Story of Mexico - Charles Morris

Oppression of the Working People and Terrors of Peonage and Slavery

Mexico is a free country. The constitution says so, and of course constitutions do not lie. They may, however, prevaricate. The law-makers of Mexico have decided that all the people are free and politically equal, but the capitalist class pays little heed to this statesmanlike declaration, and today a large class of the people are in a state of laboring bondage equivalent to that of serfage in past ages. It is debt that brings men into this status of oppression. The laborer in debt loses his freedom, and debt is the common status of the peon class. A debtor cannot leave the estate of his employer, or if doing so is subject to arrest and return; while poor wages and improvidence act together to keep the laboring class in lifelong bondage to debt. The serf of old Europe was a fixture of the soil, and the peon of Mexico is, under the laws governing debt, usually a like fixture. As for actual slavery—well, we shall indicate further on that this state exists also in Mexico.

The conditions of agricultural life in Mexico need first to be stated. From the days of Cortes and the Spanish conquerors the natives of Mexico have been sorely oppressed. The Spanish settlers seized the land with a free hand and divided it into great manorial estates that needed the toil of multitudes of the natives for their development. As for the rights of the latter, they were utterly ignored. And even since the winning of freedom and the formation of a constitutional republic, with assurance of equal rights to all classes, the condition of the laborer is still open to improvement. Duplicity replaces force and much the same state of affairs persists.

In Mexico before the Spanish conquest the people at large held the land and a strong and independent peasant class existed. Great estates were not permitted, and the people were prosperous and satisfied. This system was overthrown by the Spaniards at a blow, and today the Indian lives by sufferance upon the soil that was owned and enjoyed by his ancestors. Enormous estates are now held by single proprietors, one in the State of Chihuahua being the largest in the world. One near Cuautla, in the State of Morelos, has two railway stations within its borders and a railway line of its own, while elsewhere are estates large enough to include whole counties.

The haciendas, or landed estates, of the Spanish worthies in the seventeenth century were like those of the Dutch patrons  of New York in the same period. Immense in size and governed like little kingdoms, no feudal baron of older Europe lived in fuller dominance than the hacienda proprietor. Free from interference by the government, he ruled over his minor domain like a king. The hacienda house, the great stone dwelling of the proprietor of the estate, was surrounded by outbuildings and the huts of the peons. In and out, all day long, went trains of laden burros, carrying wood, food-stuffs and fruit. Over the main entrance, or in the chapel tower, hung an alarm bell, its purpose being to warn the workmen in times of peril—and such times might come at frequent intervals in those semi-barbarous days. On hearing its clanging, tools were dropped and the men made all haste to the mansion, where, armed with rifles, they stood on guard in tower and turret and behind port-holes in the thick walls, ready to defend the master's house against the bands of bandits or plunder-seeking soldiers who threatened it. The sound of the bell is still at times heard, but its errand now is to warn the workmen against rain or hail in time of harvest.

The baron-like style and authority of the past is kept up on many of these great estates. In some cases the descendants of the original holders at the time of the conquest still hold them, and rule over whole villages of peons, field workers on the domain. One of these in the north formerly had within its confines twenty thousand laborers, the owner enjoying a princely income from their work, which he spent with a lavish hand in the capital or abroad. This system has been and still is a serious obstacle to the progress of the people of Mexico. As the case stands, primitive methods of agriculture prevail, the land is not half tilled, and much arable soil lies unused. We have compared the system with that of the former patroons of New York. It might as justly be compared with that of the great landed estates of the English nobility today, in which similar conditions of lack of development prevail. Neither country, England nor Mexico, can offer proper opportunity to its people while a great part of the land lies uncultivated.

Many of these old estates, as above said, retain primitive methods of agriculture, partly from the difficulty of teaching the ignorant workers the use of modern implements, partly from indifference on the part of the proprietors. Old-time wooden ploughs and antique ox-carts are still to be seen, while the grain is often threshed by driving horses and mules back and forth over it and winnowed by tossing it into the air. The American threshing and harvesting machines may at times be seen in operation, but the antiquated methods described are still very common.

