From the Grounds Up
Building an Export Economy in Southern Mexico
Casey Marina Lurtz



There had been many attempts to build a pier. A railroad too. But when Helen Humphreys and her family arrived at Mexico’s southernmost port of San Benito in 1888, their ship had to moor far offshore. The City of Panama, a Pacific Mail steamship, dropped anchor, and the few passengers looked shoreward with trepidation. “Steamers do not care to call,” the British consul in the Soconusco wrote, because currents were temperamental enough to make the journey to land a consistently dicey affair.1 Helen saw an unbroken swath of beach backed by green jungle, with no visible sign of habitation or welcome. To a young American girl, it appeared the perfect tropical frontier, an expected manifestation of the expansionist imaginary in which she had been raised. Slowly, a small lighter barge came into view, its Spanish captain in the stern with a little flag in hand. Six Mexican men were seated in front of him, hauling on their oars. Helen, her siblings, her cousin, her parents, their dog Juno, and her father’s violin were tucked into the small boat between the sailors. Hands wrapped in old coffee sacks, they rowed shoreward. On reaching the beach, the men threw the children over their shoulders like the heavy quintals of coffee to which they were accustomed.2

Having already journeyed thousands of miles from San Francisco, the Humphreys were not pleased to learn that they would spend the night sleeping on a warehouse floor. The port had no other facilities, just the one building that served as customs office and storage depot. The lack of creature comforts was disappointing, but it fit easily within the Americans’ pioneer narrative of their voyage, as retold years later by Helen in her memoir. She and her family were here to strike it rich on virgin lands. Never mind the cohort of warehouse workers who handed out tortillas and helped them bed down among the other off-loaded goods. Never mind the scheduled caravan of oxcarts that carried them inland the next morning. Never mind the deep grooves in the path they followed, carved by the regular to and fro of traffic from town to port. None of these fit the narrative of individual trial and triumph that structured Helen’s reminiscences. Instead, she emphasized the isolation, the warnings about snakes, the tropical heat broken by a siesta in the shade of the cart. Only a boisterous reception in Tapachula’s town center interrupted her narrative of wilderness and solitude. Greeted by cheerful Chinese lanterns, unfamiliar marimba music, and a joyous welcome from the port agent’s family, an exhausted Helen fell asleep chewing on a French roll.

MAP 1. The Soconusco District of Chiapas, Mexico. Map prepared by the Harvard University Center for Geographic Analysis.

After a brief reprieve, Helen’s father and cousin began the trek into the foothills of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas to stake a claim for their new finca, or coffee plantation. As with the journey from port to town, their destination proved further afield than they had been led to believe. An American company’s advertisement for cheap, easy to obtain property had drawn the family south.3 Unfortunately, the advertisements proved false. Just prior to the Humphreys’ arrival, the Mexican government refused to extend the company’s concession, leaving its clients in limbo with regard to their rights as settlers and their land titles. Nonetheless, the Humphreys men set out on the two-day journey from Tapachula to find the land the company had promised. On the way, they passed well-established smallholdings planted with subsistence and market crops. Alongside corn, beans, and squash, local villagers grew cash crops like bananas, sugar, and, as the elevation slowly rose, an increasing number of coffee bushes.4 With their own property rights so uncertain, the Humphreys had no desire to challenge the villagers’ land claims. Instead, Matthew Humphreys chose to squat on a plot of land deep in the foothills and returned to town to collect his family. Ten-year-old Helen, whose memoir reads like a Mexican Little House on the Prairie, took scarce note of the Mexican and Guatemalan farmers they passed on their hike back into the hills. Instead, she focused on the poor state of the roads and happy meetings with the region’s few other foreign settlers. Having absorbed an idea of an unpeopled frontier ripe for settlement, Helen refused to see anyone unlike herself. Finally, the family arrived at San Antonio Nexapa, the land Matthew had chosen as their new home. The Humphreys set up camp beneath a copse of banana trees that sheltered a vegetable garden abandoned by previous colonists. Beyond loomed the tropical forest, its dense greenery a vibrant reminder of the work ahead.

That forest had to be hacked down, the land ploughed before the Humphreys could make the fortune promised by the land company’s advertisements and Mexico’s seemingly untapped landscape. Even once cleared and planted with slow-growing coffee shrubs, it would be at least four years before the family could harvest and export any product.5 In the meantime, the Humphreys women learned to make tortillas and fed their family on the same corn, beans, and squash that local villagers ate. Like those villagers, the Humphreys also cultivated sugar and bananas alongside their staples. These they brought to town and sold or traded for tools, coffee seed, and other necessities. For the first years, the Humphreys worked the land themselves. As soon as they could afford it, they hired a few laborers to speed the toil of clearing, planting, tending, and harvesting. Matthew Humphreys had to travel far into the Sierra Madre and offer good wages and additional incentives to find anyone willing to join them at San Antonio Nexapa. The villagers whose farms they passed on the trek from Tapachula were not interested. Smallholders had no need for supplementary wage work as they grew the same cash crops the Humphreys produced. While Helen wrote with affection of the family who came to live and work alongside them as laborers, her memoir ignores the neighboring villagers. Despite the similarity of their endeavors, language and topography kept the smallholders of the Soconusco far from Helen’s circle of acquaintances.

