Food and Economy
Food in Daily Life. Beans and corn tortillas are the mainstays of the diet. The beans are usually fried, and the tortillas are small, thick, and usually handmade; ideally, they are eaten warm. A farm worker’s lunch may be little more than a large stack of tortillas, a few spoonfuls of beans, and some salt. The ideal meal includes fried plantains, white cheese, rice, fried meat, a kind of thickened semisweet cream called mantequilla , a scrambled egg, a cabbage and tomato salad or a slice of avocado, and a cup of sweet coffee or a bottled soft drink. These meals are served in restaurants and homes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner year-round. Plantains and manioc are important foods in much of the country, especially the north and the Mosquitia. Diners often have a porch or a door open to the street. Dogs, cats, and chickens wander between the tables, and some people toss them bones and other scraps. There are Chinese restaurants owned by recent immigrants. In the early 1990s, North American fast-food restaurants became popular.
Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Special and holiday foods are an improved version of the typical meal but feature more meat and perhaps more of an emphasis on cream and fried plantains. Christmas food includes torrejas , a white bread soaked in hot syrup, and nacatamales, which are like the Mexican tamales, but are larger and moister with a more gelatinous dough and are wrapped in banana leaves.
Basic Economy. Fifty-four percent of economically active people work in agriculture. Most are smallholder farmers who call themselves campesinos . Because the internal food market is irregular, campesinos try to grow their own maize (corn), beans, and plantains. Once they have achieved that goal, they raise a cash crop. Depending on whether they live in a valley, the mountains, or along the coast and on whether they live near a good road, a campesino household may raise a cash crop of coffee, cattle, cabbage, tomatoes, citrus fruit, maize, beans, or other vegetables. Long-term donations of wheat from the United States have kept food prices low but have provided a disincentive for grain farmers. Some large-scale commercial farmers produce melons, beef, coffee, and shrimp for export.
Classes and Castes. Large landholdings and, to a lesser extent, successful businesses generate income for most of the very wealthy. Some of these people, especially in the city of Danlí, consider themselves a kind of aristocracy, with their own social clubs and old adobe mansions downtown. These people import new cars and take foreign vacations. Educated, professional people and the owners of mid size businesses make up a group with a lifestyle similar to that of the United States middle class. However, some professionals earn only a few hundred dollars a month. They may work several jobs and tend to have old cars and small houses that are often decorated with much care.
Urban workers are often migrant from the countryside or the children of migrants. They tend to live in homes they have built for themselves, gradually improving them over the years. Their earnings may be around $100 a month. They tend to travel by bus.
Campesinos may earn only a few hundred dollars a year, but their lifestyle may be more comfortable than their earnings suggest. They often own land, have horses to ride, and may have a comfortable, if rudimentary home of wood or adobe, often with a large, shady porch. If a household has a few acres of land and if the adults are healthy, these people usually have enough to feed their families.
Symbols of Social Stratification. As in many countries, wealthier men sometimes wear large gold chains around their necks. Urban professionals and workers dress somewhat like their counterparts in northern countries. Rural people buy used clothing and repair each garment many times. These men often wear rubber boots, and the women wear beach sandals. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many men carried pistols, usually poked barrel-first into the tops of their trousers. By 2000 this custom had become somewhat less common. Many campesinos, commercial farmers, and agricultural merchants carried guns at that time.
There is a subtle difference in accent among the different classes. The highest-status people pronounce words more or less as in standard Spanish, and working-class pronunciation uses a few systematic and noticeable modifications.
Social Welfare and Change Programs
The most important social change in the last few years has been the influence of Evangelical Protestant missionaries, who have converted many Hondurans to Pentecostal religions. There are also urban social change agencies, and many that work in the villages. Their fields of activity include soil conservation, gardening, and natural pest control. One of the most important reformers was an agronomist educator-entrepreneur named Elías Sánchez, who had a training farm near Tegucigalpa. Sánchez trained tens of thousands of farmers and extension agents in soil conservation and organic fertilization. Until his death in 2000, he and the people he inspired transformed Honduran agriculture. Farmers stopped using slash-and-burn agriculture in favor of intensive, more ecologically sound techniques.
