Coffee, Migration, and Development in Mexico, 1867-1920


A review of Exporting from Eden: Coffee, Migration, and the Development of the Soconusco, Mexico, 1867-1920, by Casey Marina Lurtz.

In Exporting from Eden: Coffee, Migration, and the Development of the Soconusco, Mexico, 1867-1920, Casey Lurtz explains how the remote region of Soconusco, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, was incorporated to the global network of commerce through the production and export of coffee during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She argues that, “distance from the centers of state power and the tenacity of local structures conditioned the growth of a capacious and enduring economy…[where] the scarcity of labor, the abundance of land, and the difficulty of translating legislation into practice meant that export-oriented agriculture and modernization in the Soconusco proceeded in the hands of local smallholders as well as migrant entrepreneurs” (pp. 4-5). For several decades, Latin American economic historians, led by John Coatsworth, Fernando Rosenzweig, Stephen Harber, and many other scholars influenced by dependency theory, have tried to explain why the region fell behind the industrial centers of the world. Lurtz inverts the question and rather asks: how did one region, the Soconusco, get ahead? This allows her to focus on the success (rather than the failure often depicted by dependency theorists) of a group of foreign-turned-local entrepreneurs who managed to transform an isolated and self-contained area into a coffee-exporting region in a short span of time, despite the numerous natural, economic and political obstacles they faced. Lurtz also challenges the traditional narrative of exploitation that has characterized the study of the Mexican countryside during the long presidency of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1880, 1884-1911), a historical trend started with the publication of John K. Turner’s Barbarous Mexico in 1908 and consolidated in the 1960-70s by the meticulous studies by Daniel Cosío Villegas and Friedrich Katz.

The core of the work is divided into two sections, each one comprising three chapters. Part 1, titled “Experimenting in Eden,” traces the beginnings of Soconusco’s integration into the Mexican nation and the global economy through the introduction of coffee. The first chapter concentrates on the study of politician and businessman Matías Romero’s activities in Soconusco between the late 1860s and the early 1880s. Romero participated in the subsequent liberal governments of Benito Juárez, Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, and Porfirio Díaz, and was a ferocious advocate of export agriculture. As such, he arrived to the then-isolated department of Soconusco with the purpose of creating liberal institutions and practices that would attract investment. In addition, he himself stayed in the area for three years and acquired a coffee plantation. While his fights with local cacique leaders led his personal business to bankruptcy and forced him out of Soconusco for good, his actions helped set the basis for the upcoming coffee boom. In effect, he successfully lobbied for the opening of an international port, San Benito, and for getting it serviced regularly by a reliable shipping company; he brought in federal troops and a scientific commission to survey the coastline and the border; and he actively participated in the negotiations with the Guatemalan government, who finally agreed to settle border disputes and recognize Soconusco as an incorporated department (local municipality) of Mexico.

Chapter 2 studies the shifting power relations in Soconusco once the traditional caciques saw their dominance challenged by the increasing arrival of both, newcomers interested in coffee investments and federal delegates seeking the region’s incorporation into a new national pact led by Porfirio Díaz. With the success of his Tuxtepec Rebellion against Lerdo de Tejada, Díaz became the Mexican president in 1876. At the beginning of his long administration, Díaz was forced to bargain with local caciques for support. Soconusco’s main power broker, Sebastián Escobar, adhered to the Tuxtepecanos as a way to maintain his dominance over access to lands and commerce, which had been undermined by the arrival of Romero and his support to coffee planters. Even though Díaz negotiated with Escobar, his federal government took a major step in reducing Escobar’s power by leaving him out of the border negotiations with Guatemala and by attending to merchants and planters’ complaints.

Chapter 3 delves into the challenges faced by early coffee entrepreneurs who arrived to Soconusco in the 1870s and early 1880s, at the time where the changes described in the previous chapters were taking place. In particular, it concentrates on the case of Swiss planter Santiago Rigaud Keller and his convoluted relationship to land, capital, and labor. Just like Keller, the coffee pioneers faced a series of problems to start operations, such as: vague definition of property lines, disputes with local caciques and communities over land titles and economic practices, ineffective laws, corrupt authorities, an unreliable and fluctuating labor force, poor infrastructure, lack of capital, and difficult access to export routes. It was a generation of entrepreneurs who found in this remoteness and lack of institutionalized practices, the flexibility to innovate and the freedom to set precedents for future profits. As most came from abroad, they had foreign connections that gave them access to capital and export markets. Little by little they also began creating local credit institutions and forcing authorities to recognize their land titles and disputes. By the mid-1880s they had managed to consolidate Soconusco as a coffee-export region and served as efficient mediators for a new generation of planters arriving to the region.

