Strapped for cash

A Culture of Everyday Credit is a finely constructed work of social history that puts Mexico’s long-suffering housewives centre-stage


A Culture of Everyday Credit: Housekeeping, Pawnbroking, and Governance in Mexico City, 1750-1920
Marie Eileen Francois
2006, University of Nebraska Press
415 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

ASK ANY Mexican what Monte de Piedad means to them and they will almost certainly have an immediate answer for you, although one often coloured by their own perceived social status.

This celebrated pawnbroker is a cherished national institution with a distinctly altruistic mission, providing loans, credit and limited financial services in every state of the union. Despite its ancient origins, it is also a very modern organisation, with its own television advertisements, website (, and commercial strategy.

Such is the fame in Mexico of Monte de Piedad that a film was made about it in 1951 directed by Carlos Véjar telling the stories of people whose lives intertwined with the work of this charitable institution. At one point the movie depicts María coming away from the clerk’s window with a fistful of pesos to ward off the threat of eviction by an evil landlord that she and her sick mother face.

Monte de Piedad, and pawnbroking, remain important elements of micro-finance in Mexico and throughout Latin America, providing a source of relief and access to credit for both poor and middle-class families. Although credit cards and other sources of credit have grown in popularity since the 1970s, and wages have risen overall, persistent poverty and recurrent peso devaluations and financial crises into the 1990s kept the queues at Monte de Piedad well supplied with needy customers.

Insight into the world of women

This excellent and well-informed book by Marie Eileen Francois explores pawnbroking in Mexico and the role it has played in shaping consumption – and thus influencing identity – in the formative years of nation-building. Perhaps more importantly, it provides a fascinating insight into the world of women, those to whom it fell to keep house in both good times and in hard times. Women have been by far the most visible group among pawning customers.

As Francois explains, the connections between housekeeping and pawning also illuminate the shifting intersections between identities based on ethnicity and social class in the nineteenth century as well as highlighting what city residents had in common.

We learn, for example, about the pawnshop sackings of 1915 when neighbourhood women removed sewing machines, desks and dressers and marched off with them down the street, fighting off others who coveted these goods for themselves, and how pawning – the provision of “collateral credit” – was thereafter forced on to the revolutionary agenda by both poor and middle-class Mexicans. We also discover how pawning may have served to mitigate patriarchal economic structures, by enabling women to secure the cash, otherwise jealously guarded by their men, that allowed them to manage the private economies of their families.

As a work of research, A Culture of Everyday Credit has been constructed with as much care and detail as the household budgets of its protagonists were maintained. The author is a consummate researcher, and her insights make a valuable contribution to the study of Mexican social history.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books