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Coercion, Culture, and Contracts: Labor and Debt on Henequen Haciendas in Yucatán, Mexico, 1870–1915

  • Lee J. Alston (a1), Shannan Mattiace (a2) and Tomas Nonnenmacher (a3)


The henequen boom coincided with the rule of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1911). During the boom, many Maya in Yucatan lost their rights to land and moved to henequen haciendas. As part of the implicit contract with hacendados, peons accumulated large debts at the time of marriage, most of which were never repaid. We argue that the debts bound workers to the hacienda as part of a system of paternalism and that more productive workers incurred more debt. We examine the institutional setting in which debt operated and stress the formal and informal institutional contexts within which hacendados and workers negotiated contracts.

“Debt and contract slavery is the prevailing system of production all over the south of Mexico… Debt, real or imaginary, is the nexus that binds the peon to his master…probably 5,000,000 people, or one-third of the entire population, are today living in a state of helpless peonage.”

John Kenneth Turner1



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