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University of Chicago Press
Agrarian Revolt in a Mexican Village / Edition 2

Agrarian Revolt in a Mexican Village / Edition 2

by Paul Friedrich


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ISBN-13: 9780226264813
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/28/1977
Edition description: Digital Reprint
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: (w) x (h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Agrarian Revolt in a Mexican Village

With a new Preface and Supplementary Bibliography

By Paul Friedrich

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1977 Paul Friedrich
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-26481-3



The question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of an extremist we will be.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963)

The village has been home to most Mexicans for hundreds of years; by the turn of the present century, over ninety percent of the country's population lived in villages. Such villages are both the creatures and agents of economic and political change. On the one hand, they may be transformed by decrees emanating from the national capital. On the other hand, the needs and aspirations of the peasants themselves at times may determine national politics. The Mexican Revolution found its energies in the villages; and the millions who fought were primarily moved by the idea of land reform. A complex reciprocity thus linked the economic theories and party slogans of the Mexico City politicians to family feuds and land hunger in thousands of pueblos. In Mexico, as elsewhere, the political history of a peasant village often incarnates the ideological conflicts that punctuate the growth of the entire nation.

Mexican economic and social change partly originated in the constant struggles between individuals who advanced various ideologies of land ownership and use. A fundamental antithesis set off the landed estates, or haciendas, from the indigenous communalistic villages. The haciendas ranged in size from the equivalent of a village or two to areas large enough to cover some of Mexico's present-day states. The landlords were either Spaniards or mestizos, that is, non-Indian Mexicans. They often assigned the tasks of management to professional supervisors; in some cases, the peasant sharecroppers and hired men were ruthlessly exploited, particularly if they were the Indians from whom the land had originally been wrested. Peons often became hopelessly obligated through indebtedness and other legal or personal obligations. In other cases, peasant and landlord cooperated generation after generation in mutually profitable and reasonably harmonious interdependency, particularly in the case of mestizo acasillados who were housed directly on the hacienda lands. Contrasted with this system was that of the peasants, bound by tradition to a village site and to the fields and mountainsides that they owned and enjoyed in common. The peasants, in their millions, tilled, fished, and gathered within the borders of their villages.

These indigenous peasant communities were divided according to three principles of land control that were sometimes complementary, but at other times in open contradiction. Much of the best land was often held by the peasants as a corporate group or collectivity, and used in equal and inalienable shares by individual families. Second, woodlands and pasture were also held in common, but were not apportioned to particular persons; instead, permission for various kinds of use, such as felling a tree for needed timber, was granted as the occasion arose. By the third (and historically latest) principle of control, agricultural lands could be owned as plots of private real estate. The three principles were variously combined in different villages at different times. In certain very fertile areas of Mexico, all the villagers participated in the communal group (ejido), and some Indian communities controlled practically all of their lands in common. But many villages, such as those discussed below, have changed drastically during the past hundred years, both in terms of the hacienda and village systems, and in terms of the three types of land control that were operative within the peasant villages.

To some extent, the Tarascan area of southwestern Mexico remained outside the mainstream of Mexican history because of mountainous terrain, extremes of cold, limited arable lands, and geographical remoteness from the major market areas of Mexico's Central Plateau. Hence the Tarascans suffered comparatively little from the growth of large estates that typified postconquest agrarian history. The ruling castes of mestizos and Spaniards were mostly content to collect taxes from the local caciques and village elders without interfering in other matters. For the most part, leaders and administrators in the Tarascan area appear to have respected the "Laws of the Indies," under which Mexico's indigenous populations were ostensibly protected from wholesale exploitation. By the mid-nineteenth century, while the Tarascans had become more aware of agrarian conflicts, they were still relatively unaffected by them.

It was the Reform Laws promulgated by Juarez that cut into the heart of indigenous villages all over Mexico, including Tarasco. Ever since the sixteenth century, contact with mestizos and Spaniards had produced a diffusion of notions about private property in land. The first half of the nineteenth century witnessed the achievement of national independence and the spread among the educated classes of liberal ideas from England and France. On June 26, 1856, the Reform went into effect, amplified in the 1860s by additional laws, all designed to destroy the supposedly debilitating security of joint ownership in the "backward," communalistic villages. In varying degrees the Indians were encouraged or compelled to divide the commons and ejidos of the so-called "indigenous lands" into plots that could be bought and sold at the discretion of the individual. It was argued that the ensuing vigorous competition would produce a class of industrious, individualistic farmers, tilling their private acres in the spirit of unfettered free enterprise.

