In From the Grounds Up: Building an Export Economy in Southern Mexico
(Stanford University Press, 2019), Casey Lurtz
explains how the fertile yet isolated region of the Soconusco became integrated into global markets in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries. Located in what is today the state of Chiapas, the Soconusco was a lightly-populated borderlands region where sovereignty was murky, for both Mexico and Guatemala claimed the district and residents moved freely across the scarcely-delineated boundary between national territories. There were other challenges to developing an export economy: the Soconusco faced labor scarcity, lacked institutional and material infrastructure, and was regularly destabilized by political violence. Nevertheless, it became the primary coffee-producing region in Mexico in this era. To trace how this occurred, Lurtz notes the role of politicians and entrepreneurial large landowners, Mexican and foreign, in developing coffee plantations (fincas), but her cast of characters goes beyond the political and economic elite. For the author, local smallholders and migrant laborers were equally central protagonists in the story of how the Soconusco became so productive. She argues that these often-overlooked actors were influential in shaping the region’s economy and its integration into international markets. The book’s chapters trace how both powerful and marginal figures in the district responded to each of the various impediments to development. Using rich local sources to reconstruct mapping and surveying efforts, ordinary transactions, and legal disputes, Lurtz connects this economic and social history to the political history of nineteenth-century Latin America. Much as political liberalism should be studied as both a set of ideas and a set of practices, the economic aspects of liberalism are also worth examining on the ground at a microhistorical level. Lurtz reveals how economic liberal ideas and structures were invoked and demanded by villagers, workers, and landowners in the Soconusco in order to advance their diverse agenda.
Rachel Grace Newman is Lecturer in the History of the Global South at Smith College. She has a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University, and her dissertation was titled “Transnational Ambitions: Student Migrants and the Making of a National Future in Twentieth-Century Mexico.” She is also the author of a book on a binational program for migrant children whose families divided their time between Michoacán, Mexico and Watsonville, California. She is on Twitter (@rachelgnew).