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Alcohol and Nationhood in Nineteenth-Century Mexico

Alcohol and Nationhood in Nineteenth-Century Mexico

by Deborah Toner
Alcohol and Nationhood in Nineteenth-Century Mexico

Alcohol and Nationhood in Nineteenth-Century Mexico

by Deborah Toner


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Drawing on an analysis of issues surrounding the consumption of alcohol in a diverse range of source materials, including novels, newspapers, medical texts, and archival records, this lively and engaging interdisciplinary study explores sociocultural nation-building processes in Mexico between 1810 and 1910. Examining the historical importance of drinking as both an important feature of Mexican social life and a persistent source of concern for Mexican intellectuals and politicians, Deborah Toner’s Alcohol and Nationhood in Nineteenth-Century Mexico offers surprising insights into how the nation was constructed and deconstructed in the nineteenth century.

Although Mexican intellectuals did indeed condemn the physically and morally debilitating aspects of excessive alcohol consumption and worried that particularly Mexican drinks and drinking places were preventing Mexico’s progress as a nation, they also identified more culturally valuable aspects of Mexican drinking cultures that ought to be celebrated as part of an “authentic” Mexican national culture. The intertwined literary and historical analysis in this study illustrates how wide-ranging the connections were between ideas about drinking, poverty, crime, insanity, citizenship, patriotism, gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity in the nineteenth century, and the book makes timely and important contributions to the fields of Latin American literature, alcohol studies, and the social and cultural history of nation-building.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803274372
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 06/01/2015
Series: The Mexican Experience
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 408
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Deborah Toner is a lecturer in modern history at the University of Leicester and a leading convener of the Warwick Drinking Studies Network.

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Alcohol and Nationhood in Nineteenth-Century Mexico

By Deborah Toner


Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-7437-2


Everything in Its Right Place?

Social Drinking Spaces, Popular Culture, and Nationhood

[This pulquería] is America personified, and should be recognized as the queen of all these singular taverns where the liquor discovered by the beautiful Xóchitl is dispensed.

—Manuel Payno

Manuel Payno's rather nostalgic and romantic description of a pulquería in Puente de la Leña, a bustling Mexico City barrio, stands in stark contrast to the vulgarity and violence that drinking frequently produces elsewhere in the same novel, Los bandidos de Río Frío (1888–91). Although the author notes that pulquerías (taverns primarily selling pulque, a traditional fermented alcoholic beverage) represent a "very dangerous temptation," his description of a rustic, open air venue and reference to the abstract ideals of both "America" and "Xóchitl"—the mythical discoverer of pulque—combine to create for the reader an image of an "authentic" Mexican cultural space. Payno also notes in this passage that his musings on popular customs would have a most interesting "ancient novelty value" not only for foreigners but "even for those enlightened and Parisian Mexicans who live in the city center." The italicization of these words emphasizes the distance the author felt to exist between elite and popular culture in Mexican society, while the passage as a whole suggests that popular culture could have the potential to become the basis of an authentic and unique Mexican identity. Payno's positive portrayal of the pulquería is striking because alcohol consumption, especially when practiced by the lower orders of society, often has highly negative consequences in his fiction. This incongruity between the representation of a rustic, relatively harmless drinking place and the condemnation of drunken, depraved, destructive behavior emanating from similar places is indicative of a persistent tension that nineteenth-century intellectuals felt between identifying a unique and authentic Mexican identity and relating it to the reality they experienced as part of the political and social elite.

This chapter examines the involvement of drinking places in social and literary discourses about class, cultural identity, and nationhood. Newspaper reports, advertisements, licensing applications, and judicial records are used to explore how Mexico City's pulquerías, vinaterías, and cafés figured in the delineation of social boundaries that were being drawn in Mexico City's urban space during the long nineteenth century, as authorities sought to impose greater standards of order, civility, and control over the expanding city and its population.

