“Tears Are a Sign of Sensitivity:” Emotions and the Moral Education of Children in Mexico City and Mérida

By Carlos Zúñiga Nieto

Educators in France set the example for other pedagogues across the Atlantic. In Republican France, pedagogues promoted the emotional value of childhood, but also advised parents to decrease physical coercion and pay more attention to mental development. They delineated distinctions between the duties of the child and those of the adult. A young generation of educators in the 1870s repudiated the violence of the Jacobins; they agreed that moral education would unify the nation and create a secular France.[1] Pedagogues such as Émile Littré and Auguste Comte, along with Jules Ferry, Ferdinand Buisson, and Félix Pécaut drew on the burgeoning influence of moral education and participated in debates over teaching secular morality in schools. As Marcelo Caruso and Susan Miller have shown, education in the formation of emotions of youth played a fundamental role in formal education, but also in youth organizations.[2]

French educators influenced their Mexican counterparts, who adopted similar the tenets of moral education. Ildefonso Estrada Zenea and Rodolfo Menéndez, educators in Yucatán, sought to implement order and peace using Auguste Comte’s principles of moral education. Estrada Zenea did not seek to sever religion from education; rather, he drew upon religious metaphors and storytelling to develop the intelligence of children using riddles, stories, and anecdotes.[3] Estrada Zenea and Menéndez cultivated positivist notions of child rearing that were first published in Mérida and became pioneers of the children’s press in Latin America. Newspapers and child rearing manuals in Yucatán, such as El Periquito, El Diario de la Infancia, El Mensajero de la Infancia, and La Escuela Primaria prescribed new notions of childrearing, such as the application of strict discipline and the moderation of emotions, the main tenets of the philosophy of moral education. Educators in Yucatán emphasized the social values of honesty, manual work, and the ability to keep one’s word, as well as the external display of honor and public acknowledgement of these virtues. The riddles and stories published in every Sunday section of El Periquito revealed elite disdain for gossip and hearsay. El Periquito, published in Mérida between April and September 1869, was the first newspaper for children in Mexico.[4]

The Sunday section focused on a different letter of the alphabet each week and presented a word that began with that letter and related it to a moral those young readers or their parents were expected to learn. A riddle published on April 11, 1869 reflects how riddles could teach children about the need to practice caution and to refrain from spreading rumors. In an ironic metaphor, the author warned of the danger and power of the spoken word by comparing the sharpness of the tongue with the blade of a sword: “When honor fades away, it twists like a sword; it destroys.”[5]

Carlos image

As shown in the above figure, in its July 11, 1869 edition, El Periquito noted that tears were a sign of sensitivity.[6] Other newspapers highlighted individual reputation and its defense from the threats of gossip and hearsay, which had to be recognized and acknowledged at an early age. The tale of the travails of a humble carpenter underscored how passion for hard work, and the display of a person’s honor, could bring public recognition and economic success. El Mensajero de la Infancia detailed the story of José Pereira, a carpenter in Mérida, who struggled to sell a dresser. One day, an old woman took interest in the furniture. The next day, José found money in the dresser and started a campaign to return the money to the woman. The carpenter contacted the editorial team of El Siglo XIX, a newspaper established by Francisco Zarco, to publish a story about the lost money in the gacetilla section of the daily newspaper. The carpenter waited several days until journalists had informed him that the unnamed woman had claimed her money. The story emphasized the honor of the carpenter who had refused to keep the woman’s money, his honesty and good deeds. Moreover, the newspaper’s acknowledgment of the carpenter’s honor suggests the importance of maintaining an honorable individual reputation. This recognition by the newspaper not only resulted in public esteem, but also in his economic success. Every reader was aware of his good actions, and all wanted to buy furniture made by his “respectable hands.” His honesty brought recognition and the opening of workshops in the city.[7]

Literary scholars have noted that during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, England produced literary sentimentalizations of childhood. A similar cultural phenomenon took place in Mexico during the late nineteenth century. Teachers and youth advocates incorporated the sentiment of honor as a source of virtue in their projects of child socialization during the 1870s; however, these romantic representations changed as criminologists, doctors, psychiatrists, lawyers, and reporters highlighted the violent emotions of children beginning in the late 1880s.

[1] Philip G. Nord, The Republican Moment: Struggles for Democracy in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995)

[2] On the emotional effects of education in Colombia and the United States, see Marcelo Caruso, “Emotional Regimes and School Policy in Colombia, 1800-1835” and Susan A. Miller, “Feeling Like a Citizen: The American Legion’s Boys State Programme and the Promise of Americanism” in Stephanie Olsen ed., Childhood, Youth, and Emotions in Modern History: National, Colonial and Global Perspectives (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

[3] El Periquito, July 25, 1869, no. 17, 68.

[4] Newspapers such El Ángel de la Guarda, la Edad Feliz, and La Enseñanza: Revista Americana de Instrucción and Recreo Dedicada a la Juventud were published in Mexico City in 1870. For an overview of republican newspapers, see Beatriz Alcubierre Moya, Ciudadanos del futuro: Una historia de las publicaciones para niños en el siglo XIX mexicano (Mexico City: El Colegio de México: 2006).

[5] El Periquito, April 11, 1869, no.2, 8.

[6] El Periquito, April July 11, 1869, 1.

[7] “La Honradez,” El Mensajero de la Infancia, December 28, 1879, 3


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