Most of the Juarez liberals meant well, although their motives have been vitriolically attacked by writers such as Vasconcelos. But reforms instituted with one intention may develop in directions never envisaged by their originators. The supposedly liberal innovations under Juarez led to gradually accelerated changes in land ownership under Porfirio Díaz, during whose thirty-year presidency (1876–1910) villages were deprived of their lands through new and more rigorous interpretations of the Reform Laws, through "punishment for rebellion," and through the actions of privileged colonization companies. Maximum legal and financial assistance was accorded to mestizos and Spaniards, and to North Americans and other foreigners who sought to acquire large estates by methods that included straightforward purchase, vaguely legalized expropriation, and destruction of the Indians' original titles. More specifically, the "alienation of public lands" was fostered through a series of laws, the first promulgated in 1883, the second in 1894. Provisions were made whereby private companies could survey, subdivide, and settle allegedly "public" lands—which often meant lands occupied by Indian peasants. One-third of such land was given to the companies outright and the rest could be bought at reduced rates. Special favor was shown to companies which effected improvements such as drainage. Such land was sometimes a mere gift to political favorites, since it could be paid for in depreciated public bonds.

The result of these measures was that, between 1883 and 1910, over 27 percent of the total area of the Republic was conveyed to private companies. Twelve states were left with no "public lands" at all. By 1910, 14,000,000 Mexican peasants, many of them Indians, were trapped in a system of hired labor and peonage that often differed little from serfdom. By 1911, 95 percent of all rural families in all but five states were landless. The landless peasants had become a rural laboring class for some 20,000 landholders of mestizo and foreign extraction. Over 90 percent of Mexico's best land was effectively controlled by less than five percent of the population. But the "rape of the pueblos" and the "alienation of public lands" begun under the Juarez reforms and completed under Diaz inevitably created land hunger and unrest. Beneath the political slogans and the social confusion of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) there surged the peasants' urgent and implacable demand: la tierra.


The Cultural Background: Naranja Circa 1885

When we have cleared up the history of a single culture ... we can investigate in how far the same causes were at work in the development of other cultures.

Franz Boas (1896:907)


The Tarascan people live on the western reaches of the Mexican Plateau in central Michoacán (etymologically "land of waters"). According to legend, they are descended from a sedentary fisher folk, whose king resided in a capital called Naransháni. These folk, who probably already spoke Tarascan, mixed with nomadic intruders during the thirteenth century. The resulting society resembled that of the Aztecs in several ways, such as a hierarchy of hereditary occupational statuses, and a priest-king hedged about with rituals that sometimes included human sacrifice. Of all the tribes adjacent to the Aztecs, however, only the Tarascans never paid tribute; so strong and independent were they that in 1422 they crushed a large expeditionary force from the Valley of Mexico. Culture historians have since speculated that the sense of provincial autonomy in Michoacán may hark back to this independence of preconquest times; the Tarascans, like Tacitus' Germans, acquired an early reputation for valor. By this time, their empire was organized around four regional centers, each with its court and local prince. One of these centers was the hill-top capital of Zacapu, near the village of Naransháni. Even today the crumbling grey foundations of this "Lost City" of Zacapu look out at the twelve-thousand acre plain to the east, the brilliant sun overhead, and the occasional, circling vulture.

In the sixteenth century, the Tarascans felt the impact of Spanish arms when the conquistadores crossed Michoacán, torturing their princes to death for the gold they seldom had, and killing many inhabitants; thepopulation was reduced by one half within thirty years (West 1948:12). The people of Naransháni and other villages were often forced to flee deep into the sierra. But peaceful conversion was brought to the region after 1522 by a group of Franciscan missionaries, the most illustrious of whom was Vasco de Quiroga, a humanistic intellectual of the Counter-Reformation who still symbolizes enlightenment and personal humility to the Indians. By setting up well-ordered and occupationally specialized villages, he sought to realize on Tarascan soil the utopian reforms of Sir Thomas Moore (Závala 1946), thereby helping greatly to offset the cultural disorganization and the physical sufferings of the sixteenth century. Naransháni, its name now changed to Naranja (Spanish for "orange"), was moved to the flatlands bordering the Zacapu marsh in 1734. The relocation was part of a general program encouraged by the Catholic Church, which desired to centralize its parishes (Basauri 1940: 556). According to legend, a newborn infant was buried under each corner of the stone church.

As in many parts of Indian Mexico, the Spanish encouraged and supported a local chief or cacique. Such caciques were drawn from aristocratic families and may have represented a continuation of the preconquest dynasties of princes and local chiefs; under the Spaniards they combined the functions of judge, tax collector, and political leader. The "last cacique of Naranja" was not replaced in 1794, possibly reflecting a breakdown of older authority patterns. The "last cacique" was probably one of those "Indian nobles who kept a great amount of wealth and power until the nineteenth century ... the system by which Indian nobles controlled higher office gradually gave way to a system where the ex-officers formed a council of elders who controlled community affairs and the nomination of new officers" (Carrasco 1952:13). In the 1860s, the French expeditionary force passed through Naranja; occasional blue eyes are still facetiously ascribed to the Foreign Legion. The economic and social change wrought by the Juarez Reforms may have been connected with what is now called "a political division" that caused about one-third of the population to depart for the west, eventually settling in the distant Tarascan community of Tarecuato, where they formed a barrio known as "The Virgin" because of the miracle-working image they brought with them to their new home. By 1885, Naranja formed one of three lacustrine villages reported as pursuing a calm and rather isolated existence (Lumholtz 1902:425–6). The Naranjeños fished and gathered in the teeming waters, and wove mats and baskets from the rushes growing in the dense brakes of the Zacapu marsh.

