Containing the Poor

The Mexico City Poor House, 1774–1871

Containing the Poor

Book Pages: 416 Illustrations: 21 b&w photographs, 33 tables, 4 figures, 2 maps Published: February 2001

History > Latin American History, Latin American Studies > Mexico, Sociology > Urban Studies

In 1774 Mexico City leaders created the Mexico City Poor House—the centerpiece of a bold experiment intended to eliminate poverty and impose a new work ethic on former beggars by establishing a forcible internment policy for some and putting others to work. In Containing the Poor Silvia Marina Arrom tells the saga of this ill-fated plan, showing how the asylum functioned primarily to educate white orphans instead of suppressing mendicancy and exerting control over the multiracial community for whom it was designed.
For a nation that had traditionally regarded the needy as having the undisputed right to receive alms and whose affluent citizens felt duty-bound to dispense them, the experiment was doomed from the start, explains Arrom. She uses deep archival research to reveal that—much to policymakers’ dismay—the Poor House became an orphanage largely because the government had underestimated the embeddedness of this moral economy of begging. While tracing the course of an eventful century that also saw colonialism give way to republicanism in Mexico, Arrom links the Poor House’s transformation with other societal factors as well, such as Mexican women’s increasing impact on social welfare policies.
With poverty, begging, and homelessness still rampant in much of Latin America today, this study of changing approaches to social welfare will be particularly valuable to student and scholars of Mexican and Latin American society and history, as well as those engaged in the study of social and welfare policy.


“[A] fascinating study . . . . Skillfully chosen and valuable comparisons to European, Latin American, and U.S. cases . . . . The end result is a valuable monograph for numerous fields on inquiry.” — Richard Warren , Journal of Interdisciplinary History

“[A] remarkable interpretation. . . . [T]he archival research behind this section is formidable. . . .[F]ascinating book. . . . Arrom has done an exemplary job . . . . [S]ignificant . . . . This new portrait significantly refines our previous vision of the starving and trodden masses.” — Elizabeth A. Kuznesof , The Americas

“[A]n insightful and carefully crafted history of Mexico City’s Hospicio de Pobres or poorhouse. . . . Arrom’s work is among the best in the select group of pioneering studies of the history of welfare and charity in Latin America appearing in the last two decades. It is appropriate for both graduate and undergraduate seminars in history, the humanities, and the social sciences, and even the general adult reading public. It is a must for any college library and a worthy item for private collections.” — Victor M. Uribe-Uran , History: Reviews of New Books

“Arrom sheds new and important light on the nature of the city’s poor, providing available statistics and fascinating details about this large and diverse population of men and women, whites and Indians, boys and girls, and old people. Then as now, the urban poor constitutes an ‘urban crisis’ for which there is no cheap and easy solution.” — E. Hu-DeHart, Choice

“Arrom’s study is, indeed, praiseworthy. First, for her meticulous, in-depth research and mastering of the wide-ranging sources that she brings into play. Second, for the thought-provoking assessments and conclusions that she manifests throughout the nine chapters of this book. And third, but not last, for her eloquence and solid use of the tools and methodology of social history.” — Amos Megged, Colonial Latin American Historical Review

"Containing the Poor is . . . a success. Arrom invites us into the Poor House, showing us how the view from inside the institution provides an unparalleled window onto the major historical themes of charity and modern welfare, and of social control and state power in Mexico. Readers from multiple scholarly fields should accept Arrom’s invitation. Those interested in nineteenth-century Mexican history will see the city from a new angle, and all readers may find that it changes their perspective on the history of poor relief." — Bianca Premo , South Eastern Latin Americanist

"[A] careful examination . . . . Arrom enriches our understanding of the evolution of Mexican social policy. . . . [E]xtensive archival research . . . . [A] valuable contribution to comparative discussions of the charitable institutions that preceded the emergence of welfare states. The book's many tables and appendices provide clear representations of the trends that undergird Arrom's argument.” — Ann S. Blum , Journal of Social History

"[A] superbly crafted example of historical scholarship. . . ." — Cheryl E. Martin , Colonial Latin American Review

"[A]n exceptionally good book that looks at the rise of modern social theory and practice over a century. . . . Arrom's conclusions are the epitome of clarity and precision." — Donald F. Stevens , Latin American Research Review

"[T]his book is indeed a sound contribution to the history of state building in the nineteenth century, as well as an example of the benefits of studying specific institutions without losing sight of everyday practices." — Pablo Piccato , American Historical Review

"Arrom's study is more than an innovative perspective of a project to eliminate begging in Mexico. . . . Arrom provides a window into the life of people seldom captured by history. . . . The book contributes to an understanding of how different social classes lived and interacted in Mexico City and serves as a model for further studies on the experiments of social control, charity projects for the poor, and the negotiations that lower classes used to control their own lives." — Verónica Vallejo , Hispanic American Historical Review

"Silva Arrom's detailed and well-written account of the Mexico City Poor House is a unique contribution to the historiography of Mexico and comparative social welfare. . . . [It] effectively explores and analyzes the nuances and daily realities of Mexican politics and society, and is an essential read for anyone interested in moving beyond the political rhetoric of the period. Furthermore, through the skillful analysis of a wide range of sources, Arrom provides a model for future social historical studies on the contradictions and complexities of modern social welfare." — Jonathan D. Ablard, Journal of Third World Studies

Containing the Poor focuses on a vitally important, timely topic. A monumental piece of investigation into a myriad of sources and a discerning, perceptive model for studies on the dispensing of charity for any Latin American country, it is social history at its best.” — John Jay TePaske, coauthor of The Royal Treasuries of the Spanish Empire in America

“This is a major exploration of welfare policy in Mexico that has the extra virtue of crossing the colonial/national divide. The research is impeccable: deep, careful, convincing.” — Eric Van Young, author of The Other Rebellion: Popular Violence and Ideology in the Mexican Independence Struggle, 1810–1821


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Silvia Marina Arrom holds the Jane’s Chair of Latin American Studies at Brandeis University. She is the author of several books, including The Women of Mexico City, 1790–1857.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations, Figures, and Tables ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

1. The Problem of Beggars and Vagrants 11

2. The Foundation of the Poor House 43

3. The Experiment in Practice 76

4. Reform of the Poor House 120

5. Independence and Decline 159

6. Republican Difficulties 177

7. La Reforma, Reorganization and Crisis 206

8. Recovery During the Second Empire 228

9. The Liberals Return 256

Conclusion 278

Appendixes 289

Sources of Illustrations 299

Notes 301

Glossary 361

Bibliography 365

Index 385
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2561-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2527-7
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