Although widely referred to as the noble grain through much of Latin America, coffee was produced by a broad variety of social elements, from the peasantry to the plutocracy. Unlike its sister tropical export crop, sugar, coffee cultivation did not always require large production units or farm sizes, nor heavy capital investment in mechanization. While large coffee plantations emerged in several regions, such as slave-based Brazil, Guatemala, and El Salvador, no general farm size characterized the activity in Latin America. Indeed, of all of the major agricultural export activities developed in the region after the midnineteenth century, coffee was perhaps the most reconcilable, in certain contexts, with small-scale landownership and cultivation.

References to smallholding in coffee cultivation appeared quite frequently in early twentieth-century works praising the alleged positive, democratic consequences of smallholding, particularly in Colombia, Puerto Rico, and Costa Rica. The study of smallholders themselves has been advanced recently by works on Puerto Rico by Picó and Bergad, on Venezuela by Roseberry, and on Italians in Brazil by Holloway.1 Beyond these, and relatively few other works, little is known regarding the origins and evolution of smallholder society in coffee economies.2 Most references to smallholders, even in the cases of greatest presumed importance (Colombia, Puerto Rico, and Costa Rica), have been based on inferences drawn from anonymous statistics on land tenure and its evolution over time rather than on detailed study of the smallholders. Moreover, the extraordinarily detailed descriptions offered by Picó for Puerto Rico are limited to four family histories, with no attempt to generalize based on a statistical profile of such experiences.3

Colombia and Costa Rica are perhaps the two societies most highly identified in the popular imagination with smallholding in coffee culture. Surprisingly, neither has taken the lead in the historical study of smallholders themselves. Major works in both nations, by Hall, Cardoso, Pérez, Stone, and Peters for Costa Rica, and by Palacios, Machado, and Bergquist for Colombia, have all offered insights into the evolution and function of smallholder society, but most often based on inferences drawn from either hacienda or census records in aggregate form.4 The smallholder heroes of earlier nationalist historiography remain shadowy figures in this more systematic and less partisan modern scholarship.

Within Costa Rican historiography in particular, smallholders have figured both as a sort of endangered species to be saved by reformist politics—in the midtwentieth-century literature—and later as fundamental building blocks of abstract models of social and economic evolution.5 The existence and numerical importance of smallholders in Costa Rica have been shown conclusively with both studies of hacienda records and the 1935 coffee producer census.6 Beyond this, however, little light has been shed on the origins, evolution, and significance of smallholding.7 Who were the smallholders? Where did they come from socially and how did they acquire their land? What were their chances for success and how was it achieved, or failure suffered, with the expansion and increasing specialization of coffee cultivation? If indeed such a thing as a petty or “peasant bourgeoisie” (to use Franz Schryer’s suggestive if contradictory term) developed in coffee cultivation, then who were these people and what were their relations with merchants, large landowners, and processors, and with those poorer than themselves? What explains their success and the failure of their less fortunate brethren, and how large a group did they constitute over time? While answers to questions such as these for coffee culture throughout Latin America lie well beyond the scope of this paper, the study of class formation in the one case most highly identified with and characterized by smallholding—Costa Rica between 1850 and 1950—can contribute to that end.

Costa Rican coffee-based society witnessed a “peasant to farmer” transition in agriculture, by which a subsistence-oriented peasantry was transformed into propertied and propertyless, employer and laborer classes. This was a lengthy and highly ambiguous process to be sure, but one in which a wealthy smallholder group, or rural petty bourgeoisie of sorts, was consolidated by the early twentieth century. The process involved both political mobilization and social change, particularly the growing restriction of partible inheritance to favor sons over daughters. Of all the social classes present in the countryside, the well-to-do producer (nonprocessor) group and its history will be the primary focus of this study.

The formation of a rural petty bourgeoisie and its evolution in one coffee-based economy has a paradigmatic importance well beyond the case at hand. In an era in which revolutionary and reformist agitation in Latin America most often based itself in the ranks of salaried workers in the export sector, with purportedly leftist, laborite ideology, coffee-producing smallholders and their leaders in Costa Rica elaborated an antilabor, anti-Marxist doctrine of social change and national liberation.8 They sought to both defeat labor-based political movements and preempt their program for societal transformation, employing a “constructive, interventionist liberalism and state support for a coffee producers’ cooperative movement.9 The importance of such antileft, petty-bourgeois reformism for the cold war era can hardly be overestimated.10 Understanding the dynamics of class formation, particularly among the propertied, in the society most highly identified with successful petty-bourgeois reformism may offer comparative insights for societies elsewhere in Latin America in this period and beyond.

The Setting

The area chosen for study lies in the heart of the classic smallholder coffee zone of the Costa Rican Central Valley in the area from Santo Domingo upward to San Isidro in Heredia province (see Map 1).11 Settled during the early and middle eighteenth century, Santo Domingo’s population increased from roughly 1,500 to 2,000, in the midnineteenth century, to just over 6,000 in Santo Domingo and 2,700 in newly separate San Isidro in 1927. This entire region north of San José was one of the earliest converts to coffee cultivation, in the period 1850-70, and eventually became the country’s most monocultural coffee zone by the 1930s, owing to its unrivaled ecological conditions and the volcanic-ash fertility of its soils.12 According to the 1935 coffee census, Santo Domingo had the fifth highest (of 44 districts nationwide) average coffee yield at 9.9 fanegas per manzana (San Isidro was 22nd with 6.6), and the highest ratio of coffee farm residents to total population at 58 percent (San Isidro reported 51 percent).13 The average size of farms in Heredia province, at 2.0 manzanas (1 manzana equals .7 hectares), was slightly smaller than the average for other coffee-producing areas in 1935, and more provincial residents held property (16 percent) than the national average (12 percent) in 1927.14

However, increasing land scarcity and concomitant rising land values, impoverishment of many rural dwellers, and commercial concentration were at work throughout Costa Rica. In Santo Domingo, as we will see in greater detail below, the number of reported property owners was roughly halved between 1935 and 1955, continuing a longstanding trend in that direction.15 Equally ominous was the extreme reduction in the number of processing plants or beneficios, from 53 in 1887 (all in Santo Domingo and its dependent hamlets) to only 6 in 1935 (5 in Santo Domingo and 1 in San Isidro).16 While a district of only 32 square kilometers such as Santo Domingo could hardly be expected to continue to support over 50 beneficios as technical modernization of these plants progressed, the survival of only 5, belonging primarily to major capitalists resident in Heredia (Julio Sánchez Lepiz) and San José (Tournón and Company), led to rising protests on the part of coffee producers. Indeed, San Isidro de Heredia was one of the earliest sources of support for coffee producers’ cooperatives after the 1930s.

Further consequences of growing inequality and land scarcity in Santo Domingo were the growth of a landless laboring population (discussed in detail below) and rapid out-migration. Early migratory movements, during the 1860s and 1870s, were to higher elevations on the contiguous “frontier” in the direction of San Isidro, primarily by the ambitious children of the already propertied of Santo Domingo, often with highly successful results. Thereafter, migratory flows became more economically precarious, with those involved seeking out ever more illusory opportunities, particularly in western colonization zones of Alajuela province after the 1880s and 1890s. According to the 1950 population census, Santo Domingo and San Isidro had some of the highest net emigration indices (26 and 40 percent respectively) of the entire nation. Fully 39 percent of those born in Santo Domingo resided elsewhere, and 44 percent of those born in San Isidro resided elsewhere in 1950.17

Coffee and the Origins of Smallholding

Before the development of coffee culture, Santo Domingo was a thinly settled area of cattle raising and shifting cultivation of corn and beans with little privatization of landownership. The original settlers had received small grants of land which they paid for as part of “vecindades” led by petty crown officials whose family names were often retained in place names such as (Paso de la) Quintana, Rincón (de los) Álvarez, Ruiz, Torres, Chaves, Rojas, “El Común” de los Zamora, or simply “La Bermúdez.”18 The grants received by individual settlers, grouped together “in common” to petition for land, were quite small, nearly always less than 50 and usually less than 20 manzanas. As the number of residents grew, dependent hamlets such as Santa Rosa, Santo Tomás, and San Miguel grew so that residents could be closer to their fields and herds.

Land tenure, even for the precoffee wealthy, was not fundamentally a system of private, exclusively held property, however. The typical cultivator made use of either common lands or unclaimed forest for shifting yearly crops of corn and beans. The wealthy of the era usually owned cattle herds in addition to a “home place” in the countryside.19 Although some of these settlers might have made their home along the trail to their particular area or rincón, the great majority not only lived in either Santo Domingo or one of its suburban hamlets, but grew crops in several distant points in the surrounding countryside and pastured cattle on land claimed as far away as western Alajuela province. Crops within vaguely claimed lands were valued separately (in probate inventories) from the land itself, and up to a dozen or more such disparate land/crop claims might be listed throughout the district and beyond. In several cases, a land claim (of slight monetary value, to be sure) was made because of either a general derecho or right in la montaña or a common claim held by a particular clan (Zamora, Rodríguez, etc.) or individual partnership without either surveying or ever having cultivated the land. Clearly, even for the relatively wealthy, abundant land was primarily of value for impermanent use rights to annual food cropping, while private property referred to house lots, “home places” in the countryside (often sheds and cattle pens), and livestock.20

In a land-rich, labor-starved society such as this, even the wealthy saw no need for, nor practical possibility of, denying ready access to annual planting lands. Coffee would soon change all this by permanently investing land with past labor in a perennial crop, by increasing land values, and by concentrating family land claims within a short distance of the “home place,” driving out cattle and pasture first and then excess people themselves. Those who remained increasingly moved outward to the hamlets and roadside farms which grew up along with commercial agriculture and fully privatized landholding.