By about 1890, the population was barely growing, mainly because so many infants and children were dying of measles, whooping cough, the grippe, malaria, and smallpox. Six Naranjeños in their sixties and seventies estimated a population of six to nine hundred for about 1900, which agrees with calculations based on municipal records of births and deaths in 1883. Occasional losses through emigration could only be made up by settlers from other Tarascan towns; local hostility to non-Indian outsiders (turísichani) was intense, however, and sometimes resulted in murder.

The surrounding mestizos were perceived as racially distinct, and indeed even today many Naranjeños show little or no Caucasoid admixture. The population also differs noticeably from other indigenous ones, such as the Aztec-speakers to the east. Many Naranjeños mention the differences between themselves and the "redskins" beside whom they have worked in the United States.

Among these physical perceptions, an important role is played by the complex making up "the face" (la cara). As can readily be seen in the photographs, the facial profile usually includes large, prominent cheekbones, a broadly based nose, and medium to full, sensual lips. Most eyes have an inner epicanthic fold, and many also possess the medium or even the outer variety; the Mongoloid slant is not conspicuous, except in infants and the senile, who often impress the tourist as "Chinese-looking." The canine tooth is shaped very much like a back incisor, and the women in particular tend to have buck teeth. Skin color ranges from dark yellows to a deep, mahogany brown, but does not include copper shades. The round, often egg-shaped cranium is marked by a usually low and sometimes receding forehead, topped by straight, black, and rather dull hair. Moustaches are rare.

Many writers have commented on the Tarascan physique, which ranges from a rugged, muscular, pyknic type to more slender, gracile forms; height averages about five and a half feet, with many women under five feet and some men exceeding 5? 10?. In contrast to certain other Mongoloid peoples, the Tarascan woman is distinguished by full breasts that attain considerable proportions with advancing years. Many of the older women tend to incline the head forward and to protrude the buttocks, resulting in a markedly s-shaped posture as they shuffle or waddle along with short rapid steps; both the posture and the gait may result from the positions they have had to assume for long periods while grinding corn, making tortillas, and carrying water and infants. The men hold themselves relaxed and fairly erect. All in all, the body is moved without hurry, evenly, and, especially in children, very gracefully, with few sudden, jerky efforts.

Body motions and racial traits are articulately discussed in the case, for example, of skin color, the cheekbones, and the female breast. Others, like the eye fold, are not named but undoubtedly form part of the total set of perceptions summed up under the notion of "race" (la raza). For the individual's image of himself as an Indian, "race" was probably second only to language.

Most Naranjeños were monolingual speakers of their variety of the central dialect of Porépicha (phonetically, phorépica), as they call their language. Practically all communication was by word of mouth, since only a handful were literate in Spanish. The total active vocabulary of the average speaker was probably around 15,000 words, although such counts are not too meaningful because of the ease with which new words can be coined through highly productive morphological processes. The language was further enriched by a marked concern in the culture with punning and word-play; as recently as 1945, the men of Naranja were wont to gather in groups to vie with each other in telling stories replete with Rabelaisian double entendre. Many Tarascans are sensitive about verbal style, and their leaders often discuss place names, dialect differences, and the like when entertaining outsiders. Because of their geographical isolation since the seventeenth century, Tarascan speakers today think of their language in contrast to Spanish rather than to other Mexican Indian languages. They also tend to think of distant Tarascan villages as having different "languages" and frequently comment on the locutions in neighboring towns, although, with the exception of one southeastern village, there is mutual intelligibility between the major dialects. Local language attitudes had political significance, setting off the Indians from the mestizos in the county seat and to the north, and emerging as an important symbol during the agrarian movement. On the other hand, the mutual intelligibility of the dialects was of considerable practical importance for indigenous leaders such as Primo Tapia and Pedro López.


Excerpted from Agrarian Revolt in a Mexican Village by Paul Friedrich. Copyright © 1977 Paul Friedrich. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Chronology of Important Events
Preface, 1977
1. Prologue
2. The Cultural Background: Naranja Circa 1885
3. Economic and Social Change 1885-1920
4. An Indigenous Revolutionary: Primo Tapia
5. Agrarian Revolt: 1920-1926
6. Epilogue
7. Postscript: The Causes of Local Agrarian Revolt in Naranja
Appendix A - The Tarascan Language
Appendix B - Economic Statistics for the Ejido
Appendix C - Diet
Supplementary Bibliography

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