The Journal of Economic History


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

Lee J. Alstona1, Shannan Mattiacea2 and Tomas Nonnenmachera3

a1 Professor, Department of Economics, University of Colorado at Boulder, 256 USB, Boulder, CO 80309–0256. E-mail:

a2 Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Allegheny College, 520 North Main Street, Meadville, PA 16335. E-mail:

a3 Associate Professor, Department of Economics, Allegheny College, 520 North Main Street, Meadville, Pa 16335. E-mail:


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 Turner


For comments we thank Dan Bogart, Steve Casler, Alan Dye, Paul Eiss, Stanley Engerman, Luis Millet Cámara, Herbert Nickel, Piedad Peniche, Andrew Seltzer, Allen Wells, two anonymous referees, participants at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the International Society of the New Institutional Economics, and participants at the 2007 Yucatán in Pennsylvania Roundtable. We kindly acknowledge Pedro Bracamonte y Sosa, Maritza Arrigunaga, Herbert J. Nickel, and the Church of the Latter Day Saints for supplying us data and Abraham Morales for research assistance.