Elites, Plebeians, Drinking and Space: Alcohol and Ideas About Urban Space in Late Colonial Mexico City


My first introduction to Mexico City was in December of 1988. I was a college junior, returning from a semester abroad of study in Central America. As my plane flew over the city for what seemed to be an eternity before landing at the airport, I marveled at the astounding space and scope of the urban metropolis. While I only spent one week there, the city would later capture my imagination and attention, as I chose it as my professional focus in the realms of teaching and research.

As a historian of Mexico, I focus on late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Mexico City, and explore its transition of the city from a colonial capital, to an emerging “modern” city. More specifically, I consider how Enlightenment values – and their specific manifestation in New Spain through the Bourbon Reforms – both changed the city landscape, but also revealed tensions that existed in late colonial urban society over how to define and use space.

My first book engaged this dynamic by looking at a series of urban reforms, around the themes of potable water and public sanitation, garbage collection, drainage systems, paving, and the renovation of public spaces like markets, plazas, and parks, considering both the intentions of the architects, urban planners, and public officials – but also the resistance to change by the wider urban population that these projects entailed. My most recent work – exploring the ways in which alcohol consumption by the plebian classes in Mexico City shaped conceptions regarding urban space – continues in this trend, and offers us a way to explore both class dynamics in the urban setting, while also examining contested visions of tradition and modernity as Mexico City started to transition away from the heart of the colonial Spanish empire, to the capital of a newly independent nation.

            During the late eighteenth century Mexico City was a study in contrasts. On the one hand, it was the wealthiest city in the Americas. The highest level of State and ecclesiastical power resided there and it was the center of culture and propriety in the empire. It was the playground of the elite. Colonial powerbrokers like the Viceroy and the Archbishop put their material wealth on full display in their patterns of consumption, dress, palaces, and celebrations in their honor. Wealthy elites, who had amassed fortunes in agriculture, mining, and trade and commerce, also preferred the vice regal capital, and many could be seen flaunting their status, riding their carriages throughout the streets, attending the theater bedecked in jewels and the finest styles imported from Europe, and spending Sunday afternoons leisurely strolling through the Alameda, a large and beautifully appointed green space in the city center. The apex of colonial power and wealth were concentrated in Mexico City, and it was near impossible not to encounter the trappings of this wealth on a daily basis.

Yet, at the same time, roughly 80% of the population of the capital was classified as poor, meaning that they could not meet the most basic needs of food, clothing, and housing, and struggled to survive on a daily basis. In search of opportunities in the city, many had fled drought and poor economic conditions in the countryside.. Yet, the opportunities were few, and many urban residents lived day to day on the material edge. One outlet for dealing with the stress and uncertainty that a marginalized existence in Mexico City entailed was drinking – often to excess. Elites blamed the abuse of alcohol as the source of a number of social ills, including violence and crime, immoral sexual activity, and the persistent problem of public nudity and loathsome hygienic practices.

            We must put the place of alcohol in the colonial world in its proper context. Historians have argued that from the beginning of the colonial enterprise, the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages played a prominent role in the lives of different social groups; from rural indigenous communities to the urban popular classes, alcohol was an important part of the larger social milieu in which people lived.[1] It played a role in a variety of social and cultural contexts, and was often defined by class culture. Elites tended to consume alcohol socially, at home, in a contained and moderate manner (or so they would say). The types of spirits that they consumed were considered more refined – wine and brandy in particular. The popular classes’ consumption of alcohol was also social in nature, but focused on the pulquería – or public tavern. The public nature of drinking for the masses is not surprising, as they lacked contexts of privacy in their lives. The drink they consumed was also considered much less refined than their elite counterparts – pulque, a rough fermented alcohol from the agave cactus, and aguardiente, a less refined sugar cane spirit.

