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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society



VOLUME 7 (2000)

Identity and Struggle at the Margins of the Nation State: The Laboring Peoples of Central America and the Hispanic Caribbean, edited by Aviva Chomsky and Aldo Lauria-Santiago. Durham and London: Duke University Press (1998), vi, 404 pp.

Reviewed by Douglas Midgett, Department of Anthropology, University of Iowa.

This volume brings together contributions from ten scholars of the labor history of Central America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. The editors provide a useful introduction and, in a concluding chapter, Lowell Gudmundson and Francisco A. Scarano discuss directions indicated in the volume for future work. A notable feature of the book is the inclusion of contributors at various stages of their careers. The combination of young scholars, recently embarked on post-graduate endeavors, alongside more senior historians is a felicitous choice and contributes to the over all quality of the book. The timeframe examined extends from 1850, the beginnings of coffee cultivation in the Salvadorian community of Lauria-Santiago's study, to 1944-1954, the revolutionary period of the Guatemalan national history, which ended with the CIA-sponsored coup that brought down the Arbenz regime.

Two recurrent themes are woven through most of the chapters. First, a revisionist argument is played out, with varying degrees of success. In some offerings, Aviva Chomsky's examination of Costa Rican laborers and smallholders, for example, an initial claim that the study argues against conventional interpretations is not supported in the text that follows. The second theme addresses resistance on the part of rural workers in the face of hegemonies rooted in class, race and gender. The second theme is, again, demonstrated with varying effectiveness. The assertion of resistance on the part of the laboring classes is one that I find occasionally tenuous, despite its popularity with academics, especially since the publication of James Scott's Weapons of the Weak (1985). To illustrate the various instances of resistance by the contributors to this volume we are presented with evidence indicated by everything from verbal insults directed at officials undertaking the expulsions of a peasant family and land squatters on private property (quite obviously an act of resistance), to armed rebellion and the take-over of a sugar factory. If the notion of resistance is to have some explanatory utility for studies of labor history, we need to bring our attention to outcomes that may be produced by such acts, for these are the events that change material conditions.

The book is organized into two sections: a set of seven Central American cases, followed by a second set of three Caribbean cases. There is no examination of the quite significant differences between these two areas, and their inclusion within the same volume would appear to rest on the features of a focus on labor history and Hispanic affiliations. I suggest that the historical determinants of economic adaptations in these two regions are sufficiently different that they at least demand some recognition, if the studies are to be included in the same volume. Individually, the studies demonstrate sound scholarship, and I now turn to a brief survey of each.

Aldo Lauria-Santiago's examination of the ladinoization of Salvadoran peasants is a very localized study, focussing on a single town and its agrarian hinterland. Based on this examination he takes issue with the version of Salvadoran agricultural history that emphasizes the importance of latifundia and the role of the landed elites. Lauria-Santiago has assumed a significant revisionist burden for this account of peasant participation in coffee production, but the essay is well researched and persuasive.

Jeffrey Gould discusses the fiction of "disappearance" of Amerindian Nicaraguans and their excision from nationalist accounts of the development of the nation. This is commonplace theme in Latin America where indigenous populations are either marginalized to the status of museum pieces, or absorbed as proletarians -- and thereby become ladinos or mestizos -- into the national society.

Julie Charlip explores the role of credit institutions in the development of the Nicaraguan coffee industry. She meticulously describes the forms of lending that enabled small and medium-sized farmers to avoid displacement by large operators through much of the period between 1870 and 1930. Having avoided displacement, however, did not prevent emerging disparities where "the larger grower, in his roles of lender, coffee buyer, processor, and exporter, grew wealthy at the expense of the small grower, who kept him supplied with the coffee to market." (p. 118).

The incorporation of peasants within the repressive system in El Salvador after 1880 is the focus of Patricia Alvarenga's chapter. Here the theme of resistance is repeatedly invoked from "daily forms" like "offensive words" to labor desertion, land occupations, and occasional assassinations of the auxiliars civiles, the peasants co-opted to act against their own kind.

The construction of census categories and changing designations over time is the subject of Darío A. Euraque's essay. He demonstrates the tendency to definitionally reduce ethnic and racial diversity in the effort to construct an image of an emerging Honduran mestizaje. He shows how the black populations of the banana enclaves of the Honduran north coast have been absent from many working-class histories of the country.

Aviva Chomsky's contribution deals with a particularly contentious situation in early 20th century Costa Rica involving the interface between mine owners, laborers, imported Jamaican guards, and smallholders, which eventuated in a massacre of the guards in 1911. She demonstrates that the event can also be read as a rebellion against the (US) mine owners, a fact that has been erased in its historical representation.

Guatemala's revolutionary period of 1944-54 and the role played by campesinos in two areas is the subject of Cindy Forster's paper. She convincingly makes the case that these struggles in a banana-producing township and a coffee-growing area represented proletarian attempts at reconfiguring their working conditions within the general framework of national revolutionary activity. That this subaltern participation is left out of the standard version of the period suggests the elitist bias that grounds historical accounts in these societies.

In the book's first Caribbean case study, Eileen Findlay examines the role of women workers and their location in the labor history of Puerto Rico in the first decades of the century after the Spanish-American War and the assumption of control by the United States. She shows how their activism, marginalized during the struggles in question, becomes little more than a footnote to the historical accounts of the era.

Carr suggests that a focus on alleged feudal aspects of the Cuban sugar industry obscures the "opportunities for maneuver and negotiation that workers could enjoy." p. 281. By this I take him to mean limited possibilities for engaging in subsistence cultivation. Is this resistance? It surely was long a strategy employed by estate owners in the Caribbean who obliged slaves and their successors to be responsible for some of their own means of consumption.

Agrarian programs under the Trujillo regime are the subject of Richard Turits' examination of Dominican agrarian history between 1930 and 1944. He demonstrates that the basis of Trujillo's rural support rested on land distribution of public lands and private holdings characterized by unclear title. Despite the persuasiveness of his argument, Turits may be overly credulous with respect to government accounts of the situation.

Taken as a whole, a salutary feature of the volume is the attention throughout to avoid the essentializing tendency commonplace in contemporary accounts of multi-ethnic, racialized and gendered social formations. A useful addition to the volume would have been maps of the various countries and regions under discussion. When attempting an understanding of historical processes that have spatial dimensions, such aids can be most informative.


References Cited:

Scott, James.

1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.