- From South Texas to the Nation: The Exploitation of Mexican Labor in the Twentieth Century by John Weber
During the first half of the twentieth century, South Texas went from being a geographically and economically isolated area to becoming a model for the rest of the nation on agrarian relations and economic development. Historian John Weber examines this change in his absorbing book, From South Texas to the Nation. He demonstrates how growers in South Texas encouraged migration from Mexico and then sought to immobilize workers there in order to be able to pay them exploitative low wages. In part as a result of this unparalleled system of labor control, South Texas became one of the most lucrative farming areas in the United States and a paradigm for growers elsewhere.
The book moves along chronologically, tracing the sweeping changes that occurred in migration-dependent farms in Texas. Weber focuses primarily on the first fifty years of the twentieth century but contextualizes his analysis in an even broader scope that explains how development looked in South Texas during the late nineteenth century through the end of the bracero program in 1964. A short and powerful epilogue then documents the continuities of agricultural practices that remain alive today but that already existed in the early twentieth century.
Equally impressive is Weber’s geographic scope. Although the book centers on South Texas, it links developments there to ones that extend all the way from northern Mexico to Michigan. It thus pushes the boundaries of community studies, which have traditionally focused on local events, to also include national and transnational dynamics. The massive economic upheavals and violence in revolutionary Mexico led to the displacement of millions of people. Many of those migrants ended up in South Texas, providing growers with access to a cheap and abundant labor force. As such, they helped to convert South Texas into one of the wealthiest farming regions in the United States. Soon enough, agricultural and industrial employers in other parts of the nation took notice and tried to partake of the profits enjoyed by farmers in South Texas by expanding their labor pool. By 1912, Arizona cotton growers were actively trying to recruit workers in South Texas, and by the 1920s they were joined by growers in the Mississippi Delta and in the Upper Midwest.
Weber does not restrict his analysis to one of oppression and exploitation but also documents instances of resistance. These range from a protest in the Bexar County Jail by inmates who had been trying to improve working conditions in the pecan shelling industry in 1938, to the CIO’s unionization efforts in the South during the late 1930s, to the struggles of Emma Tenayuca and other leaders of the Workers Alliance demanding increased employment and an end to wage discrimination against Mexican Americans in San Antonio’s public works projects. Weber’s wide-ranging account of ethnic Mexican activism in Texas in the early twentieth century is in dialogue with previous works on [End Page 133] Chicana/o history (including Neil Foley, The White Scourge; Cynthia Orozco, No Mexicans, Women, or Dogs Allowed; Zaragosa Vargas, Labor Rights Are Civil Rights; Emilio Zamora, The World of the Mexican Worker in Texas; and others).
In its analysis of resistance, From South Texas to the Nation juxtaposes various meanings of the term revolution. The parts of the book are organized around this concept. The author first explores the term through the lens of the Mexican Revolution, arguing that violence and economic chaos promoted migration. He then echoes David Montejano’s argument in Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas that the succession from a ranch society to an agricultural one in Texas also constituted a revolution. Weber brings together the Mexican Revolution with the economic revolution in Texas by holding that the workers who migrated from Mexico as a result of the revolution “helped launch a second, economic revolution in Texas through their labor power” (14...