The production of alcohol – especially pulque and aguardiente – was controlled through a monopoly by the colonial State, and the product was heavily taxed, thus providing significant revenue for Crown coffers. One of the other key colonial institutions, the Church, also made significant profit off the production of alcohol. Yet at the same time, they were one of the most vocal moralizers when it came to critiquing the social dangers of alcohol consumption and its destructive tendencies.

The vices of alcohol could been seen all around, as much of this drinking was done in public, at local pulquerías, and colonial elites in particular often complained about the social ills such as violence, crime, and social delinquency that came with an abuse of alcohol.[2] One aspect of this research that I am particularly interested in is the connection between the material consequences of drinking, and how they intersect with emerging and growing debates about the physical order of the city – in a sense trying to reshape popular practices which then reinforce emerging ideas about modern urban spaces. What were the efforts of city political leaders, urban planners, architects, and engineers to contain the physical consequences of alcohol consumption, in particular the common practice of peeing and defecating in public spaces. In particular, by examining how the ever present problem of excessive drinking amongst the popular classes impacted and shaped emerging policies about the ordering and control of urban space, we can see larger tension between the cultural practices of the urban masses vs. the “new culture” of the reform minded Bourbon elites.

Explanation of a view of the City of Mexico, exhibiting in the Panorama, Leicester Square, circa 1800, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In Mexico City, these connections between alcohol consumption and the immoral excesses of the plebeian classes made by elites coincided in the late eighteenth-century with increasing debate about the condition of the city’s physical infrastructure and spatial organization. Building on ideas about Enlightenment order and rationality, and embodied in a larger sense in the Bourbon Reforms, engineers, architects, urban planners and political leaders justified, in part, the need to clean up, organize, and thus “modernize” the city by citing the immense social and physical problems that resulted, in part, from the consumption and abuse of alcohol. Indeed, the latter decades of the colonial period saw a concerted effort on the part of city leaders to improve both the physical condition of Mexico City as well as its image as the capital of a great empire.

The apex of this process is reflected in the leadership of Viceroy Juan Vicente Güemes Pacheco y Padilla, the second Count Revillagigedo, who served as viceroy of New Spain from 1789-1794. His programs, which are often referred to as “beautifying the city”, encompassed a number of issues, including sanitation, drainage, paving, widening of streets, construction of new plazas and markets, and potable water. As an enlightened Bourbon elite, Revillagigedo viewed the streets of Mexico City, and the people who occupied those streets, as disorderly; spaces where garbage and filth, along with the diseases they perpetuated, wreaked havoc. I like to say that he wanted to see a city “without the poor, garbage, or dogs”. We should note here that reform of urban space was not just about the infrastructure – about the space. It was also about reforming and modernizing the people themselves. Colonial leaders’ desires to pull the capital into the modern era included efforts to modernize the masses themselves. This included a refinement of manners, propriety, and the setting of standards as to what was considered appropriate public behavior. What elites viewed as inappropriate activities attached to excessive drinking, such as peeing in the streets, bathing in public fountains, sleeping in the streets, markets, and abandoned structures, public sex, public drunkenness, and public nudity, were the antithesis of modern, civilized, and rational behavior. Seen as chaotic and disorderly, these acts constantly challenged not only elite sensibilities, but also elite culture and social power, and were considered a threat to molding Mexico City into an urban milieu exemplifying beauty, hygiene, safety, efficiency, order, and reason.[3]

While Revillagigedo’s plans for the physical environment of Mexico City encompassed a number of different elements, he paid particular attention to what he considered one of the most onerous and vile realities of widespread drunkenness among the popular classes: the commonly accepted practices of public urination and defecation, as well as the dumping of human wastes in public thoroughfares, fountains, and canals. New laws for the containment of these activities were part of a larger set of regulations issued on August 31, 1790. For a city with an extremely large poor and homeless population, it should not be surprising that these problems were commonplace. City officials, however, viewed this public display of an intimately private act as the ultimate in disorderly behavior. Revillagigedo himself denounced those who dirtied city streets and plazas as “indecent…committing abominable excess”.[4] Neighborhoods throughout the city were witness to this activity daily, as he wrote:

The abuse, disorder, and liberty with which the neighborhoods of this Capital are accustomed, with all classes of people ridding themselves freely of their natural functions, dirtying whatever place, lacking in modesty and with damage to the public health, must be remedied with vigilance.[5]

To Revillagigedo, most urban residents lacked discipline and self-control, two important characteristics he was trying to instill in the city’s population. To him, this activity represented the unruly nature of the urban masses. It also represented the danger that this activity posed, both in challenging the cultural norms upon which elites based their social superiority, as well as the potential to transgress established boundaries between the classes. If plebeians could not control their actions when they drank, including their bodily functions, and chose to perpetuate these activities in public rather than private, then they had the potential to lack control in other situations. To elites, the all too common practice of public urination and defecation had the promise to digress into other types of public disorder, including violence and crime. More importantly, these actions reflected badly on the state, illustrating its lack of influence and control over the residents of the city and undermining its legitimacy.

Manuel Ignacio de Jesus del Aguila, “Plano ichnographico de la ciudad de Mexico”, circa 1794, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

Revillagigedo’s approach to this problem was multifaceted. One part of his reform plan involved the creation of citywide dumping sites specifically for human waste. He also instituted stiff penalties for public defecation, with time in the city stocks as punishment.[6] Like his contemporaries who used corporal punishment against indigenous garbage collectors who improperly disposed of public waste, the viceroy did not institute monetary fines for public defecation. While this activity did indeed cross class lines, he associated this activity with the plebeian classes, especially those who were destitute and forced to live on the street.   As with earlier regulations from the 1760s and 1770s, monetary fines would have been seen as inappropriate for this particular urban group; it was impossible to enforce this type of punishment to change behavior. Consequently, physical penalties became the norm, as those did not assume any type of financial stability. Also, the public and humiliating nature of the stocks would not only send a message to the larger community that this type of behavior was unacceptable, but it would in theory entice the perpetrator to change the offending behavior.

Revillagigedo also called for property owners (including pulqueria owners, for example) to construct, at their cost, latrines for residents and patrons to use.[7] By establishing sites throughout the city where personal functions could be tended to in private, he hoped to force public urination and defecation back into the private realm, where it belonged and could be contained. These sites would reintroduce ideas of modesty and control, which Revillagigedo felt so many residents lacked. Through his sanitation programs, he tried to force the cultural expectations of elites into the realm of the popular classes. Also, by criminalizing the very act of public defecation (and to a lesser extent the dumping of human waste into the streets), he hoped to instill a notion of containment, order, and self-control in city residents, one that was reflected in their personal hygiene habits. Greater emphasis was placed on the public nature of these acts, and how they offended the sensibilities of others. After all, the Bourbon state was trying to establish a greater sense of order and efficiency in the colonial world; this applied even to the everyday habits and activities of urban residents.

Despite his best intentions and seemingly well-formulated plans, community practices and ideas about the uses of public space, along with the realities of densely populated neighborhoods, compromised the success of Revillagigedo’s system from the very beginning.[8] Throughout the colonial period, the lines between private and public space for most city residents was decidedly blurred, and choices about how space was used was often left to residents themselves. Pulqueria owners complained bitterly about these reforms, and it is not clear from the record how much they were enforced. In the case of waste disposal, systems had developed over time in accordance with the needs of residents and urban barrios alike, systems that were convenient to the user, if not the best designed. Popular perceptions viewed the new systems as inconvenient at best, and, at worst, insufficient for the disposal needs of most neighborhoods. They were also seen as unnecessary and unwanted intrusion by the State into the private lives of city residents.