Across the nineteenth century there was a marked solidification of social divisions across the urban geography of Mexico City that the regulation of elite and popular drinking places helped to create. While popular drinking places, such as pulquerías and vinaterías, were repeatedly targeted with successive waves of regulation in an effort to control their patrons' behavior and to restrict their location to the poorer areas and peripheries of Mexico City, cafés became increasingly important as drinking places and social spaces for the elite sectors of society. The social background of their clientele became more exclusive from the mid-nineteenth century onward, when cafés marketed themselves as the purveyors of luxury foods and drinks, and they proliferated in the more prestigious and central areas of Mexico City. We will consider the ways in which various social actors, including proprietors and customers of popular drinking places, reacted to and negotiated with the increasing regulation of Mexico City's social space in the nineteenth century.

This chapter will also analyze literary portrayals of drinking places and their transformation into literary spaces for intellectual constructions of Mexicanness. Representations of drinking places in the work of José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi, Ignacio Altamirano, and Ángel de Campo reveal a gradual erosion of confidence in the ability of liberal reforms and education to sanitize popular culture and integrate the indigenous and mestizo masses into the national community. This erosion was linked to a persistent fear about the potential disruption to social hierarchies that liberal policies might generate. Despite their clear support for liberal policies of education, reform, and equality before the law for all citizens, many of these intellectuals retained a strong desire to preserve a stable, static, and largely hierarchical social structure as a necessary component of national harmony and unification. Although popular culture remained alluring as a potential space for the location of authenticity in elite depictions of Mexican nationhood, many Mexican intellectuals imagined the cultural practices of elite and non-elite social groups as spatially distant, helping to destabilize their attempts to imagine Mexican nationhood into being.

Mexico City and Its Spaces of Drink: From Colony to Nation, 1520–1845

Drinking places featured prominently in the social life of colonial Mexico City and became a persistent focus of governing officials' concerns about social disorder. Attempts to regulate drinking places often focused on their location within the city's urban landscape, which colonial authorities had tried to order according to social and racial hierarchies since its establishment in the early sixteenth century. Mexico City was constructed atop the ruins of Tenochtitlan, which had been the center of power of the Aztec empire, and the geographical layout of the city was to mirror the new political structure that colonialism demanded, making the city center the preserve of the Spaniards, and limiting the indigenous population to the outskirts of the city. Many of the major political, economic, and cultural institutions of New Spain were established in the center of Mexico City, around the central square known as the Plaza Mayor or Zócalo, including the Audencia (High Court), the viceregal palace, the offices of royally appointed merchants, and the metropolitan cathedral.

Although the spatial division of the city, into a Spanish center and an indigenous periphery, had never been fully observed in practice, by the end of the colonial period these spatial boundaries were under increasing pressure due to an influx of impoverished migrants to the city from surrounding rural areas. As a succession of agricultural crises, disease epidemics, and land seizures by wealthy landowners hammered the rural population, the population of Mexico City increased during the final decades of the eighteenth century, from approximately 98,000 in 1742 to 104,760 in 1790, and perhaps to as many as 138,000 inhabitants by 1803. This development resulted in the growing presence of indigenous people in the urban milieu, together with a growing mestizo and casta (mixed-race) population, a substantial creole population (people of Hispanic descent born in the Americas), and a cosmopolitan mix of permanently resident and traveling Europeans.

Spanish colonists established Mexico City's first commercial tavern, a vinatería, on December 1, 1525. Before the conquest, pulque, a fermented alcoholic drink made from the maguey species of the agave plant, was sold in Tlatelolco market, the Aztecs' main commercial center, but there were no commercial taverns. Pulque was sold in the market for household consumption, religious festivals, and community celebrations, and, although the limitations of the available sources make it difficult to establish the exact degree of regulation, most historians concur that there were tight controls over how much pulque could be sold, to whom, when, and for what purpose. When the first commercial tavern, a vinatería, appeared in Mexico City in 1525, vinaterías were primarily wine-selling taverns for the exclusive patronage of Spaniards, whereas, by the eighteenth century, the vinaterías predominantly sold aguardiente (a distilled liquor, usually made from sugar cane), and their clientele was ethnically and socially mixed.