The legal framework which accompanied this transition to generalized private ownership of land was highly favorable to the pretensions of local residents with some capital or influence. While many of the village poor would lose access to annual cropping lands in the surrounding countryside, those who could assert claims based on settlement, customary usage for cultivation, purchase, or homesteading were usually successful in eventually obtaining title to the land. The opening of the Public Property Registry in 1864 was an important stimulus to registration of deeds, but far more important in practice were public lands policies which granted homesteading rights and confirmed ownership in older settlements based solely on peaceful occupation for ten years or more.21 Many probate inventories of the 1860-80 period include parallel legal processes for inscription of land title based simply on peaceful occupation of the deceased, with positive results in virtually every case. Overall, a single property owner of land suitable for cultivation (as distinct from mountainous pasture or forest at higher elevations) throughout Santo Domingo and San Isidro rarely held more than several dozen manzanas during the nineteenth century.

If the several paragraphs above describe “how” smallholding was consolidated and transformed in Santo Domingo by coffee culture, then “who” were those who were most likely to secure a place as smallholders? Rural households in Santo Domingo entered into this process with markedly different resource bases, and most were very, very poor. Thus, from the very start petty bourgeois prosperity was not the likely outcome for the majority, but neither was it unheard of or limited to the already wealthy. By comparing the 1846 census with probate inventories, one can positively identify some 60 individual heads of household (53) or spouses (7), out of a total of some 471 households listed (only names of heads of household and their spouses are given). However, to say that only 53 of 471 house-holds held substantial real property would be very misleading given the fragmentary nature of surviving probate records. In fact, being able to identify so many on the basis of so few probate records from the pre-1880 period suggests that a very considerable minority held private property sufficient to pay for probate proceedings.

Not everyone, of course, shared equally in this new-found village prosperity. Santo Domingo and San Isidro were home to several dozen interrelated clans over the period 1850-1950. At any one point in time, only 30 surnames accounted for 50 to 75 percent of all inhabitants. Given such repetition in surnames and intense intermarriage, it is hard to establish who “winners” and “losers” were simply on the basis of clan membership or surname. Within the most and the least successful clans there were those whose experience diverged radically from the group norm. Nevertheless, certain clans were inordinately prominent and influential. The Zamoras, for example, were distant descendants of the first crown official in the district in the late seventeenth century, and their original home base was still referred to as the Hacienda Zamora in San Miguel Sur in the 1927 census. A leader of the clan, Santiago Zamora, was listed as a beneficiador in the list of five local residents in 1878. While the (paternal) surname Zamora accounted for some 4.1 percent of those identified in the 1846 census and 5.3 percent in 1927, they were 3.5 percent of all the deceased in the probate sample and 7.6 percent of property owners in 1955. Other highly successful clans included the Arces (3.6 and 6.3 versus 8.0 and 3.9 percent), Rodríguez (3.2 and 4.6 versus 7.6 and 6.0 percent), Madrigal (0.3 and 0.8 versus 2.4 and 2.5 percent), León (1.5 and 1.0 versus 3.2 and 1.8 percent), Barquero (1.4 and 2.7 versus 3.7 and 4.5 percent), and, in San Isidro in particular, Villalobos (4.9 and 7.5 versus 9.9 and 9.4 percent). Certain other families were dramatically underrepresented among property holders, including a few who virtually never appear among the propertied. Examples of these families were the Calvos (0.4 and 1.4 versus 0.5 and 0.2 percent), Hernández (0.5 and 1.9 versus 0.3 and 0.7), Ulate (1.1 and 1.3 versus 0.8 and 0.2), and the Torres and Córdova clans.

In such a clan-based village society undergoing commercial agricultural development and land privatization, wealth maintenance and enhancement depended on land colonization efforts, inheritance patterns, and marriage strategies. For successful clans, partible inheritance would be respected, but its leveling effects counteracted. This could be achieved by a combination of circumspection in the choice of (preferably landed) marriage partners, to recombine fragmented holdings; conveying house lots and “home places” to dependent daughters or daughter/son-in-law unions (attracting similarly motivated suitors from other landed clans); and encouraging sons to build their own houses, after marrying, in town, on outlying “parcels” of the home place, or in public lands farther up the mountainside toward San Isidro. Only much later, during the twentieth century, would siblings in once wealthy clans have to content themselves with miniscule house lots “all in a row.” Only then would daughters begin to pay the price for the demise of partible inheritance of ever more scarce land.

Class Formation in Smallholding Society

Within the central coffee districts of Costa Rica, smallholding was the overwhelmingly predominant form of landownership between the midnineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, the farm-owning percentage of the population declined rapidly during the twentieth century as more and more residents either moved away or were reduced to houses with garden plots and wage laboring. Overall impoverishment of the ever-less-landed majority seems an inescapable conclusion from virtually all contemporary documentation. Intensely seasonal demand for labor (November to January) during the coffee harvest meant that, paradoxically, coffee could simultaneously be described as a “family” and, more fancifully, a “socialist” enterprise, owing to its combined autarchic and (wage) distributive aspects.22 Only coffee’s wealthiest producers employed significant wage labor year round. Family-farm coffee producers of a middling sort lived a reality in which they could plausibly see themselves as virtually self-sufficient at least ten months of the year, and then only relying on wage-earning “help” (often attracted through kin ties as well) for the harvest.23 Such was the local and historically determined face of agrarian capitalism in Costa Rican coffee culture.

Over time, however, social classes slowly became more sharply defined and clearly antagonistic. Initially, the basic division and antagonism had been between processors and producers of whatever size, with wage labor a distinctly secondary phenomenon. Nevertheless, by the twentieth century there emerged ever more clearly three social classes, in theory separable, with two basic contradictions. The classes might be described as processor/estate owners, nonprocessor producers, and land-poor producers/wage laborers, while the basic contradictions were between processors and producers on the one hand, and between all landowners and wage laborers on the other. To be sure, class boundaries were always highly fluid and contradictions nearly always purposefully confused or muted.

Before returning to a discussion of the evidence for impoverishment and class polarization by the early to midtwentieth century, it may be useful to briefly describe representative experiences within this three-part class structure. In order to do so, and to suggest the diversity of experience within such a process of social differentiation, I use four categories: 1) the processor oligopoly; 2) wealthy but nonprocessor producers; 3) smallholders in various stages of decline; and 4) semiproletarian and fully proletarian households. Naturally, one must keep in mind the fact that real individuals could and did inhabit the borders between such abstract social classes. Moreover, the general tendency (though not the universal experience) was downward mobility for those who remained in Santo Domingo during the first half of the twentieth century.

The Processor “Trust”24

Coffee processing ranged from being exceedingly primitive and dispersed in economies such as those of Puerto Rico and the Venezuelan Andes, to being highly complex and concentrated in Costa Rica and El Salvador. Chronologically, variation was also very great. Santo Domingo went from having 53 beneficios in 1887 to only 6 larger-scale plants in 1935. Local residents such as Santiago Zamora and Rafael González had been processors in 1887, while during the twentieth century three outside firms came to predominate in the local processing industry: Julio Sánchez Lepiz of Heredia, Tournón and Company of San José, and Emilio Challe Loubet, a merchant resident in San José.25

Julio Sánchez was reputedly the single wealthiest individual—and probably the largest coffee producer—in Costa Rica at his death in 1934. His vast estate was conservatively estimated at some 2,000,000 pesos, or roughly 500,000 dollars. He had functioned as a bank of sorts for producers whose crop he processed, and he regularly lent money for yearly operating expenses to poorer growers. While hardly a self-made man, Sánchez was much admired for his entrepreneurial drive in many different agroindustrial concerns. His father had made a fortune during the late nineteenth century as a coffee grower and transporter with his own oxen and cart fleet.26 Having a “common touch” in both his family tree and daily work habits, Sánchez was one of the least frequently criticized members of the processor “plutocracy” denounced by reformist leaders.

Tournón and Company was a major producer, processor, and lender in Santo Domingo after the late 1870s. However, despite its best efforts at land acquisition through purchase and foreclosure, the company was only able to accumulate a wide variety of tiny plots throughout the district, and it remained dependent on private growers, many of whom it financed against land mortgages, for two-thirds of the crop which it would process as late as the 1930s. By the 1950s, Tournón had begun to develop a strategy of urbanizing its close-in coffee lands in response to lucrative possibilities for commercial, industrial, and housing uses. Tournón, the corporate “outsider,” was a far more frequent object of reformist attacks than Sánchez, but its variety of holdings and profit sources allowed it to escape being made a scapegoat.

Processor/producer conflicts were virtually a constant feature of Costa Rican political life after the 1890s. The first major legislative initiative was forthcoming in 1932, purportedly regulating crop liquidation and finance terms between the parties.27 Far more important was state bank financing of coffee growers and the creation of a producers’ cooperative sector of beneficios, circumventing in both areas the much resented processors’ control.28 These latter changes, consequences of the successful political revolt of 1948, forced the processors to grow increasing amounts of their own beans in order to utilize their existing plant capacity, as they would lose nearly two-thirds of their “third party” crop to cooperative plants by 1980. A major reason for the rapid expansion of coffee planting in areas peripheral to the Central Valley since 1950 has been precisely this new impetus for processor diversification.

