Daily Life In Colonial Latin America

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Authors: Ann Jefferson
husband, regardless of the inegalitarian nature of the bargain.
Another option for avoiding spinsterhood, of course, was entering a convent, a
subject to be addressed later in the book.
    While the church might have seen reproduction as the primary
purpose of marriage, families generally treated the institution as a way to
climb the social ladder. What elites sought in formal marriage was not simply
the joining together of two people in a socially approved relationship for the
purpose of producing heirs to the family property, but the securing of an
alliance between patriarchal extended families. These alliances were of great
importance to a family’s standing in the community and therefore to the family
economy, as well as to the appeal of other sons and daughters as future marital
partners. As a result, parents arranged marriages with an eye toward improving
their economic position and their access to the politically powerful. A
favorable marriage served to secure the place of two families in the top
echelon of society.
    In a race-based social structure like that of colonial
Latin America, white families evaluated possible marital partners for their
potential to protect the family from charges of racial mixing. Formal marriage
was a way to control the racial characteristics of offspring, or to attempt
this control, although people frequently formed alliances outside formal
marriage and racially mixed children were sometimes the result.
    Among property-holding families, the most important
marriage was that of the first male child. After 1505, and far in advance of
similar legislation in the English-speaking world, Spanish inheritance laws
were clear in specifying that one-half of the property of the male head of
household was to go to his wife upon his death, and the other half to be
divided among the legitimate children both male and female. However, the father
would frequently try to arrange matters so that the bulk of his property,
especially land, remained intact under the management of his eldest son, by
means of a legal process known as entailment that was intended primarily to
prevent the dissolution of great noble estates. In addition, the advantageous
marriage of the eldest son raised the prospects of his younger brothers and all
his sisters. The son who inherited most of the property would also probably be
responsible for maintaining other family members and dependents, so for this
reason too, his favorable, honorable marriage was important. Not surprisingly,
since the eldest son stood a good chance of receiving the bulk of the
inheritance, statistics show he was the child most likely to agree to his
father’s wishes respecting the choice of a marital partner.
    At times, disagreements arose between parents and their
children over the choice of a marital partner. Research on matrimonial
documents from the Río de la Plata area in the late 18th century finds that the
church consistently defended the rights of the couple, and that most of the
parental appeals originated among the urban families of Buenos Aires. These
parents were more likely to oppose sons’ marriages than those of daughters,
possibly because daughters lived a more protected life while sons got out more,
thereby finding more opportunities to meet inappropriate partners. It may also
be, though, that parents put up less opposition to a borderline choice by
daughters if the main inheritance would go to their sons, and they might employ
the dowry to exert some control over their daughters. Legal cases were
expensive for the parents, costing on average more than 100 pesos, a sum well
beyond the means of the vast majority of the population at the time, so this
was clearly a recourse only for those with substantial resources.
    Cousin marriage was common among some elite groups,
especially where small populations restricted the availability of marriage
partners of the same calidad, an informal but powerful understanding of
social status based largely on a

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