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Conquistadoras… of a sort

10 December 2022

A mall plaque on this building (Mesones, 167) commorates the site’s historical significance… the first brothel in the Americas. After conquoring Tenotitchan (and, leveling the old city), when the Conquistadors set about building the new city of Mexico, care was given to city planning.

Following the conquest, and razing Tenochitlan, the Conqustidors set out to build a planned city. Having established sites for such important public facilities as the jail, the gallows, the butcher shops, they realized something had been overlooked. An area for taverns and inns was already establshed, so in 1538, Queen Juana (“La Loca” as she’d be known… which is also slang for a drag queen) graciously gave her permission for an additional… er… public accommodation… a brothel.

Where exactly it was located is nknown, but with Felipe II ordering the establishment of a “zona de tolerancia” in 1572 … “Las Gallas” (the crazy women) opened its… uh… doors to business, at what is now Mesones 167 in the Centro Historico. A plaque commemorates it as the first brothel in the Americas… some landmark!

Of course, the upright and uptight denied its existence, or knowlege of the place (yeah, riggghhhhtttt!, but “doble moral” hasn’t changed all that much in the last 500 years. Prostitution is still “tolerated” (in specific neighborhoods) here, with sporadic and sometimes reluctantl recognition given to the needs and rights of the practioners of the “oldest profession”.

The first Archbishop, Juan de Zumarraga (of the Virign of Guadalupe story) complained about the place, and tried (without much success) to forbid clerics from entering the zone. In the 1680s, under the assumption that women who liked sex (or had sex for money) were “sick”, the Archbishop of the time, Franciso de Aguiar and Sejas, campaigned to have ladies of the evening removed to the Belem… half a “madhouse” half a prison. His Excellency was something of a fanatic… opposed to cock-fighting, tight shoes and… well, women in general. It’s claimed he would never look at a woman directly, for fear a lustful thought might enter unwittingly. He even had the faces of women corpses covered during the funerals over which he presided.

With the Independence, while doble moral was still the norm, there was some recognition given to the valuable role these women had played in the nation’s war against the Spanish.

Iturbide [then on the Royalist side]… ordered Maria Tomasa Estevez de Salas shot to death after she was convicted of seducing royalist troops in the Salamanca region, and who he said had a great deal of success in her rebel activities because of “her beautiful figure.”

… Carmen Camacho…  seduced a garrison of soldiers into deserting.

(Femmes Fatal)

Likewise, during the US occupation in the “Unjust Invasion of the North Americans” of 1846-48, there are reports that syphillitic women would go out of their way to infect gringo soldiers. During the short reign of Emperor Maxilian, ladies of the evening were photographed, though not so much for mug-shots as for souvenier cards (collect the whole set!) for the delactation.. or selectation… of the elites.

The Revolution brought a sense of class consciousness to prostitutes. As in the Maria Felix-Kay Jurado film, “La Bandita” (1963), the workers sometimes would throw out the management (i.e. madams and pimps) and demand better working conditions. Within Mexico City, prostitutes, arguing that they were providing a necessary and useful trade, forced the government to rewrite its laws, which — while leaving the women (and men) without the same labor protections as other workers — allowed them for a few years to operate a little less clandestinely, even outside the “zona de tolerancia”, although the NIMBY (Not in my back yard) types, even in less affluent areas, were less than receptive to such businesses. Espeically when the sex workers were “free lancers”… not connected with any brothel, but reather street walkers.

In recent times, with the feminist and working class movements both recognizing that doble moral is more about control than about morality itself, the situation for prostitutes has improved. A union (that does not encourage apprenticeships, and actually goes out of its way to find alternative economic opportunities for those who are only in the trade reluctantly, or by force) has actively pushed for both better security and recognition. Famously… or infamously, given it was widely derided in the foreign media… during the Lopez Obrador adminstation the city government, working with both the Archdiocese and major developers (notably Carlos Slim) established a retirement home for prostitutes, and there has been some progress in a movement to simply reclassify this specific sales force as licensed vendors.


Andrea Mireille, “Las Gallas, la primera casa de citas de la Nueva España“, Chilango (10 Dec 2022) (noted in the text)

Gods, Gachupines and Gringos

Katherine Elaine Bliss, Compromised Positions (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005).

One Comment leave one →
  1. norm permalink
    14 December 2022 8:13 am

    I owned a house in Ashtabula Ohio’s harbor district, that was built in 1888 as a corporate brothel. The firm ran 12 houses in the port area into the 1920s. The house had a bar/lounge down stairs, cribs on the second floor, a small store in the walk out basement. The kitchen and privy were in little buildings in the backyard. When I bought the house, it was used as a boarding house, it was outfitted with a bathroom, laundry and kitchen. In honor of its history, I painted the front door a bright shade of red. My wife, a Spanish teacher, was not amused…

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