When workmen are needed on these estates lawless and brigandish methods are at times employed to obtain them. The statement is made that, in the case of certain capitalists who were eager to found estates, or who desired to form land companies, the following method was pursued. A law was passed requiring that all land should be registered and that any person could claim landed property for which the holder had no recorded title. This law covered all the lands of Mexico, since before this time it was not the custom to record titles.

There were many ignorant small proprietors who knew nothing of this new law, and no effort was made to apprise them of its existence or to help them register their property. What did happen was that land companies were quickly formed and agents sent out, their purpose being to select the best lands, register them and turn their former owners adrift.

"You wish to see my papers," the small landholder might say. "What papers? I have no papers. This property was my father's, my grandfather's, and their father's and grandfather's, and this everybody hereabout knows."

Such a defense was of no avail against the new law, and the small farmers were turned adrift by hundreds or thousands, a species of wholesale robbery which is still being pursued. Nothing remained for the former proprietor but to stay at home and work for the man who had robbed him of his property, or to become a wandering peon, seeking labor wherever it could be found.

It is well to state here that the two recent rebellions against the authorities in power, that of the Maderists against President Diaz, and that of the Constitutionalists against Provisional President Huerta, were largely instigated by the above described condition of affairs. The policy of Diaz led towards greater accumulations of landed property, while the Madero platform pointed in the direction of restoring these lands to their original holders. The Carranza policy is the same, and General Villa has recently made a movement towards putting it into effect by seizing and threatening to confiscate the immense Terrazas estates in Chihuahua. It is not surprising, under the circumstances, that the leaders of rebellions find plenty of hard-fighting followers. A sense of wrong, a protest in arms against robbery, instigates many of them. Others who have suffered no loss in estate feel that the lands of the nation belong of right to its people, not to a few rich landowners, frequently foreigners. It is, perhaps, the sentiment of socialism, which is now making its way widely over the earth, which is dominant in this, but it is certain that so many could not be found to risk death and wounds except from some sufficient cause. In this case it is a bitter feeling of resentment against wrongs which the poor have long endured.

Natives of Tehuantepec Isthmus, Mexico.


The trouble in Mexico is not confined to the wrongs and needs of land laborers and despoiled landholders. There are manufacturing establishments where the condition of the workman is one of severe oppression. We give here a case in evidence, that of the cotton-mill operatives at Tizapan, a locality in the vicinity of Mexico City. Here were six hundred workmen whose wages ran from fifty cents to three dollars a week in American money, while their working time was eleven hours a day. These small wages were constantly reduced by petty fines. Every dirt spot in the calico and each slight dereliction had to be paid for. But the culminating exaction was the taxing each workman three centavos  weekly to pay for the food of the dogs guarding the factory.

This was beyond the limit of endurance. The workers refused to submit to these taxes and the mill was closed. Soon the operatives were in a starving condition. We mention this case in view of the fact that the workers issued a pitiful appeal for redress which shows an aggravated state of affairs.

"We are robbed in weights and measures," says this appeal. "We are exploited without mercy. We are fined down to the last penny of our wages, and are dismissed from our work with kicks and blows. Who can live on wages of three and four pesos weekly, with discounts for fines, house rent, and robbery in weights and measures? We protest against this state of affairs, and will not work until we are assured that the fines will be abolished and also the maintenance of dogs, for which we have no right to pay. Also that we be treated as workers, not as the unhappy slaves of a foreigner."

The above is the main part of this appeal. It will suffice to say that the workmen obtained no redress. Labor was plenty, even at very low wages, and the mill owners had no difficulty in replacing the strikers.

A much worse affair was that of the strike at the Rio Blanco cotton mills, near Orizaba. Here were six thousand laborers who worked thirteen hours a day for wages of from twenty-five to thirty-seven and a half cents a day. For dye-room labor forty-five cents were paid, not a very large wage in view of the poisonous nature of the air of these rooms and the suicidal character of the employment.