Gender Roles and Statuses
Division of Labor by Gender. Men are more prominent than women in public life, but women have served as judges, big city mayors, trial lawyers, members of congress, cabinet members, and heads of the national police force. Women have been especially active in religious life. To counter the inroads made by Evangelical missionaries, the Catholic Church encourages lay members to receive ecclesiastical training and visit isolated communities, to perform religious services. These people are called celebradores de la palabra (“celebrators of the word”). They hold mass without communion. Many of them are women. Women also manage stores and NGOs and teach at universities. Male-only roles include buying and trucking agricultural products, construction, bus and taxi drivers, and most of the military.
The Relative Status of Women and Men. Honduran people occasionally say that theirs is a machista (macho, sexist) country. This is mostly a stereotype, but some men shout catcalls at women on the street, especially when the men are in groups. There are also cases of sexual harassment of office staff. However, most men are fond of their families, tolerant of their behavior, and sensitive to women, who often have jobs outside the home or run small stores. Adolescents and young adults are not subject to elaborate supervision during courtship.
Marriage,Family, and Kinship
Marriage. Marriage is based on the Western ideal of falling in love. There are few formal rules prohibiting marriage with people of different social backgrounds, although people tend to marry neighbors or people they meet at school or work. Almost everyone eventually marries or lives with someone and has children. Founding a household is a financial struggle for most couples, and so women’s earnings are appreciated. Divorce and remarriage are fairly common and are slightly stigmatized. Monogamy is the formal rule, although a middle-aged man who can afford to may set up a separate house with a younger woman. If they find out about the younger women, most wives find the idea disgusting and threatening to the marriage.
Domestic Unit. The ideal household of a couple and their children is not always possible. When young couples cannot afford housing, they may live with their parents until they have several children of their own. As in other Latin American countries,
when a couple marries, their new family assumes both of their names. For example, if a woman named María García marries a man named Carlos Martínez, they and their children become the Martínez-García family. In many households, men and women make major decisions together regarding household expenses, children’s education, etc. In the cities, many households with only a moderate income include a live-in domestic servant who does the housekeeping.Inheritance. Inheritance practice varies widely, but in general when a person dies the widow or widower inherits half the property (called the parte conyugal, or “the spouse’s part”) and the children get the other half, unless a will was made to the contrary. The spouse’s part provides economic security for widows and helps preserve farms more or less intact. Sometimes there is a preference for the oldest son to inherit a larger share. There is also a tendency for sons to inherit land and daughters to inherit livestock, furniture, and money.
Kin Groups. In the cities, families tend to spend Sunday afternoon having an elaborate meal with the wife’s parents. The ideal is for married children to live near their parents, at least in the same city, if not in the same neighborhood or on a contiguous lot. This is not always possible, but people make an effort to keep in touch with the extended family.
Child Rearing and Education. Urban professionals and elites are indulgent toward children, rarely punishing them and allowing them to interrupt conversations. In stores, middle-class shoppers buy things their children plead for. Obedience is not stressed. Bourgeois children grow up with self-esteem and are encouraged to feel happy about their accomplishments.
The urban poor and especially the campesinos encourage children to play in small groups, preferably near where adults are working. Parents are not over protective. Children play in the fields where their parents work, imitating their work, and after age of six or seven they start helping with the farm work. Campesinos expect children to be obedient and parents slap or hit disobedient children. Adults expect three- to four-year-old children to keep up with the family while walking to or from work or shopping, and a child who is told to hurry up and does not may be spanked. Campesino children grow up to be disciplined, long-suffering, and hard working.
Higher Education. Higher education, especially a degree from the United States or Europe, is valued, but such an education is beyond the reach of most people. There are branches of the National University in the major cities, and thousands of people attend school at night, after work. There are also private universities and a national agricultural school and a private one (Zamorano).
