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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 158-159

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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 Sylvia Marina Arrom (Durham, Duke University Press, 2000) 398 pp. $59.95 cloth $19.95 paper

In 1774, the viceroy of New Spain announced a policy to eliminate begging on the streets of Mexico City. The establishment of a poor house was central to a broad program designed to discipline the poor, create wealth, and lower crime. Imbued with Enlightenment confidence, officials sought to identify the deserving poor, train them in work and life skills, punish the undeserving poor, and improve the social order. In theory, the Mexico City Poor House had much in common with other societies' "total institutions" founded during the era of the "Great Confinement." The Poor House survived more than 100 years, through the dramatic upheavals leading to Mexican Independence in 1821 and the subsequent half-century of intermittent civil war and foreign intervention.

The study of institutions during this period in Mexico is rendered especially difficult by the instability of the state, and the Poor House is no exception. On one level, extensive documentation is often unavailable. In the case of the Poor House, few records exist at all for decades on end. On another level, the kinds of documents that are most often preserved, such as laws, elite memoirs, and periodicals, tempt researchers to conflate legislation or the rhetorical tropes of elites and social reality. Arrom, an authority on the period whose previous works include studies of women and political unrest, expertly confronts this dilemma as she analyzes the twists and turns of the Poor House over the course of a century. She goes beyond the legal and discursive record to examine the social character of the institution, making the most of the documentation that is available. The book includes numerous tables and figures, and Arrom cites her World Wide Web home page, which contains the full texts (in Spanish) of the eight sets of Poor House by-laws relevant to the study.

The juxtaposition of qualitative and quantitative data reveals the subversion of legislative intent by individuals and social groups across the socioeconomic gamut. Elite families turned the institution into a refuge for their downwardly mobile kin. Employees pursued their own job security at the expense of service delivery to their intended constituents. The urban poor resisted internment. Municipal and national functionaries bumped heads over finances and mission. The emerging notion of public welfare confronted enduring traditions of Christian charity, [End Page 158] which undermined the reformist program. Eventually, these conflicting intentions and ongoing struggles twisted the primary function of the Poor House from a moral and professional training facility for adult beggars to a school for orphans.

This fascinating study engages the historical, anthropological, and sociological debates about social control, resistance, and moral economy as it chronicles the negotiated outcomes of state initiatives. Skillfully chosen and valuable comparisons to European, Latin American, and U.S. cases suggest similarities and contrasts across regions and further research agendas. Along the way, the author challenges numerous clich├ęs about the watershed moments of Mexican history and the historiography's popular heroes and villains. The end result is a valuable monograph for numerous fields of inquiry.


Richard Warren
St. Joseph's University



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