Poverty is one of the striking facts of life in Latin America. Yet few histo-
rians have studied the paupers of its cities, perhaps because they consider
the homeless, beggars, and unemployed an unchanging feature of the area.
In contrast, foreign visitors-myself included-have never taken them for
granted. Travelers' accounts over the last two centuries consistently express
shock at the destitution
of a large part of the populace and wonder at how
the wealthy could tolerate such misery. I was therefore intrigued, in sifting
through archival materials of the late colonial period, to find that Mexican
policymakers of the time did not ignore these problems. On the contrary,
Mexico City leaders embarked on a bold experiment that the most
optimistic believed would eliminate poverty and usher in economic develop-
This book focuses on the centerpiece of that experiment. The Mexico
City Poor House was founded as part of an effort to sweep beggars and va-
grants off the streets of the viceregal capital. The plan was to classify the
paupers according to their "worthiness." The undeserving vagrants (the men-
digos ftngidos or "false" and employable beggars) would be put to work in the
private sector or sentenced to military service or public works; the deserv-
ing beggars (the verdaderos pobres or "true" beggars) would be confined in the
brand new asylum. There they would be sheltered and simultaneously trained
to be good Christians, productive workers, and responsible citizens. They
would lose their liberty, too. Whether they entered voluntarily or by force,
they were to remain institutionalized until they were claimed by a relative or
friend or could support themselves without soliciting alms. The Poor House
was therefore designed as a homeless shelter, workhouse, catechism school,
reformatory, and-for some-a prison as well.
decree that established the Poor House contained two pro-
visions that were new for Mexico. First, it outlawed begging, a significant
change in a Catholic society in which beggars had long been considered the
beloved of Christ and soliciting alms was a legal and legitimate way to earn a
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