Yet villagers and the Humphreys alike were caught up in and integral to the whirlwind that was Latin America’s late nineteenth-century export boom. Both contributed to the Soconusco’s rapid ascension from backwater to Mexico’s predominant exporter of coffee in the decades between 1870 and 1920 (see Figure 1). While coffee was never Mexico’s principal agricultural export, it ascended the ranks across the same era, settling firmly at second or third most valuable export by the 1890s and remaining in that position for the coming century.6 By 1900, approximately half of the Soconusco’s coffee was produced on plantations like the one owned by the Humphreys, and half on the village holdings that Helen ignored.7 As this local economy globalized, producers at all scales determined its new shape. While Helen’s account of her young adulthood rarely touched on the experiences of her Mexican neighbors, their aspirations, traditions, and decisions defined the parameters of her family’s life and livelihood in the Soconusco.

FIGURE 1. Coffee Exports from the Soconusco, 1880–1919. Data for 1885 is not available. 1902 was the year of a volcanic eruption in Guatemala that blanketed the region in ash not long before the harvest. 1906–1907 was the year exports transitioned from steamship to rail, leading to a lost year of export data. It was also the year Brazil, the world’s leading coffee exporter, implemented a valorization program. See Appendix 1 for detailed data and sources.

Focusing solely on Helen’s story and those of other North Americans, Europeans, and Mexican government officials who cast their endeavors as pioneering would lead us to an understanding of the Soconusco that hews closely to traditional narratives of the export boom. In her telling and that of later chroniclers, this was an empty and uncontested commercial frontier.8 It was a place where an English land company held title to large swaths of territory and where the foreign presence was so notable that the heart of the coffee zone is now known as Nueva Alemania, or New Germany. From here, Mexican and migrant letter writers registered complaints regarding usurious loans from foreign creditors, abusive labor bosses, and finca owners encroaching on village land. This is a place where all of the traditional narratives of Latin America’s export boom come together.9 And this is a place where none of those narratives hold.

These narratives do not hold because they ignore the more than half of the economy that Helen did not see. Historians, too, have long failed to register the welter of ways small-time local producers integrated Latin America into global trade. Yet we cannot understand the export boom without understanding all those who produced for market. Neither the liberal policies of Latin American elites nor the capital and connections of migrant investors could absolutely disenfranchise and disentail regional participants in the shifting political and economic landscape of the era. From the first years of production, numerous factors constrained commercial investors as they attempted to turn places like the Soconusco into model plantation economies serving global markets. Chief among these was the active participation of local villagers in the selfsame global market.

Historians have done much to recuperate popular participation in Latin America’s political transformation across the nineteenth century. This book seeks to do the same for popular contributions to the region’s economic restructuring. While the people rallied and proclaimed, they also privatized and contracted. An ever-growing literature has examined how popular embrace of the liberal tenets of individual rights, equality before the law, and local rule spread across rural Latin America in the mid-nineteenth century. Elections were taken seriously, constitutions debated, patriotic hymns sung with fervor. Liberalism as a political ideology had staying power because the people embraced and embodied it, even if its practices rarely proved durable.10

I argue that the spread and endurance of liberalism’s economic and institutional aspects should be viewed through a similar lens as popular politics.11 By the 1870s, national governments across Latin America had embraced the provisioning of global markets as a key feature of their future prosperity. To achieve this promised growth, administrations passed legislation to adopt and standardize liberal commercial and legal institutions in the service of national and international trade. They worked to promote contract law, privatize land, uphold wage labor, ease access to credit, and promote economic development.12 Yet these programs had little life off the page. Only when those who lived and produced in the countryside embraced the utility of liberal institutions did they come to have real meaning beyond capital cities. Even as engagement with the political aspects of liberalism ebbed, its institutional framework came to form the bedrock of Latin America’s economic life.

The Soconusco’s engagement with globalizing markets was governed by bargains and compromises, not just laws and legal institutions. People, not abstract markets, provided avenues for multiple modes of production and participation. What became one of the most successful and durable agricultural economies of the era was the result of producers, both natives and newcomers, reaching outward for reforms and implementing them as circumstances dictated. Some participants had greater sway than others, but all had a role to play in determining the shape and speed of engagement with international markets. In taking on those roles, producers on all scales also facilitated the consolidation of state institutions, though not always the consolidation of state power. By including villagers, laborers, small-time merchants, and local politicians alongside the traditional cast of foreign and state actors, I use the experiences of one peripheral region to better understand the penetration of globalization and new state institutions during the late nineteenth century. Reading outward from the Soconusco, this book demonstrates how producers on all scales played a role in the significant reorientation of both economic and institutional life during the late nineteenth century.

The Winding Path to Market Integration

The late nineteenth century was an era of environmental and institutional expansionism. Whether growing coffee or rubber, excavating guano, or extracting oil, producers of new commodities pushed production into spaces where land was not yet private property, markets were not yet integrated, institutions of capitalism and the state were not yet cemented. These were not empty spaces, but rather sparsely populated areas where the scale of governance and cultivation was minimal. In the parlance of the day, they were deserts ripe for exploitation.13

Such deserts were far removed from the markets their products might serve. That remove was not just spatial but also ideological and institutional. The great thrust of the nineteenth century was to integrate the spaces of production and consumption through the transformation of exchange as well as landscape. To achieve this end, a multitude of actors sought to facilitate flows of capital and goods across institutional frameworks and broad geographies. Progress toward this end meant deploying new technologies to drill through mountains, tame rivers, and clear jungles. It also meant homogenizing the institutions of global commerce. The liberal tenets of private property, contract law, and free trade emerged as paramount markers of the globalizing world.14

