- Working Women, Entrepreneurs, and the Mexican Revolution: The Coffee Culture of Córdoba, Veracruz by Heather Fowler-Salamini
Coffee production in Mexico contributed significantly to the nation’s agricultural exports during much of the twentieth century. The origins of this trade can be traced in large measure to the advent of technical and business innovation on the part of a rising cohort of largely Spanish entrepreneurs headquartered in eastern city of Córdoba, Veracruz. Applying a host of innovative strategies as the export economy took shape in the 1880s, these ambitious traders expanded the scope and scale of their business [End Page 747] by establishing coffee processing plants or beneficios. In so doing, they hired several thousand workers—including an impressive number of women—to sort, clean, and otherwise prepare the coffee for market.
Fowler-Salamini’s impressively researched study breaks new ground in focusing on those engaged in coffee agro-industry: the local commercial actors, the various international trading companies, and the labor force and the corresponding working-class culture that grew up around it. Her particular interest is in understanding the relationship between gender and labor in the coffee economy. First, she describes the late nineteenth century beginnings of the coffee business in Córdoba: landowners with moderate holdings who cultivated a handful of crops (tobacco, sugar and coffee) “developed an unbounded confidence in the idea that coffee … could drive national development” (p. 18).
Into this local-regional mix soon came a new wave of immigrants from urban areas who joined forces with powerful U.S. import-export firms such as Arbuckle Brothers and Hard and Rand to concentrate coffee processing and exporting in the hands of an assortment of immigrant families. The establishment of new railway lines and robust international demand clearly supported the Veracruz enterprise until shortly after the turn of the century when world economic crisis temporarily slowed coffee exporting. By the early years of the second decade of the century, Mexico was in revolution and the “era of [coffee] precursors had come to an end” (p. 40). Despite this, the coffee business would quite capably withstand the tumultuous years of civil war. Demand was affected by the conflict in Europe, for example, requiring the U.S. Army to purchase considerable amounts of coffee from Mexico. By the end of World War I, coffee prices had been restored and a new cohort of Veracruz-based merchants, largely of Spanish origin, readied themselves for a new, more prosperous era that ran until the onset of the Depression in 1929.
The heart of Fowler-Salamini’s book concentrates on the beneficio women workers. Generally assigned to the semiskilled task of cleaning and sorting the coffee, wages for these escogedoras proved to be better than work performed in rural contexts. Their days were often monotonous, dirty, and tiring, but most of the women managed to support a family with the income they generated. As Fowler-Salamini finds through a series of interviews with these women, of the approximately 3,000 who toiled in the central Veracruz coffee processing plants at industry height, a considerable number enjoyed relatively long careers in the business until full mechanization came and wiped out their jobs in 1965.
Thanks to the author’s intrepid research, interviewing skills, and historical acumen, one can easily come to appreciate how the history of Veracruz coffee reveals many key dynamics in the political, economic, and social life of Mexico during the twentieth century. The author documents the history and pioneering struggle of the women in Córdoba, and neighboring coffee centers, where union organizing began in 1915 and soon flourished. There are many new details brought to light regarding the strategic interaction of coffee workers with the larger Veracruz labor and political environment, especially [End Page 748] during the administrations of post-revolutionary governors Adalberto Tejeda and Heriberto Jara. In a fascinating narrative, Fowler-Salamini examines the dynamic manner in which women coffee workers uniquely made...