During the latter part of the nineteenth century, Latin America entered a period of transition, as capitalist development jostled isolated rural hamlets and their inhabitants out of their traditional ways. Mexico, under the leadership of Porfirio Díaz, pursued the liberal vision of a modernizing society fashioned in the image of a European state like France or England. To transform Mexico from its colonial past, however, required a massive infusion of capital and technology into the Porfiriato’s stable political environment. Equally important, the products of capitalistic agriculture, destined for international markets, required a ready source of cheap labor.

The first portion of this essay will examine the process of development by focusing on the creation of a rubber plantation called La Zacualpa, located in the coastal jungle of the Soconusco department in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Events here in the last years of the Porfiriato illustrate the necessity of capital formation, the dimensions of available land and labor, and the advent of technology, all prerequisites for a successful entrepreneurial project. This portion of the essay will also advance the hypothesis that labor conditions, at least on this tropical plantation, were not as coercive as has been traditionally supposed.1

The second issue to be examined is the impact of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, particularly the events from 1914 to 1920, on the plantation and its workers. While Porfirian spokespersons almost universally applauded the growth of capitalistic agricultural enterprises like La Zacualpa, the forces of revolution, according to some recent studies, cast a more critical eye on development, particularly as it affected the lower classes, or folk.2 Nowhere else in Latin America did the rebellion of the folk reach such dramatic proportions as in Mexico, where by 1911 a full-blown social revolution had commenced. Yet no sooner had the blood dried on the battlefields than historians had begun to debate the very nature of the Mexican Revolution. Was it a widespread peasant movement, a social upheaval on the order of the French or Russian Revolution, as the participants and the older generation of historians claimed? Or could it be characterized as a series of careerist episodes in which new, younger leaders replaced the Porfirians, as the revisionists have asserted?3

This essay will assess the Revolution’s impact on La Zacualpa, both in terms of the changes legislated by the Carranza revolution, particularly the Ley de Obreros issued on October 30, 1914, and other, less articulated or quantifiable changes that appear to have occurred during the latter part of the revolutionary decade. The accumulation of evidence will suggest that the worker’s condition on La Zacualpa modestly improved as a result of local market conditions that the Revolution affected, rather than as the result of “revolutionary” legislation.

The Regional Background

Historically and geographically, Chiapas has always been more a part of Central America than of Mexico.4 Periodically torn between the two, the state has a rich and complex history dating back at least to the conquest. Its three regions, the Central Valley, the Meseta Central (also known as the highlands), and the Pacific littoral, the subject of this study, are quite distinct, as are the people who inhabit them. Highland Chiapas has long captivated anthropologists with its rich folklore and traditions, colorful costumes, and fiestas. The Central Valley, where most of the Spanish population settled, has been the politically dominant region. The Pacific littoral, including the province of Soconusco, has received considerably less attention, perhaps because it lacked both colorful customs and a vigorous economy.

During the immediate postconquest period, however—aptly described by Murdo MacLeod as an era “more like a raid than an occupation—Soconusco and the Pacific littoral prospered. This narrow coastal province, between 15 and 30 kilometers wide, nurtured thick groves of cacao plants that had produced the favored drink of the Aztec nobility. For generations the Spanish believed that cacao was “fit only for pigs,” at least until they discovered that thickly laced with sugar, chocolate was most palatable. Nevertheless, cacao was a produit moteur because it was highly marketable to the Indians and therefore a source of ready cash. Until 1570, when the native population of Soconusco suffered a dramatic decline as a result of overwork and epidemic disease, cacao proved a major source of loot for the conquistadors.5 Thereafter, Soconusco fell victim to the woes typical of Spanish America late in the sixteenth century: drastic population declines led to economic depression. Although crown officials attempted to revive the cacao boom by importing Indians from other regions to work the groves, their schemes met with, at best, lukewarm support from Spain. As a result, for most of the colonial and early national periods, Soconusco generally languished as a depopulated backwater of the empire.6 And while the economic decline may have spelled ruin for the Spanish entrepreneurs of Soconusco, the few remaining Indians probably enjoyed a greater likelihood of survival as cacao production diminished.

The early eighteenth century saw a small measure of prosperity return to Central America and Chiapas as the Indian population rebounded. Capital originating in government employment, corruption, and contra band brought new life to the region. But the political crisis caused by the dissolution of the Spanish Empire introduced additional troubles for Chiapas, especially after liberator Agustín de Iturbide’s ill-fated monarchy collapsed. Like a meal bone fought over by a Pekingese and a Great Dane, Chiapas ended up as a possession of the larger nation to the north, although Guatemala continued to snarl at the border until the 1880s. The department of Soconusco chose to ignore both nations and remained independent until 1843, when General Antonio López de Santa Anna forcibly grafted it back onto Chiapas.7 From then until 1890, wrangles between the Liberals, representing the elite of the Central Valley, and the highland Conservatives frustrated progress.8 During the heyday of the Porfiriato, the resolution of the longstanding border conflict with Guatemala and the assassination of a capricious local cacique created the political conditions necessary to make Chiapas, and specifically Soconusco, conducive to foreign investment. Rich in vacant land, and with an indigenous population available for exploitation as labor, Chiapas could now entertain the notion of becoming yet another site for the development of tropical agribusiness.

The Plantation and Development, 1890-1915

The idea of capitalistic development fueled by foreign investment caught fire during this period throughout much of Latin America, Mexico included. Particularly in those circles where the philosophy of positivism took root, Latin American leaders began to believe that their nations could escape their relative poverty by modeling themselves after a steadily industrializing Europe. The positivists concocted a formula that they believed would hasten the process of modernization. In general, these proponents of economic development emphasized the need for massive capital investment. To make their lands attractive to investors, they had to guarantee political stability and the safety of capital, provide huge quantities of real property at low cost, ensure an adequate source of inexpensive labor, and agree to collaborate with entrepreneurs on schemes to bring technology to Latin America, particularly the new forms of transportation, such as the railroad.9 Yet it would be wrong to ascribe to the positivists a mechanistic view of development.10 While each of the four factors described was probably required at least in some degree for a successful venture, the relative proportion of each depended on the local circumstances. For example, a deficiency of technology might be overcome by a surplus of labor.

The Latin American desire for investment happily coincided with economic expansion in the United States during the post-Civil War period. And the advent of political stability in Chiapas during the 1890s fostered a period when the trickle of U.S. investment in Mexico swelled to a flood. Would-be entrepreneurs plunked their dollars into Chiapan land, drawn by promoters hawking vast tracts of forest and jungle. Few real estate titles had been issued during the colonial period or the nineteenth century, so in the eyes of the government the land was vacant. Land development companies flourished, their advertisements mesmerizing even the usually cautious small investor, who now dreamed of a tropical bonanza.11

Most foreigners who purchased real property in Soconusco with plans to immigrate there preferred the cooler foothills, where coffee flourished. Germans led the rush into the coffee business here, just as they did in much of Central America. Hot on their heels came British and U.S. investors, staking out their fincas and planting the bushes that would bear them gold.12 Compared to the legions who entered the coffee business, only a few entrepreneurs invested in rubber plantations, at least in this region. And none of those rubber enterprises planted on the scale that La Zacualpa did. Thus, in one sense La Zacualpa was atypical. In the larger sense, however, La Zacualpa represented a typical capital investment in real estate that, its shareholders presumed, would generate huge profits on the international market.

