This is an important book that should radically reshape the way the history of the Latin American working classes is undertaken. The canvas on which Josiah Heyman paints is a broad one—the period from the early Porfiriato to the era of the maquiladoras and peso devaluations of the mid-1980s. The protagonists are men and women whose lives have unfolded in the Agua Prieta region across the border from Douglas, Arizona, and whose life histories Heyman has collected and analyzed with great skill.
Heyman’s goal is extremely ambitious: to identify those features that constitute the “working classness” of families as they move from the countryside to employment in U. S. -owned copper mines in northeastern Sonora, and then to other jobs and the establishment of family “microenterprises” on both sides of the border. Heyman is unhappy with the abstractions traditionally employed in discussions of working-class formation, such as “proletarianization,” the development of “labor markets,” and “rural outmigration.” He is also primarily unconcerned in this book with the development of those behavioral features (unionization, for example) that are the product of a “crystallized” working class. This, then, is not a study that pays much attention to the collective politics of class mobilization and protest, or to the nature of the labor process or power relations in particular workplaces.
Heyman’s ethnographic life-history approach successfully avoids the danger of ideological localism. In examining the multiple strategies with which his informants cope with wage earning and the consumer economy, he examines events that unfold at both the micro (family) and macro social levels. He is, in other words, concerned with both life-cycle and historical time. The moments at which the working men and women of northern Sonora are studied with particular closeness are those conjunctures at which people are forced to rearrange their lives by returning to an earlier work pattern or adopting a new strategy, one that may involve geographical or familial relocation. These moments, or key junctures, can be constituted by events in the private sphere (marriage, inheritance, death of a spouse) or the larger, extrafamilial social order (the closing of mines, the repatriation of Mexicans during the depression, the emergence of new forms of employment in the maquiladora industries).
The links between work and the household and family are examined with particular skill and originality. Wage labor in the mining industry created new consumer desires and needs. How the material culture of working people was radically transformed is a major focus of the study. But instead of seeing the “commoditization” of life as simply a capitalist imposition, Heyman argues that the new technologies (stoves and sewing machines, for example) could be employed to deal creatively with the disruptive routines created by industrial work. Nowhere was this more evident than in the lives of women, who, when their mining spouses died, were forced to replace lost family income by making and selling food and clothes. In the process, the widows (and their children) moved closer to the most dynamic source of consumer goods and wages—the U.S. border.
The rich family and kinship histories collected for this book provide a fascinating window on the ways “waged” lives have emerged in the Sonora-Arizona border regions over the last century. Clear patterns emerge; but the life-history emphasis also enables Heyman to demonstrate the very culturally distinctive and complex ways Sonorans negotiated the transition to wage labor. Students of regional history, labor historians, and those of us who are interested in the transforming impact of capitalism will find rich pickings in this excellent and clearly written book.