Insecure Labor, Insecure Debt: Building a Workforce for Coffee in the Soconusco, Chiapas

Casey Marina Lurtz
  • Hispanic American Historical Review, April 2016, Duke University Press
  • DOI: 10.1215/00182168-3484185

What is it about?

As the coffee economy of southern Mexico grew across the late 19th Century, the question of labor proved a constant thorn. This article looks at how workers leveraged their own scarcity and their employers' lack of coercive power to gain better wages, housing, land, and credit. In this environment of booming coffee, historically abusive debt peonage was flipped on its head, replaced by a system of incentivized contracts .

Why is it important?

Drawing on unused local archives, this article delves deep into the daily workings of coffee plantations as a peripheral region entered onto the global stage of commodity production. It traces particular workers and their employers across a key decade in the history of coffee in the Soconusco while also drawing the region into the broader history of circulation in the Pacific World. Through their stories, the piece demonstrates that the global forces of capitalism could only push so hard against ingrained local customs and relationships.


Dr. Casey M. Lurtz (Author)
Harvard University

This piece grew out of a rich trove of archival documents generated by the financial and personal conflicts between two British investors. In the process of sifting through their at times explosive spat, the lives of workers from both Chiapas and the South Pacific became visible in a way I had not seen before. While I had long been thinking of the Soconusco in connection with broader flows of commodities, capital, and people, the fight over finca San Juan las Chicharras brought home how closely linked this isolated region had become to both communities and markets across both the Pacific and Atlantic Worlds.

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