Growth of the Rubber Industry

Formed in the mid-1890s, the La Zacualpa–Hidalgo Rubber Corporation, a Nevada corporation with its headquarters in San Francisco, represented both British and U.S. interests. Its principal shareholder and one of its directors, a British citizen named Oliver Herbert Harrison, invested millions of dollars in the company. He and corporate president E. R. Stackable, an American, sent one William Fisher and a colleague to clear the jungle and plant approximately 18,000 acres of castilloa elastica, the domestic Mexican rubber tree, on the property. The corporation reserved the remaining 12,000 acres for immediate use as pasturage and future development.13

Fisher and other travelers could not help but notice the great physical contrast between the humid rubber-producing region and the coffee fincas in the highlands. Entering the jungle, the visitor was greeted by chattering monkeys, oversized insects, great macaws splashed with gaudy colors, and foliage so dense it resembled a giant screen. Just a few feet off the trails—euphemistically labeled “roads”—one might encounter a bushmaster snake or a jaguar. The everpresent odor of molding leaves and the heavy sweetness of flowering trees left an unforgettable impression.14 Tropical Chiapas was not for the faint of heart. Nevertheless, despite the physical obstacles, late in the 1890s the first castilloa seedlings were planted.

Given these conditions, Harrison and the other investors were taking a calculated risk in yet another sense. Rubber, which can be derived from several different varieties of plants, requires a significant gestation period, usually about ten years, before the mature trees produce latex. What’s more, rubber had never been grown successfully on a plantation but only plucked from the wild. Brazilian producers, who pioneered the rubber industry in the recesses of the Amazon jungle, relied on local gatherers called seringueros to collect latex from the wild trees. Hevea brasiliensis trees typically grew about a mile apart, which required the seringueros to travel great distances to tap the trees and later to collect the sap. Their production reached only about five hundred pounds annually, mainly because of the distances they had to travel.15 Both Brazilian and foreign entrepreneurs recognized these inefficiencies and dreamed of creating large plantations. They never succeeded in Brazil, although rubber plantations would ultimately flourish in Asia after 1915 with Brazilian hevea seeds smuggled out by Henry Wickham, a British adventurer.16

The Chiapan jungle was not quite the same tropical rain forest as the Amazon. The littoral had a two-month dry season that was incompatible with hevea’s growth cycle. Thus the La Zacualpa corporation and the other Soconuscan rubber plantations stayed with the domestic castilloa elastica. Castilloa had been used since pre-Columbian times, when it was fashioned into odd-shaped shoes for dwarfs and jesters at Moctezuma II’s court and into the balls used for the infamous Mesoamerican ballgame that reputedly, at least among the Maya and Aztecs, ended in the sacrifice of the losing team’s captain.17Castilloa elastica was less finicky than hevea: it could be planted in densely packed groves, although on some Chiapas plantations the trees planted this way never produced latex. The latex flowed most abundantly during the rainy season—if local legends are to be believed, especially at the time of the half-moon.18 Yields, however, were tiny compared to hevea. Castilloa produced only a couple of ounces of latex on average, and then only twice a year. La Zacualpa, for example, contained approximately three-and-a-half million trees, an indication of the number necessary to yield a sizable amount of rubber. Yet despite the low yield per tree, castilloa production proved extremely profitable from the 1890s through the boom year of 1910. During the following decade, however, when raw rubber prices dropped significantly, many plantations lost money and were abandoned.19

The La Zacualpa corporation and other nineteenth-century venture capitalists accepted these high risks because they expected huge profits, an expectation based on their understanding of the law of supply and demand. Rubber’s value as a product rose during the 1840s, when Charles Goodyear’s discovery, the vulcanization process, made rubber goods like galoshes less vulnerable to temperature changes and hence more practical. By the time the Gay Nineties were in full swing, demand for rubber was soaring, as every consumer in the United States and Europe coveted a bicycle with rubber tires.20 When the automobile arrived in the early 1900s, rubber usage expanded further.

Perceptive capitalists saw that the Brazilian seringueros could not meet this spiraling demand. While other adventurers collected wild rubber in Africa, Central America, and Mexico, demand still outstripped supply, leading entrepreneurs to the conclusion that bigger profits could be made in plantation rubber (as the Malaysians would ultimately prove). President William McKinley fueled the plantation boom with his message to Congress in 1899, encouraging entrepreneurs to establish castilloa production in the new tropical possessions recently wrested from Spain. Speculators and promoters were soon marketing properties to investors large and small, and the Department of Agriculture’s cautionary words about the risk of low yields were, as one expert quaintly put it, “so much expectorating against the whirlwind.”21 For all these reasons, U.S. and British entrepreneurs rushed into Chiapas in the 1890s.

Investment capital was required for more than the mere purchase of land. Once the groves of castilloa took root, the profuse underbrush had to be cleared regularly to provide access to the trees and to allow them to grow unobstructed. In addition, the La Zacualpa corporation had to construct a drainage canal through the middle of the main plantation, fully equipped with gates, to irrigate the groves during the dry season and to prevent them from flooding in the height of the rainy one. These operations plus the construction of a rubber mill, courthouse, school, church, and other facilities required supervisory personnel, who demanded decent on-site housing.

The hired hands undoubtedly built the magnificent manager’s residence as well as their own more modest dwellings. Standing two stories high and enclosing an open courtyard, the manager’s four-bedroom home included spacious dining and living rooms. The corporation also furnished the home appropriately for entertaining, with a table service for 14, linens, silverware, and other accoutrements. The kitchen and the bath were each housed in separate buildings. The company provided the necessary rudiments of Western civilization in the form of modern electrical appliances like a refrigerator, fans, and a gramophone, along with a piano and a set of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Although the tropics eventually took their toll on the casa grande, the manager’s accommodations were clearly superior to those offered to the other denizens of the plantation. The manager’s assistants, who lived on the company’s smaller, neighboring plantations, La Zacualpa 2 and Juilapa, also enjoyed handsome, albeit smaller, residences.22 Thus the La Zacualpa-Hidalgo Rubber Corporation appears to have been well capitalized. This may be another reason for its relative success while other smaller, neighboring plantations, whose capital all too frequently disappeared into promoters’ pockets, went bankrupt during the hard times of the twentieth century’s second decade.

The Porfirian development model posited modern technology as a factor almost as important as capital accumulation and available land. While technology failed to invent labor-saving devices for collecting rubber, a machine called the centrifuge somewhat improved rubber processing (although most raw rubber was coagulated with the juice of a local vine). More important, technology did provide Soconusco with sophisticated transportation systems for forest products, thereby opening up these lands to development. Certainly Díaz’ hand-picked governor, Emilio Rabasa, a local progressive, supported the idea of railroad construction in Chiapas. Labeling his program “regeneration and progress,” Rabasa helped integrate the state’s economy into world trade and fostered additional foreign investment.23 Specifically, Rabasa granted lucrative concessions to build the transportation and communication infrastructure. One component was the Pan-American Railroad, which, beginning in 1907, ran from San Gerónimo in Oaxaca to Suchiate on the Guatemalan border, with a stop at La Zacualpa.

