In 1805, a young woman in Guatemala City went in search of a priest. The woman, Justa Flores, was twenty-one years old; the priest, Father Calderón, was to be the godfather of her five-month-old son. She found him at a friend’s house, and there Justa was persuaded to stay a little while in the company of her sociable acquaintances: guitar music, drinks, and good conversation made the afternoon pass quickly. Twice she sent a messenger for her husband, Francisco Anzueto, inviting him to join the impromptu party. Twice he refused. But then, as the afternoon turned to evening, a whistling sound in the street alerted them to Francisco’s arrival. Justa called to him from the window, urging him to come in. When he refused once more, Justa finally acceded, going out to join him.
From Francisco’s unyielding posture, the marital dance of pull and resist, we might be expected to guess what comes next. Still, it surprised me, when I first read this case a decade ago at the beginning of my research into Guatemalan criminal cases. I had not yet learned to read, in Francisco’s silence, the raging fury of wounded masculine honor. When Justa stepped out into the street, Francisco raised his sword and struck his wife on the head. She toppled to the ground, badly injured but not insensate; he had beaten her with the flat side of the sword. He roared at her to get to her feet, accusing her of falling due to drunkenness. With effort, she tried to rise.
At this moment, Father Calderón and the others rushed out of the house to intervene, but they were unable to restrain Francisco, who now unleashed his fury on anyone who came near. With repeated sword blows and insults, he herded Justa home, injuring her so severely that by the time they arrived she could hardly walk. At one point, when she protested that she could bear it no longer, he bit her on the back. She somehow made it back to her bed, where two women who shared the house with Francisco and Justa tried to minister to her wounds. Francisco threw them out of the house. And then, the anger spent, he realized the gravity of her injuries. He poured alcohol on the cuts and found that this did no good. Then he left the house, abandoning Justa to her injuries.
In the criminal case that ensued, Francisco explained his actions in a straight-forward matter. Justa had taken too long on her errand to find Father Calderón. He had simply gone to the house to bring her home, and he had beaten her to offer some “correction.” The court, though it took the trouble of listening to testimony from several people, ultimately agreed with him. Justa managed to heal from her serious injuries, and the court set Francisco free. He was ordered to pay the court fees and reprimanded not to engage in such “excesses” again when correcting his wife.
For me, and maybe for you, the shock of seeing such brutality dismissed with a mere slap on the wrist quickly gives way to cynicism; of course violence against women went unpunished in the past. We know this in the same way we know domestic violence happens now. Part of knowing the world is holding these contradictory sentiments simultaneously: on the one hand, the capacity for shock; on the other, the cynical awareness that violence is commonplace. Neither sentiment should obviate the need to comprehend. Whether we startle in amazement or shrug, we should still demand an explanation. Why was it possible for Francisco Anzueto to get away with nearly murdering his wife?
In late-colonial Guatemala, the twin explanations are law and honor. The law permitted husbands to discipline their wives , and, more broadly, the male head of household occupied a privileged position that metaphorically reflected the privileges of the monarch. As Victor Uribe-Uran has found for the Spanish Atlantic as a whole, the law had little to say about what we would consider domestic abuse: “Beyond acknowledging that it was ‘unfortunately quite frequent,’… contemporary legal manuals did not discuss battery.” (Uribe-Uran’s work to read, quoted here, is Fatal Love: Spousal Killers, Law, and Punishment in the Late Colonial Spanish Atlantic.) As a result, domestic violence was ubiquitous, and only cases that ended in homicide stirred the court to tentative action. Just as the king wielded absolute power in the empire, so the husband wielded absolute power in the home. To curb Francisco’s entitlement would have metaphorically implied a curtailment of monarchical power. These legal privileges were buttressed and elaborated through cultural norms that protected male honor. Though battering a female servant or a wife almost always ended in acquittal, insulting a man of high standing could result in a prison sentence. Indeed, insults were sometimes deemed more capable of damage than physical weapons; in cases where officials used weapons and citizens used words, punishments were handed down for the insults, not the injury. This could only be true if (privileged, male) honor was understood to be more valuable—or perhaps more fragile—thereby requiring more protection than the (female) body.
How was Justa Flores insulting her husband in delaying her return home? Though Francisco never explains the injury to his honor, his description of the evening makes clear that Francisco was left alone with their five-month-old baby for more than four hours. Justa was partying with friends while he sat at home, watching an infant. With a single, thoughtless stroke, Justa inverted their proper roles, allowing herself to play the carousing male while Francisco was forced to play the parent: a shocking, even violent inversion to Francisco. Only a violent reply could serve to “correct” such an error.
Sylvia Sellers-García is associate professor of history at Boston College. Her previous books include Distance and Documents at the Spanish Empire’s Periphery and When the Ground Turns in Its Sleep. She lives in Beverly, MA.