Pulquerías similarly developed from an early stage of the colonial period. Twelve mobile pulque-selling stands had been licensed in Mexico City by the 1530s; by the 1550s, there were twelve more and some had been granted permission to establish a fixed location with rudimentary premises. Their number continued to grow throughout the colonial period; William Taylor estimates that there were approximately 250 unlicensed, illegal pulquerías in Mexico City by 1639, while Áurea Toxqui has identified the existence of 212 legally licensed pulquerías in 1650. As with the exclusivity of vinaterías—with their initial remit as a drinking venue for the exclusive patronage of Spaniards—pulquerías were initially intended solely to serve the needs of indigenous drinkers, and they were all located in the peripheral indigenous neighborhoods of Mexico City. However, by the seventeenth century, as these neighborhoods also became home to a wide ethnic mix of poor creoles, mestizos, and castas, the clientele of pulquerías diversified and pulquerías also spread to the central part of the city that was officially reserved for Spaniards.

Historians concur that urban drinking places were an important index of how social hierarchies operated in Mexico City. By the end of the colonial period, Mexican society was characterized by a complex system of racial, ethnic, and class stratification, in which the predominantly Spanish and creole upper- and middle-class elite dominated positions of economic and political power, while the popular classes were made up of indigenous and mixed-race peoples, as well as poor creoles. Class and racial categorizations, however, were fluid and interactive, with social and cultural practices having a significant impact on the status of individuals. In colonial society, although a person's identity and status were usually recorded in official documentation in racial terms such as Indian, mestizo, or Spaniard, the determination of such a status included considerations of color, occupation, wealth, purity of blood, honor, integrity, place of birth, and social comportment. Together, all these characteristics helped to form Mexico City society into two broad categories, each of which had a complex internal hierarchy of its own: the elite, or the gente decente (decent people) were well-educated, at least reasonably wealthy, dressed in European-style fashions, and socialized in private residences as well as more respectable public places; the popular classes, or el pueblo (the people), tended to have modest or low levels of income, lacked education, and socialized in popular drinking places like pulquerías and vinaterías, as well as pulperías (stores selling alcoholic drinks and groceries), markets, theaters, fondas (small restaurants), plazas, and parks. Of course, the gente decente did visit many public spaces for social purposes as well, but if the setting and its clientele were known as disorderly or morally suspect, frequenting such a place too often could damage their social reputation as gente decente.

Drinking places provided a vital arena for the conduct of social recreation, communication, and business transaction among their customers, but colonial administrators consistently viewed these social spaces with suspicion and considered them threatening to public order. A viceregal ordinance of 1671 stipulated that pulquerías had to be located in city squares and that they could only have one wall and a roof, leaving three sides open so that they could be viewed more easily by patrols. Vinaterías, meanwhile, were more often allowed to be fully equipped with tables, benches, and storage facilities, but they were ordered to keep their doors open and to situate the bar adjacent to the entrance. Furthermore, the sale of food, playing music, and loitering were prohibited in an attempt to discourage the raucous social atmosphere that had developed in these popular social spaces. However, the repeated reiterations of these laws in subsequent decades suggest that such attempts to control the social activities of pulquería and vinatería patrons were largely unsuccessful. An investigation of 1784, for instance, revealed that of the forty-five legal pulquerías in Mexico City, only seven complied with all the regulations laid out by colonial administrators.