In these best of times, the Pan-American Railroad used second-hand equipment. The engine resembled an eccentric character in a Graham Greene novel, living out its last useful days in the tropics. Decay soon won its battle with cleanliness. The cane seats in the first-class compartment crumbled at a touch, and the train chugged cautiously along at a mule’s pace because the combination of climate, shoddy construction, and voracious ants rotted the ties and caused derailments. When these occurred, a not-infrequent event on the short trip, the passengers climbed out and helped the crew guide the little train back onto the tracks. Visitors, if not in a hurry, found the trip quaint and charming despite these inconveniences: at every stop children sold tropical fruit to the sweat-soaked travelers.24 At last the train would crawl into La Zacualpa’s station not far from the town of Tapachula.

Being situated on the Pan-American route enhanced La Zacualpa’s profitability, a familiar story wherever railroads were built.25 Because the railroad was not altogether reliable, however, the plantation also utilized an alternative route to market. Goods could be sent overland by horse or oxcart to the nearby tiny, treacherous port of San Benito, from which they could be shipped to California.26 During the late Porfiriato, the government improved San Benito’s port facilities, although they remained far from perfect. Thus whichever route was chosen, La Zacualpa had some access to modern transportation facilities, although technology was probably the least important of the four factors in corporate development plans.

Plantation Labor Conditions

The final ingredient in the recipe of developmental tropical agriculture was labor. Obviously, a huge plantation short on technology, such as La Zacualpa, needed a sufficient and inexpensive labor force. In the 1890s, as it has in the 1990s, cheap labor served as a major inducement for businesses to locate in Mexico; and Porfirian leaders had few compunctions about applying coercive tactics to force the local population to work. Yet as John Tutino’s recent study points out, even coerced agrarian workers would not rebel as long as the complex interplay of material conditions, autonomy, security, and mobility remained favorable to them.27

Labor conditions varied from region to region and even plantation to plantation.28 Friedrich Katz posits four types of peones in the rural regions: the tenant farmer, the sharecropper, the temporary laborer, and the peón acasillado, or resident peón. Of these, Katz considers the peones acasillados, a group well represented on La Zacualpa, to occupy the most advantageous position, because they enjoyed some security as well as four types of compensation: a small plot of hacienda land for crops, an annual ration of corn and other goods, the right to graze a limited number of animals on plantation lands, and direct wages. These permanent residents, at least in most areas of the south, tended to be a minority in the plantation population. La Zacualpa, however, appears to be an exception to this rule, probably because it needed a year-round work force, in contrast to coffee plantations, which preferred temporary help.

Katz also describes the enganchados, the unfortunate “hooked ones,” contract laborers brought from central Mexico. Often displaced from their own lands by the voracious estates of the central plateau or the highlands, these workers would be induced to sign labor contracts, often under the influence of drugs or strong drink, and then would be transported to remote areas to work. Of all the agricultural laborers in the south, the enganchados endured the most squalid conditions.29

Muckraking journalists, from the well-known John Kenneth Turner to the obscure Herman Whitaker, who actually visited Chiapas rubber plantations, exposed the cruelties these workers suffered. Laborers from the highlands were enticed to the rubber plantations by promises of high wages, only to find themselves indebted to the estate for their rail fare, clothes, tools, and the labor agent’s fees—a debt so enormous they had to save their wages for a year to repay it. Repressive tactics varied, from locking the workers into crowded quarters called galeras at night to dismembering those caught trying to escape.30 In the tradition of yellow journalism, Whitaker may have overdramatized his findings; but other visitors to Chiapas in the late Porfiriato confirmed that the enganchados were virtual slaves, imprisoned by a combination of inescapable debt and barbed wire.31

Whatever may have been the prevalent mode of labor recruitment in Chiapas, there is no evidence that such atrocities were perpetrated at La Zacualpa.32 This is not to suggest that a worker’s life there was ideal. The plantation did purchase indebted workers from neighboring estates. Because Mexican law prevented workers from leaving employment until they had paid their debts—which were transferable—some commentators have suggested that these workers lacked mobility from one estate to another, not to mention personal freedom. Yet the workers’ ability to negotiate their transfer between estates, as well as to bargain for substantial loans, indicates that they controlled their own fate far more extensively than traditionally supposed.33 Although La Zacualpa’s records do not describe, in any quantifiable fashion, the workers’ economic well-being, they do tell that each family shared dormitorylike dwellings with other families, averaging two tiny rooms per family unit. Post-1915 photographs reveal that the housing was laid out like barracks, with a wide road dividing the buildings.34 The interiors smelled of incense and burnt charcoal and contained only the simplest of furnishings, adorned by a statue of a saint, a crucifix, or a picture of Jesus. In these photographs La Zacualpa’s housing appears to be reasonably good; certainly better than the galeras on other plantations.

Few abuses on the plantations drew more criticism from social commentators than the tienda de raya, the company store. This institution supplied the peones with the necessities of life, such as dry goods, clothing, tools, and alcohol. During the Porfiriato, plantation owners frequently used the company store as a mechanism to impose debt peonage on the workers, in some cases effectively perpetuating their servitude. On La Zacualpa, management purchased workers with debts of up to one thousand pesos and maintained individual debt totals in the ledgers of the tienda de raya.35 Workers could also make purchases on credit; therefore the evidence is clear that debt peonage existed on La Zacualpa during the Porfiriato and the early revolutionary period. Whether the peonage helped or hurt the workers, the available records do not tell.

As one regional historian has commented, the province of Soconusco resembled the Wild West during the latter years of the Porfiriato. Frontiersmen and pioneers like William Fisher were followed by a train of adventurers, smugglers, promoters, speculators, businessmen, prostitutes, and con artists.36 This new atmosphere overwhelmed and disrupted the folk, as E. Bradford Burns has hypothesized.37 Burns suggests that the folk were at best tricked by outside forces into accepting the destruction of their culture. It seems possible, however, that some of the folk saw advantages in the employment offered by La Zacualpa and other plantations in terms of an improved standard of living and, more important, security.38 Just as many Latin Americans today reject their rural roots and flock to cities in pursuit of wealth or a better life, so some capitalistic estates may well have been economic magnets in the nineteenth century. To reject the idea of freedom of choice on the part of La Zacualpa’s workers, given the relative absence of enganchados on the plantation, is to suggest a deterministic and coercive view of labor relations that the evidence does not entirely support.

La Zacualpa and the Carranza Revolution, 1915–1920

Both the folk and the plantation itself underwent a period of dramatic and fundamental change during the first decade of the Mexican Revolution. Like other enclaves in southern Mexico, La Zacualpa felt no stirrings until the autumn of 1914. The only earlier revolutionary activity in the state had involved some fighting over the location of the state capital in 1911, and that episode left the Pacific littoral untouched. But while Chiapas went about its own business, the national leadership, and more specifically First Chief Venustiano Carranza, decided to take its revolution south. It dispatched Carranza’s brother Jesús with an army to Oaxaca and Carranza’s top aide, General Jesús Agustín Castro, to Chiapas.39

Although the occupation began peacefully enough, portents of trouble soon appeared. The Constitutionalist soldiers, accustomed to the rough- and-ready ways of the revolutionary north and seeking their own opportunities, simply seized cattle and horses as the need arose. Ironically, the victims of these excesses tended to be the same campesinos and urban poor the Constitutionalists ostensibly had come to liberate.40 The result was a prolonged civil war within the state, usually described as a “landlord” rebellion because of the composition of its leadership. The folk on La Zacualpa grew restive. Some workers apparently left the plantation to join either the Constitutionalists or the landlord revolt, while others, especially on the two smaller estates, which employed numerous wage laborers, apparently crossed the thin line into banditry; this was attributed to “their malinterpretation of the principles of the revolution.”41

