The cultural concepts of honor and shame played an extremely important role in the history of Latin America, influencing everything from national politics to domestic divisions of labor. Most scholars agree that the roots of these cultural notions reach back to the Mediterranean world in the centuries before the European encounter with the Americas.
Scholarly investigations into what has been termed the honor-shame complex in Iberia, North Africa, and elsewhere in the Mediterranean all point to a diverse but widely shared set of beliefs and practices regarding the appropriate social roles of males and females that often transcended the differences between Christianity and Islam.
Institutionalized in various ecclesiastical, political, and legal frameworks, these cultural notions were transported to the New World in the decades and centuries after the European conquests. There they entwined with indigenous and African notions regarding honor, shame, and proper gender roles, leading to a shifting kaleidoscope of beliefs and practices among all social groups and classes.
The most effective scholarly efforts to probe the honor-shame complex in Latin America have remained attentive both to broader shared patterns in diverse historical contexts and to temporal and spatial specificity marked by changes over time.
In the most general terms, honor among Latin American men was considered both a prized personal possession and a crucially important expression of one’s public self. Honor derived from both social status and virtuous behavior.
This distinction in the sources of honor found expression in the Spanish language: the term honor generally referred to status-derived honor, while honra generally referred to virtue- or behavior-based honor. Higher social status necessarily conferred more honor: wealthy men inherently possessed more honor than poor men; noble lineage inherently conferred more honor than plebian lineage.
The second component, virtue-based honor, was based especially on a man’s capacity to act “with manliness” (con hombría). Such manliness derived from many sources, but among the most important was a man’s capacity to control and monopolize the sexuality of the girls and women he considered his.
For a man’s daughter or wife to be sexually active outside his control, or sexually assaulted or raped, caused dishonor and shame to both the victim and to the man claiming sexual dominion over her.
Women’s honor, in contrast, was based on their capacity to act with shame (vergüenza), defined especially by their sexual propriety and their deference and submission to men. Among the most humiliating insults that could be launched at members of either gender was to be called “shameless” (sin vergüenza).
The notion of humiliation was crucial to all aspects of honor. According to historian William Ian Miller, “Honor [ideology in Latin America] is above all else the keen sensitivity to the experience of humiliation and shame ... to simplify greatly, honor is that disposition which makes one act to shame others who have shamed oneself, and to humiliate someone who has humiliated oneself.”
Recent research demonstrates the various ways in which patriarchy, masculinity, honor, shame, violence, and sexuality were tightly bound up together in a dynamic cultural complex that shared certain key attributes and that varied widely over time and space, but characteristically in ways that asserted males’ dominion over females. Inquiries into this cultural complex in specific contexts comprises an exceptionally fertile field among contemporary scholars of Latin American history.