- Containing the Poor: The Mexico City Poor House, 1774—1871
Two landmark policy statements on poverty frame Silvia Arrom’s study of the Mexico City Poor House. The first, a viceregal decree of 1774, criminalized begging in the colonial capital and mandated the arrest of beggars and their detention and rehabilitation in the Poor House, established for that purpose. Almost a century later in 1871, the government of Benito Juárez issued a new penal code that relegalized begging, thus ending a long experiment in eliminating mendicity by confinement. Meanwhile, the Poor House had become a very different institution from the original intent of its founders even as it became ensconced in the political and social life of the capital.
The 1774 decree, Arrom points out, marked a significant break from Catholic concepts of charity that sanctified the poor and considered alms a means of salvation for the giver. The decree framed poverty as a fault and distinguished between the deserving and undeserving poor. The unworthy poor, conflated with vagrants, were destined for labor in public works or armed service, while the worthy poor became beneficiaries of a social experiment. Although an institution of enclosure like the earlier colonial convents and retreats for respectable women, the Poor House represented new attitudes on the part of both clerics and secular officials. Their goals, Arrom argues, exemplified the Bourbon modernizing project in their optimism that mendicity could be eradicated, and in their utilitarian, disciplinary, and civilizing intent. The Poor House regimen mixed assistance with punishment and consisted of confinement, segregation of the sexes, religious instruction, and artisanal training to transform the idle poor into pious Christians and productive workers. The institution was, moreover, from the outset a hybrid combining clerical and secular administration and private patronage. It was also distinctly Mexican, Arrom notes, in the plan to house a mixed race population, reflecting the erosion of the caste society.
A rich social history emerges from Arrom’s careful examination of the differences between proclamations and regulations and their implementation and popular response. Arrom chronicles the Poor House’s successful first decades when the institution ran according to plan, followed by a long lapse from its original mission. Over the years, the staff interpreted “worthiness” in ways that transformed an institution of punitive enclosure for a predominantly mixed race, [End Page 198] adult male population into an asylum where shelter represented privilege for an increasingly whiter, younger, female and voluntary clientele. Arrom interprets these changes as “grass roots” attempts to sustain crumbling racial hierarchies by preventing the downward mobility of white paupers from respectable families. Often the Poor House’s chief beneficiaries were its employees, many of whom entered as inmates, reflecting the patronage nature of the institution. The rationalizing mission of the Poor House was also subverted by practices deeply rooted in the “moral economy” of relations between rich and poor that sustained individual acts of charity. Even so, the establishment remained the centerpiece of repeated attempts on the part of Mexico’s political classes—of every stripe—to reform the poor, although each cycle of reform incorporated more of the grass roots changes. Those trajectories prompt Arrom to question whether the Poor House fit the “social control” model of institutions of confinement as well as to evaluate the relationship between Mexican social policy and social life.
Continuity and change at the Poor House do not fall neatly into standard political periodizations. Arrom asserts that the most significant event marking a change of direction in the Poor House mission came not with Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, but with the opening of the Patriotic School in 1806, initiating the institution’s gradual transformation into an orphanage. The author demonstrates that whether clerical or secular, federalist or centrist, liberal or conservative, public officials “shared many basic assumptions about the role of the poor in a modernizing society” (p. 283). Yet Arrom’s study throws new light on Mexican political history. Her review of policies toward the establishment during...