Death in the City: Suicide and the Social Imaginary in Modern Mexico

Death in the City: Suicide and the Social Imaginary in Modern Mexico

by Kathryn A. Sloan

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At the turn of the twentieth century, many observers considered suicide to be a worldwide social problem that had reached epidemic proportions. In Mexico City, violent deaths in public spaces were commonplace in a city undergoing rapid modernization. Crime rates mounted, corpses piled up in the morgue, and the media reported on sensational cases of murder and suicide. More troublesome still, a compelling death wish appeared to grip women and youth. Drawing on a range of sources from judicial records to the popular press, Death in the City investigates the cultural meanings of self-destruction in modern Mexico. The author examines responses to suicide and death and disproves the long-held belief that Mexicans possess a cavalier attitude toward suffering.

Editorial Reviews

American Historical Review

Sloan offers us a sharp portrait of how some early-twentieth-century urban Mexicans debated social change and pondered a profoundly gendered realm of suicide.... [Her] coherent structure and clear prose make it suitable for students as well as specialists.


"Thorough, well researched, methodologically appealing, and with a clear narrative line... an excellent addition to the literature on death and crime in Mexico City and an obligatory reference for scholars interested in comparative analyses across regions"

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520290327
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/11/2017
Series: Violence in Latin American History , #5
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

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Death in the City

Suicide and the Social Imaginary in Modern Mexico

By Kathryn A. Sloan


Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96453-2


A Social History of Suicide in Mexico City, 1900-1930

STATISTICS CONVINCE AND CONFUSE. Citing numerical data to back a claim lends it an air of legitimacy, but scholars acknowledge that the collection and interpretation of data can be problematic. Nonetheless, part and parcel of nation building in the nineteenth century was the establishment of institutions to collect data on everything from topography to mortality rates. Mexican officials first began assembling statistics to define the geographical and geological facets of the country. Description rather than determinism motivated early data collectors. As scientific politics took hold during the Porfiriato, a cadre of specialists expanded the scope of statistics gathering to population counts and number of marriages, births, and deaths. Not long afterward, counting incidences of crimes like homicide featured heavily in the mission of these experts. Statistics took a deterministic turn when Porfirian intellectuals started to wield them to rule society and gauge its advancement.

Statistical gathering and analysis were at the root of a scientific method to measure the march of progress. Indeed, the 1889 federal government publication, the Periódico Oficial, was prefaced with an 1888 directive that President Díaz wanted to present data at the 1889 Paris Exposition that showed not only the "material progress, but also the moral progress" that Mexico had achieved. The presidential order mandated that all states compile criminal statistics (including data on suicide) between 1870 and 1885 and send this information to the federal government. Porfirian intellectual Antonio Peñafiel claimed that the use of statistics in Mexico began with the Chichimeca ruler Nepaltzin, who mandated a count of his people when they reached the Valley of Mexico after the conquest. To Peñafiel, it was natural that Mexicans would fancy statistics centuries later; it was in their DNA. He and his colleague Emiliano Busto believed that statistics could accurately describe society, not with words but with numbers. Moreover, analyzing statistical tables would legitimate scientific approaches to social problems like epidemic disease and crime. They shared this sentiment with their European counterparts, who produced comparative statistical studies on crime, economic production, and disease. Comparative reports allowed states to gauge their levels of progress with others. As historian Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo noted, "only in a sea of numbers provided by all nations could the statistical picture of the ideal modern nation have emerged." This keen worldwide infatuation with statistics could be seen most dramatically in exhibitions at world's fairs. What better way to portray the progress and splendor of a nation than through the display of products, photographs of engineering marvels, paintings, and statistical charts that could astound tourists, immigrants, and, especially, investors? Published statistics allowed nations to communicate their modern achievements to the world. Potential financiers could read statistical tables and decide whether a financial investment would likely bear fruit.

