In Mexico, honor and even violence helped build an autonomous space for political debate

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In a nutshell

Mexico emerged as a modern nation in the 1860s, after half a century of civil war, foreign invasion and political instability. In a new nation divided by ethnicity, class, religion and differing views of sovereignty, even the basic rules of political culture had to be sorted out. The right to speak in the name of public opinion was not automatically granted to a selected few, but was the object of constant debate. Who could speak or write in the name of Mexican society? What gave him, or her, the authority to do so? Historians have explored this struggle in terms of ideology (liberals against conservatives, republicans against monarchists) or class (the elite and the subaltern). But honor was the category generally accepted, even across gender divides, as the foundation for the interactions among Mexican citizens, and between Mexico and other nations.

In Mexico, honor mutated drastically with the end of colonial domination. Whereas in the past honor was the visible marker of status and formalized the interactions between people divided by class, color and gender, after independence all Mexican citizens, regardless of color or ethnicity, had a rightful claim to honor. Honor was the point of reference to build a modern masculinity, it gave men the right to use reason publicly. This book looks at the first century of Mexican history as a simultaneous struggle to protect honor and empower public opinion.

Multiple press codes set out to guarantee, and at the same time limit, freedom of speech. Honor and freedom of speech were intertwined because republican honor meant the intimate connection between one’s reputation, its external dimension, and the inner domain of conscience and self-esteem. When a citizen spoke, it was tacitly accepted that he or she was speaking his or her mind. Without sincerity there could be no public debate. As a result, the limits to freedom of speech most commonly legislated were those intended to protect the honor of interlocutors.

Journalists, principal actors in my book, were sent to jail for libel more often than for inciting rebellion. Mexican newspapers, particularly since the 1860s, provided the field in which personal honor was tested and measured. Following romantic notions of sincerity and heroism, journalists challenged each others’ reputations and defied men of power. I examine other terrains as well: Mexico City streets, where parliamentarians, students and the plebs protested in 1884 against the negotiation of the debt with British bondholders; the personal disputes in bars, commerce, and tenement houses that drove people to sue each other for defamation or insults; the secretive, yet very public, field of honor, where elite men used the duel to solve their least treatable conflicts.

“In Mexico, honor and even violence helped build an autonomous space for political debate.”

The wide angle

We tend to assume that freedom of speech naturally accompanies other democratic rights. But the construction of the virtual and physical spaces where modern individuals could publicly and freely use their reason involves a historical process full of contingencies and diverging paths. In Spanish America, the development of what we now call the public sphere started even before independence, and encompassed moments of great tolerance for free speech and moments of repression and violence. Public men in modern Mexico used honor to build an egalitarian, if restrictive, space where they could publicly apply their reason to matters of common interest while limiting, or at least ritualizing, the need to defend their opinions with violence.

The Tyranny of Opinion focuses on the generation of public men that emerged in the 1870s because of the first opportunity to build a public sphere with some institutional stability under the regime of Porfirio Dí­az (1876-1911). These men had not participated in the wars against conservatives, Spaniards, the United States and France. Seeking to speak in the name of the nation, they had to invoke the heroic legacy of the older generations. This they did sometimes against their will, revealing deep anxieties about their own masculinity. They successfully used the formalities of the dueling codes to limit interpersonal violence and justify their claim to have a pure consciousness, above the threats or co-optation of the Porfirian regime. In doing so they laid out the foundations of the public sphere that continued to evolve in Mexico even after the 1911 revolution: a public sphere in which, for women and the less educated, the right to speak was severely limited, but one that otherwise allowed for a free press even under the authoritarianism of Dí­az and of the post-revolutionary single-party regime.

The story is also that of the transition from a romantic notion of the self in which honor meant the individual’s transparent unity of self-esteem and reputation (thus a constant struggle against misunderstanding), to positivist ideas about the state’s obligation to protect honor as a juridical object (a valuable and objective personal good that could be defended by penal legislation). The book shows how Mexican public men’s honor shifted from being the object of polemics and duels between romantic journalists and orators to serving as the justification for judges’ interventions against opposition writers. This, however, was not only the product of the strong hand of the dictator: people from all backgrounds, even working-class women and journalists, supported the penal protection of honor and used courts to defend their reputation when they had been the objects of insults or defamation.

