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Containing the Poor: The Mexico City Poor House, 1774-1871

Containing the Poor: The Mexico City Poor House, 1774-1871

by Silvia Marina Arrom

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In 1774 Mexico City leaders created the Mexico City Poor House—the centerpiece of a bold experiment intended to eliminate poverty and impose a new work ethic on former beggars by establishing a forcible internment policy for some and putting others to work. In Containing the Poor Silvia Marina Arrom tells the saga of this ill-fated plan, showing how the


In 1774 Mexico City leaders created the Mexico City Poor House—the centerpiece of a bold experiment intended to eliminate poverty and impose a new work ethic on former beggars by establishing a forcible internment policy for some and putting others to work. In Containing the Poor Silvia Marina Arrom tells the saga of this ill-fated plan, showing how the asylum functioned primarily to educate white orphans instead of suppressing mendicancy and exerting control over the multiracial community for whom it was designed.
For a nation that had traditionally regarded the needy as having the undisputed right to receive alms and whose affluent citizens felt duty-bound to dispense them, the experiment was doomed from the start, explains Arrom. She uses deep archival research to reveal that—much to policymakers’ dismay—the Poor House became an orphanage largely because the government had underestimated the embeddedness of this moral economy of begging. While tracing the course of an eventful century that also saw colonialism give way to republicanism in Mexico, Arrom links the Poor House’s transformation with other societal factors as well, such as Mexican women’s increasing impact on social welfare policies.
With poverty, begging, and homelessness still rampant in much of Latin America today, this study of changing approaches to social welfare will be particularly valuable to student and scholars of Mexican and Latin American society and history, as well as those engaged in the study of social and welfare policy.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Containing the Poor focuses on a vitally important, timely topic. A monumental piece of investigation into a myriad of sources and a discerning, perceptive model for studies on the dispensing of charity for any Latin American country, it is social history at its best.”—John Jay TePaske, coauthor of The Royal Treasuries of the Spanish Empire in America

“This is a major exploration of welfare policy in Mexico that has the extra virtue of crossing the colonial/national divide. The research is impeccable: deep, careful, convincing.”—Eric Van Young, author of The Other Rebellion: Popular Violence and Ideology in the Mexican Independence Struggle, 1810–1821

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Containing the Poor

The Mexico City Poor House, 1774-1871

By Silvia Marina Arrom

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9642-0



On the fifth of March, 1774, Viceroy Antonio María de Bucareli announced a radically new policy toward the beggars of Mexico City:

I have resolved ... that the opening of the Poor House shall be on the nineteenth of this month, to which end I order that all beggars of both sexes present themselves to said hospice, where they shall be treated with charity and allowed to leave ... if their fortunes vary, be it through inheritance, donation, or a means of earning a living, taking advantage of the training they shall receive, so that they cease to be beggars.... I assign the term of eight days, counted from the publication of this decree, for them to present themselves voluntarily, letting it be known that they shall not importune the faithful by asking for alms, and that henceforth all who are found begging in the streets, plazas, houses, and churches shall be picked up by the watchmen stationed in the different neighborhoods of the city and by the sentinels who shall be commissioned for the task. And to ensure that this news reaches everyone, and none can claim ignorance, I mandate that this resolution be published as a decree in the accustomed manner.

So began the Poor House experiment, which consisted of prohibiting begging and forcibly confining—and attempting to transform—the paupers caught soliciting alms. Consciously designed to impose social control, the landmark decree bore few signs of benevolent intent. Beyond commanding that they be "treated with charity" in the new asylum, it ignored the needs of the verdaderos pobres, the "many persons of both sexes who are totally prevented from seeking sustenance with their labor, either by advanced age or by having suffered a serious illness that left them incapacitated." Instead, it focused on the twin goals of redirecting the able-bodied into the work force and deterring future mendicity.