Like scientists, journalists wielded statistics to authenticate their arguments and claims. For example, El Imparcial and Excélsior printed statistical tables to lend authority to reporting in their pages. Numbers substantiated editorials that claimed rising crime or suicide rates in Mexico City. The collection of numerical data on population increases, railroad lines, and mining outputs signaled that Mexico was firmly on the track of progress. Journals like the Boletín demográfico de la República Mexicana published numerical and qualitative facts on the nation's advancement beginning in 1898. Directed by engineer José María Romero, Boletín published sections in French, Italian, and English. One stated aim of the publication was to prove Mexico's progress to potential foreign investors. The bulletin lauded the extensive networks of railroads in the nation and included statistics on kilometers of track laid, revenues enjoyed, and return on investment in railroad development. Years later, the Mexican Academy of Jurisprudence and Legislation sponsored a series of lectures to celebrate Mexico's centennial in 1910. Francisco Barrera Lavalle delivered a lecture that same year on the history of statistics in Mexico from 1821 to 1910 that was subsequently published. Barrera credited the intrepid officials of the Porfirian regime with expanding the types of data collected, which included demographic indicators like falling rates of epidemic disease. The counternarrative to Mexican progress was also revealed in statistics. The average life expectancy of Mexicans was twenty-six-and-a-half years in 1900, twenty-nine years in 1910, and thirty-seven years in 1930. Infant mortality rates also concerned public health specialists, who worried that the death rate could stymie or even negate indicators of the country's advancement. A sick and dying population spelled disaster for Mexico. The physical and mental health of citizens consumed the energies of Porfirian and revolutionary statesmen alike. Statistics lent credence to stated claims about the public health of the city and legitimized the physicians and sanitation inspectors who developed programs to combat disease and raise hygiene standards among the city's population. The collection and analysis of data found a home in institutionalized liberalism and gained renewed emphasis after the horrific death toll of the Mexican Revolution. Yet it is worth noting that, for all the promises of Pax Porfiriana, Mexico's population did not live longer or witness significant reductions in infant mortality rates during the reign of Porfirio Díaz.


The late nineteenth-century ushered in a new era of liberalism among Mexican politicians and intellectuals. Scientific politics defined its divergence from the liberalism of early statesmen. The Reform Wars (1855–1861), the liberal triumph after the execution of Maximilian I (1867), and the ascension of Benito Juárez to the presidential seat signaled midcentury that the political tide had firmly shifted toward institutionalized liberalism. Instead of military men, a constitution, a body of secular laws, and professional politicians populated the halls of government. Porfirio Díaz seized the presidency in 1876, withdrew from office in 1880 to allow for a peaceful succession, and then reassumed the post in 1884disregarding statements he made previously claiming he would not seek reelection. When he took office the second time, he surrounded himself with a cadre of educated professionals who promised to lead Mexico forward by relying on measurable scientific methods. According to historian Charles Hale, this generation of men rejected doctrinaire liberalism-what they sometimes called "metaphysical politics"-for a redefined positivist liberalism that required studying Mexican society to scientifically propose policies to correct social problems. Universal truths and doctrines fell into oblivion as experts studied social maladies in situ through empirical investigation. The findings allowed them to make procedural recommendations that they believed would regenerate society. Their goals were to establish order, encourage progress, and, ultimately, secure Mexico's membership in the club of modern nations. These ideas and criticisms of the liberalism of Juárez found a voice in La Libertad, a newspaper supported by a government subsidy from Díaz. These experts garnered the moniker científicos (scientists), and among them were several intellectuals that will be mentioned throughout this study, including Justo and Santiago Sierra, Antonio Peñafiel, and Gabino Barreda.