Well-To-Do Coffee Growers

A substantial number of residents of Santo Domingo, San Isidro, and their outlying hamlets owned very valuable estates without engaging in coffee processing. A few such families had once been processors and continued to lend money at interest or engage in retail trade. Moreover, a few families were able to maintain some of their descendants at this wealthy farmer level—while most could be expected to lose ground through partible inheritance and subdivision.

Fortunes of the well-to-do peasant cum farmer ranged from as little as 10,000 pesos just after the midnineteenth century, to an occasional 100,000 or 200,000 peso fortune by the 1920s and 1930s. Landownership and use changed even more dramatically than values. Initially, the wealthy owned considerable amounts of land (from perhaps 25 to over 100 manzanas) at distant points throughout the district, most with little development or declared monetary value. By the early twentieth century, wealthy households usually held smaller amounts of more spatially concentrated land (20 to 50 manzanas perhaps), but nearly all of it fully developed with coffee or other intensive uses. Thus, not only were estate values higher as time went on, but at least the first generation or two (after 1850) of wealthy could partially subdivide the land area among their children without giving them less monetarily than they themselves had “started with.”

The well-to-do struggled to maintain their social position. While they were generally unable to continue their role in coffee processing, they did not meekly slide into dependency and impoverishment. As we will see below, their sons married later (and more carefully, one might presume) or migrated, and they eventually restricted partible inheritance to avoid further erosion of their position. They could and did suffer bitter conflict with processors over indebtedness, and occasionally were the victims of foreclosure proceedings.29 However, major nonprocessor coffee producers retained substantial land and cash resources quite independent of any other social class. Their obvious dependence in crop processing and marketing was not matched by a direct financial dependence on the major processors. Indeed, one of the most striking features of both probate and agricultural census records is the relatively infrequent use of credit by wealthier producers.30

Probate records for wealthy growers disclose a pattern of rapid specialization in coffee, whose land values were soon five to ten times those of undeveloped or annual cropping land. Nevertheless, wealthy landowners often produced commercial quantities of corn and held substantial, if declining, amounts of pasture land, especially in the more recently settled and mountainous San Isidro. Equally striking in these records is the near total lack of luxury consumer goods. Perhaps only the appearance of an occasional sewing machine after the 1890s betrays a greater degree of consumption and comfort, however utilitarian such a “luxury.”

The productive arrangements of wealthy households are poorly revealed in the probate records. Only when estates were disputed or administered for a time by an executor do we gain a glimpse of day-to-day operations. In one such case, Gregorio de Jesús Azofeifa Chacón died unexpectedly in 1923 at age 33.31 He held rights in some 21 properties with a total value of 79,000 pesos, but worth a net of only 43,000 pesos. His 1923/24 coffee harvest brought in the sum of 17,769 pesos. Coffee picking was done in both December and January but there is only the temporary labor bill for 2.5 weeks in January when some 25 members (male and female, young and old) of six families were able to earn 580 pesos. During nonharvest periods through October 1924, the daily labor bill (jornales) oscillated between roughly 30 and 100 pesos per week. In addition, there were 10 permanent male employees whose earnings were not listed.

Even in this very wealthy household, day-to-day operations could be directed and supervised by the owner, with additional, temporary harvest labor recruited as kin groups composed primarily of women and children. Agricultores needing seasonal “help,” they usually conceived of labor/capital relations in exceedingly paternalistic and voluntaristic terms. Such could be the case because so few year-round workers were needed, and only a handful of owners required massive labor contingents for harvest. In 1955, only 43 of 600 landowners employed more than 20 workers (their own family plus salaried workers) in the peak of harvest, and only 5 employed 50 or more.

Perhaps one particularly detailed example of wealthy households and their fate will provide an idea of the resources controlled by nonprocessor coffee producers in Santo Domingo. From the earliest times the Zamora surname was one of substance in Santo Domingo. Colonists, crown officials, early coffee growers, and even processors, the Zamoras controlled a great deal of the district at one time or another. When in 1920 the children of Bernardino Zamora and Rudecinda Chacón (Lizano), Florinda, Nereo, José Procopio, Graciliano, Aurelia, and Teodorico, gathered to dispose of their parents’ estate, they faced the prospect of dividing just over 50 hectares in 19 properties of all kinds, conservatively estimated to be worth 84,591 pesos, or 14,099 each.32 Each heir received properties and cash, forming a virtual line of households in central Santo Domingo. José Procopio Zamora Chacón, for example, lived in a house in 1927 surrounded by Zamoras two or three in a row on each side. Of the six heirs, Florinda moved just north to Barva, and José Procopio, Graciliano, and Teodorico were listed as heads of household, all owners of farms, employers, and registered voters, in the 1927 census. While some of the Zamora listings in the 1955 agricultural census are virtually illegible (and thus useless for our reconstructive purposes), one can locate several members of José Procopio’s household. His widow, Orfilia Chacón Vargas, held 25 manzanas of land, 14.5 in coffee. She harvested 150 fanegas and employed some 11 workers at harvest time. Their children fared just as well. Rogelio Zamora Chacón held 33 manzanas, 18 in coffee, harvesting 170 fanegas with 11 workers; Nereo (named for his uncle no doubt) held 43 manzanas, 30 in coffee, harvesting 370 fanegas with 39 workers; Lile was now married to a Fonseca but held on her own account 50 manzanas, 27 in coffee, harvesting 125 fanegas with 26 workers, while Eida (married to a Rodríguez) held 28 manzanas, 23 in coffee, harvesting 150 fanegas with 37 workers.

Of the Zamora Chacóns described above, only Zoveidee, eight years old in 1927, could not be found among the landed in 1955. On the other hand, none of Teodorico’s six children (Zamora Zamoras) nor Graciliano’s son (Rodrigo Zamora Chacón) could be positively identified in the 1955 listing. Given the problems of legibility in the 1955 microfilm, it would be too much to say that José Procopio’s line had inherited most or all of what had been the parents’ 50-hectare estate in 1920, but his heirs seem to have fared exceptionally well. In any event, “smallholders” such as these were anything but small in the local context. Well-to-do, nonprocessor coffee producers were the on-the-ground antithesis of poverty and wage laboring, however effectively their direct ownership, operation, and residence in Santo Domingo may have allowed them to identify, as family farmers, with producer interests and against outside processor interests.

Smallholders in Decline

Those less fortunate than the Zamoras described above regularly faced difficult choices with each generation’s transmission of landed property. For those whose land base proved insufficient and who refused the alternative of ending partibility and favoring one or a few heirs over others, there were basically two related options: financing out-migration of heirs in the hope of avoiding conflict over the “home place” when the time came, or equitable distribution of the farm into large or small house lots, each with road frontage if possible. Out-migration and what might be termed “lotification” were the typical responses of smallholder society as it came under the pressure of increasing land scarcity. The first of these options was intended to avoid entirely the prospect of land scarcity and proletarianization, while the second was a graceful acceptance of it, conferring small income sources, housing sites, and semiproletarian status equally on the once self-sufficient. Though many such heirs hoped to rebuild the family farm, with the help of guile, industry, and well-chosen marriage, the likelihood of their success was far less than for those whose strategy was based on out-migration.

Lotification was a rather straightforward affair. Coffee groves and yields were so finely calculable and highly monetarized that intransigent heirs could and did demand an exact accounting and nearly microscopic “material division” of land. In one such case, a marginal smallholding family gave rise to six households with tiny lots. The six heirs of Félix Valerio Ramírez and Simona Zamora Ocampo met to divide their estate in 1900.33 In total, they held only .87 hectare in corn and pasture, .69 hectare in coffee, and a .17-hectare house lot in Santa Rosa. Its gross value was only 1,268 pesos, leaving a net value of 858, or 143 pesos each. In order to finalize the division, the .87-hectare parcel was sold to provide cash for costs, each male heir received a lot of .17 hectare of coffee, and the daughters took their part in the house and lot. The youngest of the sons, Pedro, was listed in the 1927 census as a 54-year-old “laborer,” living as a “guest” along with his 9-year-old daughter, Alicia Valerio Alvarado, in the house headed by the laborer Juan Salas Valerio, a relative no doubt. Pedro owned no property, was illiterate, a “peón labrador en cafetal,” but was registered to vote. This may have been a case of extreme downward mobility, but the reality of the experience was no less onerous for the individual involved.

Out-migration involved both winners and losers. In the midnineteenth century, movement to San Isidro often proved successful for those involved, but the area was quickly settled, and those seeking land were forced to look elsewhere. A favorite target area for land-hungry Domingueños after the 1880s was Naranjo in western Alajuela, two or three days’ travel on foot or horseback. Two examples of smallholder immigrants to Naranjo will illustrate the extremes of success and failure within this option. When Jacoba Zamora Vargas died in Santa Rosa in 1887, her widower, José Rodríguez Álvarez, was forced to sell the family’s house lot and coffee grove of barely .17 hectare for 644 pesos in order to cancel a debt of 450. Their eldest daughter, Ignacia, had been given an “advance” on her inheritance of 12 pesos to help her emigrate to Naranjo. Even at 12 pesos, she most likely fared better than her six younger siblings who remained at home and suffered through the experience of dispossession.34

At the other extreme were the Rodríguez Madrigals. When their mother, Lorenza Madrigal Arce, died in 1883 at 45 years of age, their father divided an estate worth 1,787 pesos and made up of some 5 manzanas and a house lot in Santo Domingo, and nearly 30 manzanas and a house in Naranjo. The widower had purchased much of this land, and three of his elder sons (aged 16 to 22) already lived in Naranjo, while the eldest son, all the daughters, and the minor sons inherited pieces of the home place.35 Whether as successful as Juan, José, and Secundino Rodríguez Madrigal, or as desperately impoverished as Ignacia Rodríguez Zamora, Domingueño emigrants in Naranjo all represented an attempt at solving the equation which led inexorably to the demise of many of the smallholders in Santo Domingo’s coffee economy.

