may arise out of the need to define and protect property and inheritance rights.

If that was the whole story, then we would have a complete demographic characterization by identifying each person in the population as either being married or unmarried.  In practice, there are many other conditions and exceptions.  In the case of Latin America, we can argue that the complexities are the result of the impact of the confluence of three main types of cultures --- the European, the Indian and the African.

In the case of contemporary Latin America, we can list the following marital states ---

(1)  A single person

To be precise, this is a person who has never been married before in either the civil or religious sense (thereby excluding anyone who may be living alone now after being separated, divorced or widowed from a previous marriage) and who is also not presently cohabitating with someone. 

(2) A married person

To be precise, this is a person who has entered into a marriage with a person of the opposite sex in either a civil or religious ceremony or both.  As such, the person is presumed to possess certain qualities (e.g. reached the age of consent at the time of the marriage, was not a bigamist, etc), has signed the requisite documents in the presence of witnesses and officials, paid a license fee (arancele and possibly other gifts in the case of a religious ceremony) and the said marriage was duly entered into an official registry with all its legal and/or religious ramifications.

We make the distinction between civil and religious marriages.  In the early colonial days, marriage took place only in the context of rituals conducted within the Catholic Church, as matrimony is a sacrament like baptism or holy communion.  From the book by Christine Hunefeldt about spousal relationship in nineteenth-century Lima, we read: 

Everyone wishing to marry in church had to fulfill rituals designed to control marriage and the conditions of marriage.  There was nothing easy about getting married.  According to canon law, marriages had to be announced and publicized.  Banns (public announcement of the proposed marriage) had to be published in widely read newspapers, read aloud in one of Lima's main squares, or posted on the church's doors.  People were expected to step forward if they knew of any impediment to the marriage.

An important impediment was kinship.  Kin to the fourth degree, both in the ascending and in the descending line; collateral kin (that is, one's future spouse's relatives); and even those people who had ritual kinship as godparents in baptism and marriage were off-limits in regard to sexual intercourse and marriage.  If the bride or groom had had sexual intercourse within the kinship network prior to marriage, they needed a written dispensation to excuse the sin, and this document was included in the matrimonial license file after penitence had been decreed upon the transgressors.  The close the kinship, the stricter the church's imposed sanctions and penitence.

Religious vows, a promise to serve God as a priest or a nun, were another impediment.  Holy promises could not be easily retracted and called for thorough soul-searching for all involved before a dispensation could be granted.  Another impediment was physical and mental illness, which included sexual impotence and diseases; various forms of heresy, such as witchcraft, atheism, and professing non-Catholic beliefs; and, more generally, madness.  If deviations or sicknesses could be proven, the couple could not obtain a dispensation to marry.  These impediments, particularly sexual impotence, were used to annul marriages as well (presumably there was no way of being aware of this impediment before marriage).

Catholic premarital rituals also required consent declarations from both fathers for those who married before reaching twenty-five years of age (after 1830, age twenty one).  If the father had died, the mother stepped in or, in her absence, the closest paternal male relative.  When parents did not agree to the impending marriage, they expressed their dissent in writing.  Church authorities carefully scrutinized the objections.  The church was aware that women were sometimes forced into marriage by their parents, so a written consent signed by the bride was also required.

Couple also presented to their priest birth certificates stating their parishes of birth.  If born in different parishes, they had to marry in the woman's parish.  At least two witnesses per person had to be present at the ceremony.  Moreover, witnesses declared in writing how and for which length of time they had known each of the partners or both.  Church officials processed matrimonial files with great care, not only because they gave the church moral leverage and control over people's lives, but also because once the marriage had taken place, the presence of unexcused impediments could be used by a spouse to petition for an annulment.  Because marriage was a sacrament, the church was interested in avoiding allegations in hindsight.

In the late nineteenth century, Latin American countries began to introduce laws that permit civil matrimony through registration at governmental offices, with corresponding laws to address issues of contracts, dowry, alimony, inheritance, divorce and spousal abuse.  Civil marriages are not accepted as valid by the Catholic Church, and vice versa.

(3)  A person in a consensual union (unión libre)

 We read from the book by de Vos (see reference at the bottom of the page): 

... the clearest legacy that many societies have regarding family structure from the Indian past is the marital custom of consensual union.  These are unions that may be sanctioned by a community but not by a civil authority or by a church.  Such unions may be stable and are a common form of marital status in areas that are predominantly Indian.