In Mexico there appear to be no labor laws, no legal protection for the workers, no means of recovering for damage to life and limb of operatives. As for the wages paid in the Rio Blanco mill, it was not given in money, but in orders on the company's store, where the prices for goods ranged from twenty to fifty per cent above those charged elsewhere.

We cannot go into all the details of the exploitation of the workers. It must suffice to say that a labor union was secretly formed. 'When this fact was discovered by the mill owners action was taken that would have created a practical rebellion in the United States. Men merely suspected of having signed the roll of the union were at once seized and thrown into prison, while a newspaper friendly to the strikers was suppressed and its plant confiscated. A strike having taken place in a mill at Puebla, the Rio Blanco workers contributed from their small wages to help the starving strikers. This fact was duly found out, and at once the Rio Blanco and other mills in the vicinity were shut down, all their operatives being put on the starving list.

The affair ended in a food riot, the men looting the store, and setting fire to it and the nearby mill. But the government had prepared for possible violence, battalions of soldiers having been stationed near the town, these being under command of the secretary of war himself. The outbreak was one that could easily have been suppressed by the local police force, but the soldiers were rushed into the town, ordered to fire, and volley after volley was poured into the unarmed crowd, numbers falling dead and wounded. Those who fled were pursued to their homes, dragged out, and shot to death. Some who hid in the hills were hunted for days and shot wherever found. The shooting continued for two or three days. Of those who were captured afterwards, about five hundred were impressed into the army and sent to Quintana Roo, a torrid territory adjoining Yucatan.

The government sought to conceal the facts of this massacre, but they were too flagrant to be hidden. Some of the details got into the newspapers, with the result that severe retribution was dealt out to the editors. Two of these were imprisoned for long terms, and a third was obliged to flee and was pursued to the borders of the United States. A fourth who published a paper in the capital city printed a mild comment on the affair. For this he was arrested, taken to the mill town, and held in secret confinement for five months, though no legal charge had been made against him. Yet liberty of the press is a sacred institution!

As may be conjectured, this severe discipline put an end to all newspaper dealings with the affair. The government did not approve of publicity. As for the town itself, eight hundred regular soldiers and two hundred of the rural police were quartered upon the company's property. Yet the affair could not be kept secret and in the end it led to the abolition of the company's store, and permission to the workers to buy where they pleased. No other redress was obtained, and the murders went unquestioned. As to the whole affair—and it is not the only one that might be mentioned—we can only say, that this was Mexico, not the United States. It may also be said that President Diaz is stated to have been a large stockholder in the Rio Blanco mill.

It will be seen that the trade union was not favored by the Mexican government. But despite this it has made its way in a measure. The trade unionists are the best paid workmen in the country, but their number as yet is not large. The government has been against them, and the hand of the government is heavy. President Vera, of the Grand League of Railway Workers, has been frequently imprisoned on the score of his activity in union affairs, and a strike of this order in 1908 was brought to an end by threats to imprison and try for conspiracy all men who did not return to work at once. As a result the strike was called off.

Let us now consider the condition of the agricultural laborers, the peons of the great estates. They have been already spoken of and the fact shown that they are content under conditions against which an American laborer would rebel. But this state of contentment does not apply to all of them. There has been developed in Mexico a system of contract labor which amounts to practical slavery. As to how this system of labor is managed and what are its results we may extract some statements from "Barbarous Mexico" by John Kenneth Turner. These have to do with the conditions existing on the tobacco plantations of Valle Nacional. This valley is a deep gorge twenty miles long and from two to five miles wide, in a mountainous district of the State of Oaxaca. The only place of entry to or exit from this valley is by way of a river and a bridle path over the mountain side, the route being very difficult, and guarded so that it is next to impossible for a dissatisfied workman to escape.