During the colonial period, the most notorious episode in the ongoing struggle for control over urban space between popular drinking places and Mexico City authorities was the temporary prohibition of pulque following a popular riot in 1692. On June 8, 1692, a large crowd, comprised of Mexico City's ethnically mixed urban poor, attacked the central institutions of Spanish colonial authority in the city, setting fire to the doors of the Viceregal Palace, the ayuntamiento (city council), and the large merchant houses. Douglas Cope's detailed study of the riot indicates that this outburst of popular violence grew out of a crisis in food supply, which was then exacerbated by a lack of communication between colonial officials and the protesters. However, colonial officials and other members of the urban elite did not understand the 1692 riot as the result of their failure to engage with the legitimate grievances of protestors. Instead, the riot was largely interpreted as a consequence of the degenerating character of the city's lower class, and especially indigenous, population. Indians, already widely thought to be more susceptible to habitual and excessive drunkenness than other ethnic groups, were now also exposed to an ethnically mixed, plebeian atmosphere of sociability in Mexico City's pulquerías, which many elite commentators believed to be extremely deleterious for the indigenous population's moral development and for social order in general.

Carlos Sigüenza y Góngora, a leading public intellectual and priest in late seventeenth-century Mexico, argued that the riot was a malicious outburst of a drunken urban mob that carried alarming racial connotations. He claimed that Indians were protesting the rising maize prices so vociferously out of self-interested greed and that they only had themselves to blame for their poverty and hardship: "The Indians would spend all their profits on pulque," Sigüenza y Góngora claimed, "and, considering how abundant this drink was in the city at this time, they often got drunk," and conspired with other societal dregs in the pulquerías to attack colonial officials and institutions. To elite observers, therefore, the interethnic social milieu provided by popular drinking places like pulquerías seemed extremely dangerous.

In the wake of the 1692 violence, the production and sale of pulque were temporarily banned in an attempt to diffuse the social danger posed by drunken gatherings of the lower orders. The large-scale revenue that taxes on pulque provided for the Royal Treasury ensured that the ban was short-lived: pure, unmixed pulque was legalized less than two months after the riot occurred, while pulque mezclado (mixed pulque) and pulquerías were legalized again in 1697.13 However, the conviction that popular drinking places represented a significant danger to the preservation of social order and sociopolitical hierarchies remained potent throughout the colonial period and returned to particular prominence during the final decades of the eighteenth century, when Mexico City underwent considerable changes in its social geography.

From 1782, royal officials undertook a major spatial reorganization of Mexico City, creating eight major districts, which were divided further into thirty-two minor districts. Magistrates were made responsible for the registration of all streets, houses, and places of business in each district, as well as the maintenance of cleanliness and order in public spaces. This reorganization was designed to facilitate greater control and surveillance of public space in both the central part of the city and the poorer, outlying neighborhoods. Viceroy Martín de Mayorga (1779–83) highlighted the problems posed by Mexico City's urban space, particularly in terms of the potential disorder it could produce among the popular classes: "The vast expanse of this city, the irregular arrangement of its neighborhoods and suburbs, and the way the dwellings in these are situated ... makes it impossible to keep a register of them ... and their enormous populations, especially among the masses." Colonial authorities intended to rationalize the city's space, "to make it functional and beautiful, promote economic growth, and cleanse it in every sense," and in the process improve the civility, morality, and social behavior of all the city's residents, especially the lower orders.


Excerpted from Alcohol and Nationhood in Nineteenth-Century Mexico by Deborah Toner. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Introduction: Alcohol, Literature, and Nation-Building,
Part 1. Imagining the Nation through Alcohol, Class, and Gender,
1. Everything in Its Right Place? Social Drinking Spaces, Popular Culture, and Nationhood,
2. Patriotic Heroes and Consummate Drunks: Alcohol, Masculinity, and Nationhood,
Part 2. Alcohol, Morality, and Medicine in the Story of National Development,
3. Yankees, Toffs, and Miss Quixote: Drunken Bodies, Citizenship, and the Hope of Moral Reform,
4. Medicine, Madness, and Modernity in Porfirian Mexico: Alcoholism as the National Disease,
Conclusion: Drunkenness, Death, and Mexican Melancholia,

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