The Legislative Reforms

The Revolution also affected La Zacualpa through the reformist legislation enacted by now-Governor Castro between October and December 1914. The most important bill, the Workers’ Law of October 30, 1914, mandated changes in agrarian labor practices statewide.42

Castro’s legislation, which was apparently drafted following a brainstorming session with other Constitutionalist leaders, abolished debt peonage in Chiapas.43 Landlords could no longer use the courts to collect a peón’s debts. Agricultural wages had to be paid in cash, not scrip or merchandise, and the statute established a variable minimum wage according to district. Field laborers were not permitted to work more than ten hours a day, and they received a form of workers’ compensation if injured on the job. The law also abolished the debt-collecting mechanism of the tiendas de raya, and allowed peones to use the landlord’s water and firewood. Peones could also graze as many as six head of cattle or horses on an estate. The landlord had to provide housing, medical attention, and free schooling for all children resident on the estate, who, moreover, were barred from working. If the landlord violated any of these provisions, the statute threatened prison terms, fines, and even confiscation of the estate.

Although the statute did not specifically address the plight of the enganchados, arguably it abolished the institution, because debt had been the mechanism used to “hook” the contract laborer. In sum, the clear intent of the legislation was to protect the rural worker. As an additional enforcement mechanism, the law established special commissions under the jurisdiction of local military commanders that made bimonthly, random inspections of estates. In exchange for these benefits, the law obligated the peones to work honestly and energetically.44 Yet the Workers’ Law sought only to reform labor institutions; nowhere did it threaten the plantation’s ownership interest in the land.

Castro himself believed that the reforms had completely transformed the state. In February 1915 he wrote Carranza a long letter citing his success in increasing educational opportunities and bragging that he had bettered the social conditions of more than 140,000 Chiapenecans. Castro claimed that during his brief tenure, he had engendered mutual respect among all members of society; a condition, he asserted, that had never existed before. He also declared that he had successfully permitted agriculture, the only real economic force in the state, to “continue, as much as possible, its traditional course,” and that he had preserved agriculture’s “economic equilibrium.”45 By this statement he apparently was indicating that he was sensitive to the need to maintain agricultural productivity while raising the self-esteem of agricultural workers. Whether Castro’s boasts were accurate, and how La Zacualpa changed as a result of the legislation, will now be examined.

Despite Castro’s stated concern, agricultural productivity on La Zacualpa fluctuated greatly during the decade. As Table 1 indicates, total production varied between 142,700 and 202,300 pounds per year during the Revolution, a sizable output. Production apparently returned to normal after the 1914 disruption, but the resurgence proved temporary. In 1918 and 1919, factors such as increased labor costs and more difficult working conditions caused a precipitous decrease in output. Although the Pan-American Railroad suffered no damage in the civil war, shipping costs rose along with labor costs. As the decade ended, La Zacualpa’s economic viability grew more precarious. The cost of production increased every year, and by 1920 it had more than doubled from 1915.46 At the same time, Asian supplies had increased from 107,867 tons in 1915 to 381,860 tons five years later, virtually satisfying the international demand by themselves and depressing prices further.47

The remaining estate records do not reveal the price the company ultimately received for its caucho. Nevertheless, sufficient evidence remains to permit a reasonable deduction about the business’s profitability. Cost estimates are not completely reliable because prices fluctuated, not only over the five-year period but during a single year as well. Furthermore, the plantation’s cost statistics include transportation expenses only to the point of shipment out of Mexico, not to the final purchaser. According to the personal recollection of La Zacualpa’s manager years later, however, rubber earned up to 70 cents a pound in the United States, but when World War I ended the price dipped substantially.48 The available statistical evidence for rubber in general confirms the manager’s recollection and suggests that the price rose slightly in 1916 and 1917, but then fell.49 Thus, as shown in Table 1, La Zacualpa earned profits until 1918 and lost money in 1919. The profitability of the plantation is also suggested by the pay raise the corporation directors gave the estate manager, Graham Ker, in 1918.

But even as the price for raw rubber fell, skillful management of the plantation still brought profits into the corporate coffers. Just as research has suggested that early nineteenth-century haciendas were profit-minded, the converse appears true in the twentieth century: in these years, successful commercial plantations survived hard times by becoming as self-sufficient as possible.50 To meet the growing fiscal crisis, La Zacualpa raised its own corn and expanded its herds of cattle, horses, and mules. Eventually the cattle business proved more profitable than rubber, as did the sale of corn in 1919. Therefore, by diversifying production, La Zacualpa could resist the downturn in the rubber market that threatened to bankrupt the business.51 La Zacualpa also had the advantage of its vast land holdings, and this, combined with its adaptability, gave the plantation a better chance of survival than most of its competitors.52

Wage Fluctuations and Market Forces

Still, in terms of profitability, La Zacualpa found itself caught between plummeting prices for its primary product and increasing production costs. Since higher transportation costs were beyond the estate manager’s control, to maintain any margin of profitability he needed to curb labor expenses, the other primary variable in the formula. Unfortunately, the cost of labor was increasing; but the question remains whether that increase resulted from General Castro’s legislation or the working of free market forces. While estate manager Graham Ker expressed his concern about the impact of the new legislation, it soon became apparent that the statute’s minimum wage provision was observed more in the breach than in practice.53 As Table 2 indicates, long after the passage of the statute, rubber tappers at La Zacualpa barely earned the legal minimum wage of a peso a day, while day laborers received considerably less. Only in 1919 did the workers receive the officially mandated sum, and then as a result of their improved bargaining position in the marketplace, not the Ley de Obreros.

La Zacualpa’s ability to resist the minimum wage provisions of the statute was an indirect result of General Castro’s need to maintain high agricultural productivity in order to sustain tax revenues. It was also perhaps a direct result of Ker’s skilled political maneuvering. Castro engaged in supply-side economics, attempting to boost production by lowering export taxes even as the state increased property taxes. For example, the tax on rubber declined from 15 to 10 centavos a kilo, when it was collected at all. For his part, Ker astutely befriended the Constitutionalist commander in Tapachula, General Macario M. Hernández, whose duties included the enforcement of the new Workers’ Law. Castro ordered his subordinates to guard the Pan-American Railroad line from Tonala to Tapachula, which would include the track running through La Zacualpa.54 No doubt Hernández proved willing to protect La Zacualpa because Ker, except for the minimum wage provision, generally abided by the new rules and supported the Constitutionalist cause rather than the landlord rebels.

If the controversial statute cannot explain the changes in agricultural workers’ wages between 1914 and 1920, logic dictates that the changes resulted from the forces of supply and demand. Given the shortage of labor and the unwillingness of highland Indians to migrate to the tropics voluntarily, the plantation had no real alternative except to improve conditions on the estate in order to attract newcomers and retain old hands. Production declined to 144,000 pounds by the end of fiscal 1914, allegedly because of the Revolution’s drain on the labor force. Management therefore was obliged to raise wages and offer free rations of corn, milk, and cheese, all of which were produced on the estate. Prices in the tienda de raya were reduced to the point that goods sold at less than cost.55 The estate also continued to offer medical attention, in the person of a pharmacist, and free schooling for the residents, just as it had during the Porfiriato.