By the turn of the century, Latin America’s producers were sending raw materials and foodstuffs of all sorts to consumers in Europe, the United States, and urban and industrial areas within their own countries. The iconic crops of the era—coffee, rubber, henequen, guano, bananas, oil—were only one part of the export boom. Latin American countries also shipped tons of cotton, beans, dyes, spices, grains, meat and leather, fibers, and myriad other goods to market.15 This activity led to remarkable economic growth. By the 1920s, the region as a whole had a higher GDP than any part of the world excepting the United States and Western Europe. Though unevenly distributed—Cuba and Argentina saw much higher growth than Central America or Paraguay—and still meager compared to economic expansion in the United States, this growth represented a significant shift in Latin America’s commercial outlook.16

Those responsible for enacting this transformation were far from unified in their approaches, their outlooks, or their circumstances. There is no easy way to carve out stable categories of actors involved in the process. While some of the commodities that contributed to the export boom were plantation crops, most could also be grown alongside subsistence goods. There was considerable consolidation of landholding during the period, driven in large part by the same liberal policies that supported commercial integration. Yet smallholding villagers also held onto their lands and carved out new spaces for cultivation.17 When it came to enacting the policies that enabled global trade, anyone producing for market had a role to play. Their approaches were not necessarily consistent. Individuals changed their minds, companies renegotiated their terms, communities shifted their strategies, governments reevaluated their priorities. Alliances formed across social groups and conflicts festered within them. People pursued the same ends for different reasons and by different means. This book demonstrates that we cannot simply divide the world into those advocating for globalization and those fighting against it. Rather, the end result of globalization on a large scale was driven by many often contradictory aims.

All that said, those involved in the move toward an integrated global economy can be sorted into more or less stable social strata based on the scale of their engagement with that economy. For the purposes of this book, there were elites and there were popular groups. The meaning of elite depended on circumstance. At the grandest scale of Latin America as a whole, the usual coterie of economic and political magnates had a clear role to play in the export boom. Both Latin American and foreign, these politicians, bureaucrats, merchants, and planters expressly advocated the standardization and integration of the global economy. They reformed civil codes along French lines, copied the language of English commercial contracts, imported dollars from the United States, uprooted their families from Spain, and counted out coffee beans on wharves from San Benito to Hamburg. They did so in the name of order and progress, a positivist-influenced liberal ideal that envisioned a virtuous circle of economic growth and political stability.18 After the decades of civil war that followed independence, such a promise held much appeal.

Elite investment in order and progress paid dividends. The export boom’s first decades brought the relative stabilization of political systems across Latin America. While the success of their state-building can be questioned, the export-oriented economic success such actors achieved was, at least temporarily, quite remarkable.19 Not all were made rich through extraction and exploitation, but those who achieved success cemented their place as the icons of the export era.20 The palatial homes of the Yucatán’s henequen hacendados, the wheat- and beef-funded boulevards of Buenos Aires, the factories and theaters built with São Paulo’s coffee incomes, Mexico City’s centennial celebrations: all expressed triumph in the increasingly universal language of wealth and modernity.21

The Soconusco’s elite demonstrated their wealth on a smaller scale but in similar terms. They built a theater, installed electricity, and celebrated national holidays at the newly installed bandstand. By 1910 they together owned about 100 fincas averaging 180 hectares of land apiece. A very few encompassed over 1,000 hectares.22 These planters, known locally as finqueros, sold their crops directly to foreign merchants based in Tapachula and commercial houses based abroad. In turn, these commercial agents infused millions of pesos into the local economy as mortgages, futures contracts, and other types of loans. What most clearly defined this group was their focus on market-driven production and trade, rather than subsistence.

As in many export-oriented regions, the region’s elite was a mix of locals and newcomers. Ranchers turned coffee planters from the Soconusco could trace their ancestry back to the miniscule ladino and Spanish elite who supervised the end of the region’s cacao economy in the colonial era.23 Some, as we will see, resisted the turn to coffee while others embraced it. Alongside this entrenched local elite worked migrants from elsewhere in Mexico. These men—almost all were men—came from across the country to try their hand at the next big thing.24 Some settled and stayed in the region for generations. Others soon gave up and headed elsewhere to try again with another promising crop.

Many foreigners who landed on the Pacific coast were similarly in search of their fortunes. Americans, Spaniards, Germans, English, and others shared the entrepreneurial spirit of the Humphreys family that opened this introduction. Unlike the Humphreys, a good number of these emigrants failed and quickly. Those who succeeded and stayed were small in number, but their impact was outsized.25 By 1910, eighty-six Germans had followed family ties and commercial apprenticeships to the Soconusco. Their economic strength was such that that would eventually endow the heart of the coffee region with the appellation of New Germany. Yet they were far from singular. Some 350 Chinese migrants ran small businesses in Tapachula. A government sponsored Japanese colony farmed in the northern reaches of the district.26 More than seventy Spaniards played a vital role in the region’s commercial houses and other aspects of trade. American dairymen, British engineers, Turkish and Danish and French and Italian and Central American planters all carved out spaces for themselves in the Sierra Madre.27 While the Germans came to constitute a somewhat insular community, they and everyone else partnered, transacted, and quarreled across bounds of national origin.

