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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Bittersweet: Porfirian Sugar and Rum Production in Northeastern Yucatán

  • Author(s): Gust, John
  • Advisor(s): Fedick, Scott L
  • et al.

In this dissertation I explore the working lives of laborers at three, late nineteenth and early twentieth century, sugar and rum production sites in the Yalahau region of northeastern Yucatan. The low native population density and harsh environment resulted in a string of short-lived, failed industries but very little investment from the governments of the state of Yucatán and the nation of Mexico through the middle of the nineteenth century. The people of the Yalahau region were some of the first to make peace with the state government during the Caste War, a revolution by the Maya and other poor workers in the area in response to increasingly terrible working and living conditions imposed upon them by Yucatan’s owner class. This new political stability, coupled with the destruction of sugar production facilities elsewhere on the peninsula, made the Yalahau region and its acceptable, though not ideal, soils attractive for those seeking wealth through sugar cultivation. The Yalahau region provides a great opportunity to see differences both between sites and throughout the presidency of Porfirio Diaz (1876–1910) which ended with the Mexican Revolution.

Sugar production operations in the Yalahau region differed in ownership structure, scale, and distance from outside world. What was similar at all operations was the harsh nature of sugar production-an occupation that few would enter into if they had other options.

Using a variety of methods, I have tried to reconstruct the working lives of a group of people who were both enmeshed in the world economy, and had their freedom limited by an economic system designed and deployed to trap workers in an intergenerational cycle of debt.

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