Poor Relatives and Other “Help”

Studying the propertyless on the basis of proprietary documentation would seem a contradiction in terms. Certainly, the perpetually dispossessed and the transient will be forever outside the purview of probate and agricultural census records. However, many very poor households appear in the 1927 census records, and a few of these can be linked with earlier probate records, to provide a glimpse of the lives of the materially most disadvantaged.

Those most likely to fall out of smallholder society into the ranks of the laboring poor and servant populations were those whose father or mother died very young and indebted, or those whose home and yard needed to be sold to cancel debts and pay probate inventory and burial expenses. However, the fate of those who suffered through such a traumatic experience varied enormously. The following examples provide some idea of the lives of those near the bottom of society.

Belisario León Ocampo appeared as a head of household renting his dwelling in Santo Domingo in 1927. He was a 42-year-old employer/owner of a butcher shop in the city, and he supervised, as a widower alone, the upbringing of his five minor children. Although a renter without real property, he was literate and had received a primary school education (all of his children had also attended school), and he was both an employer and a registered voter. Noteworthy indeed was such relative prosperity, for an heir whose family’s modest house had been sold to pay debts on the death of his widowed mother in 1903.36 None of his four siblings could be located in either probate or census records.

Nearer the other extreme was the experience of one Gabriel Arce. The widower of 26-year-old Ana Arce Chacón in 1906, he and his five minor children were forced to sell their only two pieces of property, worth a mere 450 pesos, to meet burial expenses and debts.37 By 1927, Gabriel lived with his daughter, Rosaura Arce de Piedra, and her husband Sofonías, a landowner and employer. Rosaura had brought an illegitimate child to her marriage, something which had similarly befallen her younger sister, María Antonia, also a dependent resident with her baby daughter, her father, and her younger brother Joaquín. In effect, this particular family had been saved from total pauperization by the advantageous marriage of a daughter, despite her having a child out of wedlock.

Two final examples are even more bleak. Both were cases of deceased whose parents had been listed as laborers (jornaleros) in nineteenth-century probate proceedings, hardly a mark of distinction. Napoleón Chavarría Arce filed for probate of his wife, Eduvina (also known as Liduvina) Barquero González’s estate in 1932.38 She had died at age 50 in 1930, leaving a son, José Chavarría Bolaños, as heir along with his father. The family had been listed in the 1927 census as headed by Napoleón, a laborer without property other than a mortgaged house, and including also his wife, son José (also a laborer), and an 18-year-old daughter, Cruz. Both males were registered voters, however, and had received some primary education, as had the daughter. In the probate proceedings five years later, it was revealed that the house had been mortgaged to a resident of Santo Domingo since 1924, for 318 pesos, and that son José also owed this person 100 pesos. The house was sold to pay these debts, for 500 pesos, reducing even further the pathetic resources of the surviving members of the family.

Pedro Arce Villalobos appeared in the 1927 census as a 37-year-old oxen conductor (boyero), who worked in the public roads on his own account. He rented a house, had no property, but was literate and registered to vote. He headed a household with his wife Otilia Barrantes Fonseca (28) and their children Carmen (8), Mardoqueo (6), and María Teresa (2) Arce Barrantes. When he died in 1938, Pedro Arce was reportedly a resident of La Garita, Alajuela, while his house in San Miguel with its .27-hectare lot was sold for 300 pesos to pay a similar mortgage to one María Chacón Bolaños.39 The future of children such as the Arce Barrantes was indeed bleak. Grandchildren of Santo Domingo’s jornalero class, they were virtually condemned to follow in their footsteps, despite the valiant efforts of their enterprising father in the cartage trade. For the few who managed to escape such disadvantage and poverty, the coffee economy proved rewarding; for most it offered no relief from the constant struggle to survive without property or security in an unpredictable world of low wages, chronic underemployment, and early death.

However, if virtually none of the Zamora or other wealthy clans might be found among the downtrodden laboring classes, many of these had relatives among the propertied. Even those as unfortunate as Gabriel Arce and his children formed part of a landed household headed by his son-in-law. Their sense of dispossession must certainly have been muted by their own kin ties, as well as by the weight of “respectable” smallholder opinion in the community at large. When one of the local notable households found itself in probate proceedings and was foreclosed on by Tournón or by Julio Sánchez, would its seasonal laborers, themselves often the children of smallholders or kin of other landowning coffee producers, be more likely to identify with their unfortunate fellow producers, or as laborers against their now bankrupt employers?40 More to the point, how were seasonal laborers, very often kin groups headed by women with more prosperous male relatives, to develop, much less openly express, an ideology of employer/worker conflict? Paternalism, patriarchy, and familial honor, tied to an inherently ambiguous class structure, made it extremely difficult for those less favored by coffee culture to articulate an ideology of class antagonism and exploitation of their own. Rather than low wages, poor conditions, and short seasons, the workplace conversation of impoverished smallholders and laborers likely echoed the local propertied classes’ trinity of concerns: weather and yields, world coffee prices, and the justice of the prices set by local processors. To discuss other topics was to identify oneself as not part of that imagined “nation” of smallholding coffee producers, as having given up any illusion of standing in village society. To make claims for labor and its interests independent of those of direct producers was to question a creed, to behave incomprehensibly, to become a man or woman marked as inferior in both current condition and future prospects. For many in Santo Domingo, family and kin both disguised local class polarization and inhibited any overt expression of it outside of the popular dichotomy of processors and moneylenders versus smallholding producers.

Santo Domingo in the First Half of the Twentieth Century

If the portraits of class experiences drawn above correspond to real lives, how might one characterize the general trend of such experiences over the first half of the twentieth century? Where did most people fall along such a continuum, and what were their responses to their situation? While a well-to-do landed group did consolidate and perpetuate itself over time, largely by altering its sociodemographic behavior, the majority were likely to experience increasing land pressure and downward mobility. I shall deal first with varied evidence for such increased poverty, then the differing life chances and behavior of workers and owners, the structure of land tenure and coffee production in 1955, and finally perhaps the key variable in explaining the reproduction of social class boundaries—inheritance.

Land Scarcity and Downward Mobility

For those who did not emigrate to San Isidro, or later to western Alajuela, the prospects for access to farming land became increasingly difficult. Five different types of indirect evidence point in this direction. First, census records, though imprecise, show that about half of all households reported some capital worth in 1844, while only 17 percent of males were employers and 21 percent self-employed in 1927 (Table I).41 Likewise, the number of farm owners declined substantially (see note 14, above). Second, the rate of out-migration reached alarming proportions by midcentury (see note 17, above). Third, average land areas in probate inventories had declined by the late nineteenth century, although they stabilized at around seven hectares thereafter (Table II). The percentage of cases of estates under one hectare increased dramatically as holdings over ten hectares declined. Fourth, the frequency of forced sales or liquidation of threadbare estates, basically houses and lots, increases dramatically in the twentieth century. Of the 153 cases (out of 630 total probate inventories), nearly 80 percent are registered after 1900. Like-wise, sale of rights among heirs in hopes of avoiding liquidation increases in this same period.42 Most important, by tracking a generation of male heirs of property holders in probate before 1927 to the census of that year, one can show that 43 percent were wage laborers, only 22 percent self-employed, and 35 percent employers (Table III). Even among heirs over 50 years of age in 1927, fully one-third were wage laborers rather than self-employed or employers. Thus, heirs of property holders in the first half of the twentieth century in Santo Domingo could expect to fare worse than their parents. How much worse depended on factors of chance, industriousness, and above all patience in waiting for proprietorship with relatively advanced age. Small wonder, then, that nearly half the district’s residents chose to leave.

Class Differences and Life Chances

Before the coffee revolution of the midnineteenth century, major demographic differences fell along the urban-versus-rural, or city-versus-village axis, with only weak differentiation along socioeconomic lines internal to villages themselves.43 In other words, both the village rich and poor married rather young (an average of 24 to 26 for males and 20 to 22 for females), formed agricultural households at marriage, showed little differentiation in fertility/mortality behavior, and lived within either single- or two-parent nuclear (noncomplex) households rather small in size (four to five members). Coffee, scarce land, and class polarization would dramatically change this by the early twentieth century, both sociodemographically and sociopolitically.

According to parochial records, average ages at marriage increased during the twentieth century, particularly for propertied (agricultor) males.44 Using the 1927 census originals, the average age at marriage was 27.1 for men and 24.6 for women and, revealingly, 28.7 and 22.2 for age at leaving home. In other words, marriage was increasingly less synonymous with new household formation for men.45 Average household size was increasing steadily, from roughly 4.5 to 5 at midnineteenth century to 5.5 to 6 in rural households of Santo Domingo in 1927. More important, household complexity increased dramatically, with fully 30 percent of all households composed of complex units in 1927, two-thirds of these headed by males (Table IV). Whereas household complexity and multi-generational “stem” families had been very infrequent residential units at the midnineteenth century, some 10 of 404 households in 1927 were male-headed and contained a married son or daughter with spouse (and often children).