No single nationality formed a community large enough to maintain itself apart from the others or be called an enclave. Instead, these regional elites formed a mutually recognized sphere of commercial actors engaged in globally directed enterprises. While few were prosperous in a way that would have allowed them entrée to elite circles in Mexico City, their activities and aspirations would have been intelligible and admirable in that sphere. Mutual recognition and intelligibility, though, need not imply cooperation or peaceful collaboration. The Soconusco’s elites grappled with each other and with their national and international counterparts over everything from the interpretation of mortgage regulations to the location of Mexico’s southern bounds. They took each other to court on a regular basis, cheated on their contracts, and skimmed off the top. They bankrupted their neighbors and threatened their employers with whiskey bottles and shotguns. Sometimes they changed their minds about the potential benefits of moving toward export production and manifested that shift with armed marches in the streets. Yet through their conflicts and cooperation, this cohort shared the goal of transforming the untapped ecological riches of the Soconusco into a source of personal and public prosperity.

Elite actors were not the only ones interested in the potential offered by new markets for Latin America’s products. The deserts that political and economic elites found so enticing were in no way empty. Their populations may have been sparse, but people who lived in these areas before the booms were knowledgeable about the very terrain that all found so promising. From Brazilian rubber to Mexican vanilla, they already produced cash crops for market alongside their staple goods.28 As demand expanded, villagers also sought to benefit by expanding cultivation and finding a way into global commodity flows. This new directionality of production, though, generally supplemented rather than supplanted their primary focus on subsistence. The export boom was a new development for elites but often represented an intensification of existing patterns for others.

Non-elite actors both contributed to and constrained elites’ efforts to integrate frontiers of production into global markets. The heterogeneous approach to governance and commerce that marked these spaces was a major hurdle to elite and non-elite interest in commercial expansion. Decades if not centuries of conflict and relative isolation from central governments shaped institutional norms that did not always smoothly interface with those of foreign markets.29 As elites forcefully worked to overcome these dissonances, small-time producers also appropriated the new economic and legal tools meant to incorporate them into a global economy. Villagers, laborers, and petty politicians reworked codes, regulations, and norms to both facilitate their participation in commerce and to shore up their autonomy.30

Local communities, themselves internally stratified by occupation and social standing, were more and less successful in their endeavors to capitalize on global demand for what they could produce. Many saw their lands seized or finagled away by wily and powerful elites. This is the history that has long dominated our understanding of the export boom and its fallout for the have-nots of Latin America.31 Yet many others established their own means of engaging elites and the market-oriented reforms they promoted. Whether growing coffee in El Salvador, vanilla in Veracruz, or bananas in the Caribbean, smallholders entered into commodity trade on a global scale. The durability of their relatively autonomous engagement was not uniform. Nor did they avoid the conflicts over contracts, land usage, and labor exploitation that plagued their elite counterparts. Nevertheless, producers who mixed subsistence with market agriculture were a key element of Latin America’s export expansion.32

In the Soconusco, this less commercially oriented cohort included a mix of locals and newcomers to the Sierra Madre, just as with their elite counterparts. Differences of origin were smaller in scale but no less meaningful. At the beginning of the period explored in this book, the population of the Soconusco was 17,000 people, just about three per square kilometer of territory.33 Villagers lived in or around the district seat of Tapachula or in the coastal plains. Because of a demographic history that will be explored in Chapter One, the foothills of the Sierra Madre were mostly unclaimed. In much the same way that coffee’s ascendance drew commercially driven actors from across Mexico and the world to the Soconusco, so too did it draw new smallholders into the fertile foothills. The next decades saw an influx of Guatemalan villagers who settled in the disputed land along the frontier without clear legal claim to the land they began to work. Villagers from Tapachula also moved further into the Sierra to establish new towns through the legal processes established by Mexican law. As the coffee economy expanded, the labor demands of finqueros like the Humphreys facilitated the movement of workers from other parts of Chiapas and Guatemala into the region. They, too, swelled the ranks of small-time subsistence and market producers. By 1910, almost 55,000 lived in the district, giving the Soconusco one of the nation’s highest growth rates in an era marked by a notable population expansion (see Appendix 2).34

What did these residents do? For the most part, they worked the land for subsistence and export. By doing so, small-time producers and laborers also engaged with the spread of the institutions of global trade. The largest number toiled as finca laborers. By 1910, some 2,000 or so families—men, women, and children—lived on coffee plantations as resident laborers. Their numbers doubled or trebled with migrant workers during the harvest.35 At least another 2,000 families, individuals I refer to alternately as villagers or smallholders, worked small plots of land they claimed as their own.36 There, alongside corn, chilies, and squash, they grew cash crops like coffee. Not all villagers grew the bean, but those municipalities with terrain appropriate for the export crop saw higher growth rates than the municipalities that hugged the coast.

For those looking to capitalize on demand, cultivating and selling coffee facilitated and sometimes required the use of new commercial and legal forms. Villagers signed contracts, privatized their land, argued before the municipal and district courts, and bought small luxuries on credit. Unlike finqueros, they rarely sold their harvests directly to commercial houses abroad. Instead, neighboring planters and merchants in Tapachula took smallholders’ beans in payment for outstanding debts or purchased their harvests outright, consolidating the crops into lots large enough to export. Yet while villagers’ transactions remained local, small-time producers, harvesting a few quintals of coffee from a few hectares of land, also shaped the emerging institutions of global capital. Their use of the Sierra delimited the spaces available for plantations. Their disinterest in wage labor dictated the shape of labor contracts. Their engagement with local politics defined who could lay claim to administrative and political positions. Their understanding of the terrain determined the bounds of Mexico itself.

