MEXICO CITY — Unlike many Mexican brides over the last 147 years, Veronica Mendez did not vow that she would not "exasperate" her new husband, nor promise to treat him "with the reverence due to the person who supports and defends us."
Nor was her husband, Gustavo Garcia, told to treat her "with the magnanimity and generous benevolence that the strong must have for the weak, essentially when this weak creature gives herself unto him."
Mexico's women scored a small victory in their long battle against machismo this spring when Congress told judges to stop reading those customary words during civil marriage ceremonies. Activists had fought for a decade to remove the words they consider offensive, obsolete and a reinforcement of underlying sexist attitudes.
The so-called Epistle of Melchor Ocampo, written in 1859, once was the law but had been shelved by many judges as a nod to the changing times. But some judges still read it, perhaps thinking erroneously that it remains in the civil marriage code, and some women still request that it be read.
They contend that the epistle anchors the ceremony in poetic verse and traditional values. But women's rights activists feared that some brides, especially in more conservative, rural areas, were being forced to suffer or fume through it against their will.
"If the judge had read that, I would have jumped, and my husband would have supported me," said Mendez, 28, an architect emerging from her wedding ceremony in Mexico City. "We women are alive, we work, and we have respect for ourselves."
But Alejandra Curiel, 36, was upset that the judge didn't read the epistle in her May wedding ceremony in Coyoacan, one of the capital's more progressive neighborhoods.
"I don't feel married," the publicist said after her 10-minute ceremony in a chapel-like room at the Civil Registry office. "The epistle is what gives it flavor and sentiment. For me, it's like a poem of obligations. What a shame."
Ocampo, a 19th Century liberal reformer, likely would be shocked at the debate about the essay in which he penned his thoughts about marriage, probably with no idea they would be recited by judges for the next century and a half.
A progressive thinker, Ocampo worked with Mexican nationalist hero Benito Juarez to establish equality before the law and separate the church and state in the 1850s. He was executed by a firing squad in 1861 after being captured by Conservative Party enemies.
His epistle was written into the Juarez-era civil marriage code. There have been many changes to the code since, but tradition kept the epistle alive. In the 1930s, the mayor of Mexico City ordered judges to read it in ceremonies.
Despite the controversial language, the 537-word epistle instructs newlyweds to treat each other nicely and to prepare themselves to be good parents.
"Those married must be and shall be sacred one to the other," it reads. "Never shall there be insults, because insults between married couples dishonor those who say them. ... Much less shall there be mistreatment because the abuse of strength is despicable and cowardly."
Today, the epistle is not read in every ceremony. Some women are still startled to hear it. Some break out giggling and are scolded by the judge. Others make sure beforehand that the judge doesn't do it.
"Lots of women were already refusing to have it read, because it perpetuates stereotypes of the man as a strong provider, the only authority within the home, and the woman as weak," said Teresa Ulloa, a women's rights activist who lobbied against the epistle in Congress. "This is a patriarchal society where misogyny exists, where extreme levels of violence [against women] are supported and permitted."
After 10 years of lobbying, Congress passed a resolution in March exhorting judges to "eliminate" the epistle from the service. But the measure did not pass unanimously and one congressman criticized it on the floor.
"This goes against the traditions of the Mexican people," said Pedro Avila, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. "This is an affront to [Benito Juarez] and for that reason, I am against this."
Ulloa and other activists now are trying to win support for a new, more gender-balanced wedding epistle.
Asked by Reforma newspaper for her view, Ana Rosa Payan, director of the federal Integral Family Development agency, suggested that new wording include, "I will not hit my wife. ... I will not hit my husband. ... I will not allow myself to be hit."
Gustavo Lugo Monroy, the civil judge in Coyoacan for 16 years, says he has always refused to read Ocampo's words. But he says couples sometimes ask him to, and sometimes he sees the epistle written into marriage certificates signed by other judges.
"I always say, 'I'm sorry. I can't do it,' " Lugo said. Unbeknownst to the judge, however, wedding photographers still hand out pamphlets with the Ocampo epistle to newlyweds outside the chapel.