The preamble to the viceroy's decree shows that his attack on the "moral economy" of begging was primarily aimed at combating vagrancy. Like many of his contemporaries, Bucareli was obsessed with the "professional beggar." In his 1816 Periquillo sarniento, the "Mexican Thinker" José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi immortalized those rogues who "pretend [ed] to be blind, crippled, legless, lame, leprous, [and] unfortunate." "All ragged, dirty, be-patched and bedeviled-looking," they "importuned the whole world" with their "sorrowful supplications." Yet upon returning home they experienced a miraculous transformation. Some "straightened up; some stood their crutches in a corner and walked well enough on their own two feet; others stripped off the patches they wore and were clean-skinned and healthy; some took off great thick grey beards and grey wigs and were young men again; others stretched and unbent themselves on entering; everyone left his infirmities at the doorway" and gleefully proceeded to count up the day's take. The viceroy had concluded that such pretenders could never be eliminated while indigents freely roamed about receiving alms. As long as they could mingle with "true" beggars, the "vagrants, troublemakers, and bums" would continue shunning work and "abusing the charity they encounter in such a pious city as Mexico." All beggars therefore had to be removed from public spaces, the "false" ones immediately put to work for the government or private employers and the "true" ones institutionalized. Meanwhile, alms-givers were encouraged to contribute directly to the Poor House, where their donations would reach only those who merited assistance.

It was not solely the difficulty of separating the deserving from the undeserving paupers that led the viceroy to restrict the liberty of all beggars. His decree portrayed "true" beggars as troublesome individuals in their own right, who could no longer be left to their own devices or to the care of private and ecclesiastical charity. They needed to be sequestered because they bothered the faithful with their solicitations and because their idleness set a bad example for the working poor. Those who could be rehabilitated were to be trained and returned to society; the others were to be aided but also deprived of freedom and kept from public view. In the foundational decree, the humanitarian concern for relieving suffering thus took a backseat to utilitarian goals.

Because policies toward beggars and vagrants were inextricably linked, the opening of the Poor House launched an intense campaign against both—at least on paper. The legislation of the next eight decades reveals remarkable continuity between the aims and methods of the colonial and republican regimes. Both shared the optimistic view that mendicity could be eradicated. Both also shared considerable hostility to the urban poor, as shown in the increasing conflation between the "unworthy" vagrants and the "worthy" beggars of yore. In keeping with a broad reformist agenda, both attempted to impose many kinds of "discipline" on the paupers of Mexico City, including religious discipline as well as the labor discipline analyzed by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, the civic discipline emphasized by David Rothman, the time discipline discussed by E. P. Thompson, the mental discipline highlighted by Michel Foucault, and the refinement of manners chronicled by Norbert Elias as a hallmark of the development of Western civilization.

Background to the Poor House Experiment

The creation of the Mexico City Poor House coincided with the Bourbon kings' ambitious program to modernize Spain and its empire. Particularly during the reign of Charles III (1759-88), the Spanish state carried out sweeping reforms that included strengthening the provision of welfare services. María Jiménez Salas, the pioneering historian of welfare in Spain, divided such institutions into three types: those that aided the poor, those that repressed them, and those that attempted to prevent poverty. Yet the favorite institutions of the Enlightenment fulfilled the three functions simultaneously. The Bourbon goal of creating a productive and well-ordered society required that philanthropy be combined with the disciplining of the poor.

In Mexico City four new welfare establishments appeared during the late eighteenth century, two of which were part of a new strategy for dealing with destitution. The two ecclesiastical foundations, the Foundling Home (Casa de Cuna) of 1767 and the General Hospital of San Andrés of 1779, represented traditional types of assistance. An orphanage had existed in the sixteenth-century capital, although it had long ago disappeared. The hospital, opened in the midst of a devastating smallpox epidemic, joined eleven other hospitals and three asylums for the mentally ill in Mexico City, most of these dating from the sixteenth century. The two secular institutions departed from this tradition. Instead of sheltering only limited groups of dependent paupers in need of immediate care (babies, the sick, and the mentally ill), the Poor House targeted adults who, when begging was legal, had been able to fend for themselves. The asylum was designed to isolate and reclaim social marginals rather than merely assist them. The Pawn Shop (Monte de Piedad), founded in 1775, was designed to prevent the indigence of the working poor by offering low-cost (and in some periods free) credit. In addition, the crown established pension funds (montepíos) from the 1760s on to provide for the survivors of civil servants, thereby preventing the impoverishment of their widows and orphaned children. In 1769 it founded a huge Royal Cigar Factory to generate employment for thousands of unoccupied men and women. Taken together, these initiatives embodied the Utopian ideal of eliminating poverty itself.