The eventual consolidation of an export economy in the Soconusco was the result of elites and non-elites deciding to direct the productivity of their lands toward global markets. The solidification of the institutions through which they did so was the result of all engaging with and shaping those institutions to their own needs. Neither state actors nor international elites swept in and dictated the terms of the export boom to the people of the Soconusco. Rather, villagers and planters gradually sued, fought, and collaborated their way toward market integration.

This approach helps us understand the growth that occurred during the export boom in its own terms. Histories of this period in Mexico have long been burdened with what John Womack has termed precursorism, that is, the weight of explaining the revolutionary violence that broke out across Mexico in 1910.37 Recently, historians have instead sought to explore the economic and political transformation of the years between 1870 and 1910 without simply characterizing them as the preface to later histories.38 Rather than examining the Porfiriato, the thirty-year reign of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1910) that overlaps with much of this book, for the causes of the Mexican Revolution, historians are looking at the ways institutional norms were stabilized and homogenized.39 Similarly, rather than approaching the export boom to understand “why Latin America fell behind” in the twentieth century, researchers are investigating how market production expanded on all scales during the years in question.40 Beyond the realm of policy and institutions, scholarship on rural production has slowly moved to include the non-elites described above. A rich literature on coffee cultivation across Latin America illustrates how varied modes of production, from massive plantations to minuscule polycrop plots, coexisted within the region’s tropical zone.41 In Mexico particularly, new work on land usage has resulted in considerable renovation of our understanding of the actors responsible for implementing new liberal norms.42 Across Latin America, scholars are diversifying the body of players involved in remaking Latin America’s countryside in the late nineteenth century.

This book embraces this approach by examining how an economy was built by all those invested in it. In conflicting interpretations of market involvement, we find an explanation for why the commercial plantation complex that epitomized capitalist agricultural production did not come to dominate everywhere.43 In local producers’ flexibility and openness to innovation, we come to understand the spread of new cultivars, new institutions, and new linkages. The integration of the modern global economy and the consolidation of the modern state were thus multidirectional processes that relied on local, national, and international embrace of exchange.


1. “Soconusco” in Annual Series of Trade Reports.

2. This and the following all from Humphreys Seargeant, San Antonio Nexapa, 1–19, 243.

3. “Colonization in Mexico,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 4, 1882.

4. For an early example of the sale of a small subsistence plot planted with coffee, see Arrevillaga and Mallen, Feb. 12, 1880, APJS 1º Civil Soconusco, 1873–1879; for even earlier evidence of coffee growing by villagers, see Gasco, “Soconusco Cacao Farmers Past and Present,” 331.

5. Almost all coffee grown in the Soconusco was of the Coffea arabica species. Until 1900 or so, most was of the Typica variety, at which point some planters in higher elevations also began to grow Bourbon varietals. Coffee can grow to as tall as nine meters, but most plants in the Soconusco were pruned to heights between two and three meters to ease the harvest. Horticulturally, coffee of this size is a shrub, rather than a tree, though the term bush can also be applied. For more on growing coffee in the Soconusco, see Romero, Cultivo del café en la costa meridional de Chiapas; Kaerger, Agricultura y colonización en México en 1900.

6. Kuntz Ficker, Las exportaciones mexicanas durante la primera globalización 18701929, 132.

7. In 1899, coffee finqueros estimated that 3,055 hectares of the 14,680 hectares that they owned were producing coffee. Karl Kaerger, a German agronomist who traveled through the Soconusco in that same year, found great variation in the productivity of fincas depending on altitude, age, and management. Using his estimate of average productivity, production for 3,055 hectares would be about 1,285 metric tons. Exports from the Soconusco that year totaled 2,370 metric tons. This means that someone else—namely smallholders—were producing at least 1,085 metric tons of coffee that year. It is also likely that not all of the 3,055 hectares registered as under cultivation with coffee were yet productive; much land had been purchased in the previous few years, and coffee takes at least four years to come into harvest. “Exposición de París de 1900: Chiapas—Estadística Agrícola,” AGN, Fomento: Exposiciones Exteriores, caja 52, exp. 4; Kaerger, Agricultura y colonización en México en 1900, 97–98, 109; Mexico. Secretaría de Hacienda, Comercio exterior.

8. There have been a number of studies of the Soconusco and its foreign landowners, the majority of which are based in newspaper, published, and state and national sources. Absent the local sources that form the base of this book, these works for the most part hew to the traditional narrative of exploitative, expropriative export development in the hands of a small group of foreign elites. Baumann, “Terratenientes, campesinos y la expansion de la agricultura capitalista en Chiapas, 1896–1916”; Spenser, “Soconusco: The Formation of a Coffee Economy in Chiapas”; Benjamin, A Rich Land, a Poor People; Renard, El Soconusco; Villafuerte Solís and Betancourt Aduen, El café en la frontera sur; Gudiño, “Finqueros extranjeros en el Soconusco, legislación y colonización, 1875–1910”; Nolan-Ferrell, “El desarrollo de una región sin una identidad nacional; Nolan-Ferrell, Constructing Citizenship, Ch. 1.

9. For examples of this traditional narrative, see Ch. IV, “Emergence of a Neocolonial Order,” and Ch. V, “Maturity of a Neocolonial Order,” in Halperín Donghi, The Contemporary History of Latin America; also Topik and Wells, The Second Conquest of Latin America.