In 1916, however, it was clear that the attempt to improve wages had been temporarily undermined by the nationwide wave of inflation that ruined the economy. The twin evils of the shortage of foodstuffs (and goods in general) and the widespread printing of worthless paper currency caused prices for staples to increase dramatically. By 1916, the Carranza currency had lost so much of its value that La Zacualpa’s management resorted to barter to obtain coffee from one of its neighboring plantations. With the inflation rate reaching triple digits in 1916, the real income of the plantation workers declined, although wages increased slightly.56 In terms of real wages, the peones acasillados realized less in 1916 than they had before the Revolution, when the best-paid workers, the tappers, took home on average between 70 and 80 centavos a day.57 Thus the peones began to demand their wages in silver, and the company felt compelled to comply; competing employers, such as the railroad, paid in silver.58 Payment in specie further raised labor costs. By the end of 1917, it was clear that the 1914 minimum wage legislation had proven ineffectual, at least on La Zacualpa.

The market forces driving up the cost of labor therefore translated into a shortage of labor and increased competition among employers for those scarce workers. During 1918, epidemic disease exacerbated the situation further. Many plantation workers fell victim to the Spanish influenza, and “at times it was difficult to find enough well men to bury the dead, feed the sick, and tend to a few necessary chores such as milking the cows.” The illness hit hardest at the main plantation, supposedly because the higher elevations and absence of standing water in the hills, where La Zacualpa 2 and Juilapa were situated, limited the contagion. In Tapachula, approximately 30 to 40 people a day died of the disease.59 The plantation managers and the European residents generally recovered, probably because of better diet and health care facilities, but poor nutrition left the impoverished rural workers with little or no resistance to the infection, and they died at a rapid rate.

In response to the worsening labor shortage, Ker found that he had to raise the tappers’ wages to $.18 a pound in 1918 (see Table 2). As a result, skilled tappers could earn upwards of $2.50 a day, a significant wage, at least theoretically. The day workers and macheteros (“cutters”) earned $.75 a day, as did the less successful tappers. To some degree, La Zacualpa competed with the coffee plantations, where seasonal workers earned between $2 and $2.50 a day. As Ker noted, “the wages paid in the highland coffee section always exert a certain influence on wages in the lowlands.” But despite the higher wages available on the coffee fincas, many factors precluded a wholesale departure of labor for the highlands, including intangibles such as a preference for life in the jungle, the relative availability of goods at the tienda de raya, and a generally higher standard of living in the littoral.

Even so, although wages rose in 1919 to 22 centavos per pound of rubber, this had little effect on the labor supply. And although tappers could now conceivably earn 3 pesos a day, many were discouraged by the condition of the plantation and the physical effort required. To get to the trees, the tappers had to hack their way through the overgrown, uncleared groves (no longer tended regularly since the company, trying to shore up its sagging profit margin, stopped paying those workers), a time-consuming process that significantly reduced the amount of latex they could collect. Thus, except for 1919 and 1920, there is a perfect correlation between the number of workers and productivity (see Tables 3 and 4). By 1920, day workers received one peso a day, the sum mandated by the law of 1914 but apparently effectuated only by the market conditions prevalent in 1920. La Zacualpa’s failure over the six-year period to pay the minimum wage apparently had no legal consequences, because the corporation was not prosecuted for failure to abide by the provisions of the Workers’ Law.

The economic results of the free market system proved more effective than the legislation. But increased costs, coupled with declining international prices, spelled economic doom for the rubber corporation. For the workers, increased wages did not keep pace with inflation, at least in 1916; and for those workers who depended on La Zacualpa for their livelihood, the revolutionary years must have been difficult. Nevertheless, it is clear that some workers remained on the plantation despite comparatively lower real wages in 1916 (see Table 2). The number of workers on the plantation fluctuated during the five-year period (see Table 4). Although some workers deserted the plantation for the railroads—which in 1917 paid between $1.50 and $3 in silver a day—many, out of habit, loyalty, or the very human need for security, were perfectly content to remain. “We have many men who stay on the plantation under almost any circumstances, having lived here for so many years, and having their corn patches, medical attention free, and greater facilities for securing the necessities of life at a comparatively reasonable figure,” wrote Ker.60

Yet the plantation could not rely on old hands alone; it needed new blood. Some of the newer recruits apparently found payment in silver an attractive incentive, along with the opportunity to pasture their cattle free of charge. La Zacualpa also lent money to its workers, an average of five to ten pesos per worker. Here the legislation of 1914 made a difference, as management wrote off this money on its books rather than trying to collect the debt. Thus, on La Zacualpa, as Herbert Nickels has noted for another part of Mexico, the decline in real wages may have been balanced by credit advances, especially when the plantation desperately needed workers.61

The plantation thereby complied with the other important feature of the Ley de Obreros, the article that abolished debt peonage. That compliance gave the former peones two additional alternatives to continued employment on the estate: joining the Revolution or seeking autonomy on a plot of unoccupied land. Many workers preferred to live autonomously on their own milpas and work part-time at La Zacualpa. In a good year like 1918, some peones earned enough selling their surplus crops to avoid working on the plantation altogether.62 The manager lamented his workers’ tendency to take unauthorized vacations to plant their milpas.63 In Chiapas, moreover, this option proved quite practical, because the climate and the rich soil favored subsistence agriculture. Among other formerly “captive” workers, a similar preference for marginal autonomy has been rather commonplace.64 Still, it is notable that these milpa workers did not simply seek self-sufficiency; they produced enough corn to sell at market.

For the workers who opted for milpas, even the increase in wages could not attract them back to the plantation. Some, however, after an experimental whiff of the new freedom, returned to the security of La Zacualpa or other plantations as wage laborers. As a matter of policy, the Castro administration prohibited landlords from supplementing their labor force with workers from other parts of the state, at least initially.65 Obviously, the government hoped to prevent a recurrence of the enganchado phenomenon that had been so repugnant in the years before the Revolution. Only after 1917 did the Castro regime relent and permit La Zacualpa to recruit workers.66 Few remained, however, which underscores the idea that contract laborers were no longer “hooked.” Thus, while workers’ wages may not have improved much as a result of the Castro reforms, by ending debt peonage the Ley de Obreros did increase workers’ mobility.

