- From the Grounds Up: Building an Export Economy in Southern Mexico by Casey Marina Lurtz
To this day, most college textbooks about modern Latin American history still refer to the decades between the emergence of the liberal- positivist, developmentalist-authoritarian governments in the 1870s and the Wall Street crash in 1931 as belonging either to the so-called Neocolonial Period—from the outbreak of World War I in 1914 to the United States’ replacement of Britain as the dominant “neocolonial” power in the region—or the Export Economy period. Common wisdom would thus have us believe, in line with 1960s Marxist dependency theory, that the Latin American oligarchies provided stability after decades of a much exaggerated chaos by thrusting their countries into the global economy. Thus, they facilitated the arrival of foreign businesses, such as the United Fruit Company, that dictated production, often at the expense of local, essential subsistence crops. The haciendas expanded, and the dependency of Latin America’s export economies on British and U.S. economic interests deepened.
To note two often-cited examples, the Central American republics began to channel all their energy into producing bananas much in the [End Page 171] way that coffee became the main produce of Brazil, to the detriment of other economic sectors and activities, sacrificing any hope for self- sufficiency and any potential for industrialization. This story is framed in terms of ruthless exploitation, foreign greed, and impoverishing monoculture in which the elites determined the rules of the game for a suffering, oppressed, and helpless Latin American population.
In From the Grounds Up, Lurtz provides a compelling corrective to this view. Citing the case of the Soconusco region of southern Mexico on the border with Guatemala, she argues that local villagers, small-time producers, and non-elite popular groups were as important and influential in consolidating the export-economy model in the area as were members of the elite. In fact, they did not simply appropriate the new tools of the export-economic model from the elite members; they were equally responsible for directing the productivity of its lands toward global markets, with all the contradictions that this initiative entailed.
In this sense, Lurtz builds on a recent scholarship that has demonstrated the extent to which popular movements and bottom-up processes shaped the nature of nineteenth-century politics, thus breaking with the view that the masses were passive, unengaged, and manipulated. By stressing the popular contributions to the economic restructuring that Mexico underwent from 1870 to the outbreak of the 1910 Revolution, Lurtz creates a thought-provoking and engaging study that robustly challenges traditional views with an interpretation based on a wealth of primary sources: travelogs; the correspondence, diaries, and reports of national and regional politicians; legal and commercial codes; contracts and lawsuits; business inventories and economic data; and contemporary newspaper articles, all located in archives based in Chiapas, Mexico City, and the United States.
Adopting an interdisciplinary approach that engages demographic, diplomatic, economic, social, labor, business, and political history, as well as ecological studies, Lurtz succeeds in providing a particularly nuanced and complex understanding of how the export-economy model developed in late nineteenth-century Mexico. The result is a particularly welcome contribution to the field that will force scholars to rethink long-held assumptions about the experience of the Export Economy period.