Pablo Piccato

 

On his book The Tyranny of Opinion: Honor in the Construction of the Mexican Public Sphere

Cover Interview of February 09, 2010

A close-up

There are two episodes, in chapters two and seven, that I hope will reward the patience of the reader. Two duels, one in 1880 and the other in 1894, mark the apogee and the decline of the formalized use of violence among Mexican elites. In the first one, opposed views about the incoming presidential election lead to an increasingly acerbic polemic between two newspapers, La Patria and La Libertad.  The editor of the former, Ireneo Paz, challenged a writer of the latter, Santiago Sierra, on the mistaken assumption that he had authored a particularly virulent column in La Libertad.  From the balconies of each newsroom, as both had offices on the same street in Mexico City, they dared each other to back up their words with actions, and their seconds arranged a meeting in a forest outside Mexico City.

Paz had participated in the war against the French and the conservatives as a supporter of the caudillo Porfirio Díaz, and was a seasoned journalist and printer; Sierra was a young and promising poet whose family came from Yucatán and had close connections with Díaz.  Both were very similar in their romantic and bohemian attitudes about freedom and sincerity.  In the duel, both missed in the first round, but their seconds, including the journalist who had really written the offending words, forced them to be serious.  Sierra died and Paz could only apologize to the victim’s brother, Justo, as he arrived late to the field of honor.  Nobody was prosecuted, Paz continued his career as a printer although he never regained the friendship of Díaz, while Justo Sierra decided to quit journalism and devote himself to education and literature, eventually becoming one of the most important historians and ministers of education in the Mexico’s history.

The second duel reflects the changes that took place in public culture around the idea of honor.  As he was entering the home of the Barajases, a socialite couple with deep connections in government and the elite, colonel Francisco Romero heard Stamp Administrator José Verástegui make a disparaging remark about him to Ms. Barajas.  After a complicated series of negotiations, a duel was arranged and Romero, who was a very good marksman, killed Verástegui, whose ample body offered an easy target for the dueling pistol.


rorotoko.com The Verástegui-Romero duel.  Engraving by José Guadalupe Posada (no date).  Reproduced in the book on page 230.

In contrast with other cases, and perhaps because of Verástegui’s position in the administration, this time those involved were prosecuted. As Romero and the seconds were members of Congress, the case was discussed on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies and they were stripped of their parliamentary immunity.  The trial was the occasion for a debate in the courtroom and the press.  In addition to the revelation that the two duelists were competing for the affection of Ms. Barajas, whose husband had to testify, the scandal elicited public criticism to the very idea of honor as a value that was worth a man’s life.  Romero was sentenced to prison, although quickly pardoned by Díaz.  But the case clearly signaled the shift from a romantic notion of personal integrity, in which a clean conscience and a good name was worth life itself, to a positivist view of honor as a good that the state could protect, and therefore should not be placed above the authority of Díaz and the law.