25 | MAR | 2019
Faces of prostitution in 19th century Mexico
Pictures of the "Record of Public Women" created on 17 February 1865 - Photo: Cynthia Talavera/EL UNIVERSAL

Faces of prostitution in 19th century Mexico

02/06/2018
16:43
Newsroom
Mexico City
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In the year of 1865, Maximilian of Habsburg ordered the creation of a public record of prostitutes in Mexico City

In the year of 1865, Maximilian of Habsburg, the monarch of the Second Mexican Empire, ordered the creation of a public record of harlotry practitioners in the country capital in order to control prostitution.

Prostitutes had to have their picture taken in order to legitimize their identity and professional activity. They were forced to enter their name, previous occupation, age, birthplace, address, and some details about their personal health on the record.

The “Record of Public Women,” created on 17 February 1965, collects this information. The valuable document is currently on display at the library of the National Institute of Public Health, in Cuernavaca. It gives testimony of the precarious conditions these women faced. Most of them had worked as seamstresses, laundry women, household employees, and tortilla makers.

There were very few women of over 30 years of age. Most of them were in their 20s, but there were also plenty of women between the ages of 15 and 18. There were even a few prostitutes with only 14 years of age. They were classified into three types, depending on their place of work.

The emperor was following the example of certain European countries, specifically France.

“The new regulatory systems that sought control of prostitution were echoed by the Second French Empire’s policy proposals. This had been implemented and developed in France as a means to “drain” society, as it were. Prostitutes were known to pose a threat to public morals, the wealth of men, and public health,” wrote the investigator Arturo Aguilar Ochoa in his book La fotografía durante el imperio de Maximiliano” (Photography During Maximilian’s Empire).

Dr. Alexandre Parent Du Chatelet was a prominent character in France. He specialized in sewage and drainage systems and once wrote a treaty “On Prostitution in the City of Paris from the Perspective of public hygiene, morals, and the government of 1836.”

According to Guadalupe Ríos de la Torre, regarding the article “Another regulation on prostitution,” the Record of the Second Empire in Mexico was based on the system that Dr. Parent had implemented in France.

“Parent’s proposition to solve the problem of prostitution was based on his ideas to isolate women affected by venereal diseases under the custody of sanitary police,” Rosalina Estrada Urroz explained on her essay “Between the tolerance and prohibition of prostitution: on the thought of hygienist Parent du Chatelet.”

In the same text, the author describes that, between the 15th and 16th century, in France, women afflicted by venereal diseases used to be isolated and banished from the city walls. In the 17th century, women were allowed to recover in their own homes, and at the beginning of the 19th century, the idea of keeping prostitutes in whorehouses with pimps became more and more popular.

“To create a closed environment, duly structured and supervised while avoiding, if possible, ‘a mixture of different ages and classes’” was vital for that system.

Prostitution was thought of as a necessary evil; therefore, the regulation was a satisfactory solution and a means of control. The hygienic need to tolerate prostitution in the same way that sewers were tolerated was accepted; it had to be isolated, restricted, hidden, closely watched, and shut down,” Aguilar Ochoa’s text states.

In an interview with EL UNIVERSAL, Aguilar Ochoa commented that this record is a very valuable testimony of the situation women faced at that time: “they had no opportunities to do anything. Most of them couldn’t read or write, they hadn’t received any kind of education, they were unemployed, and their only alternative was to work as prostitutes.”

After the French intervention in Mexico, many women were left defenseless, since “they depended completely on male figures, be it their fathers, brothers, or sons,” and their absence led many women to this profession, exposing themselves to venereal diseases.”

Over 150 have passed since then, but there are some things that haven’t changed for many women who work as prostitutes. Behind each of the photos lies a terrible story,” Aguilar Ochoa tells.

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