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Modern History Sourcebook:
George M. McBride: Haciendas
from The Land Systems of Mexico, 1923

The Haciendas of Mexico are the most conspicuous feature of the land system of the country. They give to agricultural Mexico its distinctive cast, and, by their great size, create the impression that the entire land is divided into vast rural estates. These properties, indeed, are the only type of agricultural holding immediately visible to the traveler in many parts of Mexico, just as the hacendado is the only type of agriculturist whose interest reach beyond the immediate neighborhood of his home. . Many of the haciendas are of very great extent; it is estimated that 300 of them contain at least 25,000 acres each...The Mexican hacienda seldom contains less than 2,500 acres--whether situated in the arid plains of the north, where land is worth little or nothing, or in the densely settled areas of the Mesa Central. The haciendas are settlements complete in themselves. Indeed, few of these estates have less than a hundred, while many of them have as many as a thousand inhabitants. . . Furthermore, the haciendas are all named; they appear on the maps; and they are important units of public administration, often being incorporated as municipios. They include all the customary accessories of an independent community, such as a church, a store, a post office, a burying ground, and sometimes a school or hospital. Workshops are maintained, not only for the repair but even for the manufacture of machinery and of the numerous implements on the estate. The permanent population consists of an administrador, one or more majordomos, a group of foremen, and the regular peons, together with the families of these individuals. Besides these, there are several classes of hangers-on, less permanently attached to the farm. Among the latter are usually a priest or two, clerks, accountants, storekeepers, hired shepherds and cattlemen, and often a number of families who rent small pieces of land from the hacienda. Over this aggregation the owner presides in a more or less patriarchal manner, the degree of paternal care or of tyranny varying with the character of the individual and with that of his superior employees. The typical Mexican landowner spends relatively little of his time within this citadel [his house]. He usually maintains a residence in the capital or some other large city, where he spends the greater part of the year. If the income of his property makes it possible, he may go to Europe or the United States. Only during the most active seasons--planting or harvesting--does he long remain on his estate....The hacendado is, therefore, less an agriculturist than a landowner, less a farmer than an absentee landlord, and his interest in the property is due less to its economic possibilities than to its character as an ancestral estate. The laborers on the haciendas, in most parts of Mexico, are of Indian blood or are mestizos in whom the Indian element predominates. . . The peons upon a Mexican hacienda are theoretically free...As a matter of fact, however, many of them are held upon the estate in bondage no less real because it is sanctioned only by custom and enforced only by economic conditions. . . By a system of advance payments, which the peons are totally unable to refund, the hacendados are able to keep them permanently under financial obligations and hence to oblige them to remain upon the estates to which they belonged. . . The daily wages paid to the peons who work on the haciendas have always been very low....seldom paid in money. Ordinarily for his labor he is given a due bill or time check to be negotiated at the store maintained by the hacienda--with obvious results. On the other hand, the actual wage earned is not the only compensation that the peon receives. Certain perquisites, if one might so describe them, have been established by custom, which alleviate the lot of the Indian laborer. Thus he occupies a hut upon the estate without being called upon to pay rent. He is usually allowed a milpa, a piece of land for his own use, and this may provide at least a part of his living. Moreover, while he is forced to resort to the hacienda store, he enjoys a credit there sufficient to tide him over in the event of a general crop failure. Actually, however, so meager is the compensation received by the peon that he is kept in the most abject poverty, and few opportunities of escape from the bondage imposed by the established system ever present themselves. Obviously, this situation has greatly encouraged the emigration of rural laborers from Mexico to the southwestern part of the United States. Official figures given by the U. S. Bureau of Immigration show that between 1899 and 1919 there was an average yearly movement of 10,320 immigrants from Mexico into this country, in addition to the seasonal migration. These figures are thought to represent only a part of the actual movement, since conditions on the border make it easy for the immigrant to avoid registration. The full tide of emigration of Mexican laborers is thought by some to reach as high as 100,000 a year. In the eyes of the Mexicans the value of an hacienda does not lie in the money return yielded by the annual crops. The actual return in money is often very small. With intensive cultivation the broad acres might be made to yield a large income; but, with an absentee owner, a hired administrator, and poorly paid peons, the typical Mexican hacienda yields little more than enough to feed its numerous population. The economic value to the owner lies rather in the supplies which it furnishes, the cheap service which it provides for his household, and the amount of money which he can obtain on a mortgage. . . . The haciendas and their owners have, in most respects, dominated the life of Mexico. This domination is less economic than social or political. Opinions differ as to the proportion of the nation=s food supply that is derived from the haciendas and from the smaller properties. Statistics that would settle the question have, apparently, never been compiled; but even if the smaller farms supply the greater part of the food for public consumption, it is the haciendas, with their greater ability to hold their produce for a favorable price, that control the markets. In matters of wages and conditions of work the haciendas also exert a determining influence. The social and political influence is more direct and powerful. Throughout the history of Mexico the landholding class has generally dominated social conditions. It has set the standards of morals, education, and amusement for the middle class and has determined the conditions under which the manual laborer must live. Moreover, the great landowners have ruled the country. This small class, numbering 8,000 to 10,000 proprietors, has at all times exercised a preponderant influence in national affairs and has usually been in control in individual states. In the colonial period their influence constantly thwarted the benevolent measures of the home government; and since the birth of the republic legislation has been dictated by them, and largely in their interests, or, in revolutionary times, have usually succeeded in controlling the enforcement of the laws.

Source:From: George M. McBride, The Land Systems of Mexico, (New York: American Geographical Society, 1923), passim.Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. Prof. Arkenberg has modernized the text.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.
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© Paul Halsall, July 1998
halsall@murray.fordham.edu