French philosopher Auguste Comte provided the theoretical underpinnings of scientific politics. He refined his theory of positive philosophy, or positivism, in 1826. Comte believed that there was a hierarchy of sciences, from the simple and general to the more sophisticated and interconnected. Physiology (the study of the human body) and sociology (the study of such bodies as groups) were especially important to Mexican experts, and Comte ranked the latter as the most complex science and claimed that it was also undertheorized. Likewise, he considered human thinking to have a hierarchical positioning as well. Theological, or what Comte called "imaginary thinking," occupied the base range of complexity while the metaphysical made up the middle range. Scientific thinking was the most rarified and desired mode of knowledge and intellectual pursuit. Comte reasoned that scientists had abandoned the first two forms of thinking when they were analyzing the natural world but not when they were examining social phenomena. Ideally, a human mind would proceed in a positive direction from theological to scientific thinking. Metaphysical thinking (doctrinaire liberalism) was a sort of purgatorial knowledge state that científicos had passed through to reach a higher state of intellectual reasoning. Practically, this shift resulted in scientific liberals supporting the centralization of power and looking askance at popular sovereignty and other ideals of pure liberalism. To men like Justo Sierra, Mexico was not ready for rule by consensus as suggested by Herbert Spencer. Public order would not emerge from a "natural strengthening of the social body." A strong central authority like the Porfirian state had to be fortified, or Mexico would fail in its struggle to survive the process of evolution and extinction. Hale phrased it best: "The idea that society should be administered and not governed was an integral part of scientific politics at is origins."

Although many would agree that statistics hide more than they reveal, Porfirian científicos thought that data gathering and the analysis of figures could yield answers to the etiology of suicide and other social problems, like crime. They believed that the individual made up just one part, albeit an important part, of the social organism, and thus statistics could yieldinformation that would provide specialists the tools to combat moral diseases. Curing individuals-or, more importantly, preventing suicide-would improve the overall health of the social body. Contemporaries like criminologist Carlos Roumaugnac doubted the accuracy of statistics, but officials relied on them to make generalizations about the health of the body politic. Data allowed experts examining the phenomenon of suicide to make generalizations about voluntary death, such as when it was most likely to occur, the most common reasons an individual would take his or her own life, where and how most victims committed the deed, and which categories of people (i.e., those of which age, gender, and social class) were most likely to kill themselves. Simply put, the state of society could be read through aggregated statistics-or in other words, moral statistics. Statistics are prone to human error when they are being collected and reported. Nonetheless, they are helpful in charting certain trends or patterns over time. When approached through the lens of social construction, the practice of gathering and using moral statistics reveals much about institutional concerns and priorities in their cultural context. Suicide is an apt example of a timeless act that gained enough urgency to be recorded and analyzed at the turn of the century.


Statistique morale, or the exploration of social phenomena (versus physical and natural facts), originated in early nineteenth-century Europe in the work of Parisian attorney André-Michel de Guerry and Belgian mathematician and astronomer Lambert Adolphe Quetelet. Both men posited that statistical composites "could strip away the particularities of the individual personality and come face to face with the essential properties of society." Likewise, Italian physician Enrico "Henry" Morselli (1852–1929) reasoned that "official categorizers of suicides are always faced with many complex decisions to be made about these so-called psychological factors. Even the decision as to whether the individual knew the consequences of his actions is a very difficult psychological judgment in many instances." Moral statistics were the fodder of sociological study at the time, and Mexican positivists like Barreda and Peñafiel embraced them as the best tools to define social problems and suggest solutions. Statistics revealed how certain measurable phenomena, like suicide and murder, recurred. Moral statisticians proposed that external factors rather than individual free will provoked suicide or murder. Placing causality outside the individual defined suicide and violent crime as social rather than individual pathologies. If patterns of suicide and murder resembled patterns of natural death, then predictable laws "hidden from the naked eye" propelled individuals to kill themselves or others. This deterministic viewpoint reasoned that, if free will operated in the commission of criminal and suicidal acts, then the rates of both would display randomness rather than regularity among certain social groups. Likewise, if social laws determined behavior, then the environment could be changed to transform human beings and, ultimately, aberrant conduct.