Violent Incursions

This new mobility in the midst of the labor crisis also increased the level of violence in the state; as noted, some workers left the plantation to join the Revolution, the landlord rebels, or the bandits. Some years ago Eric Hobsbawm proposed the thesis that some banditry represents a form of social protest akin to revolution.67 Certainly during this period, Chiapenecan property owners had difficulty distinguishing between the two. And from the plantation’s annual reports it is clear that nearly every year after 1914, some sort of violence occurred at La Zacualpa. For example, in 1916 some 5,900 pounds of rubber were lost to thieves, and the following year about 3,000 pounds. Thefts of rubber, both from the mill and from clandestine tapping of trees, declined thereafter as the price of raw rubber plummeted, making looting less attractive. Indeed, one reason the plantations escaped direct attack was that the rebels had little use for rubber or coffee.68 Therefore, one conclusion that might be drawn from La Zacualpa’s history is that the coastal lowlands experienced more revolutionary activity than John Tutino posits in his work.69

Manager Ker hoped that the arrival in 1916 of an additional garrison of soldiers in the neighboring town of Esquintla—close to the two smaller plantations, La Zacualpa 2 and Juilapa—would also curb the disorder and lawlessness that had been so prevalent since the Constitutionalists came in 1914.70 During 1917 the inventory on the tienda de raya’s shelves was deliberately kept very low because of the possibility of robbery. That same year a local colonel in the landlord revolt, Federico Macias, came to the plantation and commandeered 30 horses and mules, several saddles, and some weapons.71 The rebels were more than casually familiar with the plantation and its stock: they demanded the horses by name, and one of the group was identified as a former stablehand. The manager suspected that a number of the peones acasillados had friends and relatives among the looters, although he could not prove it.72

Thieves rustled cattle and held up the tienda de raya periodically over the next two years. Even in the last year of the Revolution, with the national political situation fairly well sorted out, conflict disrupted the plantation’s calm. Rebels raided the estate in March 1920 and stole three thousand dollars in U.S. currency. In April, following the successful Agua Prieta revolt that brought Alvaro Obregón’s followers to power, the authorities attempted to extract another forced loan. The assistant manager negotiated the amount downward, pleading poverty because of the recent theft. As a final insult, bandits robbed the railroad station. And in June the plantation was invaded once again.73

Because they utilized more day laborers than did the main estate, La Zacualpa 2 and Juilapa lost more workers and saw more violence than did the comparatively more isolated main plantation. Studies of revolutionary peasantry in other parts of Mexico have concluded that the migrant laborers tended to be much more disaffected than the peones acasillados, a generalization that is borne out by the evidence here, where a larger, though unspecified, number of workers fled the upland estates.74 What’s more, in 1915 a former La Zacualpa worker became the municipal president of Esquintla, a far cry from the aristocrat who had held the position previously.75 This event, although it drew little comment from Ker, surely marks one of the most dramatic changes the Revolution produced. People who for years would have been deemed unsuitable to hold office now held the reins of power, at least until 1920.

Amid the increased violence, the plantation no longer could guarantee its workers the oasis of security they valued. Thus in 1917, when the fighting finally re-enveloped the lowlands with a major raid on La Zacualpa, peones began to desert the plantation, blaming the presence of the Carrancista garrison at Esquintla, ironically, for drawing fire into the region.76 For those who remained, discipline grew “necessarily lax,” in Graham Ker’s words. Ker did feel compelled to fire a number of the troublemakers, despite the ongoing labor shortage. Thus the increased violence at La Zacualpa during the Carranza regime provides a final measure for assessing the impact of the Revolution: it certainly allowed the working class more mobility than the Porfiriato did.


Heavily capitalized and with ample land to support diverse enterprises, La Zacualpa proved to be one of the relatively few profitable tropical investments in Chiapas. Tied to markets by the Pan-American Railroad and favored with a ready supply of cheap labor, La Zacualpa apparently turned a profit for several years. Rut in addition to epitomizing the Porfirian developmental dream, La Zacualpa apparently provided its workers with the proper balance of security, autonomy, and sufficient material rewards, thereby retaining peones acasillados as a stable labor force. Labor abuses such as those that muckraking journalists described apparently did not occur on La Zacualpa, and the workers’ relatively strong bargaining position, resulting from an overall shortage of labor, permitted them to manipulate the debt peonage system.

La Zacualpa, like other great estates throughout Mexico during the decade of violence, managed to retain title to its real estate despite increasingly articulate demands for the division of property. By the early 1920s, however, the land was the only significant asset the corporation held as the international market for rubber evaporated. It was no surprise, then, that the corporate directors decided to sell the property to another U.S. investor and dissolve the corporation.77 During the Cárdenas era, the property of La Companía Agrícola La Zacualpa, now a banana plantation, was seized and reconstituted into the ejido known as Hidalgo. The ejido petitioned for additional land in the 1940s, but the government denied the request, citing the available vacant parcels on the property.78 Eventually, the peasants of La Zacualpa did wrest control of the land from the large agribusiness, though not from the corporation that was the subject of this article.

During the period 1914–1920, the Carranza revolution’s promises to improve conditions for agricultural workers meant little. In a material sense, that revolution did not bring much benefit to the peones who worked the rubber plantations, at least if the Ley de Obreros is considered in isolation. Like the New Laws of 1542, the 1914 statutes were ineffectual when the legislation was not enforced. Any improvements in wages at La Zacualpa came not as a result of the law but because the plantation’s management needed to compete for labor in the open market. Yet even the improvements were insignificant for workers who depended solely on wages, because the tremendous increase in the cost of living swallowed up, at least for awhile, the higher salaries. Thus the Carranza revolution on La Zacualpa must be deemed a modest success at best, and then only an inadvertent one, for the market forces it created.

To attempt to reduce the achievements of the Mexican Revolution to economics alone would do it an injustice, and it is in this nonmaterial sense that the coming of General Castro made some difference. For one peón, the former worker who became the municipal president of Esquintla, the Revolution offered an opportunity to enter a political world heretofore closed to his kind. For other rural workers, the abolition of debt peonage offered the most meaningful form of change; for without the state-administered mechanism for enforcing debts in the courts of law, planters had to rely on a free-labor system. The Revolution brought the peones a sense of dignity and elevated their place in the Mexican social hierarchy. No longer did they walk around La Zacualpa with bowed heads; Ker himself noted the change in workers’ attitudes and commented on their increased independence.79 Workers maintained their security, in Tutino’s phrase, while acquiring a greater degree of autonomy and mobility.

In the early 1920s, Governor Tiburcio Fernández Ruíz, a mapache sympathizer (mapache was the term for the landlord rebels), effectively abolished the Ley de Obreros and permitted the reinstitution of debt peonage. His successor, Carlos A. Vidal, revived the Castro reforms briefly in 1925, but after two years the mapaches returned to power when political opponents assassinated Vidal.80 Thus, for the rural worker at La Zacualpa, the Carranza revolution and the Ley de Obreros in the long run signaled little more than a brief interruption in the continuity of labor practices. Eventually, the “great rebellion” permitted a new elite to step into the shoes of the Porfirians.

The author would like to thank Winona State University for a Faculty Improvement Grant that made this research possible; Josefina Moguel Flores at Condumex in Mexico City; the staff and archivists of the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas, Austin, particularly Carmen Sacomani, for their assistance; and fellow Mexicanists William Beezley, David LaFrance, and William Schell, Jr., as well as my colleagues Seymour Byman and Colette Hyman for their incisive commentary.


Remarkably few studies of plantations exist for the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For Mexico, there is María Vargas-Lobsinger, La Hacienda de “La Conoha,” una empresa algodonera de La Laguna, 1883–1917 (Mexico City: Instituto de Investigaciones Históricos, 1984); and for other countries, Stanley Stein’s well-known Vassouras: A Brazilian Coffee County, 1850-1900 (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1957); and Warren Dean, Rio Claro: A Brazilian Plantation System, 1820-1920 (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1976).


E. Bradford Burns, The Poverty of Progress: Latin America in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1980); and Richard W. Slatta, Gauchos and the Vanishing Frontier (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1983).


