Thomas D. Rogers
The Portuguese took sugarcane from their Atlantic island holdings to Brazil in the first decades of the 16th century, using their model of extensive agriculture and coerced labor to turn their new colony into the world’s largest producer of sugar. From the middle of the 17th century through the 20th century, Brazil faced increasing competition from Caribbean producers. With access to abundant land and forest resources, Brazilian producers generally pursued an extensive production model that made sugarcane’s footprint a large one. Compared to competitors elsewhere, Brazilian farmers were often late in adopting innovations (such as manuring in the 18th century, steam power in the 19th, and synthetic fertilizers in the 20th). With coffee’s growth in the center-south of the country during the middle of the 19th century, sugarcane farming shifted gradually away from enslaved African labor. Labor and production methods shifted at the end of the century with slavery’s abolition and the rise of large new mills, called usinas. The model of steam-powered production, both for railroads carrying cane and for mills grinding it, and a work force largely resident on plantations persisted into the mid-20th century. Rural worker unions were legalized in the 1960s, at the same time that sugar production increased as a result of the Cuban Revolution. A large-scale sugarcane ethanol program in the 1970s also brought upheaval, and growth, to the industry.
Between 1942 and 1964 millions of Mexicans came to the United States as guest workers, authorized by a set of bilateral agreements. Beginning in late 2005, a coalition of academic scholars and public historians from Brown University’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) at George Mason University came together to launch an effort to gather the stories of those workers. This unprecedented project resulted in the collection of oral histories, documents, and images over the course of five years. It involved not only scholars but also a host of local community groups that enabled the partners to surface previously hidden materials that were unlikely to make it into traditional archival collections. The collection and dissemination process was facilitated by the creation of the , an open-access website that allowed the project partners to simultaneously build the collections from widely dispersed locations as they worked to document the lives and experiences of those workers.
The Bracero History Archive serves as the primary repository for the stories, documents, and artifacts associated with the migrant laborers from Mexico who came to the United States under the auspices of the more than 4.6 million contracts issued during the years of the Mexican Farm Labor Program. As such, it is an important complement to the established scholarship on the program. At the same time, the site serves as a model of how to undertake and complete a distributed collecting project that builds upon important community relationships. This combination of scholarly value and methodological innovation was essential to ensuring the funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities Division of Preservation and Access that made the project possible. In recent years, the project has proven important for contemporary work on the Mexican Farm Labor Program, and it has contributed to enhancing our understanding of migration, citizenship, nationalism, agriculture, labor practices, race relations, gender, sexuality, the family, visual culture, and the Cold War era.
Inés Pérez and Elizabeth Hutchison
The regulation of labor relations and social rights substantially changed workers’ lives over the course of the 20th century. Domestic service, however, was only poorly and belatedly protected under labor law, and its incorporation proceeded in a slow, ambiguous, and nonlinear manner. The specific ways in which domestic service regulation emerged in Chile and Argentina, respectively, offer insight into this process and also present some important contrasts, despite the nations’ geographic proximity. In Chile, although the rights recognized for household workers were limited, the Labor Code of 1931 included an article on domestic service. In Argentina, the first comprehensive regulation for this sector was a special statute sanctioned by decree in 1956. In both cases, the “special” nature of such regulation was attributed to the place of domestic service in family life. As domestic labor was reconceptualized through legislative reform in each country, household workers gradually came to enjoy some, but not all, of the rights guaranteed to other workers.
Latin American labor has a well-established historiography, in dialogue with trends outside of the region. Environmental history is a newer and more exploratory field. In basic terms, environmental history explores the relationships of humans with the natural world, sometimes referred to as “nonhuman nature.” This can include how humans have affected the natural world, how the natural world has affected human history, and histories of human ideas and belief systems about nature. Labor and environmental history grows from explorations of the connections between these two spheres. Humans interact with the natural world through their labor and from their class perspective. The natural world shapes the work that people do and the institutions and structures humans create to organize and control labor. Changing labor regimes change the ways that humans interact with, and think about, the natural world. Both labor and environmental histories are in some senses investigations of how humans relate to nature. This essay sets Latin American labor and environmental history in global historical context. After offering a chronological summary, it briefly examines connections between U.S. Latino and Latin American labor and environmental histories, and ends with a discussion of contemporary Latin American critical environmentalisms.
From the time that Columbus arrived in the Caribbean until Spain surrendered power over its mainland American colonies in the early 19th century, Spanish and Portuguese colonial mines poured forth vast amounts of bullion, including some gold and a far greater quantity of silver, both in terms of weight and its overall value relative to gold. Fiscal records indicate that Spanish Americans officially refined gold worth approximately 374,000,000 pesos, each consisting of 272 maravedís, whereas the amount of silver produced reached a value of 3,432,000,000 pesos (to these figures need to be added contraband output, estimated to have been around 17–20 percent). In other words, the colonies refined nine times more silver than gold. While Columbus, Cortés, and other earlier explorers may have fantasized primarily about gold, it was the flood of American silver that touched off the price revolution in Europe and monetarized the emerging world economy, especially because China had a voracious appetite for silver, not gold. At the same time in the American colonies, mining distorted economic life because of the incentives the industry received from a silver-hungry monarchy. Mining also had profound consequences for indigenous society, severely exploited to provide workers for the mines and refining mills.
