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Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 22.1 (2001) 105-125

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A Gendered Economic History of Rural Households:
Calvillo, Aguascalientes, Mexico, 1982-1991

María de los Angeles Crummett


During the past twenty years, the Mexican economy has been radically transformed. Economic liberalization and structural adjustment programs (SAP), designed to overcome the country's debt crisis and move Mexico into a more competitive position in the world economy, have had enormous implications for rural society. The crisis of the 1980s accelerated trends present in Mexico's agricultural sector since the mid-1960s, including growing poverty and landlessness, food dependency, and migration to urban centers and to the United States. Agricultural reforms implemented throughout the late 1980s and 1990s led to further economic deterioration as the Mexican government abandoned its longstanding support of agrarian programs providing subsidized resources to farmers.

Research on the changes taking place in Mexico show that a gendered perspective is critical to our understanding of this dynamic, ongoing process of economic transformation. The policies and programs associated with structural reforms have had a disproportionately negative effect on women. 1 In the rural sector, for example, as households attempt to defend their economic livelihoods under increasingly difficult conditions, women implement survival strategies for their families, intensifying their unpaid work in the household and in subsistence activities. 2 While the literature on the economic crisis in Mexico shows that macro-policies are not gender-neutral, few studies have examined how economic change in the countryside has altered gender roles across different socioeconomic classes. What has been the effect of Mexico's modernization strategy on diverse classes in the rural sector? To what extent did the market-oriented reforms of the 1980s transform gender roles within the household?

This study, based on fieldwork carried out in Mexico in 1982 and 1991, provides a unique opportunity to examine how different social classes and different [End Page 105] household members responded to a period of intense economic crisis and change. It covers a critical period in Mexico's economic history--the period of the "lost decade"--marked by the 1982 financial crisis and subsequent structural reforms based on the deregulation of markets, privatization of state enterprises, and trade liberalization. In rural Mexico these macroeconomic policies were fully implemented under the administration of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) and signaled an end to state support for agriculture. The Salinas reforms eliminated subsidies for most food and agricultural inputs, eliminated price supports for basic grain producers, eliminated credit and technical assistance, and eliminated land reform. 3

This study is set in Calvillo, a rural municipio, or county, located in the north central state of Aguascalientes. The findings show that the deregulation of guava production, the main commercial crop in Calvillo, altered the agrarian class structure. It marginalized commercial producers and thereby reduced income opportunities for two other socioeconomic classes in the region, subsistence farmers and landless laborers. The restructuring of the guava market increased unemployment, which in turn affected the income attainment strategies of households such that women increased their participation in a variety of income-earning activities, and male migration to the United States jumped dramatically. The transformation of the region's economy has implied an unequal distribution of the burden of survival among household members. Women's greater responsibility for the welfare of their households, particularly among women of the subsistence and landless classes, led to major changes in the economic and social stability of the household unit.

In 1982, I carried out a survey of 211 rural households covering three distinct agricultural and geographical regions in Aguascalientes. Fifty-six households, or 26 percent of the sample survey, pertain to Calvillo. In this initial study, I examined the relationship between class stratification, household structure, and patterns of migration both within Mexico and to the United States. 4 The results of the 1982 study showed a strong and consistent pattern of class stratification across the region: a small sector of landholding households highly integrated into commercial agriculture, a large group of households...


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