The state of affairs existing within this valley are such that the very name of it has become a word of horror to the working class of Mexico. Many are forced to enter; few come out, and those who do are in a dying condition. A railroad station agent is quoted as saying: "There are no survivors of Valle Nacional—no real ones. Now and then one gets out of the valley and gets beyond El Hule. He staggers and begs his way along the weary road towards Cordoba, but he never gets back where he came from. These people come out of the valley walking corpses; they travel on a little way and then they fall."

How are people induced to go into this vale of terrors? At first the planters imported workmen under contract to work for a given time. In cases where these sought to jump their contracts they were forced to stay. The advance money and the cost of transportation were held as a debt against them and under the Mexican law they would be held until this debt was worked out. Good care was taken that it should not be worked out. Low wages and the company system served for that and those who had entered stayed, to endure incredible conditions of ill treatment.

The time came when no laborer was willing to enter the valley. Then other means were taken to obtain them. The simplest one was to bribe the jefe politico. This is an official peculiar to Mexico who rules over districts corresponding to our counties and is also mayor of the chief town or city in his district. He is a little czar within his domain, and when a petty lawbreaker falls into his hand he can send him to jail or Otherwise dispose of him. One way is to sell his services to the Valle Nacional planters. As it apparently costs the jefe  a round sum paid the governor to obtain his office he recuperates himself in a variety of ways, this being one of them.

A second method is that of the labor agent. This is a man who opens an employment office in some town and advertises for workers, with the lure of high wages and comfortable homes, also free transportation. The bait is taken by many who wish to improve their condition. An advance fee of five dollars is paid, and the man—or his whole family if they are included in the contract—is locked up awaiting his removal. If he repents of his bargain there is no escape. When a number are thus obtained steps are taken to transport them. The agents are in collusion with the officials, and the victims, once secured, are held strict prisoners. If suspicious, they are told they are in debt and must work out the debt claim of their creditors before they can be set free. Rurales, rural police, guard them to the train and on their journey, and they are in due time delivered into the Valle National.

This is one way of obtaining contract laborers. There are others. One is a system of direct kidnapping. This may be of drunken men or of children. Throughout, the whole process, whatever the method, is unconstitutional, but it serves. The police officials recognize the advance fee as a debt and there is no escape.

Under the contract the laborer binds himself for six months, the labor agent receiving $45.00 for each man, half that sum for women and children. The work is hot, exhausting, enervating, the wages not enough to buy food and clothing, the store prices far beyond actual value of the goods, so that no one who completes his six months is able to pay his debt, or is set free if capable of any more work. The conditions of labor are very severe; the workers are beaten and starved; at night they are locked up together in a barnlike structure under guard. The whole system is a cruel and barbarous one, but it is one to which the government apparently pays no heed. It resembles in barbarity the state of the Mexican miners under the old Spanish rule.

Such is one of the examples of the oppression of labor in Mexico. Others might be mentioned. One that we shall briefly describe has to do with what may be regarded as actual slavery. This is that of the Indian workmen on the henequen plantations of Yucatan. Peonage exists there in full flower. It is, in fact, carried to its utmost extreme. We are told that the workers get no money, the company stores absorbing their wages; they are half starved, overworked, beaten severely for lack of completing their daily tasks, kept in debt, and seized and brought back if they attempt to escape. Photographs of them are taken, so that if they appear in town or city they can be picked up by the police. Yucatan is a country without springs or eatable wild fruits or herbs. Each runaway is obliged to seek the city or another plantation, and a stranger appearing in either is caught and held until he can be identified.

The work in the fields is to cut the leaves of the henequen plant, as these yield the fiber sought. Two thousand leaves is the daily task, twelve of the largest being taken from each plant every four months. These must be trimmed, piled and counted, and if the workman falls short in any of these particulars a severe beating is his meed.