The issue of consensual union is complicated, however, because of the arrival of many African slaves in certain parts of America.  While most historical accounts of the Hispanic arrival in the New World focus on political and economic issues, some nonetheless note that there was substantial "intermarriage" between European/white men and Indian or African women.  There simply were many more European/white men than women, and most of these men were not about to be celibate (or faithful within marriage) under the circumstances.  As a consequence, some "consensual unions" were purely exploitative, facilitated by perceived or real inequality and/or traditional outlooks, but others were informal for other reasons (e.g., the difficulty or expense of making the union formal, or laws against miscegenation or divorce).  (p.7)

Consensual union is common; formal marriage may not even have been an option for some people who wanted to form a union --- perhaps because it had to be sanctioned by a priest, who may not even have been available for a fee, or it could only be between two unmarried Catholics. (p.157)

And from the book by Sarah LeVine, we read this narrative:

Inés goes on, "Young women today are much more independent than we were because they're used to earning their own money.  If they don't like their husband's behavior, they tell him, 'I'm leaving!"  Her daughter, Nina, the administrator of a large Catholic school in downtown Cuernavaca, did just that.  She married a nice young man with a good job, and they had a son.  But when the boy was three, she got a divorce.  "She saw right away that her husband was too attached to his mother, and it turned out that he was homosexual.  After leaving him, she became friends with Raul and they started living together.  Now they have a daughter, but Nina doesn't want to marry him,"says Inés, with lingering incredulity.  "She has her job and she wants to keep her independence."  Although poor Mexican women may actually prefer to live in consensual union with a man, on the grounds that in the absence of any formal tie, they retain more freedom, it is something new for a lower-middle-class woman, typically the quintessence of respectability, to choose such an arrangement.  (p.125)

This definition of consensual union is a negative one --- it refers to unions that are NOT admissible under the eyes of the law or the church.  As such, we have to point out that consensual union covers a broad range of situations, some of which are stable arrangements (such as common-law marriages) while others can be just fleeting liaisons.

(4) A separated person

To be precise, this is a person who was married formally in civil and/or religious matrimony but is currently separated (but not formally divorced) from the spouse.  Usually, separation is a prelude to a formal divorce but reconciliation is still possible.  It should be noted that a person who is separated from a partner in a consensual union is considered to be single, but not separated.

(5)  A divorced person

To be precise, this is a person who was married formally in civil and/or religious matrimony but is now divorced from the spouse following a formal process whereby the appropriate civil and/or religious authorities have approved the divorce (or annulment).

In a civil divorce, there may be numerous grounds for petitioning --- adultery, alcoholism, disease, sexual impotency, bigamy/polygamy, incompatibility, abandonment, criminal behavior, physical abuse, mental cruelty, etc.

In a religious divorce, the grounds for petitioning may seem to be fewer.  According to catholic doctrine, Holy Matrimony is a sacrament and is therefore indissoluble.  In the words of Jesus Christ: "What therefore God has joined together let no man put asunder." (Gospel of Matthew 19:3-9).  So even if a couple agreed to a separation, their religious marriage remains in place and they can never remarry in church.  However, in practice, when you consider the detailed requirements for a religious marriage ceremony, there are plenty of loopholes to obtain an annulment if one has the knowledge and resources --- for example, one of the matrimonial witness may sign an affidavit to the effect that his place of residence was not that which was indicated on the marriage license; one spouse may confess to having sexual intercourse with a near kin for which dispensation had not been properly obtained; and so on.

Again, from Hunefeldt's book, we read:

... in 1854 María Bruque found out, after fifteen years of marriage, that her husband had had sexual relations with her mother and that this was known to everyone but herself.  The marriage was annulled because no dispensation had been requested at the time of the wedding and because the couple had married in a different parish from that in which María was born.  

(6)  A widowed person

To be precise, this is a person who was married formally in civil and/or religious matrimony but whose spouse is now deceased.

We will now refer to some data from the 1999-2000 TGI Latina study.  The relevant database consists of 37,470 survey respondents between the ages of 20 and 64 in seven countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile (Santiago), Colombia, Mexico, Peru (Lima) and Venezuela (Caracas).  The distribution of marital status is shown in the pie chart below.

(source:  TGI Latina)


There are more interesting ways of looking at marital status beyond just taking a snapshot as we just did.  In particular, marital status is expected to change over the course of the lifetime.  The most typical scenario would be a person who is single upon reaching adulthood, gets married and either dies before the spouse or becomes a widow if the spouse dies first.  

There are many other possible deviations from this scenario --- a person may be single for the entire life; or a person may experience multiple marital events in the course of lifetime, such as this sequence: single >> marriage >> separation >> divorce >> re-marriage >> widowhood.

In the following chart, we show the distributions of marital status for different age groups.  This is still a cross-sectional snapshot of the moment at which this survey was conducted, but it does show how marital status distributions varies greatly by age.  Thus, the majority of young people (persons 20 to 24 years old) are still single.  As people grow older, that they are more likely to be married.  Since separation, divorce and widowhood can occur only after marriage, their incidences also increase with age.  Widowhood is the consequence of the death of the spouse, and mortality rate increases with age. 

