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The Imagined Underworld

Sex, Crime, and Vice in Porfirian Mexico City

James Alex Garza

Publication Year: 2008

Emerging from decades of turmoil, late nineteenth-century Mexico City was a capital in transition. Yet as the city (and its republic) embraced technological and social change, it still faced perceptions of widespread crime and disorder. Accordingly, the Porfirian government relied on an elite group of government officials, prominent citizens, politicians, urban professionals, and newspaper editors to elevate the Mexican nation from its perceived backward condition. Influenced by prevailing social theories, such as positivism and social Darwinism, this ruling class sought not only modernization but also the imposition of national morals. While elites sought to guide and educate the middle class toward this ideal, they viewed the growing underclass with apprehension and fear.
Through a careful examination of judicial records, newspapers, government documents, and travelers’ accounts, The Imagined Underworld uncovers the truth behind six of nineteenth-century Mexico’s most infamous crimes, including those of the serial killer “El Chalequero.” During his sensational trial, ruling elites linked the killer’s villainous acts with the impoverished urban world he inhabited and victimized. This pattern was not limited to the most nefarious criminals; rather it would be repeated for all crimes committed by the poor. In an effort to construct a social barrier between the classes, elites invented a dangerous urban periphery populated by imaginary Mexicans—degenerate, deviant, and murderous. However, the Porfirian elite did not count on middle-class and police involvement in crime—and in numerous incidents, including a deadly love triangle, elites were betrayed by their own role in criminality. By analyzing the cases used to forge the underworld and those that defied its myth, Garza uncovers the complex reality that existed beyond the Porfirian ideals of order and progress.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

List of Illustrations

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p. viii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This book would not have been possible without the help of innumerable friends, colleagues, and archivists whom I have met over the years. Archival and library staffs in both Mexico and the United States provided constant assistance. The staff of the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City went beyond the bounds of duty to help me locate ...

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pp. 1-11

In April 1883 Mexico City police made a grisly discovery in the capital's outskirts: the bloodied, decomposed corpse of a woman. A subsequent investigation concluded that the unknown victim had been surprised by two men as she walked near the fetid Rio del Consulado, a stream located in the city's northeastern periphery....

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1. Charting the Imagined City

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pp. 12-37

In July 1908 the Mexico City newspaper El Imparcial published a series of articles on La Bolsa, an impoverished neighborhood located in the capital's northeastern periphery. Like the polluted Rio del Consulado, La Bolsa harbored a sinister reputation among the Porfirian upper classes. Yet the neighborhood also fascinated readers, who avidly ...

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2. The Terror of Peralvillo, "El Chalequero"

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pp. 38-70

In 1890 prosecutors in Mexico City tried and convicted Francisco Guerrero, alias "El Chalequero," for the rape and murder of several women. Guerrero, a shoemaker by trade, repeatedly lured women he met in the pulquerías of the capital's northeastern periphery to isolated areas where he violently assaulted them during sexual intercourse. ...

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3. Love, Betrayal, and Death in the Underworld

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pp. 84-109

One Fall afternoon in Mexico City, persons walking along San Jeronimo Street in District Three were startled by several gunshots coming from inside a parked coach. As onlookers gathered, the coach sped off. A police officer walking his beat managed to stop the driver and, as he looked inside, saw a young woman lying on the floor bleeding ...

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4. Organized Crime and the Porfirian State

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pp. 97-130

The year 1890 marked a crucial time in the development of the Porfirian regime. Political forces conspired, if we are to lend a Machiavellian tint to the proceedings, to change the constitution to allow Porfirio Díaz to be reelected continuously. Thus, in the same year that Francisco Guerrero went to trial and Piedad Ontiveros met her fate, the ...

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5. Disease, Decay, and the Strange Case of Federico Abrego and Maria Barrera

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pp. 131-154

Acting on a tip, on October 5, 1898, Mexico City police began an investigation into the recent death of a young obstetrics nurse, María Barrera. Three days before, Barrera had died in the office of Federico Abrego, a well-known doctor, during a medical procedure intended to stop a massive hemorrhage. The death, Abrego reported at the time, ...

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6. Politics, Corruption, and the Arnulfo Arroyo Affair

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pp. 155-178

The Arnulfo Arroyo case is undoubtedly one of Porfirian Mexico City's most striking episodes. On September 16, 1897, a social outcast from the middle class, Arnulfo Arroyo, assaulted President Porfirio Díaz during a military parade in downtown Mexico City. Arroyo did not live long to glory in his action. On the night after the assault, police, ...

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pp. 179-182

In 1932 Mexican author Hernan Robleto wrote a thrilling account of famous crimes in the days of don Porfirio, Crimenes celebres: Desde el Chalequero hasta Gallegos, embellishing many of them with a film noir style. In one story Robleto described how Miguel Cabrera, don Porfirio's most famous detective, arrested one of the Porfiriato's greatest villains, ...


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pp. 183-200


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pp. 201-212


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pp. 213-220

E-ISBN-13: 9780803215832
E-ISBN-10: 0803215835

Page Count: 320
Illustrations: 3 photographs, index
Publication Year: 2008