Even more indicative of the class-specific nature of these demographic changes is the frequency of sons and daughters remaining “at home” until their 20s and 30s. By 1927, proprietors/employers were far more likely to have elder sons at home, married or not, than were laborers (Table V). Children as old as 30 or more could regularly be found in these households, something virtually unheard of half a century before. Land scarcity and anxiety over inheritance were leading Costa Rican rural society toward greater household size and complexity as surely as rising fertility and declining infant mortality rates.46

If class differences had begun to take on a demographic face, what of other areas of life chances, such as citizenship, empowerment, and standing in the community? To exercise citizenship meant fundamentally to exercise the vote; empowerment—in the sense of having the capability to improve one’s lot in life—depended directly on access to formal education; and community standing could best be seen in home ownership and access to property ownership in general. In all three areas, class differences were patent, but Santo Domingo’s less-favored sons shared to a quite surprising degree in these elements of community membership and standing.

The broadening of the franchise in Costa Rica was a continuous process. Until after the 1948 civil war, the suffrage was formally subject to socioeconomic limitations, but a steadily larger number of individuals succeeded in meeting the requirements. Surprisingly, nearly one-half of Santo Domingo’s self-declared laborers in 1927 claimed to be registered to vote (Table VI). Voter registration increased in direct relation to proprietorship, with nearly all “owner/employers” registered. Nevertheless, the figures, as with formal education and home ownership, reflect a society in which a significantly high proportion of inhabitants could feel that they had a stake.

Costa Rica’s Liberal reformers of the 1880s gave great attention to the educational apparatus, especially mass primary education.47 While the ideological control intent of these efforts was evident, and much criticized more recently, the profound impact of these reforms in the countryside is clearly revealed in the Santo Domingo data. Most residents of the district (including women) received some formal education, usually two or three years. Though only 30 or 40 percent of residents could read and write in the 1880s and 1890s, Liberal reform would soon change this. Educational achievement increased dramatically for all those born in the twentieth century (Table VII). By this time, nearly all had some access to education including women and the poor. The opening of a teachers’ training school in the 1910s in neighboring Heredia offered further stimulus to the education and professional ambitions of local residents.48 Moreover, the emergence of reformist ideas and agitation in the present century depended on both smallholder access to schooling and literacy sufficient to digest the increasingly frequent broadsides against the “trust” and in the name of the true “nation” of coffee producers. For radical pamphleteers and newly trained lawyers such as Santo Domingo’s native son Juvenal Fonseca Villalobos, the Liberals’ educational achievements were both a necessary precondition and a vehicle for the construction and communication of the smallholders’ cherished past and imagined future.49

If most families in Santo Domingo saw their fortunes decline in the twentieth century, many still expected to own their own homes, however humble they might be. Indeed, downward mobility for the landed often meant being reduced to home and garden plot ownership rather than total dispossession. Thus, proletarianization, while a real and constant threat for many, did not remove entirely for laborers the possibility of home ownership. In this as in other matters, proprietors set the standard, but at least 20 percent of self-declared laborer heads of household owned their dwellings (Table VIII). Likewise, when asked to respond whether they owned real estate or not, wage-dependent laborers occasionally could be found among the propertied. Although only 13 percent of laborers held registered real estate, this compares to only 35 percent of the so-called self-employed. These may be the most unreliable of items in the census declaration, but they suggest once again a very complex continuum from pauper to proprietor in which petty bourgeois ideals and behavior could offer credible if uncertain rewards in coffee-based society.

Land Tenure and Coffee Production at Midcentury

A century of coffee production in Santo Domingo led to the problem of minifundio. But unlike other Latin American contexts, the minifundio was not the counterpart of latifundio. Rather, the employer of the minifundista reserve army of labor was a family-farm-owning population resident in the district itself. Employers such as these saw themselves as direct producers, just as their poorer neighbors, primarily in opposition to processors rather than labor. Moreover, they did their best to convince their neighbors, rich and poor, of the accuracy of this self-image. Far from repressing the organizational efforts of the poor, their more effective tactic was to preempt the leadership of the popular movement itself, defined as the productive “nation” of coffee growers versus the oligarchy of processors and financiers.

The two sides of this curious coin can readily be seen in the results of the 1955 agricultural census. Subfamily farms (labor-surplus family units) accounted for a majority of cases, even more clearly in coffee plantings (Table IX). Fully 58 percent of farms were 5 manzanas or less, and 79 percent of coffee plantings fell in this category. At the same time, however, there were only 11 of 600 owners with more than 20 manzanas in coffee, hardly a latifundista group. The real center of local power was in the 42 percent of owners holding more than 5 manzanas, and the 34 percent with coffee plantings of more than 3 manzanas, roughly the farm size at which nonfamily wage labor for harvest would assume critical importance.

Family-farm coffee producers depended upon wage labor virtually only for the harvest. Their minifundista neighbors willingly provided it. Labor demands peaked in November and December, with 19.5 percent of farms reporting peak demand in the former month and 53.7 percent in the latter. Apart from the harvest season, very little wage labor was required. Almost 50 percent of farms had no wage labor at all in May (the off-season, when the census was taken), and another 25 percent had only one salaried employee at that time. During the harvest, the median number of wage and nonwage workers was 7, with 68 percent of farms reporting 10 or fewer. Only 10 percent of farms had 15 or more harvest workers, and only 43 of 600 owners had 20 workers or more. Paid workers were even fewer in number. Roughly one-fourth of the harvest labor was provided by unpaid family members, but only 17 percent of farms used no salaried labor at all in the harvest. Of the 83 percent which did, the average was 6, and 76 percent employed 10 or fewer salaried workers in the peak harvest season. A final indication of the stark dichotomy between minifundistas and family farmers can be seen in the 95 cases of owners who were working full time on another farm for wages in May, in nearly every case owners of farms of one or two manzanas.50

Relatively little of the post-1948 technical and political revolutions in coffee cultivation, so well analyzed by Raventós, was yet evident in the 1955 census in Santo Domingo.51 However, what evidence there was pointed in the direction of increasing farm sizes and the falling behind of minifundista producers. While specialization in coffee was very advanced, with 66 percent of the average farm’s land in coffee and 30 percent of farms, particularly the smallest, totally monocultural, improvements in cultivation were not yet widespread. Only 146 of 600 producers reported any access to credit, and 108 of these obtained it from private sources rather than the state banking system which was to assume a dominant role thereafter. Virtually nothing but the arábigo coffee variety was being used, and only 128 of 544 coffee producers reported any groves replanted in the preceding three years.52 Finally, only 187 of 544 farms reported using chemical fertilizers, the other principal source of increased yields since 1948.

The infrequent use of replanting, hybrids, and chemical fertilizers is indeed surprising. By the 1930s, extensive data were available showing up to 50 percent increases in yields with fertilizer use. Its use and the reorganization of production using wage labor gangs for systematic replanting, in the eastern district of Turrialba in the 1950s, were responsible for that region’s lead in yields nationwide.53

The introduction of chemical fertilizers was distorted in favor of large farms (Table X), as were yields in general (Table XI). Thus, the impact of chemical fertilizers would further distance large producers’ yields from those of the minifundistas, and subfamily farms, especially the 84 percent of one-manzana plots whose owners used no chemical fertilizers, were likely to be incorporated into larger units. The success of the family farmers in assimilating elements of successive “green revolutions” was predicated, in large part, on their absorbing the remnants of subfamily farm units unable to finance new cultivation techniques and fertilizer use to boost yields.

Even so, in light of what is known about the spectacular effect of fertilizer use on yields over the past four decades, the Santo Domingo data show relatively little immediate impact (Table XII). Mean yields for those who did use fertilizer were only slightly higher than for those who did not, although there was a measurable difference in the likelihood of very low (under five fanegas/manzana) or high (ten or over) yields depending on fertilizer use. Yields in Santo Domingo, at generally lower altitudes, were substantially higher than in San Isidro, and fertilizer usage was also more widespread in Santo Domingo, although it had not yet led to any spectacular results according to the 1955 census declarations.

Coffee production and land tenure in midtwentieth-century Santo Domingo was precisely what the probate and census records would have suggested earlier: widespread minifundio and impoverishment alongside a family farmer group enjoying remarkable stability over time. No more than a half dozen properties in the district might seriously be considered very large farms, and none were true latifundios. Nevertheless, the well-to-do coffee producer group clearly dominated, and the secret of its apparent stability and hegemony must be sought in its changing pattern of inheritance.

Inheritance, Smallholding, and Class

Partible inheritance led to minifundio and microscopic properties in Santo Domingo, and there is considerable evidence for this in the probate and census records described above. However, partible inheritance clearly did not lead to a limitless fractioning of farm properties. Despite the fact that each estate had an average of four to six heirs over the entire century 1840 to 1940, median farm sizes in probate remained virtually constant after the 1880s at 6 to 8 hectares (Table II). Moreover, the middling-sized farm (5 to 9.9 hectares) maintained its share of estates (13, 12, 14, and 15 percent) over the four time periods. Likewise, farm size distribution in the 1955 agricultural census (Table IX) shows a still substantial group of, in effect, family farmers, with 33 percent of owners in the 5.1-to-20-manzana range, 46 percent in the 3.1-to-20 range, and fully 55 percent above 3.1 manzanas. How can one explain this contradiction between a geometric growth in the number of heirs and a relative stability in farm sizes?