A good example of these tensions, tied directly to the effects of alcohol consumption in Mexico City, is the case of pulquería el Águila.[9] On June 15, 1796, Don Joaquin Alonso Alles, a city judge and member of the city council, reported that the public space adjacent to the pulquería was constantly dirty and overflowing with human waste, and that people had resorted to dumping it in a nearby canal.[10] This should not be surprising – pulquerías were notorious for their dirty and unhealthy environments. Even though Revillagigedo passed major tavern reforms between December 1792 and February 1793 in an attempt to deal with the social and physical problems connected with overconsumption of alcohol, it was not uncommon for drunken patrons to relieve themselves wherever they pleased.[11] Residents in the neighborhood surrounding the pulquería told Alles that people really had no other options because the public dumping site near the tavern was always full; the cleaning carts that passed by were never able to pick up all the waste that accumulated; the site was too far away so to be inaccessible; and that in general the new system was inconvenient for most.[12] This was not a new problem for the tavern. Similar complaints of excessive garbage and public defecation had been lodged against the establishment earlier in October, 1794.[13]

The very actions that the viceroy hoped to contain continued unabated. This was due, in part, to how society viewed public space. A tension existed between two cultural modes and practices; one a more baroque model from earlier generations, the other one grounded in the new, modernizing and enlightened vision of the Bourbon Reforms. The material wealth of elites allowed them to carve out private spaces where they could be removed from the dirt and disorder of the city — in the construction of their homes, their use of carriages, and their dependence on servants to help them negotiate the public sphere. They rarely had to contend with the down and dirty conditions that most urban residents lived in. For the rest of the urban population, a lack private space meant that many of the mundane activities of life were carried out in full public view. Public spaces, such as streets, alleyways, and plazas, were merely extensions of their living spaces, and treated as such

Revillagigedo left office in 1794, and those who followed him seemingly lacked the vision and commitment necessary to end Mexico City’s problems with the structural and material consequences of alcohol abuse in colonial society. Indeed, filthy conditions in many public spaces throughout the city continued. The Plazuela del Conde de Santiago, located just south of the central plaza near the magnificent home of the Conde de Santiago de Calimaya, was repeated cited as one of the worst examples of public sanitation gone awry.[14] It was also a perfect example of the blurring of space within the city, where the palatial homes of the wealthiest of colonial citizens stood in sharp contrast to the teeming masses.

In 1795, a year after Revillagigedo left office, a resident complained to the city council that the plazuela was being used as a public toilet. Convicted of disorderly activity, offenders faced corporal punishment; male offenders were to spend time in the city’s stocks, while female offenders were to be sent to jail.[15] The plazuela was singled out again in 1798, in an ongoing discussion between the Junta de Policía and Revillagigedo’s successor, Viceroy Branciforte over new fines for dumping garbage in public spaces. Garbage in the plaza continued to pile up, and the problem of public defecation had not been remedied. With this in mind, city police advocated increased fines for those who dumped waste in public spaces.[16] As with earlier punishments meted out to those dirtying public space, the police used physical punishment for public defecation, and monetary fines for those dumping garbage, suggesting that the former was viewed as a vagrancy issue, while the latter was not. It also points to the continued use of corporal punishment as an attempt to bring plebeian behavior more in line with elite norms.


Using the city stocks for male offenders also reflects the fact that colonial officials believed that public shaming, or “teaching the larger society a lesson”, would be an effective way to combat the problem. Major streets in the city center, such as Calles de San Bernardo, Capulinas, Cadena, and Zuleta, as well as the area around the Hospital San Andrés – the city’s largest hospital – continued to face problems with people either dumping bodily waste in the street, or simply relieving themselves when the need arose.[17]   Those dirtying public spaces also slept in and around the plazas, public fountains, churches, and abandoned buildings that dotted the city. They also used the cover of night to participate in all sorts of “offenses against God,” a term used by city and ecclesiastical officials for a variety of activities, but most often referring to sexual acts.   On May 16, 1809, city resident José María Gómez wrote to the viceroy, Pedro Garibay, regarding the problem of people defecating and bathing around the Puente de la Merced, one of the major streets running east out of the Plaza de Volador and fronting the Convento de la Merced:

