Lewis on Lurtz, 'From the Grounds Up: Building an Export Economy in Southern Mexico'

Casey Marina Lurtz
Stephen Lewis

Casey Marina Lurtz. From the Grounds Up: Building an Export Economy in Southern Mexico. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019. Illustrations. 296 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5036-0389-9.

Reviewed by Stephen Lewis (California State University, Chico) Published on H-LatAm (May, 2020) Commissioned by Andrae Marak (Governors State University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54151

For many of us who research the history of postrevolutionary Mexico, there can be something almost inevitable about the economic growth that took place during the Porfiriato (1876-1910). Mexico becomes more politically stable; the Second Industrial Revolution creates rising global demand for raw materials; and Porfirio Díaz, his advisors, and governors create the conditions for international capital to invest in and transform the country. Casey Lurtz’s timely, insightful book shows us that, in fact, none of this was preordained, especially on Mexico’s southern border. “Neither state actors nor international elites swept in and dictated the terms of the export boom to the people of the Soconusco,” she writes. “Rather, villagers and planters gradually sued, fought, and collaborated their way to market integration” (p. 11). 

The Soconusco is the perfect laboratory for the study of state-building and the growth of the coffee sector “from the ground(s) up.” It is the southernmost region in Mexico’s southernmost state. Fertile and lush, its border is defined by the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Sierra Madre de Chiapas on the east. Guatemala lies to the south. Following the wars of independence, the Soconusco remained autonomous of both Mexico and Guatemala until 1842. In the 1860s and 1870s, it became the fiefdom of the arbitrary and violent cacique Sebastián Escobar. Mexican liberals like Matías Romero came to appreciate the many obstacles to developing the region, which included Escobar himself. Land had not been surveyed, so property boundaries were vague. Labor was scarce. There was no natural port to facilitate commercial connections to the rest of the world. Cash—especially Mexican pesos—was scarce in the region. Perhaps most importantly, the border with Guatemala was ill-defined, so potential investors did not know whether Guatemalan or Mexican law applied to a given territory. 

The first step was to fix the southern border. Drawing on the Matías Romero and Porfirio Díaz archives, Lurtz beautifully reconstructs the tensions that led Mexico and Guatemala to the brink of war. By 1882, the two countries were willing to sit down and turn the wild borderlands into a fixed border. Cross-border violence ceased almost immediately, and planters finally knew which country would title a given property, adjudicate disputes, and collect taxes. But given the scarcity of labor in the region, most locals saw cross-border mobility as the key to local prosperity.

Lurtz then turns her attention to grassroots state consolidation. When the unpredictable cacique Escobar was assassinated in 1893, Díaz and his governor in Chiapas, Emilio Rabasa, took steps to prevent another cacique from emerging in the Soconusco. But this was not a case of the state and federal bureaucracy imposing itself over the objections of local people. Neither the state nor the federal governments had the capacity to do this. Instead, “planters and villagers in the district quietly took up the tools of liberal policy to secure and defend their interests” (p. 71). As Lurtz notes, “they did the work of building the commercial and administrative capacity of the state in service of their own interests” and rarely invited state and federal officials to intervene in their affairs (p. 81). They even had to finance most of the infrastructure needed to transport goods in and out of the district.

Lurtz’s chapter on land privatization and sale leads to more surprising revelations. Unlike most histories of Porfirian land privatization, this book argues that, in the Soconusco, locals determined the pace of liberal land reform. Local and foreign plantation owners did purchase land but not at the expense of villagers, who maintained and even expanded their holdings at this time. The US-based Mexican Land and Colonization Company was charged with surveying and selling state lands, but this was not a giveaway to foreign investors. The buyers were split roughly evenly between foreigners, Mexicans from outside of Chiapas, and Mexicans from the Soconusco. Even when foreigners purchased land, the plots were not large. Given the rich soil of the region and the scarcity of reliable labor, it was neither necessary nor prudent to put large tracts of land under cultivation. Ejido lands were privatized, but municipal councils controlled the process. Land remained cheap and abundant. In other words, the Soconusco was a far cry from Morelos, which spawned the Zapatista insurrection of 1911.

The most provocative chapter in this very well-written book concerns labor, the scarcity of which led to several experiments to attract and retain workers. Perhaps the most tragic involved bringing 237 workers from the Gilbert Islands in the South Pacific in 1891 to work at one of the Soconusco’s largest plantations, San Juan las Chicharras. One year later, 180 of these workers had died of smallpox. The administrator at San Juan had gone to such lengths to recruit the islanders because most villagers in the Soconusco worked their own land. Planters used cash advances to lure workers from outside the region, but what Lurtz calls “incentivized contract labor” was more mobile than planters liked. Workers often abandoned fincas—and their debts—in search of better food and better treatment. The fincas’ tiendas de raya (company stores), long considered a source of abuse elsewhere in Mexico, offered goods at prices comparable to those of stores in town. The planters’ search for labor elsewhere in Chiapas was thwarted by the elites of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, who retained control of the Tsotsil labor force even after the state governor recommended a move toward free labor. Lurtz claims that as late as 1910, most of the seasonal labor in the district had been born in Guatemala; lowland planters had still not managed to break the highland elites’ monopoly on indigenous labor. 

The book’s final chapter takes on the issue of credit in the 1890s, years before banks and government lenders began to work in the district. Large-scale lending began in the form of advance purchases or futures contracts. Merchants lent money to planters in the spring, which was paid back with coffee during the following harvest. Soon, foreign commercial houses got involved. By the mid-1890s, credit was flowing freely, but three-fourths of it was still coming from merchants and planters in Tapachula. The Banco de Chiapas opened a branch in Tapachula in 1903, but it charged higher rates of interest than the merchant- and planter-lenders and only lent to well-established planters.

This exhaustively researched book provides an excellent study of grassroots state-building and entrepreneurism in a peripheral, borderland region of a peripheral state. Lurtz writes extremely well and uses poignant case studies to “hook” the reader into each of her chapters. Her well-founded conclusions challenge the conventional wisdom on state-building, liberalism, land privatization, and debt peonage, and help explain why the people of the Soconusco saw little reason to join the Mexican Revolution in the 1910s.

Citation: Stephen Lewis. Review of Lurtz, Casey Marina, From the Grounds Up: Building an Export Economy in Southern Mexico. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. May, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54151

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.