In Mexican society, pelado is "a term invented to describe a certain class of urban 'bum' in Mexico in the 1920s."
Mexico has a long tradition of urban poverty, beginning with the léperos, a segregated caste of Mestizos, Central American people, and illegitimate Criollos during the colonial era. The léperos, viewed as unrespectable people by polite society, supported themselves as they could through vending or begging, but many resorted to crime. They established a thieves market across from the viceregal palace, which was later moved to the Tepito area of the working-class Colonia Guerrero. They spent much of their time in taverns, leading to the official promotion of theatre as an alternative.
Initially, many of these plays were organized by the church, but the people soon set up their own theaters, where the humor of the taverns survived. The rowdy, often illegal stagings were no place for sophisticated plot lines or character development, and the carpa ("tent") theatre relied heavily on stock characters who could deliver quick laughs. The pelado became one of them.
Literally meaning "peeled" (barren, bleak, or exposed), the term referred to the penniless urban slum-dwellers, uprooted from the countryside and un- and under-employed. Like the léperos before them, they represented an underprivileged element with criminal tendencies — a threat to Mexican society. But in addition to their predecessors' problems adjusting to urban life and surviving, the pelado of the early twentieth century was also wedged between traditional and modern societies. "Pelado" also means "cut hair", referring to the custom in jails and assistance institutions to cut the inmates' hair in order to prevent lice and other parasites. Thus, "pelado" becomes a catch-all term for low-class and low-culture people.
As Mexican government sought to define itself as modern, the philosopher Samuel Ramos saw the pelado as a symbol on Mexican identity. "The pelado belongs to the lowest of social categories, and represents the human detritus of the big city."
One shrewder, gentler subgenre of the pelado archetype is the peladito, a type epitomized by Cantinflas. According to the comedian, "The peladito is the creature who came from the carpas with a face stained with flour or white paint, dressed in rags, the pants below the waist and covered with patches, the belt replaced by an old tie, the peaked cap representing a hat, the ruffled underwear that shows at any provocation, the torn shirt, and gabardine across his left shoulder."
- Monsiváis, Carlos; Hershfield, Joanne and Maciel, David R., editors (1999). Mexico's Cinema: A Century of Film and Filmmakers (Chapter 4). Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, Inc. ISBN 0-8420-2681-9.
- Ramos, Samuel; Peter G. Earle (translator) (1962). Profile of Man and Culture in Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press. LCCN F1210 .R3 (no ISBN).