…likewise, men and women at all hours come around [the street] without modesty, to attend to their bodily needs, and after washing or bathing they stay partially or entirely naked….they cause serious harm to those who see them. They inflict the worst on the eyes of the cantos like those of the Convento de la Merced, whose windows open to the street , the many young women who travel by and live in the area, and ultimately the many young people who are around during the day.[18]     

Punishment in the stocks was designed to also send a message to other members of colonial society; lack of modesty and decency, as well as threatening the moral sensibilities of more vulnerable residents of the city, would be dealt with through public example.[19] Yet these punishments remained largely ineffective in shifting practices.

Battles over issues of public sanitation pitted elite reformers against large segments of the urban population. To the former, cities represented the civis – or civilization – with Mexico City representing the model of Bourbon Reforms put into practice. That residents of all walks of life either openly resisted the attempted changes, or merely ignored them, only reinforced elite perceptions that most people in the vice regal capital did not share the enlightened visions of their leaders. The continued presence of more specific polluting activities associated with alcohol only re-enforced elite fears and anxieties about the urban poor as drunkards, prone to violence and lacking in modesty, morality, and self-control.

Gustave Toutant Beauregard, “Map of Mexico City Region”, circa 1847, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

To me, non-compliance with new sanitation regulations was not so much a question of a power struggle, or even open defiance and resistance. It was more a reflection of the lack of authority and legitimacy that the State had in the day-to-day functioning of the city. People did not feel compelled to follow city leaders’ dictates on matters of sanitation, such as the Revillagigedo’s tavern reforms. Residents juxtaposed their preferences against a reformed system that they saw as inefficient and unsuccessful in dealing with problems of urban sanitation. But they also resisted against a State apparatus that they probably found too evasive. Therefore, there was little incentive to change their behaviors.

This brief look at one aspect of the intersection between alcohol use, elite concerns about its disorderly consequences, and goals for eradicating this disorder raises some interesting questions regarding the nature of urban spaces and how they are organized and functioned, as well as the influence of State authority vis-à-vis the urban population in the waning years of colonialism. Certainly, urban groups had their own ideas about how spaces should be organized and used; that in the realm of popular practices – especially the use of alcohol – city leaders and other colonial representatives lacked an element of authority necessary to push people in the direction it desired. Control over daily aspects of life – even at the neighborhood level – was important.

While political leaders in Mexico City were indeed concerned about what they perceived as the destabilizing influences of the over-consumption of alcohol which permeated society, and articulated programs aimed at moving the popular classes more in line with elite cultural sensibilities, they also walked a fine line, and had to strike a balance between themselves and those that they ruled. While elites may have feared the masses to a certain extent – their potential for inciting urban unrest, the fact that elites were demographically outnumbered – the very nature of elite identity and superiority depended on the seemingly disorderly plebeian classes. In a colonial world ordered by the Bourbon rationality, urban planners and reformers needed the existence of lower class groups and their practices to justify their new ideas and systems of order, efficiency, and control. While they may have wanted to create a cleaner, safer, and more orderly city, state leaders had to be careful not to alienate or anger people too much, lest they revolt.

The reforms programs directed at taverns were a profound failure; attempts to remodel popular plebeian practices – public urination and defecation – can be seen in the same light. There was indeed a certain amount of ambivalence regarding the uses and abuses of alcohol, and its impact on both society in general and public space in particular. Many elite families in the capital city had direct ties to the production and sale of alcohol, and the state gained tremendous revenue from taxes on it.[20] Reigning in excessive use of alcohol, as troubling and negative as some of the consequences of its use were, had profound economic consequences that elites and the State did not want to engage. So in the end there continued to exist an uneasy tension between the popular use (and abuse) of alcohol by the urban masses, and anxiety on the part of elites in regards to the urban disorder and perceived chaos, which they believed this consumption produced.