In Part 2, titled “A Locally Cultivated Growth,” Lurtz looks more carefully at land, labor, and credit in Soconusco as coffee became the region’s main export commodity. Chapter 4 traces the development of the land market before and after the turn of the century. Local archival records show that the consolidation of coffee and the institutionalization of land claims stimulated the privatization of public terrains and accelerated land transactions, which increased over 25% between 1890 and 1915. They also suggest that a two-tier system comprising larger properties and smaller parcels sales ran parallel throughout the period. The first was driven by the Mexican Land and Colonization Company (MLCC), a British enterprise that obtained a concession from the Mexican government in 1889 for the survey and sale of public lands in Chiapas. It was also stimulated by the establishment of a public registry of property that validated transactions as of 1894. The commercialization of smaller parcels, on its part, was characterized by the resale of lots and the privatization of ejidos (communal land). Contrary to what most research for the period suggests, the author found no evidence of coercion, but rather local eagerness for repartition amongst the ejidatarios.   

Chapter 5 examines the problems faced by planters due to labor scarcity and lack of liberal practices. While the majority of literature on the subject has identified exploitative debt peonage as a key feature of Chiapas’ agriculture, the author found no evidence that planters in Soconusco supported this practice. In the highlands, characterized by the concentration of land in the hands of few hacendados and an abundance of indigenous villages with limited access to land, a system of forced labor tributes which made laborers eternally indebted to their bosses had prospered since colonial times. In the lowlands, however, indigenous villages were scarce and owned enough land for cultivation. They had little interest and no historical ties that forced them to work in the coffee fincas, whose production had to be done mostly by hand (mechanization was only possible in regards to cleaning and drying beans). The author uses the example of a large coffee plantation named San Juan Las Chicharras to show that debt peonage was a liability in Soconusco. After an attempt to bring workers from the Gilbert Islands in the south Pacific ended in tragedy, the owners of Las Chicharras resorted to the usual practice of offering cash advances to highland villagers. These had to be larger than those offered in the highlands to convince people to travel all the way to the lowlands. Records show that coffee workers often ran away with the cash advances or simply kept on increasing their debts without ever paying them back. Coffee planters thus joined Chiapas’s progressive governor Francisco León in his quest to establish a wage system throughout the state that would free highlands laborers from their debts and made them free to choose where to work. The highland elites won the political battle, so coffee planters had to continue with practices of easy credit, higher payments, and more equitable treatment in order to secure laborers.

Chapter 6 looks into the formation of a capital market in Soconusco, with particular attention given to the lending and borrowing practices and the social webs that emerged from them. In the absence of formal financial institutions and state-sponsored projects, locals resorted to their own means to get access to credit and create infrastructure. In effect, larger coffee producers obtained credit from the foreign commercial houses that exported their coffee and they themselves often became the source for loans for smaller businessmen. In the absence of cash circulation, finqueros often resorted to mortgage-backed loans and repayment in coffee. Smaller loans depended on trust between buyer and seller and were uncollateralized. By the time Soconusco finally became connected to the national railroad system in 1907, locals had already created a network of roads and telephone communications with little or no help of any governmental institution. The picture that best describes the area at the time is that of a multi-faceted collection of small and large lenders and buyers of various nationalities whose social and economic networks relied on the coffee-export economy.

As a way of general conclusion to the work, the author offers a quick glimpse at the evolution of Soconusco once the Mexican Revolution erupted in 1910 and up to the present. The violence of the Revolution was hardly felt in the region, yet it eventually brought some changes in regards to land tenure and labor practices. For instance, a few large estates were confiscated by the government in the 1930s and later given to ejidatarios. Nevertheless, the majority of the fincas were mid- or small-sized and therefore not considered for expropriation. As more villagers got access to land, the scarcity of labor for coffee accentuated and gave more negotiating power to workers, who now also organized themselves in unions and peasant associations. At present, Soconusco remains the most productive district in the state of Chiapas, with a variety of export crops being grown. Coffee (particularly the organic production) continues to be one of the most important and a factor of prosperity for the local planters.

Casey Lurtz’s detailed study of the introduction of coffee as an export crop in Soconusco will have an impact in the fields of commodity studies, history of globalization, Latin American economic history, and Porfirian studies. With her case-study, she inserts the history of Chiapas and Mexico into a larger global narrative, where local entrepreneurs are seen as agents capable of transforming the history of a community and with it, the world at large.

Ruth Mandujano López
Department of Modern Languages
Douglas College

Primary Sources

Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico City
Archivo del Poder Judicial de Tapachula, Chiapas
Archivo del Registro Público de la Propiedad, Tapachula, Chiapas
Colección del General Porfirio Díaz, Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City
Hemeroteca Nacional. Mexico City

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago, Chicago. 2014. 360 pp. Primary Advisor: Emilio Kourí.

Image: Line, A. E., and German-American Coffee Co. Report on the Properties of the German-American Coffee Co. [New York, N.Y.]: German-American Coffee Co., 1905.

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