- The Many Meanings of Poverty: Colonialism, Social Compacts, and Assistance in Eighteenth-Century Ecuador
"Pobrecito." This term of pity commonly uttered by Spanish speakers does not, of course, always mean that the person it denotes is penniless; rather, he or she may be simply unfortunate. And often the usage is ironic. So too in eighteenth-century Spanish America, where a white Creole (or American-born) landowner could obtain an official designation as a member of the "solemn poor" (65), or where a poor little rich orphan who stood to inherit thousands of pesos could be deemed a "ward of the court." This is so even where the vast majority of inhabitants were unskilled laborers, natives forced into labor drafts, and slaves—all of whom perpetually lived on the economic edge, and too many of whom fell off. The presence of elite, colonial "pobrecitos" who received royal privileges is perhaps even more striking in eighteenth-century Quito, Ecuador, the capital of a large Spanish district that had seen better days. A booming textile center in the 1600s, it had by the 1700s been squeezed out of the internal colonial market by free(r) trade policies, and its inhabitants—rich and poor—felt the pinch.
Cynthia Milton originally hoped to write a history of the economically poor in colonial Ecuador, but as she delved into the archival record she kept running into these other, wealthier, high-status folks, whom she calls the "social poor" (6). Her decision to attend to the meanings—as well as the material fact—of poverty in one colonial setting has yielded a thought-provoking book. In its eight chapters, propertied whites who had fallen on hard times, the widows of high-level ministers, indigenous peasants, and raggedy urban beggars jostle to achieve the benefits of charity and the privileges assigned to the poor and disadvantaged by Spanish law. Meanwhile, local officials and the Spanish Bourbon monarchy increasingly created both protective and punitive programs, such as poorhouses, pensions, and forced apprenticeships, which they hoped would turn paupers, if not into princes, at least into productive (laboring) members of colonial society.
The reach and ramifications of this book are broad. It is one of several new works that assess the social impact of the Bourbon reforms, and, by opening the doors to Quito's poor house, it contributes to reinvigorated institutional histories of Latin America. The author also adds to a growing field of childhood studies for the region with a chapter on youth and work, and she weighs in on a long historiographical debate among gender scholars with her research on widows. But at the heart of The Many Meanings of Poverty is a tale (perhaps a cautionary one) about the emergence of modern, state-led poor-relief. [End Page 144]
The first four chapters lay a backdrop. Particularly notable is a vibrant chapter on Quito as a place that possessed a true community before the rise of secular poor-relief. The Baroque Christian charity that its inhabitants performed involved the informal exchange of resources that could help the economic poor squeak by. A panhandler might offer a prayer for the soul of a benefactor who dropped a couple coins in his cup; a pickpocket's lookout could expect a small cut; the poor and the rich lived cheek by jowl and, as neighbors, might lend a hand or a floor to crash on during tough times or serve as witness when someone got into trouble with the law.
Milton connects the more vertical of the compacts binding patrons and supplicants to larger compacts on which Spanish colonialism was built. The king, as the ultimate patron, dispensed privileges to those vassals deemed to be at a disadvantage. Some disadvantages came through the loss of a patriarch, as in the case of widows and orphans; others were based on the luck of birth, for there existed a class of "miserables" long considered an unavoidable part of society. Privileges included pensions for the wives of audiencia (high court) ministers...