In this connection it is especially important to speak of the Yaqui Indians, for it is to them in particular that the term of slaves in Yucatan may be applied. The story of the Yaquis is a pitiful one. This tribe is not one of savages. The Yaquis have always been peaceful agriculturists. They irrigated the soil, built towns, had schools and a government of their own, worked mines and possessed other conditions of civilization. Their locality was the State of Sonora, where they were looked upon as the best of laborers, superior as miners alike to Mexicans or Americans.

But trouble broke out with the Yaquis and they were driven into rebellion. For hundreds of years they had held some of the richest lands in Sonora. Unfortunately for the Indians their lands were very valuable. Men connected with the Sonora government wanted them and took means to get them. Mock surveyors were sent to mark out the land, they telling the people that they had no legal claim to it, and that the government had decided to appropriate it. Soldiers were sent into the valley who harassed the Indians, looted the funds of their chief Cajeme, and finally, by ill treatment, drove the Yaquis into rebellion. This took place some thirty years ago, and since then a state of warfare has existed between the government and the Yaquis, an army of several thousand men being kept in the field against them.

After some years Cajeme was taken and executed, but a new chief took his place and the war went on. Thousands have been killed on both sides, while many hundreds of the Indians have been taken and executed. In 1894 the government completed its unjust work. The best of the Yaqui lands were taken from them and handed over to General Lorenzo Torres. The Yaquis continued to resist until the great bulk of them were exterminated, those remaining taking to the mountains, where they were hunted like wild beasts.

Finally most of the Yaquis surrendered and were sent to a reservation in the north which proved to be a barren desert. From this they drifted to other parts of the state and became mine and railroad workers, or farm peons, their identity being lost. But a remnant of four or five thousand kept up the fight from a mountain stronghold. It was a place where water was plentiful and soil existed on which they could raise food plants, and was so easily defended that the soldiers were unable to reach them. Here they exist still, a few hundreds of them, keeping up the fight with unyielding courage.

As a result of this the government has been for several years past transporting all the Yaquis that can be found, whether peaceful or warlike, to Yucatan. Not alone Yaquis are taken, but poor members of other tribes are seized by the agents and transported to the henequen plantations, the payment of $65 for each stimulating them strongly and closing their eyes to the real origin of their victims. It is these poor and friendless souls who may justly be spoken of as slaves, for that they truly are. Thousands have been thus seized and transported, many of them dying on the road, for the government does not supply money enough to feed them properly. On the plantations they are treated in the same way as the peons spoken of, those who resist the treatment accorded being beaten until all power of resistance is whipped out of them. Their beatings are done with wet ropes of braided henequen, the whipping often continuing until the victim falls like a dead man to the ground. This almost daily process is what the overseers call "cleaning up."

The Yaquis, as we have said, are slaves. No question of being held for debt applies here. They are held for life, whether taken from field or mine, or seized in warfare. They make good workers when strong enough to survive the treatment which they have to endure, but, as one of the planters has said, "at least two-thirds of them die off in the first twelve months."

Much more might be said in this connection but the above must suffice. The subject is an unpleasant one at best, and certainly has to do with a shameful system of laws and an open defiance of the Constitution. As evidence of this we give the sections of the Constitution of the Republic of Mexico which apply to such cases as those described:

"ARTICLE I. SECTION 1. In the Republic all are born free. Slaves who set foot upon the national territory recover, by that act alone, their liberty, and have a right to the protection of the laws.

"ARTICLE V. SECTION 1. (Amendment.) No person shall be compelled to do personal work without just compensation and without his full consent. The state shall not permit any contract, covenant or agreement to be carried out having for its object the abridgment, loss or irrevocable sacrifice of the liberty of a man, whether by reason of labor, education or religious vows. . . . Nor shall any compact be tolerated in which a man agrees to his proscription or exile."

Few will maintain that the iniquitous debtors' law of Mexico, or at least the outrages which are perpetrated in its name, are in agreement with these assertions of human liberty, or that slavery like that of the peaceful Yaquis has any warrant in right or constitutional law.