A Battle for the Soul of the Nation: Eugenics and Religion in Post-Revolutionary Mexico, 1925–1935

By: Elizabeth O’Brien

January 3, 2020

Religion in Mexico and Mexican-American Communities

My paper “A Battle for the Soul of the Nation: Eugenics in Mexico and the Catholic Church’s Response” explored the intersections of anti-Catholic discourse and eugenics in Mexico’s post-revolutionary period (1920–1940). During this time, the federal government promoted medical and hygiene campaigns, and state officials targeted poor urban women and indigenous migrants whom they saw as culturally backward. Briefly, the paper argued that three factors enabled doctors to perform sterilizations without legal repercussions during the Maximato or formal and informal presidencies of Plutarco Elías Calles (1928–1934). At first, little oversight over the national university gave scientists and doctors free range over their treatments. As a result, their supervisors—heads of institutions and politicians—turned a blind eye to sterilizations, which were simultaneously seen as part of a post-revolutionary project to create a utopian scientific authority for Mexican society and as part of the regime’s anticlerical campaigns against the Catholic Church. Without ignoring popular demand for fertility control, research suggests that the majority of sterilizations were motivated by political, scientific, and cultural ideas that deemed impoverished Mexicans and indigenous women a threat to the racial and cultural future of the nation. The talk intimated how callista social engineering, women’s revolt in defense of their civic rights, and doctors’ impunity caused a crisis in the Mexican hospital system.

In other words, after the Mexican Revolution, there was a battle for the soul of the nation, and this battle played out dramatically in hospitals and clinics. On the one hand, we had the new state’s scientific efforts to cultivate culturally reformed—and even revolutionized—subjects through the application of eugenic medicine. On the other hand, we had the Catholic response. What I found, briefly, is that these issues divided students of the medical school in the 1930s. They caused massive turnover in the Office of Public Health and Welfare, and even contributed to the restructuring of that organization, and thereby, of Mexico’s public health system in the 1930s. Even after these reforms, I found that, for the most part, indigenous women in Mexico City’s hospitals experienced prejudice in the public health system. 

For example, in 1932 medical student Genaro Ramírez Elliot stated what some doctors referred to as “an open secret”: that Mexican doctors had started to sterilize indigenous women on the basis of their purportedly small pelvic capacities. Doctors used skeletal measurements to describe the pelvis of indigenous women as “downward” and “backward,” shapes considered “primitive” when compared to the European ideal. Considered ill-suited for natural childbirth, indigenous women received higher rates of interventions during deliveries to compensate for their “faulty” anatomy. Inferior pelvic anatomy was seen as a biological shortcoming that rendered them inadequate to further Mexico’s bloodline. This is an example of what historian Alexandra Minna Stern calls “biotypology,” which sought to classify human types based on a multiplicity of human capacities, even if its scientists sometimes rejected outright racial categories in the way that Manuel Gamio and José Vasconcelos did. 

Historians of this period of medicine in Mexico are lucky to have letters from women who complained about their treatment in hospitals, because these give us a sense of their experiences with scientific racism. When women complained, they focused on the moments in which they felt that their dignity was violated. In 1929, Juan Viveros Valdez complained to General Tapia that his wife’s braided hair had been cut off during her stay in the General Hospital, despite her vehement opposition. Since the shearing of her hair was not necessary for her medical treatment, one must wonder if cutting her braid—a common sign of indigeneity and Mexican tradition—was part of a de-fanaticizing effort on the part of the hospital. If eugenicist doctors saw indigenous women’s bodies as obstacles to progress, it is also clear that they saw religion in the same way. 

For example, one particularly outspoken eugenicist, Gustavo Adolpho Trangay, insisted that eugenics was legitimized by a scientific brand of secular morality. In his words: 

“Religion has always been the most powerful enemy of Science, and that which has most impeded its evolution. Now, it is perfectly understandable that the brainwashed masses would sacrifice their vitality and their well-being in order to honor the prejudices of a conventional morality and unfounded religious precepts. 

But if doctors possess scientific knowledge, with which, like laws of inheritance, they may legitimately impede the birth of children to sick parents; if doctors rightfully take charge and help to inhibit the birth of infants to homes that are economically unstable; if doctors were permitted to do their work well, they would help avoid the onslaught of sick individuals who are incapable of the struggle for life. 

Indeed, it is ultimately the healthy and capable that society must support. Those doctors, in sum, would act in agreement with Morality, because Morality is the science of well-being.” 

Like others before him—and especially the professionalizing doctors of the 1870s Reforma—Trangay envisioned a priestly kind of obstetrician, one who would offer moral guidance to his patient. In his words: “In the most intimate moments of medical consultation, a doctor lends his ears to the suffering of those who confide in him. They confide their health and corporal well-being to the doctor, and they also put their moral health in his hands, as well. In this way, the doctor becomes a kind of priest.” Yet, the doctor was a priest who “did not recur to sophisms,” but rather, “true occurrences and scientific rationales.” This was an anticlerical kind of callismo, in which the priest was a national enfeebler, while the revolutionary was a kind of Moses, and a true priest of the people. 

It is important to note that Trangay’s polemic reflected the views of some hospital administrators, who also believed that religion had no place in the General Hospital. In 1928, the revised bylaws of the General Hospital outlined this position. In 1934, the director of the General Hospital even banned religious imagery in the patients’ rooms, an act which was consonant with Callista school policy, too. A post-card sized image of the Virgen de Guadalupe was bound into the archival folder holding this notice, because it had been confiscated from a patient in the fifth wing. At the same time, the head administrator sharply notified the heads of the departments to keep better watch over their patients: During free time, some were caught in the front garden of the hospital “requesting alms.” In other words, hospitals in the 1930s constituted one important site of Mexico’s battle for the soul of the nation. It was there that eugenics and fertility control became deeply divisive topics that represented a range of social issues simultaneously: the future of the nation and the obligations of the state to provide care for its citizens’ bodies. In other words, debates about reproduction both reflected, and contributed to, debates about the meaning of the Mexican Revolution and concerns about how the new state would relate to its revolutionized citizenry.

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