- From the Grounds Up: Building an Export Economy in Southern Mexico by Casey Marina Lurtz
Casey Marina Lurtz examines the transformation of Mexico’s Soconusco region into the nation’s premier coffee exporter from 1870 to 1920. Using migrant settler Helen Humphreys’s journals as an analogy for how historians have treated the subject, Lurtz observes that the young US American, having “absorbed [the narrative] of an unpeopled frontier ripe for settlement, refused to see anyone unlike herself ” (3). Thus, like later historians, Humphreys’s writing focused on other foreigners who came to the area, rarely commenting on her Mexican neighbors—the local villagers, small-time producers, and various other non-elite actors who ultimately helped tie the Soconusco’s economy into the global export market. Lurtz corrects this tendency in this impressive monograph.
The Soconusco region of southern Chiapas languished as a veritable boondocks until entrepreneurs began to push for coffee production there in the late nineteenth century. Mexico’s ill-defined border with neighboring Guatemala proved problematic for anyone attempting to carry out organized economic activity. Due largely to migrant practices such as cattle grazing, the border was not only porous but also often disregarded by laborers seeking refuge from unfair work conditions, and by marauding Guatemalan armies attempting to bring the region under the control of dictator Justo Rufino Barrios. Nevertheless, and despite the area’s lack of physical or legal infrastructure, people began trickling into the Soconusco by the 1860s. [End Page 493]
Chief among these was none other than finance minister Matías Romero, who relocated with plans to develop the region in 1872. Much like anyone else hoping to tie the Soconusco into the outside world, Romero ran headlong into the reality of social, economic, and political power operating there, personified by local jefe político, Sebastiaón Escobar, who had no interest in outsiders challenging his authority. Within three years, Escobar’s goons had burned down Romero’s plantation, forcing him to flee. Romero nevertheless retained a hand in the Soconusco’s transformation over the next few decades. President Porfirio Díaz’s (1876–1911) centralizing government eventually succeeded in replacing Escobar with bureaucrats loyal to the national government and its developmentalist philosophy. In time, these leaders began to transform the Soconusco into a region not only firmly under Mexico’s control, but also one primed for the international export economy.
This process did not occur, as Lurtz clearly demonstrates, as the result of a unilateral imposition. Local actors at all levels contributed to the region’s development and ultimately shaped a unique historical and social reality there. By focusing on non-elites, the author brings attention to how immediate context defined the parameters of the region’s evolving legal and political apparatuses. Simply put, like their newly arrived foreign counterparts, locals grew coffee. In so doing, they avoided the poor working conditions found among debt peons in other areas of pre-revolutionary Mexico. This meant that residents typically often had little inclination toward plantation labor, controlled their own lands, and influenced the terms of their service when they did work for others. As a result, few people in the Soconusco identified with the 1910 Revolution. Instead, residents of all social backgrounds interacted in a variety of circumstances that Lurtz skillfully recounts here.
Ultimately, locals helped to create a legal mechanism for their relations that echoed the period’s liberal rhetoric and formalized their business negotiations, thereby reifying their local inclinations while still tying the region into the broader structures of international commerce. Always sensitive to local customs and practices, Lurtz delivers far more than the usual graphs, indices, and charts often accompanying studies of Latin America’s export economy. Instead, this work presents readers with a highly contextualized, distinctive regional history. Where critics may point out that, at times, Lurtz’s villagers may seem too reminiscent of those found in James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed (2009), this approach convincingly represents a significant, well-written, and well-conceived departure from...