In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Marriage in Colonial Latin America

  • Introduction
  • Edited Volumes
  • Indigenous Values and Practices
  • Early Colonial
  • Marriage Choice
  • Racial Ideologies and Marriage
  • Transatlantic Marriage and Family
  • Dowry and Family
  • Marital Conflict
  • Illicit Unions
  • Marriage and Enslaved People
  • Late Colonial Period

Latin American Studies Marriage in Colonial Latin America
Alexander Wisnoski III
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0280


The early years of the colonial era coincided with the Catholic Church’s reaffirmation that marriage was a holy sacrament. Alongside that affirmation the Council of Trent outlined the parameters of marriage, as the church began spreading and enforcing these teachings. Just as marriage was an institution worth policing by the church, the Spanish and Portuguese Crowns were similarly invested in matrimony. Official marriages, and the families they produced, were the ideal building blocks for these empires. However, who should marry whom also mattered a great deal. The scholarship on marriage in colonial Latin America has studied in depth both the racial and class considerations of marriage and the extent this changed over time. While creating marital units was an important line of interrogation, the historiography also considered what transpired between couples after exchanging vows. What were the gender roles for the couple? What marital ideals did Indigenous people, enslaved Africans, and other marginalized groups prioritize and advance? What legal standing did wives have? How did mobility affect these marriages? These and other questions help present a wide spectrum of what the married life could look like in colonial Latin America. Such interrogations also found many instances of marital conflict and spousal abuse, and consider how couples, the community, and the various legal jurisdictions treated these ruptures and abuses. This body of research also investigated those relationships that didn’t fit neatly into the church’s definition of proper marriage.

Edited Volumes

Some of the earliest forays into women’s history laid the foundation for important scholarship on marriage. The spectrum of this scholarship is best seen in noteworthy edited volumes. Some interventions took marriage as its specific focus (Lavrin 1989; Gonzalbo 1996), whereas others addressed marriage as a way to understand other social and cultural norms. For example, Lavrin 1978 sought to bring to light the experiences of various women, including those marrying and married. Johnson and Lipsett-Rivera 1998 provides a comprehensive interrogation of the meanings and significance of honor, which often intersects with ideas of marriage and sexual mores. Rodríguez 2004 compiles regional surveys in his volume.

  • Gonzalbo, Pilar y Cecelia Rabell, eds. Familia y vida privada en la historia de Iberoamerica. México, D.F.: El Colegio de Mexico, 1996.

    Though covering 1500 to the twentieth century, the volume is heavily weighted to the colonial period. The first two sections significantly address marriage patterns, family strategies (including dowries), and informal unions across multiple locales. Part 3 is more focused on families and marriage in crisis and conflict, while Part 4 is more intellectual history related to marriage and family.

  • Johnson, Lyman L., and Sonya Lipsett-Rivera, eds. The Faces of Honor: Sex, Shame, and Violence in Colonial Latin America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.

    A foundational text exploring the perceptions and implications of honor in colonial Latin America. The volume gives significant attention to the ways gender, race, and class affected understandings of honor and how those were acted on. Contributions by Spurling, Twinam, Lipsett-Rivera, and Nazari have particularly rich discussions on honor and marriage, family, and sexuality.

  • Lavrin, Asunción. Sexuality and Marriage in Colonial Latin America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

    Foundational volume on research on marriage across Latin America. Includes contributions that cover a wide range of themes including: Indigenous and Spanish sexual mores, marriage choice, marital honor, spousal abuse, divorce, and others.

  • Lavrin, Asunción, ed. Latin American Women: Historical Perspectives. London: Greenwood Press, 1978.

    Provides an entry point for the history of women in Latin America. Includes chapters outlining laws and norms of practice in Spanish and Portuguese America for women, with specific sections on wives. The first four chapters address family and marriage before the contributors move on to addressing convents and changes during the independence era.

  • Rodríguez, Pablo, ed. La familia en Iberoamérica 1550–1980. Bogotá, Colombia: Universidad Externado de Colombia, 2004.

    This volume is divided geographically. Each contribution provides an overview of family life in one region, based often on modern national boundaries. Some chapters are limited to the colonial era, but all treat the period substantially.

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