The Poor House was also part of an attempt to upgrade the labor force and "civilize" the lower classes. The crown's agenda was extremely complicated. Some new measures were aimed at maintaining civil order and fostering economic development. The promotion of free elementary instruction, to be provided by parishes, convents, municipalities, and asylums, reflected the enlightened view that education was the most effective way to achieve "progress." Beyond basic literacy, schools and asylums were to inculcate new values. The work ethic and a sense of civic responsibility were of paramount importance. So were industrial time and work discipline, which were to replace the casual, episodic, and flexible work habits of artisans who set their own schedules and regularly took off "St. Monday" in addition to the innumerable religious holidays. Other measures were aimed at effecting a broad cultural transformation that was not strictly utilitarian. In keeping with the development of a more refined sensibility, municipal authorities took steps to ban public nakedness; to reduce concubinage, public drinking, and gambling; to tame the boisterous celebrations of religious holidays such as Holy Week and Corpus Christi; and to curb such distasteful behavior as urinating on the walls of buildings. The buena policía de los pobres thus encompassed not only the narrow policing of the poor but also attempts to impose new moral codes and manners. These were accompanied by efforts to sanitize and beautify the capital city by cleaning the filth that was everywhere— as well as by removing the poor from the streets where they congregated to socialize, work, eat, very often sleep, and, of course, beg.

The repressive organs of the state were simultaneously overhauled to facilitate the implementation of these reforms. In Mexico City, the police force and the system of criminal courts were expanded in 1782 as part of the division of the capital into eight administrative districts (cuarteles mayores). Each had its own district court, and each was further subdivided to create thirty-two smaller units (cuarteles menores) with their own neighborhood sentinels. In 1790 a ninth court was established and the police force was further expanded with a force of guardafaroles to guard new gaslights and patrol the streets at night. These officials were charged not only with arresting criminals but also with bringing beggars to the Poor House. They were further instructed to monitor the people in their districts by drawing up censuses to locate undesirables and by "watching the inclinations, lifestyle, and customs" of those under their charge.

These initiatives resembled those of Bourbon Spain, where beggars and vagrants were likewise a favorite target. The Spanish ministers Bernardo Ward, the Count of Campomanes, and Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos encouraged the policing, internment, and reform of paupers as part of their strategy to modernize Spain. They viewed idle vagrants who undermined Spanish wealth and industry as a potential resource that, if properly tapped, could provide labor to increase production and soldiers to defend the empire. They also believed that many social problems (from the migration that fueled unprecedented urban growth to increased social unrest, crime, and immorality) could be controlled by eradicating this "scourge." Religious reformers hoped, in addition, to reclaim a marginal group that was largely lost to the Church and thus to the primary institution of moral education.

The Spanish campaign against vagrants went into full swing after the 1766 riot of the Esquilache (in which vagrants allegedly swelled the menacing crowd that invaded the royal palace in Madrid to protest an unpopular decree) and continued strong in the next few decades as Spain's foreign wars created a steady demand for soldiers. It was accompanied by a spurt of asylum building throughout the Iberian Peninsula. And it culminated, in 1777, in a royal decree prohibiting begging and ordering the confinement of the beggars of Madrid.

Although these developments were not without precedent in Spain, they took on a new character and intensity during the era of the Bourbon reforms. Campaigns against vagrants had existed sporadically for centuries. The diverse asylums founded since the sixteenth century had included an occasional hospice for paupers, though hospitals for the sick were far more common. Following the publication of Juan Luis Vives's influential Del socorro de los pobres in 1526, some Spanish cities had experimented with restricting mendicity by licensing "legitimate" beggars and arresting all others as vagrants, and by limiting beggars to their native towns. These restrictions had since lapsed, however. In the late eighteenth century, when reformers focused on the "infestation" of "false" beggars as a cause of Spanish decline, the persecution of vagrants mounted, the number of asylums for paupers increased, and these became more coercive as entry ceased to be entirely voluntary.

