Alcoholism, Degeneration Theory and Race in Mexico, c. 1870-1920

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“Alcohol flows across cultures: Drinking cultures in transnational and comparative perspective”

International Research Symposium, St Anne’s College, Oxford, 29–30 June 2016

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"Alcoholism, Degeneration Theory and Race in Mexico, c. 1870-1920"


Dr Deborah Toner

Department of History, University of Leicester, UK


This paper traces changing views about alcohol consumption across nineteenth and early twentieth-century Mexico, and seeks to explain these changes in terms of both national and transnational developments. The later nineteenth century was particularly notable for the emergence of a medicalised concept of alcoholism that was widely discussed amongst Mexican politicians, medical professionals, and intellectuals, and in the broadsheet and popular press. In discussing alcoholism and its social effects, Mexican doctors, lawyers and other members of the intellectual and political elite routinely cited statistics and studies on alcoholism by European specialists, agreeing with many of their findings. Several prominent figures, however, took issue with European conclusions about the greater harmfulness of distilled drinks compared to fermented ones, a distinction that had also been popularised in parts of Europe and North America by various temperance movements. In particular, at the same time as absinthe was targeted by anti-alcohol campaigners in northern Europe, Mexican intellectuals often insisted that pulque – a fermented alcoholic drink unique to Mexico – was the most harmful of alcoholic drinks, despite being roughly equivalent in strength to beer. 


This paper therefore seeks to explain this particularity of Mexican discourse on alcohol. It will do so by showing how degeneration theory – via the works of French psychiatrists Morel and Magnan – was applied in discussing the alcohol problem, and how this built on earlier generations of Mexican thinking about habitual drunkenness as a problem to which certain social and ethnic groups were much more susceptible. I examine primarily medical texts, newspapers, and government records relating to the penal system, education, and public health in order to show how racial and social prejudices shaped the development of alcoholism as a concept in Mexico and beyond.



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