The Americas 59.1 (2002) 116-118
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Silvia Arrom has been one of the most respected scholars of nineteenth-century Mexican history and of issues related to the history of women in Latin America since her first book: Women of Mexico City, 1790-1857 (Stanford, 1985). Her latest work continues the analysis of earlier research themes (women, poverty, social policy and ideology, and legal history) and also goes substantially beyond them by looking at larger questions: the meaning of the Poor House in Mexican society, and how that meaning changed over time. More than the study of one institution, the book examines how the poor were seen and treated by elites and bureaucrats in Mexico over the colonial period and during the nineteenth century, and also how the poor were able to utilize institutions for their own purposes. In putting together the puzzle of this story and her remarkable interpretation, Arrom is going against the general tendency of contemporary scholars to see institutions as successful instruments of social control. Arrom shows how the Poor House, conceived as a means to contain and transform the poor into socially productive citizens, was subtly integrated by that same poor into their own set of survival strategies. Instead of transforming the poor and [End Page 116] Mexican society as well, the Poor House came to reflect that society in terms of its racial composition, social hierarchy, and even the division of space.
Contradictory questions of paternalism and the "moral economy" are juxtaposed in this fascinating book to interrogate attitudes toward the administration of the Poor House, and how it came to be manipulated and transformed. Arrom walks the line between top-down and bottom-up history, carefully sifting evidential patterns to explain the remarkable change in asylum residents over time. In the absence of demographic records, Arrom nevertheless constructs a lucid quantitative picture of that population. This study is based on an enormous and broad-ranging, but inconsistent documentary base, as well as substantial published primary and secondary materials. Arrom has done an exemplary job of combining many bits of seemingly trivial information into a highly meaningful and significant study. For example, although individual records on inmates were not found, Arrom ingeniously utilized a collection of "entrance" and "exit" slips to evaluate the criteria through which individuals were brought in or allowed to leave the Poor House. She ferreted out evidence of the comings and goings of specific individuals, as well as the privileged entrance of certain groups (who were supposedly not even allowed in the asylum). In this way she was able to ascertain the way the asylum came to be used by the poor for their own purposes.
Interestingly enough, even though the mass of the documents consulted appear to have been those related to general policy or law, Arrom nevertheless was able to uncover the subversive voices and passive forms of resistance to the stated policies to control the poor and outlaw begging. She concludes that "although the asylum contained several hundred paupers within its walls, for most of that century it imposed little control on the beggars of the Mexican capital" (p. 278). She argues that "there was a huge gap between the prescribed routines and actual practices of the institution" (p. 279). The reasons for this gap included the high costs associated with housing and feeding the poor. Further issues included the difficulties of administrators and donors with the simultaneous policies of punishing and of helping the poor, and the "moral economy" which included help to the unfortunate as a part of the general belief system. Ultimately the Poor House became a school for poor orphans, a purpose much more consonant with the popular culture of the time.
Silvia Arrom's book is also significant as a history of welfare policy in Mexico. Arrom demonstrates the expansion of the role of the state in public welfare between...