In Mexico these trends marked a dramatic departure from previous policies. Although campaigns against vagrants had been tried in the past, especially in the sixteenth century, the colony had never before restricted the right to beg. Likewise, there had never been an asylum for beggars in Mexico City. Some of the recogimientos de mujeres came close because they sheltered healthy adults: spinsters, widows, and abandoned wives who wished to live apart from the world in a religious atmosphere. Unlike the Poor House, however, these houses of refuge were designed to serve clients from all social classes and entrance was voluntary—except in those established as reformatories for prostitutes. Besides, these institutions had declined considerably by the late colonial period, with some becoming female prisons, schools, or hospitals and others closing entirely. Policies of supervised enclosure had likewise been applied during the sixteenth century to Indians in mission towns, but never before to the urban poor. Indeed, unlike earlier welfare projects that targeted particular racial groups (such as the Royal Indian Hospital and the special legal assistance offered Indians who as a group were considered the pobres miserables of the colony), the Poor House experiment was meant to control a multiracial populace. Reflecting the decline of caste society, late-eighteenth-century reformers rarely mentioned race in their discourse about the unruly street people of Mexico City.

Although the Mexican Poor House experiment was launched at the same time as similar projects in Spain, it was not motivated simply by a desire to imitate the metropolis. It was initiated by Mexican leaders because it addressed local needs created by the "urban crisis" gripping Mexico City. The massive migration of people from rural areas had caused it to grow from approximately 98,000 inhabitants in 1742 to 137,000 in 1803. This population made the turn of the century capital nearly the size of Madrid and the fifth largest city in the Western World. The surge in migration was particularly acute in the 1770s and 1780s, when a series of bad harvests and epidemics forced the sick and hungry to flee the countryside in search of assistance, and again after 1810, when the independence wars sent refugees to seek safety in the city. Following a wartime peak of some 169,000 in 1811, Mexico City's population briefly dropped but then resumed its earlier growth to reach 200,000 by 1870. Unfortunately, the colonial migrants joined city dwellers who were increasingly impoverished because of a dramatic rise in the prices of basic staples: corn prices, for example, doubled in the decade of the 1770s alone, while earnings remained flat. In the republican years, migrants joined residents buffeted by the deep recession that followed independence.

Until this point Mexico City had been able to maintain a "charitable equilibrium" in which the capital city provided for its own destitute as well as for those from the surrounding region. By the late eighteenth century, however, the proliferation of paupers overwhelmed the existing system of poor relief. The public granary, ecclesiastical soup kitchens, hospitals, lay confraternities, and individual almsgivers could not keep up with the growing demand. It is likely that the guilds, already in decline, no longer provided sufficient assistance for the large artisan population. Neither could the outdated law enforcement institutions keep up with the task of controlling the crime, alcoholism, promiscuity, and other social problems that contemporaries believed had escalated as the size of the marginal population swelled. The fear of milling crowds of potentially unruly paupers even led the Bourbon official Hipolito Villarroel in 1785 to propose expelling all vagrants from Mexico City and building a wall around it to keep new migrants out. Instead, authorities adopted the two-pronged approach of increasing social services and employment opportunities, on the one hand, while reorganizing the system of law enforcement and unleashing the campaign against the capital's beggars and vagrants on the other.

If these policies looked like those on the peninsula it was because Mexican officials faced the same problems of precipitous urbanization and widespread unemployment—coupled, paradoxically, with a scarcity of soldiers and disciplined workers—that motivated their counterparts in Spain. Indeed, in some ways Mexico City was on the cutting edge of Spanish social policy. Most of the metropolitan decrees against vagrants were reissued for the colony soon after their proclamation in the mother country. The initiative to establish the Mexico City Poor House dated from 1760, only one decade after the publication of Bernardo Ward's Obra pía and prior to most Spanish proposals for confining paupers in asylums. And, although a few eighteenth-century poorhouses on the peninsula antedated the one in the viceroyalty, the ban on begging was decreed three years earlier in Mexico City than in Madrid.


Excerpted from Containing the Poor by Silvia Marina Arrom. Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Silvia Marina Arrom holds the Jane’s Chair of Latin American Studies at Brandeis University. She is the author of several books, including The Women of Mexico City, 1790–1857.

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