Colonial refiners used two methods to beneficiate their silver ores, smelting and amalgamation. Smelting was suitable for all types of American silver ores but required large amounts of fuel to heat the ovens. It remained widely used throughout Mexico during the entire colonial period. Amalgamation was a newer technology, adapted to American ores during the mid-16th century. Although it did not require large quantities of charcoal and other fuels, as smelting did, amalgamation depended on the availability of mercury. Nearly all quicksilver used in colonial Spanish American silver mining came from either Huancavelica (Peru) or Almadén (Spain), with occasional supplements from Idria (Slovenia). Whereas both smelting and amalgamation were used widely in Mexico, Andean mines relied on amalgamation.
Since the mid-19th century, Argentine society has undergone significant demographic shifts. The expansion of capitalism and the growing complexity of the state apparatus increased the social importance of occupations that are usually considered to be part of the middle class, especially in the Pampas. There was a rapid increase in salaried labor and income distribution worsened significantly. A consumer society arose amid this climate and a good portion of the new trade opportunities rested in the hands of European immigrants, therein generating a complex panorama of both new and old forms of inequality. At the same time, various middle-class trades began to organize themselves in order to mobilize their specific demands. Nevertheless, they did not develop ties of solidarity between one another, nor a unified “middle class” identity. Such an identity would begin to form much later within the political sphere. Starting in 1919, politicians and intellectuals became concerned about the expansion of revolutionary ideas and labor activism, and in order to counteract this, they began to encourage pride in a middle class identity within the public sphere. The historical evidence suggests that from that time on, some members of the common people began to identify as middle class, thereby slowly transforming the perception of social difference that had up until that moment still been binary. A middle-class identity definitively took root after 1945 as a part of the political experience of the middle strata. Peronism, for its plebeian elements and for the social and symbolic space it granted the lower classes, posed a profound challenge to the concepts of hierarchy and respectability that had existed until then. This challenge paved the way for vast sectors to embrace a middle-class identity and to distinguish themselves from the pueblo peronista, as well as to assert their right to a central role within their country. In this context, the middle-class identity in Argentina assumed some characteristics unique to the region, weaving together narratives of nationhood that placed the middle class, the supposed descendants of European immigrants (the implication being “white”), in a place of preeminence as the champions of “civilization,” and therein, as enemies of Peronism and the cabecitas negras, or the “little black heads,” that supported him.
First utilized in Latin America in response to the mid-20th-century decline of populist economic policymaking in the region, modern neoclassical theory, or neoliberalism, can be generally defined as a market-oriented form of economy policymaking that seeks to decentralize state authority and redefine state administrative responsibilities through deregulation, privatization, and the creation of common markets. Based on principles of classical 19th-century economic liberalism, the economic and political framework of neoliberalism advocates for a dramatically limited role for the state, which should only act to maintain the integrity of contract law and private property as a means of supporting the market. In the absence of state intervention, neoliberalism in Latin America alternatively emphasized the role of multilateral organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and the U.S. Agency for International Development in bringing financial stability and growth to the region through the manipulation of interest rates, the devaluation of exchange rates, and the establishment of free-market pricing of goods. Ultimately, the widespread implementation of neoliberal reforms through the 1980s and 1990s ushered in a new era of transnational economic policymaking that had long-term, mixed results for the environmental, political, and social landscape of Latin America.
Before there was Mexico, there was oil. Millennia of organic matter that collapsed and liquefied into fossil fuel rested deep underground and underwater along the half-moon territorial formation that 19th-century geographers named the Mexican Gulf. Hidden by the lush tropical rainforests, marshes, and mangroves that occupied the landscape from the Pánuco River on the border between modern day Tamaulipas and Veracruz and the Bay of Campeche on the South, the oil seeped to the surface in small ponds, sometimes blackening the waters of streams and lagoons from Tabasco to the Huasteca. The human communities who inhabited that part of the globe thousands of years later knew about and utilized nature’s oozing sticky black tar.
The Olmec, who flourished in southern Veracruz from 1200 to 400
This article examines the long history of Potosí, Bolivia, home of the world’s most productive silver mines. The mines, discovered in 1545 and still active today, are discussed in terms of their geology, discovery, productivity, labor history, and technological development. The article also treats the social and environmental consequences of nearly five hundred years of continuous mining and refining.
Both Ecuador and Bolivia have gained a reputation for powerful social movements that have repeatedly challenged entrenched political and economic interests that have controlled the countries since their independence from Spain almost two hundred years ago. A wealthy and powerful minority of European descendant landowners ruled the countries to the exclusion of the majority population of impoverished Indigenous farm workers. Repeated well-organized challenges to exclusionary rule in the late 20th century shifted policies and opened political spaces for previously marginalized people. Social movement organizations also altered their language to meet new realities, including incorporating identities as ethnic groups and Indigenous nationalities to advance their agenda. Their efforts contributed to a significant leftward shift in political discourse that led to the election of presidents Evo Morales and Rafael Correa.