(source:  TGI Latina)


In Latin America, it is impossible to understand gender relationships without considering class, and class can be considered in the historical context.  Here is an excerpt of Muriel Nazzari's article Sex/Gender Arrangements And The Reproduction of Class In the Latin American Past collected in Elizabeth Dore's book (see reference at the bottom of this page):

Most Latin American women exercised their reproductive roles and lived within highly structured sex/gender arrangements.  In colonial times and in the early nineteenth century, these arrangements included the system of family honor, which both prescribed gender roles and stratified society, thereby reproducing class.

The word "honor" had meanings at two different levels: status and virtue.  The honorable status of a family of the colonial elite was gained through ascription if ascendants had belonged to the conquistadors or early settlers or if the crown had granted them privileges in return for services.  It was also inherited through purity of blood, that is, genealogical proof that there was no mixture of Jewish, Moorish, Indian, or black blood in one's ancestry.  The honorable status of these families was maintained with the circumspect behavior of their members and their refusal to participate in manual labor.

Honor as virtue also reflected on the entire family as a corporate group, but in contrast to honor as status, it had different definitions according to gender.  The men of a family were honorable when they were manly, honest, and loyal, and exercised their authority over family and subordinates wisely.  Women's honor was mostly related to their sexual conduct: they should retain their virginity until they married, and as wives they should be chaste and faithful.  They should also be concerned with their reputation, and discreet in the presence of men.  If women deviated from this code they were considered shameless, and this shamelessness dishonored the whole family.

Yet colonial society had contradictory expectations.  The honor system led men to protect the women in their own family from sexual assault, and thereby preserve the family honor, whereas contemporary views on masculinity led them to seduce women in other families, thereby dishonoring them.  Men's sense of virility rose as a function of how many women they were able to conquer.

This contradiction meant the honor system would not work without the sexual laxity of some women.  These tended to be lower-class women because they were less secluded and less protected than upper-class women.  Many may have also made calculated choices between illicit relationships with an upper-class man and marriage with a man of their own class.  

This sex/gender system of honor therefore functioned not only to differentiate women from men but also to divide persons by class.  The colonial elite distinguished between people who had honor, gente decente, and people who did not, gente baja.  Thus when a woman chose or accepted a relationship of concubinage, she lost her honor and reinforced her lower-class status.  Because of the double standard implicit in this gender system, upper-class men did not lose their honor if they had concubines of an inferior class or race, only if they married them.

A marriage system based on endogamy was thus at the root of the gender system of honor, and endogamy was also a sex/gender arrangement that reproduced class.  Men and women were expected to marry their equals, and were there any inequality in status or property between spouses, it was the wife who should be superior to her husband and not vice-versa.  The mechanism used to enforce this system was the dowry.

However things did not remain the same.

... marriage was transformed from mostly a property relation between class equals to a marriage based on the personal relationship between the spouses, in which wives were usually economically dependent on their husbands.  At the same time, the honor system was considerable weakened and tended to disappear, and the practice of arranged marriage and dowry declined.

These changes in the way classes were reproduced, specifically in the way the ruling class was reproduced, entailed a kind of marriage that was much more like concubinage than was the previous system, in which wives contributed substantially to the support of their new families with a dowry.  They also represented the transformation from a system of patriarchalism, in which one male not only had authority over the females in his family but also over all younger males, including married sons and nephews, and sometimes even cousins, to a system of patriarchy restricted to the nuclear family, in which the male had power only over his wife, unmarried daughters, and minor sons.  The new patriarchy allowed individual men much more independence from their families of origin to choose a wife or pursue a career, leaving individual women freer to choose a  husband, but without the support and protection of their fathers, brothers, and families of origin, who could no longer exert patriarchal authority over their sons-in-laws.

Marriage became a strictly personal matter.  On one hand, women of the propertied class gained the freedom to choose their husbands, but lost the right to receive a dowry from their parents, that is, the wherewithal to contribute to the support of the new family, so they became instead their husbands' dependents.  On the other hand, women with no property benefited from the change, for it increased their chances of marrying.  Demographic studies confirm that as the nineteen century progressed, a greater percentage of the adult population married  ... Though marriage, an institution that regulated gender relations, no longer separated people by class as starkly as it had in the past, to this day there are more never-married persons in the lower classes than in the upper.

In the following chart, we show the distribution of marital status by socio-economic status.  Level A refers to the top 10%, Level B to the next 20%, Level C to the next 30% and Level D to the bottom 40% of the population.  These Levels are determined from a scoring scheme based upon household goods and services and head of household characteristics.

(source:  TGI Latina)

Here are some observations:


(posted by Roland Soong on 9/17/00)

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