Three recent syntheses of the decade of violence have brought this debate to the fore. See Alan Knight, The Mexican Revolution, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986); John Mason Hart, Revolutionary Mexico (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987); and Ramón Eduardo Ruíz, The Great Rebellion: Mexico, 1905-1924 (New York: Norton, 1980).


See Thomas Benjamin, A Rich Land, A Poor People (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1989); Antonio García de León, Resistencia y utopía: memorial de agravos y crónicas de revolución, 3 vols. (Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 1985, a translation of his doctoral thesis completed at the Sorbonne under the direction of Francois Chevalier); and Alicia Hernández Chávez, “La defensa de los finqueros en Chiapas, 1914-1920," Historia Mexicana 28:3 (Jan. 1979), 335-69.


Murdo J. MacLeod, Spanish Central America: A Socioeconomic History, 1520-1720 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1973), 68-79, 376. For another look at Central America in this important stage of development, see William L. Sherman, Forced Native Labor in Central America (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1979).


MacLeod, Spanish Central America, 69-71 and 408, n. 12. See also Benjamin, A Rich Land, 4; and janine Casco, “The Colonial Economy in the Province of Soconusco,” in Ancient Trade and Tribute: Economies of the Soconusco Region of Mesoamerica, ed. Barbara Voorhies (Salt Lake City: Univ. of Utah Press, 1989), 287-303.


Mario García S., Soconusco en la historia (Tuxtla Gutiérrez: n.p., 1963); MacLeod, Spanish Central America, passim.


Benjamin, A Rich Land, 13.


Charles A. Hale, The Transformation of Liberalism in Late Nineteenth-Century Mexico (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1990), 218, 225.


Burns, Poverty of Progress, 18-34.


For an example of an active promoter, see Sherman T. Kile Papers, Benson Collection, University of Texas, Austin. A recent article describing this phenomenon in detail is William Schell, Jr., “American Investment in Tropical Mexico: Rubber Plantations, Fraud, and Dollar Diplomacy, 1897-1913,” Business History Review 64 (Spring 1990), 217-54.


Enrique Santibañez, Geografía regional de Chiapas (Tuxtla Gutiérrez: Chiapas state government, 1907), 64; Carlos Helbig, El Soconusco y su zona cafetalera en Chiapas (Tuxtla Gutiérrez: Instituto de Ciencias y Artes de Chiapas, 1964), 19-21. The development of export agriculture at the expense of traditional crops is noted by Daniela Spenser, who cites statistics indicating that corn production in Soconusco dropped from 185,000 hectoliters in 1895 to 48,223 in 1909. Inicios del cultivo del café en Soconusco y la inmigración extranjera” (Unpublished MS.), 21.


Graham M. Ker to Anita Ker Johnson, Oct. 28, 1941, Graham Ker Papers, Benson Collection, University of Texas, Austin (hereafter Ker Papers), fol. 58X. Graham Ker was La Zacualpa’s resident manager from 1914 to 1920. Various Americans bought and sold interests in La Zacualpa, including John W. Butler, Jr., grandson of the famous Methodist missionary. See John W. Butler, Jr., to Porfirio Díaz, June 3, 1903, Coleccíon General Porfirio Díaz, Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City, box 28, vol. 29, no. 11399.


Of the hundreds of visitors who wrote about their experiences in Mexico, relatively few ventured into Chiapas. For the purpose of this article, the most informative accounts are Hugh B. C. Pollard, A Busy Time in Mexico: An Unconventional Record of Mexican Incident (New York: Duffield and Co., 1913); and Karena Shields, The Changing Wind (New York: Crowell, 1959). Mrs. Shields’ father, William David Plant, managed the San Leandro rubber plantation in Chiapas around 1910, and her childhood memories of the state are very useful. See also Max Miller, Mexico Around Me (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1937); Marian Storm, Prologue to Mexico (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931); Fanchon Royer, The Mexico We Found (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing, 1948); and Helen Humphreys Seargeant, San Antonio Nexapa (New York: Vantage Press, 1952), 25, 348. For a summary of the novelist B. Traven’s writings on the region, see Heidi Zogbaum, B. Traven: A Vision of Mexico (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, 1992).


Barbara Weinstein, The Amazon Rubber Boom, 1850–1920 (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1983), 166.


The story of how Wickham brought rubber seeds first to Kew Gardens and then to Asia is entertainingly told by Warren Dean in Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber: A Study in Environmental History (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987).


Howard Wolf and Ralph Wolf, Rubber: A Story of Glory and Greed (New York: Covici Friede, 1936), 21. Even today, the Mexican government encourages the expansion of the rubber industry. See El hule natural en Mexico (Mexico City: Secretaría de Agricultura y Recursos Hidráulicas, 1982).


Ramón Rabasa, El estado de Chiapas, geografía y estadística (Mexico City: Cuerpo Especial del Estado Mayor, 1895), 100.


Shields, Changing Wind, 210-11.


Wolf and Wolf, Rubber, 22-23.


Ibid., 169. The frenzied climate of investment is detailed in Schell, “American Investment,” 223–29.


Inventory of the Estate, June 29, 1920, Ker Papers, no. 58. A family friend of Helen Humphreys Seargeant, an American who lived near La Zacualpa in the 1890s, became an administrator on the plantation, and Seargeant attended several gala parties there hosted by the manager and Harrison, the president of the La Zacualpa corporation. See Seargeant, San Antonio Nexapa, 150, 168, 270.


Benjamin, A Rich Land, 13.


Pollard, A Busy Time, 55–58.


The railroad’s role in Mexico’s modernization and economic growth is traced in John H. Coatsworth, Growth Against Development: The Economic Impact of Railroads in Porfirian Mexico (DeKalb: Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 1981).


Rabasa, El estado de Chiapas, 59. Helen Humphreys Seargeant entered Mexico there, and she describes the hazardous approach through three lines of breakers. San Antonio Nexapa, 143.


John Tutino, From Insurrection to Revolution in Mexico: Social Bases of Agrarian Violence 1750-1940 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1986). As Friedrich Katz pointed out in a pathbreaking article in this journal nearly 20 years ago, very little scholarship had previously investigated labor conditions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Katz, “Labor Conditions on Haciendas in Porfirian Mexico: Some Trends and Tendencies,” HAHR 54:1 (Feb. 1974), 11. Since then, a number of important works have illuminated, at least for certain regions, the condition of workers during the Porfirian and revolutionary periods. See Friedrich Katz, ed., La servidumbre agraria en México en la época porfiriana (Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 1976), 4-5, 16; Idem., ed., Riot, Rebellion, and Revolution: Rural Social Conflict in Mexico (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1988), 321-51; and the essays in Caudillo and Peasant During the Mexico Revolution, ed. David Brading (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980).


Katz, “Labor Conditions,” 19.


Ibid., 16.


Herman Whitaker, “Barbarous Mexico: The Rubber Slavery of the Mexican Tropics, The American Magazine 49:4 (Feb. 1910), 546-55. John Kenneth Turner exposed the atrocities committed on the hennequen plantations of Yucatán and in the Valle Nacional of Oaxaca, first in a series of articles and then in his book, Barbarous Mexico (New York: Cassell, 1911; reprint Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1969). Conditions for the enganchados in Yucatán are also explored in Gilbert M. Joseph, Revolution from Without: Yucatán, Mexico, and the United States, 1880-1924 (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1988), 72–76. B. Traven cited numerous examples of the mistreatment of enganchados in mahogany lumber camps. See Zogbaum, B. Traven, 143-55.