10. In Mexico, see Brading, “Liberal Patriotism and the Mexican Reforma”; Hamnett, “Liberalism Divided”; Green, Thomson, and Lafrance, “Patriotism, Politics, and Popular Liberalism in Nineteenth-Century Mexico”; Chassen de Lo?pez, From Liberal to Revolutionary Oaxaca; Guardino, The Time of Liberty; Caplan, Indigenous Citizens; Schaefer, Liberalism as Utopia; Francois, A Culture of Everyday Credit. Elsewhere, see Thurner, “‘Republicanos’ and ‘La Comunidad de Peruanos’”; Méndez G., The Plebeian Republic; Sanders, Contentious Republicans; Larson, Trials of Nation Making; Adelman, “Liberalism and Constitutionalism in Latin America in the 19th Century”; Premo, The Enlightenment on Trial.

11. For a definition of institutions, I rely on Douglass North, as do many new economic historians. Institutions, in this conception, are humanly devised constraints that include both formal (laws, regulations, property regimes, constitutions) and informal (taboos, social norms, customs) limitations on political, economic, and social interactions and relationships. North, “Institutions.” One of the few to look at economic institutions as avenues for engagement with liberalism is Carmagnani, “Vectors of Liberal Economic Culture in Mexico.”

12. For an overview of these reforms in Mexico, see Bortz and Haber, The Mexican Economy, 18701930. For the rest of Latin America, see Glade, “Economy, 1870–1914”; Palacios, Coffee in Colombia, 18501970, Ch. 1; Hale, “Political and Social Ideas in Latin America, 1870–1930”; Gootenberg, Imagining Development.

13. There is a growing environmental history of this push that looks to how both the landscapes and modes of such production relied on and reshaped such spaces. For example see Adelman, Frontier Development; Santiago, The Ecology of Oil; Grandin, Fordlandia; Cushman, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World; Cribelli, Industrial Forests and Mechanical Marvels.

14. The new history of capitalism, particularly American capitalism, has demonstrated how, as Walter Johnson wrote, it makes more sense “to think about the political economy of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Atlantic as a single space, its dimensions defined by flows of people, money, and goods, its nested temporalities set by interlocking (though clearly distinct) labor regimes, cyclical rhythms of cultivation and foreign exchange, and shared standards of calculability and measurement.” Johnson, “The Pedestal and the Veil,” 304; Tutino, Making a New World; see also Sklansky, “The Elusive Sovereign”; Beckert, Empire of Cotton; Topik and Wells, Global Markets Transformed.

15. For example, by 1911 Mexico was exporting more than seventy different agricultural goods, not including meat, oil, minerals, or manufactures. Mexico. Ministerio de Hacienda y Crédito Público, Boletin de estadística fiscal. Jul. 1910–Jun. 1911 (no. 366), 86–89.

16. During this time, exports of commodities other than precious metals increased both as a part of Mexico’s GDP and in terms of its per capita wealth. Prior to 1870, these export commodities were valued at less than $2 per capita; by 1920 their value was almost $20 a person. Similarly, while they had represented an insignificant percentage of the GDP prior to the 1860s, export commodities accounted for 11 percent of national wealth by 1920. While this is a significant growth, it bears reminding that, compared to Cuba and Argentina, where per capita exports exceeded $60 per person, Mexico’s prosperity was less dramatic. Compared to the North Atlantic, growth was even less impressive. Mexico began the nineteenth century with a national per capita income of about half that of the United States, and its total income was similarly calculated. By 1877, these measures had fallen to just over one-tenth and one-fiftieth respectively. The current scholarly consensus is that this “falling behind” can be blamed on the failure to create reliable institutions around finance, infrastructure, and legal norms. Coatsworth, “Obstacles to Economic Growth in Nineteenth-Century Mexico,” 82–83; Topik and Wells, Global Markets Transformed, 40–41; Cardoso, Historia económica de América Latina; Cardoso and Faletto, Dependency and Development in Latin America; Cosío Villegas, La vida económica; Rosenzweig, El desarrollo económico de México, 18001910; Coatsworth, Los orígenes del atraso; Haber, “Assessing the Obstacles to Industrialisation”; Haber, How Latin America Fell Behind; Knight, “Review of How Latin America Fell Behind”; Gootenberg, Imagining Development; Kuntz Ficker, El comercio exterior de México en la era del capitalismo liberal, 18701929.

17. This is a particularly contentious issue in Mexico. The absence of a complete cadastral survey for the country makes this issue difficult to study. Preliminary results from a study of landholding surveys completed in advance of the 1899 Paris Exposition suggest that the median size of properties reported was 120 hectares, with only 40 hectares under cultivation, much lower than the usual narratives of giant haciendas ascribed to the era despite the surveys’ bias toward large properties. For an overview of the current state of the historiography, see Escobar Ohmstede and Butler, “Introduction;” “Exposición de París de 1900, Estadística agrícola,” AGN, Fomento: Exposiciones Exteriores, cajas 51–53.

18. Liberalism in Latin America did not loyally hew to the European schools of thought out of which it grew. Numerous scholars have explored the varied trajectories of the history of liberalism in Latin America and the ways in which national and local politicians and thinkers remade, recombined, and abandoned tenets of European liberalism to suit their own contexts. See, for example, Love and Jacobsen, Guiding the Invisible Hand; Hale, The Transformation of Liberalism in Late Nineteenth-Century Mexico; Gootenberg, Imagining Development; Sábato, “On Political Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century Latin America”; Gudmundson, Central America, 18211871; Jaksic and Posada Carbó, Liberalismo y poder; Suarez-Potts, The Making of Law, Introduction; Posada-Carbó and Jaksic, “Shipwrecks and Survivals”; Adelman, “Liberalism and Constitutionalism in Latin America in the 19th Century”; Schaefer, Liberalism as Utopia.