Probate inventory proceedings purport to reveal the distribution of goods among heirs. However, the formal declarations themselves are an extremely poor guide to the effective transmission of property. Over the entire century (1840-1940) partibility was the norm, under colonial-era legislation as well as Liberal measures after the 1880s.54 The modalities of expressed respect for partibility changed with legislative innovations, but each generation went to great lengths to act out (or feign) a commitment to “justice” and partibility in familial transmission of property. Before we question the accuracy of these declarations, we need to describe their internal patterns and changes over time.

Formal distribution of inheritance varied little. Roughly half of the deceased were of each sex in all time periods (Table XIII), and partibility, in one form or another, was the expressed norm in the large majority of cases (Table XIV; types 1, 2, 7, and to some extent 3 and 4 are reconcilable with partibility). Nevertheless, several changes were revealed in the probate records themselves. The number of cases involving residents outside of Santo Domingo itself increased dramatically (Table XIII). The frequency of forced sales for the purpose of making cash payments spiraled in the twentieth century (note 42 above and Table XV). Likewise, heirs increasingly claimed to be eschewing “shares” or “indivisible rights” in single properties in favor of “material division” of the land in question.55 Liberal inheritance law changes after the 1880s were used not to favor individual heirs at the expense of others (allowable for the first time), but rather to leave all property to the surviving spouse, a holding action of sorts in expectation of future partibility. In addition, families increasingly used “advances” on inheritance to children to assist them in migrating, particularly after the 1880s, to San Isidro or later to western Alajuela.

However, perhaps the single most important change in inheritance practices in the twentieth century, the restriction of partibility and discrimination against daughters in land transmission, is virtually never even hinted at in the probate documents themselves. Rare indeed is the case of admitted sale of all rights to one heir, such as when the eleven brothers and sisters of Ismael Madrigal Arce, all residents of San Isidro in 1932, ceded their rights in a mixed-crop farm of approximately 3.5 hectares for small cash payments and for the nearly one thousand pesos Ismael had spent on expenses of the deceased parents.56

Inheritance patterns before the twentieth century had been quite respectful of daughters’ formal rights. One could even argue, based on perhaps impressionistic evidence, that in the nineteenth century daughters were more often than not favored with home places and house lots (a form of “protective” favoring to be sure) over brothers who were expected to move at least a short distance and build their own home.57 However frequent or infrequent, women’s property ownership was clearly recognized as separate from that of their husbands; and though widows may have been almost “socially obliged” to report male relatives as administrators, the property was clearly theirs by law. Finally, while there were only 2 cases in 630 during the entire period from 1840 through 1939 of daughters being overtly favored at the expense of sons, there were family histories in which daughters later appear as landowners without their brothers being so fortunate.

The proof of a change in inheritance patterns which allowed farm sizes to remain fairly stable is not to be found in the probate records. Nor was there any single, hard-and-fast pattern which developed over time. Rather, it was a strong, unofficial tendency by which sons were favored and daughters lost in the bargain. Further study is needed to determine just how this was done, although the case of Ismael Madrigal, cited above, suggests one technique. The results, however, are fairly clear.

It is possible to trace various owners who appear in the 1955 agricultural census back to their families of origin in the 1927 population census. Of the families so identified, 33 had at least 2 blood-related children (prospective heirs) of whom at least 1 appeared as a landowner in the 1955 census. In these same families, there were a total of 91 male and 97 female children present in 1927, of whom 42 males and only 9 females were landowners in Santo Domingo or San Isidro in 1955. Sisters virtually never held land if none of their brothers did, while the reverse was more the rule than the exception. Even if no rigid inheritance rules had developed, a petty bourgeois, male-dominant, “farmer-like” pattern had begun to emerge, solidifying and clarifying class boundaries in agriculture. This was so despite the fact that coffee culture in Santo Domingo was not driven in such a direction by any technologically imposed minimum farm size as in the case of mechanization for cereal grain production worldwide.

Reformism, Smallholding, and Class

Two excellent studies have recently examined the important historical relationship between the post-1948 support of Partido Liberación Nacional for the coffee producer cooperative movement and the consolidation of a “family farm” model in the coffee economy.58 Both Raventós and Cazanga have shown that related benefits of this socially reformist model have been the creation of a cooperative processing and marketing structure to partially replace private capital, and a remarkable increase in yields owing to state financing of replanting and chemical fertilizer use as well as to hybrid development. All of this has allowed a surprisingly small “family farm” unit size to assimilate successive waves of green revolution technology. However, as Raventós has shown, the very success of reform in resolving the processor/producer contradiction in favor of producers and in vastly increasing yields has led to a new basic social contradiction between producers (now collectively capitalized with state support) and seasonal wage labor. Without any hope of mechanizing coffee picking, family farmer producers have required ever larger, impoverished migratory labor contingents to harvest their crops. Moreover, as Cazanga has demonstrated, the wealthier members of the producers’ cooperatives have consistently dominated state and cooperative coffee policies, making them ever more conservative and defensive of the interests of capital and the cooperatives’ special privileges.

The study of coffee producers in Santo Domingo adds to these findings by pointing up the emergence and consolidation of a petty bourgeois group of producers in the coffee economy well in advance of any major reformist triumph politically. Family farmer producers were far more the beneficiaries than the products of the post-1948 reformist programs for the coffee economy. Wealthy producers were clearly diverging from their poorer neighbors socially and demographically before 1927, and this surely accelerated thereafter. No package of reforms would have likely saved the 27 percent of growers with 1 manzana or less in 1955 (only 16 percent of whom used chemical fertilizer), nor could they affect equally the 17 percent who worked full time on someone else’s farm and those producers who met or exceeded the average of 15 to 20 fanegas harvested from 2 to 3 manzanas of coffee. Indeed, Santo Domingo’s experience suggests that petty bourgeois reform such as Costa Rica experienced in 1948 and thereafter, however historically and politically “popular,” was basically defensive of relative privilege in agriculture. Those who stood to benefit most were no more than a minority, however visible and influential, of even the agricultural population. Their family tree may have been popular, with peasant roots, but its branches led to private property worked by seasonal wage labor. Populist discourse, in this case, was logically as well as conjuncturally antileftist and antilabor.

On a larger scale, the history of smallholding and coffee in Santo Domingo suggests a high likelihood of internal class differentiation among direct producer households, toward the consolidation of a petty bourgeois group in agriculture, regardless of crop-related features impelling higher minimum farm sizes (so lacking in the present case). Indeed, one of the most striking findings of this study was the emergence of nonpartibility and favoring of sons, without any mechanization or new technological impetus for maintaining stable farm sizes. The logic of their own economic situation would seem to have been impetus enough for the well-to-do, in particular males, to recognize themselves as a class and erect defensible class boundaries, at the expense of siblings in general and sisters in particular, as well as of a century-old inheritance pattern.

Small wonder, then, that the reformist zeal of petty bourgeois smallholders should dissipate so quickly after victory in 1948. Having fought for the virtues of private property against perceived monopoly on the one side, and the threat of proletarianization on the other, their invocation of the commonwealth of direct producers/workers would cease when such a symbolic unity was no longer a partisan necessity. Administering statebank credit, fertilizer distribution, coffee processing and marketing, and consumer goods distribution are profoundly conservatizing and routinizing activities for even the most historically militant cooperative movements.59 Yet any conservative tendencies after 1948 were not simply the creation of the reforms or reformers themselves, however much their success may have contributed to them. Key behavioral and sociopolitical changes evident in Santo Domingo came about not so much as a consequence of reformist distribution of resources as by prereform restriction of their distribution. The coffee producers’ cooperative movement, one of the most visible legacies of the 1948 civil war, triumphed because of the strength of the nonprocessor but wealthy coffee producer group. If this group’s consolidation and political empowerment have been more visible since 1948, its emergence and self-consciousness had deep roots in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Fernando Picó, S. J., Amargo café (Los pequeños y medianos caficultores de Utuado en la segunda mitad del siglo XIX) (Río Piedras, 1981) and Libertad y servidumbre en el Puerto Rico del siglo XIX: Los jornaleros utuadeños en vísperas del auge del café (Río Piedras 1979); Laird W. Bergad, Coffee and the Growth of Agrarian Capitalism in Nineteenth-Century Puerto Rico (Princeton, 1983); William Roseberry, Coffee and Capitalism in the Venezuelan Andes (Austin, 1983); Thomas Holloway, Immigrants on the Land: Coffee and Society in São Paulo, 1886-1934 (Chapel Hill, 1980).


Some of the best recent studies of the historical evolution of smallholder regimes do not deal with coffee-based societies at all. See Franz J. Schryer, The Rancheros of Pisaflores: The History of a Peasant Bourgeoisie in Twentieth-Century Mexico (Toronto, 1980); Florencia E. Mallon, The Defense of Community in Peru’s Central Highlands: Peasant Struggle and Capitalist Transition, 1860-1940 (Princeton, 1983); and Eduardo Archetti and Kristi Anne Stolen, Explotación familiar y acumulación de capital en el campo argentino (Buenos Aires, 1975). The work by Archetti and Stolen deals with a perhaps atypical (within Latin America) transition to mechanized farming by Italian immigrants in Santa Fe, Argentina, while Schryer’s work parallels that of Roseberry and Bergad in its basis in aggregate figures for land tenure and change over time. Mallon’s work provides a more detailed view of the “winners” within smallholder society; Schryer’s “peasant bourgeoisie” is based largely on oral history sources.