See Pollard, A Busy Time, 10-12; and Miller, Mexico Around Me, 45.


Seargeant recalls that on her visits to La Zacualpa, the workers appeared merry and danced to the marimbas. San Antonio Nexapa, 271.


Tutino, From Insurrection to Revolution, 289. A similar debate concerns other regions in the colonial period. See Cheryl E. Martin, Rural Society in Colonial Morelos (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1985), 145-46; Eric Van Young, Hacienda and Market in Eighteenth-Century Mexico: The Rural Economy of the Guadalajara Region, 1675-1820 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), 249; and D. A. Brading, Haciendas and Ranchos in the Mexican Bajío: León, 1700–1860 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1978), 76–77.


Photographic Collection, Ker Papers, no. 58(1); and Inventory of the Estate, June 29, 1920, Ker Papers, no. 58(j).


See Annual Report for 1915, Ker Papers, no. 58(h).


García de León, Resistencia, 1:179.


Burns, Poverty of Progress, 86.


Tutino, From Insurrection to Revolution, 290.


This account follows the first-rate summary in Knight, Mexican Revolution, 2:236–42, which places the Chiapas revolution in a national context. See also J. M. Márquez, El Veintiuno: hombres de la Revolución y sus hechos (Oaxaca: private printing, 1916), 147–50. Douglas W. Richmond analyzes Carrancismo at the national level in Venustiano Carranza’s Nationalist Struggle, 1893–1920 (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1983).


Chiapenecos coined the verb carrancear, meaning “to rob,” because of the soldiers’ acts. See Spenser, “Soconusco en la Revolución,” 6.


Annual Report for 1915, Ker Papers, no. 58(h). For the causes of the landlord revolt see Hernández Chávez, “La defensa,” 335–69.


Attempts had been made in the 1890s and 1912 to reform the debt peonage system. See Benjamin, A Rich Land, 59-62, 113.


García de León, Resistencia, 2:51. John Mason Hart, who interprets this phase of the Revolution as a class struggle won by the Constitutionalists through Woodrow Wilson’s aid, claims that Wilson chose to help the Constitutionalists out of antipathy for the radical legislation promulgated by the convention’s Eulalio Gutiérrez. See Hart, Revolutionary Mexico, 294–95. It seems to me that this class-conflict analysis fails, because the Constitutionalists promulgated identical legislation, such as the Workers’ Law. See Knight, Mexican Revolution, 2:268–70.


For the full text of the statute see Prudencio Moscoso Pastrana, El pinedismo en Chiapas, 1916-1920 (Mexico City: private printing, 1960), 18-23. For an analysis of the law and its formulation, see García de León, Resistencia, 2:51-53.


Jesús Agustín Castro to Venustiano Carranza, Feb. 18, 1915, Archivo Venustiano Carranza, Centro de Estudios de la Historia de México, Condumex, Mexico City (hereafter C-AVC), carpeta 27, no. 2879. One Chiapenecan Carrancista applauded the reforms. See Filiberto Salazar to Carranza, Dec. 26, 1914, C-AVC, carpeta 23, no. 2263.


Annual Reports, 1915-1920, Ker Papers, fol. 2, no. 58(h). The paucity of studies of businesses during the Revolution is mentioned in John Womack, “The Mexican Economy During the Mexican Revolution, 1910–1920: Historiography and Analysis,” Marxist Perspectives 4 (Winter 1978), 80-123.


Paul LeCointe, L’Amazonie bresilien, 3 vols. (Paris: A. Challamel, 1922), 1:333.


Graham M. Ker to Anita Ker Johnson, Oct. 28, 1941, Ker Papers, no. 58x2. Ker states the price in cents in his report, and notes that he converted all amounts to U.S. currency.


LeCointe, L’Amazonie, 1:341.


Charles H. Harris III, A Mexican Family Empire: The Latifundia of the Sánchez Navarros, 1765-1867 (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1975).


Annual Reports for 1918, 1919, and 1920, Ker Papers, fol. 2, no. 58(h).


Annual Report for 1916, ibid.




For the orders to guard the railroad, see Luis Domínguez to Carranza, Feb. 15, 1915, C-AVC, carpeta 27, no. 2879. Hernández was not popular with all Constitutionalists, but Castro defended him and declared that Hernández had his complete confidence. Castro to Carranza, Feb. 18, 1915, C-AVC, carpeta 28, no. 2947.


Annual Reports, 1915-1920, Ker Papers, fol. 2, no. 58(h).


Knight describes the state of the economy and the inflation during the Carranza years in Mexican Revolution, 2:406-23. Fernando González Roa asserts that the cost of living increased 170 percent between 1910 and 1917. El aspecto agrario de la Revolución Mexicana (Mexico City: Liga de Economistas Revolucionarias, 1975), 210.


Annual Report for 1917, Ker Papers, no. 58(h).




Annual Report for 1918, ibid.


Annual Report for 1917, ibid.


Herbert Nickels, “Debt and Labor Conditions in Tlaxcala,” in Katz, Riot, Rebellion, and Revolution, 388.


Annual Report for 1918, Ker Papers, no. 58(h).


Annual Report for 1916, ibid.


See, for example, Philip Curtin, Two Jamaicas: The Role of Ideas in a Tropical Colony, 1730-1865 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1955), which explains that many freed slaves drifted into the mountains of Jamaica to raise their families and crops far from the plantations, because of their lingering memories of slavery.


Annual Report for 1916, Ker Papers, no. 58(h).




Eric J. Hobsbawm, Bandits (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972).


Annual Reports for 1916, 1917, 1918, Ker Papers, no. 58(h).


Tutino, From Insurrection to Revolution, 296-97.


Annual Report for 1919, Ker Papers, no. 58(h).


Annual Report for 1918, ibid. See also R. C. Stevenson to Foreign Office, Records of the Department of State Relating to the Internal Affairs of Mexico, 1910-1929, microcopy 274, reel 62, 812.00/21695, National Archives, Washington, D.C. The British Foreign Office passed along to the U.S. State Department its consular reports from southern Mexico as a matter of courtesy after the United States withdrew its consul.


Annual Report for 1919, Ker Papers, no. 58(h).


Ibid. See also Ker’s unpublished narrative, Ker Papers, no. 58(g).


Nickels, “Debt and Labor Conditions,” 378-83. By examining the status of the peón acasillado in Tlaxcala, Nickels concludes, as did Karl Marx more than a century ago, that the peasants were not a revolutionary force.


Annual Report for 1916, Ker Papers, no. 58(h).


Annual Report for 1918, ibid.


Corporate papers of La Zacualpa Rubber Company, Corp. no. 90-14, n.d., Secretary of State’s Office, Carson City, Nevada.


Archivo 6 de Enero de 1915, Secretaría de la Reforma Agraria, Mexico City; Resoluciones Presidenciales, libro 176 (June 1939), 222-24; and Ibid., libro 229 (June 1942), 152–53.


Annual Report for 1918, Ker Papers, no. 58(h).


Benjamin, A Rich Land, 150, 199; and Robert Wasserstrom, Class and Society in Central Chiapas (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1983), 164. Wasserstrom concludes that the highland Chamula Indians also suffered the reinstitution of debt peonage after the Revolution. Ibid., 176.