For over three decades, Moisés González Navarro has been writing about Mexican history. Primarily a social historian, his scores of books and articles range the entire gamut of the history of Mexico. La pobreza en México, a book of nearly 500 pages, merely confirms what his colleagues have long known: for intimate knowledge of Mexico, particularly the years of don Porfirio, González Navarro has no peers.
La pobreza explores a theme seldom touched on by historians. Essentially, it examines the ideology and politics of state and church for the poor, the alienated, and the marginal population in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Mexican republic, the author points out, by embracing capitalistic values, supplanted the paternalism of the colonial church with liberal doctrines. The ward status of the poor (mostly Indian) succumbed to concepts of equality and class. Poor and rich alike were Mexicans—no more, no less.
Still, as González Navarro says, to be Mexican meant diverse things, depending on one’s rank in society. To cite “La formación de la conciencia burguesa,” the best of his chapters, the dominant class marched in step with social Darwinism, not just the Porfiristas but the cream of the Reforma intellectual elite. During this epoch, while the state made timid efforts to take up the slack left by the fall of the colonial church’s “safety net,” here and there building hospitals and orphanages, for example, it placed the burden on private charity. Good, wealthy citizens, when the spirit beckoned, had a moral obligation, as individuals, to open their hearts and give charity.
With the fall of the Porfiriato, thinking changed, but not drastically. Most “revolutionaries” no less burgués than the former rulers, continued to call on private enterprise to handle the problems of the poor, both before and after the Cárdenas years. When business prospered, so went this reasoning, so did the poor and marginal. The more profits for the magnates of industry, the more jobs. Yet, since capitalist teachings often proved to be more fiction than fact, it befell the state to take a hand in the battle against poverty, particularly under Lázaro Cárdenas, who began to design a plan for a social security system. Paradoxically, writes González Navarro, the secular state, not infrequently at odds with the church, had to embrace precepts of colonial friars.
But, as don Moisés concludes, state efforts to alleviate poverty have tasted at best only fleeting victories, because “[c]apitalism (particularly of the dependent type) will not solve the problems of poverty and marginality” (p. 427). The replacement of church dogma and institutions with capitalist slogans and practices has left the poor, a majority in Mexico, no better off than in the days of the Spanish crown—this is the message of González Navarro’s careful examination of the documentary record.