Picó, Amargo café.


Carolyn Hall, El café y el desarrollo histórico-geográfico de Costa Rica (San José, 1976) and Cóncavas: Formación de una hacienda cafetalera, 1889-1911 (San José, 1978); Ciro F. S. Cardoso, “Formación de la hacienda cafetalera costarricense, siglo XIX,” in Haciendas, plantaciones y latifundios en América Latina, Enrique Florescano, ed. (Mexico City, 1975), 635-667; Héctor Pérez Brignoli, “Economía política del café en Costa Rica, 1850-1950,” Avances de Investigación, no. 5 (Universidad de Costa Rica, 1981); Samuel Stone, La dinastía de los conquistadores: La crisis del poder en la Costa Rica contemporánea (Ciudad Universidataria Rodrigo Facio, 1976); Gertrud Peters Solórzano, “La formación territorial de las grandes fincas de café en la Meseta Central: Estudio de la firma Tournón (1877-1955),” Revista de Historia, 9-10 (Heredia, Costa Rica, 1980), 81-167; Marco Palacios, El café en Colombia (1870-1970): Una historia económica, social y política (Bogotá, 1979); Absalón Machado C., El café: De la aparcería al capitalismo (Bogotá, 1977); Charles Bergquist, Coffee and Conflict in Colombia, 1886-1910 (Durham, 1978) and Labor in Latin America: Comparative Essays on Chile, Argentina, Venezuela and Colombia (Stanford, 1986).


The most influential exponent of smallholder-oriented reformism was Rodrigo Facio in his classic Estudio sobre economía costarricense: Memoria presentada a la facultad de derecho de la Universidad de Costa Rica, en octubre de 1941, para optar al título de licenciado en leyes (San José, 1942). For modern-day models based on householder production, see Pérez, “Economía política del café.”


See Hall, El café y el desarrollo and Peters, “La formación.”


On the origins of smallholding in Costa Rica, see Elizabeth Fonseca, Costa Rica colonial: La tierra y el hombre (Ciudad Universitaria Rodrigo Facio, 1983) and Lowell Gudmundson, Costa Rica Before Coffee: Society and Economy on the Eve of the Export Boom (Baton Rouge, 1986).


Bergquist, Labor in Latin America.


The terms are those of Facio, the intellectual leader of the pre-1948 reformist movement. For further details, see Jorge Enrique Romero Pérez, La social democracia en Costa Rica (San José, 1977) and Gudmundson, Costa Rica Before Coffee, chap. 1. Bergquist’s analysis (Labor in Latin America) of the rightward drift of Venezuelan reformism and of the ambiguities of Colombian smallholder reformism offer suggestive parallels with the Costa Rican experience.


For an analysis highlighting the importance of this antilabor component of local reformism in explaining the differing response of the United States to Costa Rica in 1948 and Guatemala in 1954, see Jacobo Schifter Sikora, Costa Rica 1948: Análisis de documentos confidenciales del departamento de estado (San José, 1982), 2d part, 203-247.


Aggregate and anonymous data sources are particularly good in Costa Rica, with published population census returns after 1864 and a very detailed coffee producer census taken in 1935 (referred to above) and another general agricultural census in 1955. For this study, basically four data bases were developed for Santo Domingo-San Isidro (an exercise replicable for virtually any portion of the Central Valley using the same sources). All four include identification by full name (given and, in three of the four cases, both surnames). They are: a population census schedule for 1846, a more detailed one for 1927, some 630 probate inventories between 1840 and 1940, and the originals of the published agricultural census for 1955, owner by owner, farm by farm. The 1846 count for Santo Domingo provides names for only heads of household and their spouses, with little information on kin ties within the household, while the 1927 count is extraordinarily precise on both demographic and economic items, but does not include all of Santo Domingo nor any of San Isidro. Data on only 2,371 individuals of the 6,089 reported for Santo Domingo could be found, and none on the 2,744 inhabitants of San Isidro. The lack of complete records limits the number of family histories or linkages which can be made with other data bases, but should not bias those which are obtainable.

The probate inventory information was codified for computer-based filekeeping, as were all four data bases individually. Probate files include information on size of landholdings, land use, number and names of heirs, and types of inheritance and distribution of the estate as well as gross and net worth. The 1955 agricultural census originals exist only on microfilm at the Archivos Nacionales in San José (the location of all four of the data sources described here), an unwitting gift of the Dirección General de Estadística y Censos and not fully cataloged as of late 1987. The census covers nearly the entire nation and consists of a lengthy questionnaire completed for each property owner, giving information on all aspects of farm operation, from ownership to cropping, inputs, labor recruitment, credit, and even fertilizer use. Some 600 cases are reported for Santo Domingo (345) and San Isidro (265), which roughly corresponds to the total number of owners reported in the published census figures. Given the number of cases involved, as well as the considerable gaps in the 1927 population census, record linkages were done by hand, while each individual data base was analyzed statistically using an SAS computer package. Combining these data sources allows for the tracking of numerous smallholding households and families over long periods of time.

This examination of Santo Domingo forms part of a larger research project on class formation and inheritance in the coffee economy that includes a similar reconstruction of the Desamparados-Tarrazú region south of San José, characterized by much lower yields, and earlier and more severe impoverishment of smallholders and growth of the problem of minifundio. A parallel study of class and coffee in the colonization zones of western Alajuela province can be found in Mario Samper, “Generations of Settlers” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1987).


Planters in San José (and a very few growers in the city of Heredia) had begun coffee cultivation for export in the late 1830s and 1840s.


Revista del Instituto de Defensa del Café, 5:30-38 (1937), 185, 301.


Ibid., and for property holding in 1927 the published census of that year by Dirección General de Estadística y Censos.


The comparison of landownership over time is somewhat deceptive in that no holdings under one manzana were registered in 1955, thus understating the number of owners. However, both probate and census records show a marked concentration and restriction of operating farm ownership, as distinct from house lots, garden plots, or backyard coffee groves. The figures themselves were 811 property owners in Santo Domingo and 442 in San Isidro in 1935, versus 345 and 265 respectively in 1955.


At least five owners of the undoubtedly primitive beneficios of the 1880s had been residents of Santo Domingo, whereas outside ownership was the rule in 1935. See source cited in n. 13 and Archivos Nacionales de Costa Rica (hereafter ANCR), Fomento, 35 (1887) and Gobernación, 28,957 (1878).


Dirección General de Estadística y Censos, Censo de población, 1950.


The area of Quintana was named for the second wife (Luisa de Quintana) of the Alférez and Teniente de Gobernador Sebastián de Zamora who first owned land in the area. In the early eighteenth century, their son, Sargento Mayor Antonio Aurelio de Zamora, requested some nine caballerías of land, or 12.2 percent of present-day Santo Domingo’s 32 square kilometers. Zamora then sold the land in lots of about one caballería to his associates, from whom, one may assume, arose several additional place names. See Edwin González, “Santo Domingo de Heredia: Análisis demográfico y socio-económico (1853-1920)” (licenciatura thesis, Universidad Nacional, Heredia, Costa Rica, 1978), 14-17, citing Luis González Flores, Origen y desarrollo de las poblaciones de Heredia, San José y Alajuela durante el régimen colonial (San José, 1943), 37, n. 11.


The collective portrait of land tenure among the wealthy is based on the following probate inventories filed between 1846 and 1878: ANCR, Mortuales Independientes de Heredia (hereafter MIH), 132, 144, 173, 174, 182, 245, 553, 560, 562, 584, 613, 629, 655, 880, 887, 974, 982, 987, 1,002, 1,364, 1,379, 1,458, 1,459, 1,563, 1,564, 1,751, 1,876, 2,324, 2,332, 2,337, 2,566, 2,573, 2,578, 3,040, 3,041, 3,400, 3,407, 3,408, 3,415, 3,425, 3,444, 3,450, 3,451, 3,455, 3,458, 3,459, 3,496, 3,499, 3,685, 3,698, and 3,700.


One particularly good example of this practice and its mental and linguistic contradictions can be seen in the locals’ use of the term cerco(s). While one might logically assume that “un cerco de maíz” or “cerco de labranza,” etc., referred to a fenced crop area, in fact local usage defined the term as any sown or cleared plot. In several probate inventories, the distinction is made between cercos of plantings or clearing in preparation for same, and other "cercos con (sus) cercas (correspondientes)." On the “cercos" versus “cercas” and “en común" questions, see ANCR, MIH, 132 (1846), 144 (1854), 629 (1874), 655 (1878), 1,379 (1869), 1,458 (1857), 1,563 (1846), 2,324 (1845), 2,566 (1846), 2,573 (1849). 3,408 (1867), 3,496 (1859), 3,685 (1848), and 3,698 (1857).


Surviving fragmentary documentation from the 1850s and 1860s on deeding of public lands in the Caricias/Cuascua area between Santo Domingo and San Isidro shows small-scale claims and grants of a few manzanas rather than large ones in caballerías. These records are partially preserved in the loft of Heredia’s municipal building, as part of the municipality’s actas. They will no doubt soon be lost, due to use of the loft as a makeshift kitchen for the municipal employees’ noon meal.


