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
 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.
HOMES AND HOME OCCUPATIONS OF THE NATIVES OF TEHUANTEPEC ISTHMUS, MEXICO.
THE INDIANS OF THE REPUBLIC LIVE IN UTTER POVERTY AND IN THE MOST PRIMITIVE MANNER.
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
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
suspi-  cious, 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
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
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
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