Employees working for the Dirección General de Estadística (General Board of Statistics), founded in 1882, collected, classified, and published data on a range of phenomena in Mexican society, including deaths, infant mortality, illness, crimes, and in some years, suicide. Published statistics lent legitimacy and authority to the state and its representatives, especially to public health specialists like doctors Eduardo Liceaga and Peñafiel. Rising premature death rates or incidences of epidemic illness allowed public health officials to implement policy based on what they considered the irrefutability of numerical indicators. Statistics gathering in combination with concerns about urban sanitation heralded a larger role of the state in individuals' lives, especially in the lives of the urban poor. In Mexico, public health specialists entered urban barrios to administer surveys, observe living standards, and make policy recommendations aimed at eliminating disease. The statistics they analyzed gave them the power "to impose order on most social and economic activities." Human bias interfered as well, in that most policy recommendations faulted "ignorance, backwardness and immorality of the urban population" as the root causes of disease. These experts did not always comment on the fact that urban tenements often lacked methods to sanitarily dispose of human waste or the fact the infection spread quickly in crowded housing. Although believed to be objective, statistics were burdened with value-laden prejudice. Even in their collection and analysis, they could be seen as both quantitative and moral measures.

European moral statisticians would dominate the way that suicide was approached until the early twentieth century. Their views and approaches culminated in the work of Émile Durkheim, a former student of Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol and the author of Le Suicide (1897). He argued that the moral aspect of suicide was paramount, even if external causes led individuals to self-murder. Moreover, any notion of an individual's right to extinguish his or her life was superseded by his or her subjugation to the rights of society. In other words, taking one's life was a selfish and immoral action that had a negative impact on society. Writing twenty years before Durkheim, Morselli proffered Darwinist analogies to argue that suicide, crime, and other social problems increased with the level of civilization. However, he contended that, like the linear progress of evolution, some elements fell away as societies evolved because they could not survive the process of natural selection. He did recommend education as a way to boost the wills of weak members of society, but he also took a Malthusian stance and argued that suicide and the death of frail humans were normal costs of the march of civilization.


Many people today mistakenly believe that suicide rates spike during the holiday months. The stereotype communicates that those who spend holidays alone, when most people are enjoying the company of loved ones, are at an increased risk of committing self-murder. However, a recent article notes that the rates actually increase during springtime, a finding first noted in the nineteenth century. Experts interviewed for the article theorized that semihibernation during the shorter days of the winter months exposed people to less human interaction and the accompanying frustrations that come with socializing. Likewise, work rhythms are less intense during that time, and agricultural activities come to a standstill. Spring heralds more work activity and human interaction and with it more potential for conflicts and stress. Morselli theorized that a "suicide belt" existed between latitude 47° and 57° north and between longitude 20° and 40° east. That range includes most of Western Europe. Mexico and the rest of Latin America lie outside of this alleged zone. According to Morselli, people residing in this belt possessed the strongest inclination to attempt suicide. He suggested that temperate climates, rather than extremely cold or extremely hot climates, provided the ripest conditions for self-destruction. Mexico City's climate could be described as temperate, but it sat at the wrong longitude. Some researchers posit that climatic factors provoked by changing seasons trigger suicidal thoughts. Some believe that more sunshine and longer days are the culprits; others fault increases in temperature in the spring and summer months. Nevertheless, historical trends seem to point to spring and summer months (no matter which hemisphere) to be the seasons of suicide. The statistics of suicide in Mexico City from 1900 to 1930 support this general trend. March drove the most women to suicide. September was the cruelest month for men. The suicide cases in Mexico City during this period show some patterns that mesh with studies of suicide in Mexico as a whole. In general, March, July, and September witnessed the most recorded monthly incidences of suicide among men and women (see tables 1 and 2). It was thought that the hottest months resulted in the highest incidences of suicide and crime. Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso supported this conjecture, and his Mexican peers agreed that high temperatures led to increased criminal activity. Julio Guerrero wrote in 1901 that the number of fights and injuries diminished during the rainy season, when temperatures were also cooler. For Mexico City, October through May is the dry season, and June through September is the wet season. Interestingly, a 1968 study of the relationship between meteorological states and suicide found that reported suicides and suicide attempts skyrocketed in May as well. That month regularly produces the hottest temperatures nationwide.


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