19. Kuntz Ficker, El comercio exterior de México en la era del capitalismo liberal, 18701929, 76; Topik and Wells, The Second Conquest of Latin America, 10.

20. The literature on elites in the export boom is large, but for some clear examples, see: Wells, Yucatán’s Gilded Age, 1985; Joseph, Revolution from Without; Gootenberg, Between Silver and Guano; Bieber, Power, Patronage, and Political Violence; Striffler and Moberg, Banana Wars; Bucheli, Bananas and Business; for the more generalized problems that export involvement could wreak on a national economy, especially one heavily committed to one particular export, see the introduction to Topik and Wells, The Second Conquest of Latin America; or Gunder Frank, Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America.

21. Wells, Yucatán’s Gilded Age, 1985; Pineda, Industrial Development in a Frontier Economy; Hanley, Native Capital; Font, Coffee and Transformation in São Paulo, Brazil; Tenorio-Trillo, I Speak of the City; see also Overmyer-Velázquez, Visions of the Emerald City; Beatty, Technology and the Search for Progress in Modern Mexico.

22. This is the median size of properties I have recorded as coffee fincas. The median size of fincas valued at over MX$500 at the time of sale was 128 hectares. The median size of properties already cultivating coffee at their time of sale was only 104 hectares. All of these numbers are relatively small compared to the average size of coffee plantations in Latin America. It is also small compared to Mexican plantations in general, though we still lack a clear understanding of Mexico’s rural landscape during the late nineteenth century. The differentiation between property categories as taxed by the Mexican government—hacienda and rancho being the key terms—seemed to have been defined locally. In the north, haciendas could extend over tens or hundreds of thousands of hectares, and nationwide the average hacienda comprised 5,600 hectares. In Chiapas, haciendas averaged 360 hectares. Benjamin, A Rich Land, a Poor People, 48–49.

23. Ortiz Hernández, “Formación histórico-política de la región del Soconusco.”

24. In 1910, the Soconusco had 854 residents born elsewhere in Mexico. As a percentage of total population this was comparable to or even less than other districts in Chiapas with growing export sectors. Mexico, Tercer censo de población.

25. Holloway, Immigrants on the Land; Buchenau, “Small Numbers, Great Impact”; Moya, “A Continent of Immigrants.”

26. Misawa Saito, “La colonia Enomoto de Chiapas.”

27. This does not include 11,000 Guatemalan migrants, the majority of whom were laborers. Mexico, Tercer censo de población.

28. See the origins of the rubber boom in Brazil or the vanilla boom in Veracruz for examples. Weinstein, The Amazon Rubber Boom, 18501920; Kourí, A Pueblo Divided.

29. Examples of this localized political and economic life are myriad, but for one particular iteration of the discussions that surround it, see the varied ways in which local Andean communities interacted with the fights for independence from Spain. Thurner, “‘Republicanos’ and ‘La Comunidad de Peruanos’”; Mallon, Peasant and Nation; Méndez G., The Plebeian Republic.

30. Communities engaged in production were in no way the closed corporate entities once codified by anthropologists. Instead, my exploration of the export boom provides insights into how villagers, indigenous or otherwise, connected to and shaped broader worlds. Wolf, “Closed Corporate Peasant Communities in Mesoamerica and Central Java”; Wolf, “The Vicissitudes of the Closed Corporate Peasant Community”; Patch, “Imperial Politics and Local Economy in Colonial Central America.”

31. In Mexico, the cases of sugar in Morelos and henequen in Yucatán are emblematic. The transformation of the Guatemalan countryside is another case often brought up, as well as the clearing of the Argentinian pampas. Womack, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution; Wells, “From Hacienda to Plantation”; Hart, Bitter Harvest; Zuleta Miranda, “Hacienda pública y exportación henequenera en Yucatán, 1880–1910”; Cambranes, Coffee and Peasants; McCreery, Rural Guatemala, 17601940; Adelman, Frontier Development; Bechis, “La ‘organización nacional’ y las tribus pampeanas en Argentina durante el siglo XIX.”

32. Lauria-Santiago, An Agrarian Republic; Charlip, “So That Land Takes on Value”; Kourí, A Pueblo Divided; Soluri, “Bananas Before Plantations”; Smith, “Rewriting the Moral Economy.”

33. Viqueira Albán, “Indios y ladinos, arraigados y migrantes en Chiapas.”

34. The district had grown by almost 50 percent since 1900. A few districts in Mexico City had grown by more than 100 percent, but Mexico as a whole had only grown by about 11 percent and very few districts exceeded 20 percent growth. See Appendix 2 for population data. Mexico, Tercer censo de población, “Población, área, y densidad por distritos, partidos o cantones, de las entidades federativas.”