A firm handshake is the basic greeting, and people shake hands again when they part. If they chat a bit longer after the last handshake, they shake hands again just as they leave. Among educated people, when two women greet or when a man greets a woman, they clasp their right hands and press their cheeks together or give a light kiss on the cheek. Campesinos shake hands. Their handshakes tend to be soft. Country women greeting a person they are fond of may touch the right hand to the other person’s left elbow, left shoulder, or right shoulder (almost giving a hug), depending on how happy they are to see a person. Men sometimes hug each other (firm, quick, and with back slapping), especially if they have not seen each other for a while and are fond of each other. This is more common in the cities. Campesinos are a little more inhibited with body language, but city people like to stand close to the people they talk to and touch them occasionally while making a point in a conversation. People may look strangers in the eye and smile at them. People are expected to greet other office workers as they pass in the hall even if they have already greeted them earlier that day. On country roads people say good-bye to people they pass even if they do not know each other. In crowded airports and other places where people have to wait in a long, slow line, some people push, shove, cut in front of others, go around the line, and attract attention to themselves to get served first.
Religious Beliefs. Almost all Hondurans believe in God and Jesus Christ, though sometimes in a vague way. In a traditionally Catholic country, many people have joined Evangelical Protestant churches. People usually keep their religious beliefs to themselves but Catholics may wear a crucifix or religious medal around their necks. Many people have a sense of divine destiny. Accidental death is attributed to the will of God rather than to a seat belt that was not buckled or another physical cause. The upper classes are still predominantly Catholic, while many of the urban poor are now Evangelical. Newspapers carry stories of witchcraft, writing about people who were ill until a healer sucked a toad or a sliver of glass from their bodies.
Religious Practitioners. The Catholic Church is the national religion, as stated in the Constitution. However, the liberal reforms of the 1820s led to the confiscation of Church property, the closing of the seminary, and a great decline in the number and morale of the Catholic clergy. By the 1960s mass was only heard regularly in the larger towns. At that time, foreign clergy, including French Canadians, began revitalizing the Honduran Church. Many priests supported campesino movements in the 1970s, and some were killed for it by the military. In the 1980s the bishops were strong enough to play a key role in resisting pressure from the United States for Honduras to go to war with Nicaragua. Various Protestant churches have been active in Honduras since the early twentieth century, especially since the 1970s, and have gained many converts. The Evangelical clergy is an informal lay clergy for the most part and small Pentecostal chapels are common in villages and in poorer neighborhoods in the cities.
Rituals and Holy Places. Most Catholics go to church only on special occasions, such as Christmas and funerals. Evangelicals may go to a small chapel, often a wood shack or a room in a house, for prayer meetings and Bible readings every night. These can be important havens from the pressures of being impoverished in a big city.
There is a minor ritual called cruzando la milpa (“crossing the cornfield”) practiced in the Department of El Paraíso in which a magico-religious specialist, especially one who is a twin, eliminates a potentially devastating corn pest such as an inch-worm or caterpillar. The specialist recites the Lord’s Prayer while sprinkling holy water and walking from one corner to the other of the cornfield in a cross pattern. This person makes little crosses of corn leaves or caterpillars and buries them in four spots in the field.
Death and the Afterlife. Beliefs about the afterlife are similar to the general Western tradition. An additional element is the concept of the hejillo , (standard Spanish: hijillo ) a kind of mystic contagion that comes from a dead human body, whether death was caused by age, disease, or violence. People who must touch the body wash carefully as soon as possible to purify themselves.
Medicine and Health Care
Sickness or an accident is a nightmare for people in the countryside and the urban poor. It may take hours to get a patient to a hospital by traveling over long dirt roads that often lack public transportation. Doctors may be unable to do much for a patient if the patient’s family cannot afford to buy medicine. If the patient is an adult, the household may have to struggle to make a living until he or she recovers. Some traditional medical practitioners use herbal medicines and set broken bones.
Independence Day falls on 15 September and features marches and patriotic speeches. Labor Day, celebrated on 1 May, includes marches by workers. During Holy Week (the week before Easter), everyone who can goes to the beach or a river for picnics and parties. On the Day of the Cross ( Día de la Cruz ) in May in the countryside, people decorate small wooden crosses with flowers and colored paper and place the crosses in front of their homes in anticipation of the start of the rainy season. Christmas and the New Year are celebrated with gift giving, festive meals, dancing, and fireworks.