Journal of Women's History 15.4 (2004) 164-169
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A Right to Live as Gente Decente:
Sex Work, Family Life, and Collective Identity in Early-Twentieth-Century Mexico
Katherine Elaine Bliss
When I first began to research the question of prostitution in revolutionary Mexico City, my goal was to understand the experience of women in societies in conflict. Historians had long noted that women's participation in sex work seemed to be correlated with war and social unrest. They explained that in periods of acute political crisis women and girls often migrated to cities for protection and shelter. Confronted with food shortages, few employment opportunities, and limited social networks in urban centers, some women, researchers said, found themselves compelled to exchange sex for food or money in order to survive. 1 For the case of the Mexican Revolution, memoirs, popular literature, and published interviews seemed to bear this observation out. Chronicler of the revolution Francisco Ramírez Plancarte noted that the intense rural fighting between 1913 and 1915 so disrupted supply routes to the metropolis that women of all ages could be found selling sexual services for a piece of fruit or a crust of bread. 2 City residents who lived through the revolution and its aftermath described to interviewers the extent to which impoverished metropolitan women turned to sexual commerce during the period of state consolidation and political reconstruction in the 1920s and 1930s. 3
And yet, despite the apparent connection between prostitution and revolutionary warfare in Mexico, the sex trade had been legally regulated—in the capital at least—by the Department of Public Health since the mid-nineteenth century. This suggested that prostitution had long been a feature of urban life in Mexico and that there were factors other than individual women's experience in war to consider when trying to understand their work in sexual commerce. The archived evidence I located covered the period starting with the French occupation of Mexico in the 1860s, when regulation was first imposed, through the culmination of revolutionary political and social reforms in 1940, when sanitary rules regarding the sex trade were abolished. The documentation included information on the period of urbanization and modernization that characterized the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz (1876-1880, 1884-1911) and covered the years of revolution, civil war, and reconstruction between 1910 and the late 1930s as well.
As I examined the data about prostitution over this seventy-five year period, one thing that intrigued me was the discrepancy I sensed between [End Page 164] physicians' efforts to portray prostitutes as deviant individuals and the women's own insistence that they worked in prostitution because they were members of large social networks and bore responsibility for supporting numerous family members. Historical studies of prostitution in Europe and Latin America have shown that public officials frequently portrayed prostitutes as dangerous threats to family and nation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Mexican officials followed suit over the same period. 4 Nevertheless, Mexican prostitutes in the revolutionary era countered this negative image, stressing that in the difficult postwar economy they found themselves compelled to sell their sexual services not because of "vice" or even individual desperation but because they were conscientious parents and providers. 5 As I sorted through medical reports, case histories, and published bulletins, it became clear to me that women's work in sexual commerce, at least in revolutionary Mexico, could not be understood without reference to the families from which they came to their work, the informal "family" networks they formedat work with colleagues and friends, and the more formal families they formed outside of work with their children and partners. Indeed, I discovered that prostitutes' work as mujeres públicas, or public women, was necessarily related to their private labors.
The first task I faced was determining how and why women came to their participation in the revolutionary sex trade in Mexico. Although I uncovered only a few cases in which Mexican parents actually sold...