35. It is generally understood that the 1910 census was not carried out with a great deal of precision, particularly in rural regions. When it comes to estimating the number of individuals involved in coffee production, its occupational categories are not very helpful. The census lists 20,000 or so children without occupation, almost 16,000 male peons or day laborers, and 15,500 housewives. All were likely involved in coffee in some regard, despite the descriptors, as finqueros valued children and women’s small fingers for coffee harvesting and sorting. The number of laborers seems quite high, even if it was taken at the height of the harvest. Kaerger stated that most fincas had 40 or 50 families in residence, supplemented at harvest time by another 200 or so seasonal laborers. The agronomist tended to overestimate based on the fact that he spent most of his time on large German fincas. Records for average-sized fincas that went into receivership indicate closer to 20 families in residence year round, with an additional 15 to 20 families during the harvest. Based on an estimate of about 100 fincas active by 1900, Kaerger’s numbers would give us 4,500 families permanently living on fincas, plus an additional 10,000 families traveling to the region for the harvest, or about 15,000 families total, the same as estimated by the 1910 census. Estimates based on local documents would lead to a permanent laboring population of closer to 2,000 families, plus an additional 2,000 families or so at harvest time, or 4,000 families total. This is more in line with the 9,500 individuals living on coffee fincas in the 1900 census. Mexico, Censo general de la República Mexicana verificado el 28 de octubre de 1900; Mexico, Tercer censo de población; Viqueira Albán, “Indios y ladinos, arraigados y migrantes en Chiapas”; Kaerger, Agricultura y colonización en México en 1900, 104; “Cuentas de administración de las fincas secuestradas a Don Rafael Ortega correspondientes al mes de Enero,” Jan. 31 1901, APJS 1º Civil Soconusco 1901, 251–300.

36. The 1910 census includes only 759 men in the category of agricultor, or farmer, a number I consider to be low if it is supposed to account for the total number of landowners in the region, high if it is only counting finca owners. My estimate of 2,000, likely a conservative estimate, is drawn from the total number of land sales worth less than MX$500 (1,231) as well as the incomplete registration of those who bought land from their town councils during the privatization of ejidos (555). Given that most of these landholdings were between half a hectare and five hectares and planted with subsistence crops as well as coffee, this estimate brings us much closer to the amount of land that would need to be under cultivation to achieve the district’s export numbers. See Chapter Four for more details on the land transactions and, for the ejido numbers, see “Concentración de los documentos de todos los Ejidos,” AHCH, Fondo de Gobierno, Fomento, 1908, vol. 2, exp. 12.

37. Womack, “Mexican Political Historiography.”

38. As Centeno and López-Alves put it, “Why not treat Latin America as simply an alternative development, with its own probabilities and variances?. . . . Our job is not to find what is ‘wrong’ with a patient but to understand how the body works.” Centeno and López-Alves, “Introduction,” 10.

39. Beatty, Institutions and Investment; Maurer, The Power and the Money; Suarez-Potts, The Making of Law; Gómez Galvarriato, Industry and Revolution; Beatty, Technology and the Search for Progress in Modern Mexico.

40. Haber, How Latin America Fell Behind; Knight, “Review”; Hanley, Native Capital; Pineda, Industrial Development in a Frontier Economy; Cushman, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World; Cribelli, Industrial Forests and Mechanical Marvels.

41. The literature on coffee is quite rich and varied; most of these studies, though, focus on one type of cultivation in one particular region, though they might allude to the variety of production that made up a national economy. Stein, Vassouras; Bergquist, Coffee and Conflict in Colombia, 18861910; Palacios, Coffee in Colombia, 18501970; Cambranes, Coffee and Peasants; Gudmundson, “Peasant, Farmer, Proletarian”; Samper K., “Los paisajes sociales del café”; Roseberry, Gudmundson, and Samper K., Coffee, Society, and Power in Latin America; Yarrington, A Coffee Frontier; Lauria-Santiago, An Agrarian Republic; Topik, “Coffee Anyone?”; Clarence-Smith, Gervase, and Topik, The Global Coffee Economy in Africa, Asia and Latin America, 15001989; Charlip, Cultivating Coffee; Córdova Santamaría, Café y sociedad en Huatusco, Veracruz; Gallini, Una historia ambiental del café en Guatemala; Fowler-Salamini, Working Women, Entrepreneurs, and the Mexican Revolution; Akaki, “Los siglos XIX y XX en la cafeticultura nacional.”

42. Holden, Mexico and the Survey of Public Lands; Schryer, “Peasants and the Law”; Escobar Ohmstede and Rojas Rabiela, Estructuras y formas agrarias en México; Purnell, “With All Due Respect”; Chassen de López, From Liberal to Revolutionary Oaxaca; Kourí, A Pueblo Divided; Fenner, “Los deslindes de terrenos baldíos”; Escobar Ohmstede and Butler, “Introduction”; Smith, “Rewriting the Moral Economy.”

43. The plantation complex as defined by Philip Curtin was centered on the production of tropical goods through slave labor. While the abolition of the slave trade across the nineteenth century undermined the plantation’s preeminence, Curtin also points to the structure’s transformation and continuance through other forms of labor both in the Caribbean and in new European colonial holdings in South and Southeast Asia and Africa. Latin America, too, had its share of plantations from the colonial era onward, generally termed haciendas or fazendas, and the southern United States, of course, relied on this organization of production for centuries. The predominance of the plantation has been at the heart of much recent literature on the consolidation of global capitalism, though discussions of the interdependencies between capitalism and unfree labor have much deeper roots. Williams, Capitalism and Slavery; Wolf and Mintz, “Haciendas and Plantation in Middle America and the Antilles”; Solow and Engerman, British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery; Curtin, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex; Topik and Wells, Global Markets Transformed; Follett, Plantation Kingdom.