The Americas 60.4 (2004) 559-587
[Access article in PDF]
Nationalizing Children through Schools and Hygiene:
Porfirian and Revolutionary Mexico City*
Patience A. Schell
Manchester, United Kingdom
On a spring morning in 1919, worshipers leaving Mexico City's cathedral were horrified to discover the body of a little girl who had fallen to her death from the Hotel del Seminario. Yet as far as the Excélsior newspaper was concerned, the tragedy that had ended that morning had actually begun with her conception. Her mother was a prostitute who lived in the hotel and busybody guests reported that the mother neglected her child. On the day of Domitila's death, her mother was not at the hotel, as she had been admitted to the Morelos Hospital, which specialized in syphilitic prostitutes. The hotel's guests did their best to care for Domitila, giving her food, affection, and chiding when she played on balconies: one moment of inattention allowed the tragedy. The article concluded that perhaps it was for Domitila's own good that she had died falling off a balcony.1 Readers did not need to be told why Domitila was better off dead, because the case encapsulated common anxieties about childhood and parenting in Porfirian and revolutionary Mexico. Domitila served as a warning of what could happen to poor children, even when decent folk tried to intervene. Her death reminded readers that the poor, especially poor women, could not be trusted to care for future generations of Mexicans without supervision. As children, even the illegitimate children of prostitutes, were a national resource, the state needed to be involved in their rearing and education. The article suggested that Domitila's tragedy was one all Mexicans shared because all children mattered. [End Page 559]
From the Porfiriato into the revolutionary years, state actors increasingly determined that they were responsible for Mexico's children, with privileges that superseded family rights. Meanwhile, the meanings of childhood were also changing. New discourses depicted children as national resources and treasured citizens, not just small adults. This article explores shifting concepts of childhood through hygiene programs in Mexico City schools. Using educational reports, sample developmental tests, school program outlines, newspaper articles, and secondary sources, I offer a preliminary exploration of how the Mexican child symbolically became a national actor. This article begins with an overview of education, childhood, and public health and hygiene in Porfirian and revolutionary Mexico. With that framework established, the article next addresses the school hygiene service as a case study that shows how an expanding welfare state justified regulating families through evocations of childhood and children, while changing the meanings of childhood.
The Politics of Education, Childhood, and Hygiene
President Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911) brought Mexico political stability and unprecedented foreign investment in industry and infrastructure. Yet the benefits of the Porfirian economic model were limited to the regime's elite. In rural areas, powerful landowners pushed peasants off their traditional holdings, while industrial expansion only rewarded the nascent working class with long hours and low wages. Moreover, foreigners and their culture were feted among Mexico's elite, even as poor Mexicans, particularly those of indigenous background, were ignored at best and blamed for national disorders at worst.
Porfirian Mexico, a place of haves and have nots, was further divided by geography, culture, and local history. The Porfirians believed that the many agencies offering primary education exacerbated these regional and ethnic divisions within Mexico. Because education had the potential to make Mexicans, schools could no longer be trusted to local parishes and municipal governments. The remedy for national disunity was increasing federal provision and ideological unity of primary education. Gradually, municipal schools lost ground to state and federal primary schools. In 1896, for instance, the federal government nationalized municipal primary schools in the Federal District. Through increasing federal provisions of public education in the late nineteenth century and through influencing state schools, the Porfirian government established a regulatory and educatory relationship with thousands of Mexican children. Mílada Bazant estimates that by 1907 approximately sixty percent of...