Free Labor, Evolving Communities and Networks, and the Supreme Court in Mexico, 1880–1910

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 3:30 PM
Michigan Room A (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
William Suarez-Potts, Kenyon College
As economic opportunities multiplied in Mexico during the latter third of the nineteenth century, in some regions of the country large rural estates, as both production units and organized communities, had to rely more on coercive employment practices to maintain low labor costs or a sufficient labor supply. Forced labor, including slavery, had existed previously in Mexico under colonial rule.  But the turn to coercion during the Porfirian regime (1877-1911) was carried out under the Constitution of 1857, which categorically guaranteed the right of free labor.  Agricultural businesses that exploited unfree labor thus had to do so largely through quasi-legal institutions, such as debt peonage.  Such peonage, to be viable, required the collaboration of local government officials with private enterprises.  

The nation’s Supreme Court generally opposed the institution of debt peonage, even where it was permissible under state law, and normally supported agricultural workers filing complaints before federal judges against state authorities collaborating with private employers.  This paper examines the Court’s published decisions, and discusses both the relevant normative system as well as its social and political context.  It reviews primary sources that historians have largely not studied, while briefly reconsidering earlier historiographical debates about the extent of involuntary servitude in Porfirian Mexico.  The paper argues that the Supreme Court’s legal, constitutional vision – which liberals and progressives then espoused, and which workers occasionally could also invoke – clashed with the makeshift networks of agricultural businesses established to secure sources of labor. Indeed, contrasting visions of labor institutions were reflective of the fluctuating and opposing interests of different communities, some of which were constitutive of the state; in any case, the contrasts became more pronounced as the Mexican political order faced collapse after 1910-11.

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