In Myths of Modernity, Elizabeth Dore rethinks Nicaragua’s transition to capitalism. Arguing against the idea that the country’s capitalist transformation was ushered in by the coffee boom that extended from 1870 to 1930, she maintains that coffee growing gave rise to systems of landowning and labor exploitation that impeded rather than promoted capitalist development. Dore places gender at the forefront of her analysis, which demonstrates that patriarchy was the organizing principle of the coffee economy’s debt-peonage system until the 1950s. She examines the gendered dynamics of daily life in Diriomo, a township in Nicaragua’s Granada region, tracing the history of the town’s Indian community from its inception in the colonial era to its demise in the early twentieth century.
Dore seamlessly combines archival research, oral history, and an innovative theoretical approach that unites political economy with social history. She recovers the bygone voices of peons, planters, and local officials within documents such as labor contracts, court records, and official correspondence. She juxtaposes these historical perspectives with those of contemporary peasants, landowners, activists, and politicians who share memories passed down to the present. The reconceptualization of the coffee economy that Dore elaborates has far-reaching implications. The Sandinistas mistakenly believed, she contends, that Nicaraguan capitalism was mature and ripe for socialist revolution, and after their victory in 1979 that belief led them to alienate many peasants by ignoring their demands for land. Thus, the Sandinistas’ myths of modernity contributed to their downfall.
The Mexican Revolution was a tumultuous struggle for social and political reform that ousted an autocrat and paved the way for a new national constitution. The conflict, however, came late to Yucatán, where a network of elite families with largely European roots held the reins of government. This privileged group reaped spectacular wealth from haciendas, cash-crop plantations tended by debt-ridden servants of Maya descent. When a revolutionary army from central Mexico finally gained a foothold in Yucatán in 1915, the local custom of agrarian servitude met its demise.
Drawing on a dozen years of archaeological and historical investigation, Allan Meyers breaks new ground in the study of Yucatán haciendas. He explores a plantation village called San Juan Bautista Tabi, which once stood at the heart of a vast sugar estate. Occupied for only a few generations, the village was abandoned during the revolutionary upheaval. Its ruins now lie within a state-owned ecological reserve.
Through oral histories, archival records, and physical remains, Meyers examines various facets of the plantation landscape. He presents original data and fresh interpretations on settlement organization, social stratification, and spatial relationships. His systematic approach to "things underfoot," small everyday objects that are now buried in the tropical forest, offers views of the hacienda experience that are often missing in official written sources. In this way, he raises the voices of rural, mostly illiterate Maya speakers who toiled as laborers. What emerges is a portrait of hacienda social life that transcends depictions gleaned from historical methods alone.
Students, researchers, and travelers to Mexico will all find something of interest in Meyers's lively presentation. Readers will see the old haciendas—once forsaken but now experiencing a rebirth as tourist destinations—in a new light. These heritage sites not only testify to social conditions that prevailed before the Mexican Revolution, but also remind us that the human geography of modern Yucatán is as much a product of plantation times as it is of more ancient periods.
Whether peonage in the South grew out of slavery, a natural and perhaps unavoidable interlude between bondage and freedom, or whether employers distorted laws and customs to create debt servitude, most Southerners quietly accepted peonage. To the employer it was a way to control laborers; to the peon it was a bewildering system that could not be escaped without risk of imprisonment, beating, or death.
Pete Daniel's book is about this largely ignored form of twentieth-century slavery. It is in part "the record of an American failure, the inability of federal, state, and local law-enforcement officers to end peonage." In a series of case studies and histories, Daniel re-creates the neglected and frightening world of peonage, demanding, "If a form of slavery yet exists in the United States, as so much evidence suggests, then the relevant questions are why, and by whose irresponsibility?"
Peonage grew out of labor settlements following emancipation, when employers forbade croppers to leave plantations because of debt (often less than $30). At the turn of the century the federal government acknowledged that the "labyrinth of local customs and laws" binding men in debt was peonage. They outlawed debt servitude and slowly moved against it, but with no large success. Disappearing witnesses and acquitted employers characterized the cases that did go to court.
Daniel holds that peonage persists for many reasons: the corruption and apathy of law-enforcement, racist traditions in the South, and the impotence of the Justice Department in prosecuting this violation of federal law. He draws extensively on complaints and trial transcripts from the peonage records of the Justice Department.