Sharon Bailey Glasco is an Associate Professor of History at Linfield College in Oregon where she teaches courses on Latin American History with a particular focus on Mexico. She is author of 2010’s Constructing Mexico City: Colonial Conflicts Over Culture, Space, and Authority and a forthcoming article in the Journal of Urban History, “Alcohol and the Concept of Modernity in Late Eighteenth-Century Mexico City”. 

[1] William B. Taylor, Drinking, Homicide and Rebellion in Colonial Mexican Villages (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press), 1979; Michael Scardaville, “Alcohol Abuse and Tavern Reform in Late Colonial Mexico City”, Hispanic American Historical Review, 60 (4), 1980, 643-671.

[2] Juan Pedro Viqueria Albán, Propriety and Permissiveness in Bourbon Mexico (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources), 1999; also see Scardaville’s work above for discussion on tavern reforms and the effect on alcohol consumption in 18th century Mexico City.

[3] A more detailed discussion of the ideas of civilization as a specific transformation of human behavior can be found in Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1994).

[4] Archivo Historico de la Ciudad de México (hereafter AHCM), Licencias para limpieza de la Ciudad, Vol. 3241, Exp. 39.

[5] AHCM, Pulquerías, Vol. 3719, Exp. 8.

[6] 24 hours for the first offense, 48 hours for the second and third offenses. ACHM, Licencias para limpieza de la Ciudad, Vol. 3241, Exp. 39.

[7] Ibid., Exp. 42. In the ordinances, property owners were given three months to comply.

[8] Apparently, the re-issue of the 1790 bando in late 1792 did little to encourage property owners to get behind the law. The regulations were issued a third time, in 1793, in yet another attempt to execute this part of his sanitation program. Revillagigedo argued that he felt compelled to because of “in the observance of measures that were in the best interest of the cleanliness and dignity of the vice regal capital, as well as the health of its inhabitants.” Archivo General de la Nacion (hereafter AGN), Bandos, Vol. 17, f. 77.

[9] Pulquerías were similar to taverns, whose business was specifically focused on the sale of pulque, an alcohol fermented from the agave cactus. It was very popular with the plebeian classes, and accounted for a large percentage of colonial revenue through both production and taxes.

[10] AHCM, Cloacas, Vol. 515, Exp. 18.

[11] See Scardaville, “Alcohol Abuse and Tavern Reform”, pg. 658. Pulquerías were specifically targeted by a number of different viceroys for reform. Revillagigedo’s were by far the most extensive, however. The number of taverns operating in the city, their physical structure, interior design, and operating hours were all regulated. The main underlying goal of these reforms were to discourage patrons from hanging around these establishments for hours on end, causing social disruption, etc.; rather, alcohol was to be consumed quickly, and then patrons were to be on their way.

[12] AHCM, Cloacas, Vol. 515, Exp. 18.

[13] AHCM, Licencias para limpieza de la Ciudad, Vol. 3241, Exp. 64.

[14]The Museum of Mexico City now occupies that former palace of the Conde de Santiago. It is located on Calle Piño Suarez, which feeds south out of the central plaza. For a discussion on the design and building of the palace, see Ignacio Gonzalez Polo, El palacio de los condes de Santiago de Calimaya (México: Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1973).

[15]AHCM, Licencias para limpieza de la Ciudad, Vol. 3242, Exp. 69.

[16]AHCM, Licencias para limpieza de la Ciudad, Vol. 3242, Exp. 81. The system of fines for public dumping of garbage had not changed significantly since the 1790 regulations put in place by Revillagigedo.

[18]AHCM, Licencias para limpieza de la Ciudad, Vol. 3242, Exp. 103.

[19]As discussed earlier, corporal punishment had been advanced as a solution before, but obviously was ineffective as a deterrent, as the problems existed. Why city leaders continued to advocate its use is unclear.

[20] See Scardaville, “Alcohol Abuse and Tavern Reform” for a more detailed discussion of the conflict of interest that elites and the state faced in dealing with issues of alcohol reform.

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