Source material on the contradictions of a petty bourgeois ideology which was both reformist (antioligarchic) and defensive, if not reactionary (vis-à-vis worker ideology), can be found along with the statistical studies of the Revista del Instituto de Defensa del Café. The following headings suggest the kinds of issues considered: “Por el trabajador rural,” “El café, distribuidor de riquezas,” “Un producto que pudiéramos llamar socialista,” “¿A quién debe corresponder la plusvalía del suelo?” (to the worker or direct producer, based on the teachings of Adam Smith rather than any “socialist” or “communist” ideology). See 1:1–6 (1934-35), 202-204 and 3:14-20 (1935-36), 560-563.


Long ago, Richard Hofstadter contrasted North American agricultural regions and their responses to populist politics (lukewarm in the capitalized, mixed-farming old Northwest, fervent in the indebted and monocultural wheat and cotton belts) on the basis of the latter’s use of the term (hired) “help” versus “laborer” or “worker” in the former. Kin-based labor recruitment, even when salaried, and its ideological manipulation helped “soften” class differences and antagonisms within a petty producer-based reform movement. For similarly perceptive analyses of kin and gender ideologies in Latin America, see Mallon, The Defense of Community and “Gender and Class in the Transition to Capitalism: Household and Mode of Production in Central Peru,” Latin American Perspectives, 13:1 (Winter 1986), 147-174.


The Anglophone term “trust” was often used by Costa Rican reformist defenders of producers (identified with “the nation”) against processors. See Victor Hugo Acuña Ortega, “La ideología de los pequeños y medianos productores cafetaleros costarricenses (1900-1961),” Revista de Historia, 16 (1987), 137-159 and “Patrones del conflicto social en la economía cafetalera costarricense (1900-1948),” Revista de Ciencias Sociales, 31 (Universidad de Costa Rica, 1986), 113-122.


For Tournón, see Peters, “La formación,” and for Sánchez, see Ana Virginia Arguedas Chaverri and Marta Ramírez Arias, “Contribución al análisis de empresas: El caso de Julio Sánchez Lepiz” (tesis de licenciatura, Universidad Nacional, 1985).


Since colonial times, mule-based transport often led to considerable accumulation of wealth. In Costa Rica, major fortunes were made in cart transport during the second half of the nineteenth century. That this particular fortune proved long lived can be seen in the fact that the current Costa Rican president, Óscar Arias Sánchez, is the grandson of Julio Sánchez.


See Acuña’s works, cited in n. 24, and Manuel Marín Quirós, “Discurso ante la asamblea de productores de café, celebrada en el Teatro Júpiter de Guadalupe, en la tarde del domingo 27 de marzo de 1932,” Revista de Historia, 16 (1987), 133-135.


On the post-1948 innovations and their consequences, see Ciska Raventós, “El café en Costa Rica: Desarrollo capitalista y diferenciación social de los productores, 1950-1980” (tesis de pos-grado, Universidad de Costa Rica, 1983) and “Desarrollo económico, estructura y contradicciones sociales en la producción de café,” Revista de Historia, 14 (1986), 179-195; José D. Cazanga, Las cooperativas de caficultores en Costa Rica (San José, 1987) (based on a late 1970s thesis at the Universidad de Costa Rica).


For processor/producer conflict, see ANCR, MIH, 1,081 (1899), 3,816 (1914), 4,652 (1909); Remesa 982, no. 2 (1924), 296 (1921), 298 (1912); Remesa 1,294, no. 93 (1933). Of the 630 inventories, roughly 75 to 100 might be considered of well-to-do owners without processing plants (only 4 cases refer to these). Representative examples include: nos. 467, 629, 698, 719, 729, 735, 1,425, 1,901, 2,796, 2,799, 3,153, 3,186, 3,476, 3,553, 3,580, 3,762, 3,834, 4,596, 4,766 (1874-1920); Remesa 1,168, nos. 4, 86, 101, 122, 182, 244 (1919-28); Remesa 1,294, nos. 29, 67, 160, 161 (1931-37); Santo Domingo, Alcaldía Única, 56, 99, 147 (1898-1903).


Of 600 farmers surveyed in 1955, only 146 reported access to credit, 108 from private sources.


ANCR, MIH, Remesa 1,168, no. 4 (1923).


ANCR, MIH, 4,596 (1920). All subsequent reconstructions also employ the 1927 and 1955 census originals as described in n. 11.


ANCR, MIH, Santo Domingo, Alcaldía Única, 141 (1900).


ANCR, MIH, 3,751 (1887). For a case of a family heavily indebted to local processor lenders but able to acquire 40 hectares of public lands in Tilarán in highland Guanacaste province, see ibid., Remesa 1,294, no. 93 (1933).


ANCR, MIH, 2,202 (1883).


Ibid., Santo Domingo, Alcaldía Única, 112 (1905).


Ibid., 70 (1907).


ANCR, MIH, Remesa 1,168, no. 125(1932).


Ibid., Remesa 1,472, no. 3 (1939).


For examples of this, see ANCR, MIH, 287 (1899-1903), 1,081 (1899), 4,652 (1909); Remesa 1,168, nos. 184 (1929) and 303 (1927).


The 1844 census referred to is not the one used for reconstruction (1846). The 1844 count is part of ANCR, Congreso, 5,424. All males over age 14 declared occupations in 1927, while only heads of household did so in the midnineteenth-century counts. The 1927 declaration was very precise, asking “what” the occupation was, “where” it was undertaken, and “on whose account.”


See Table XV. The fact that several different administrative sources (Juzgado Civil, Remesas, Alcaldía Única, etc.) are combined in the probate section of the archive, with radically different distributions across time periods, suggests the need for caution in any generalizations regarding change.


For a fuller discussion of family and household in nineteenth-century Costa Rica, see Gudmundson, Costa Rica Before Coffee, chap. 3, 88-124.


Ibid., 107.


Values for women are lower owing to the frequency of single motherhood and heading of households by such young women.


For similar findings on the impact of market agriculture amid growing land scarcity, see Ann Hagerman Johnson, “The Impact of Market Agriculture on Family and Household Structure in Nineteenth-Century Chile,’’ HAHR, 58:4 (Nov. 1978), 625-648; and Elizabeth Anne Kuznesof, “An Analysis of Household Composition and Headship as Related to Changes in Mode of Production: São Paulo, 1765 to 1836,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 22:1 (Jan. 1980), 78-108.


See, for example, Astrid Fischel Volio, Consenso y represión: Una interpretación sociopolítica de la educación costarricense (San José, 1987).


Literacy figures come from González, "Santo Domingo,” who quotes 1883 and 1892 census reports. A detailed study of the early twentieth-century graduates of the normal school in Heredia would likely shed considerable light on these questions.


For material on Fonseca, 1 of 12 children of a middling landed family with a house and three small pieces of crop land in Santo Domingo in 1893, see Acuña, “La ideología,” 145, and ANCR, MIH, 465 (1893). Fonseca was an organizer of producer cooperatives and prolific author of opinion pieces published in the major daily of the time, Diario de Costa Rica.


These responses were included in the census forms analyzed in Tables IX to XII and described in n. 11.


Raventós, “El café en Costa Rica” and “Desarrollo económico.”


Of these, fully 109 had one manzana or less replanted. Virtually all coffee was more than ten years old and of the midnineteenth-century, genetically little improved arábigo variety characterized by much greater height and lower yields than twentieth-century hybrid varieties.


Studies of fertilizer use and yields are reported in the Revista del instituto de Defensa del Café, 1:1-6 (1935). 19. For Turrialba, see Antonio Manuel Arce, “Rational Introduction of Technology on a Costa Rican Coffee Hacienda: Sociological Implications” (Ph.D. diss., Michigan State University, 1959).


Under colonial-era legislation, only one-seventh of the deceased’s estate could be freely disposed of in favoring any heir. After 1882, all such restrictions were theoretically lifted.


This was in large part a reflection of a decline in the number of potreros or pasture lands and less-developed properties which were almost always the ones given in derechos or acetones without any material division. Coffee groves were supposedly divided very precisely, both monetarily and physically, although one might well doubt the truthfulness of these claims over time.


ANCR, MIH, Remesa 1,168, no. 41 (1932).


For similar findings see Alida Christine Metcalf, “Fathers and Sons: The Politics of Inheritance in a Colonial Brazilian Township,” HAHR, 66:3 (Aug. 1986), 455-484. For an exceptionally clear case of this involving Santo Domingo residents, see ANCR, MIH, 2,202 (1883).


Raventós, “Desarrollo económico”; Cazanga, Las cooperativas.


For similar processes of growing conservatism among militant farmer cooperatives in the United States and Canada, see Garin Burbank, “Agrarian Socialism in Saskatchewan and Oklahoma: Short-Run Radicalism, Long-Run Conservatism,” Agricultural History, 51:1 (Jan. 1977), 173-180 and Steven Hahn, The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850-1890 (New York, 1983).

Author notes


Funding of this research by the Fulbright Central American Republics research program during 1986 and a University of Oklahoma summer faculty research grant for 1987 is gratefully acknowledged. The author thanks Brad Quinn, Joe Grissom, and Larry Logue for computer-related assistance and Patricia Nisbett for record linkage assistance. Particular thanks are due to the head of the Archivos Nacionales in Costa Rica, Lic. Luz Alba Chacón de Umaña, for allowing the microfilming of uncatalogued documentation and to the University of Oklahoma Research Council for funds for this task. The map was prepared by Mary