I came to realize the importance of the link between honor and the public sphere following two paths. First, my previous book City of Suspects: Crime in Mexico City, 1900-1931 had revealed the importance of implicit notions of honor in regulating interpersonal violence among people in Mexico City. Cases of battery, homicide and sexual violence documented life as a constant struggle to control reputation. Violence played an expressive role by showing that men could sustain their words with deeds, while demonstrating that women could not fully exercise their right to be free and secure in the city. In the process of the research, I learned how to read judicial sources not only as the record of the modern state’s attempts to establish social control and “civilize” Mexicans, but also as records of dialogues in which parties in conflict could express their ideas about what constituted a legitimate use of violence, particularly in the context of disputes triggered by hurtful words or gestures in public settings.

The second path to this book had started earlier with my interest in parliamentary politics during the revolutionary era. Trying to place the neglected history of congress in a broader historical perspective, I found that Jürgen Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere offered a theoretically productive way to understand the modern history of the public use of reason. The model, however, had to be used critically, because Habermas saw that transformation as a product of the intellectual changes associated with the Enlightenment. Throughout independent Latin America, the public sphere emerged as a more politicized field than in Western Europe; a field where disputes, sometimes violent, centered from the very beginning on sovereignty and representation, but also on personal reputations—central issues in societies emerging from three hundred years of colonial domination.

Habermas and other authors provided a way to think historically about reason as a dialogue, and about the bourgeois spheres of intimacy and publicity. My work, and that of other historians of Spanish America, suggests the importance of revising that model with an eye for gender, ethnic and class exclusions. In The Tyranny of Opinion, my contribution to this revision is the incorporation of violence and masculinity as components of the public sphere that not only served to exclude certain groups from politics, but also determined the rules of free speech.

February 10, 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.

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.

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

“This book looks at the first century of Mexican history as a simultaneous struggle to protect honor and empower public opinion.”


It is difficult, even risky, to predict how a history book will be used by its readers. I have always been wary of history books that present information about great men intended to serve as example for contemporary decision-makers. It is much more fun—although it probably sells fewer copies—to try to understand how the very category of “great man” came to be.

The emergence and hegemony of public men in Mexico has its own history, and I hope The Tyranny of Opinion provides a useful path for a critical reading of it. More importantly, perhaps, the book shows the connections between public life and other, less prestigious but more intimate terrains of culture and social relations. One, alluded by the title, is the anxiety that the protection of honor imposed on men and women of all classes: it was not possible to avoid responding to any direct or indirect statement that undermined one’s reputation, whether it happened in the newspaper, the bar, the theater, the sidewalks or the market. It was a constant vigilance that in some cases resulted in the need to use violence or seek the protection of the police, and was always economically and emotionally costly.

I tried to rethink politics as an object of study. The political history of Mexico and other Latin countries has too often been told as one of the naked exercise of power by the elites over the subaltern. In these views, class exploitation, racial discrimination, foreign pressures are some of the forces that ultimately explain the permanence of inequality and authoritarianism. I hope to contribute to a growing body of Latin American historiography that, against these views, contends that Latin America was, from the beginning of independent life, a territory of struggle for democracy, full citizenship and freedom of speech. It is the permanence and modalities of that struggle that needs to be explained, rather than our superficial contemporary views about the region as an instance of failed modernity.

I argue, in sum, that honor, even violence, played a positive role in building an autonomous space for political debate for Mexican citizens in the late nineteenth century. But it came at a very high cost: the exclusion of women from public life and, indirectly, the justification of violence against them when their autonomous words or actions were thought to undermine the authority of men. Mexican women were able to vote only in 1953, and sexual violence has plagued everyday life up to our days. Both facts are related in that they are based on the premise that the voice of women should not be too loud in public settings, be it the press, political campaigns, or courtrooms.

© 2010 Pablo Piccato
Pablo Piccato The Tyranny of Opinion: Honor in the Construction of the Mexican Public Sphere Duke University Press 400 pages ISBN 978 0822346456 ISBN 978 0822346531

Pablo Piccato is associate professor at the Department of History and Director of the Institute of Latin American Studies at Columbia University. His research and teaching focus on crime, politics, and culture in modern Mexico. Besides The Tyranny of Opinion, featured in his Rorotoko book interview, Piccato is also the author of City of Suspects: Crime in Mexico City, 1900-1931 (Duke University Press 2001), and coeditor of True Stories of Crime in Modern Mexico (with Robert Buffington, 2009) and Actores, espacios y debates en la historia de la esfera pública en la ciudad de México (with Cristina Sacristán, 2005). He is currently working on the poet Salvador Dí­az Mirón, and on Mexican civil society’s responses to crime.

Cover Interview of
February 10, 2010