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The municipality of Pahuatlán (Nahua place name meaning “place of the pahuas,’' a species of avocado) is located 134 km from Mexico City, in the northwestern region of the Northern Sierra of Puebla, in Central Mexico, at an average altitude of 1,600 meters above sea level. In the mountainous landscape of deep canyons and narrow valleys, lush vegetation proliferates, a typical feature of the subtropical humid forest. Most of its inhabitants live in four localities: the county seat, Pahuatlán de Valle, is home to 3,523 people, mostly mestizos. Xolotla and Atla, Nahua localities, have 2,700 and 2,172 inhabitants each, and in San Pablito Pahuatlán live 3,178 Otomies. The remaining 6,566 inhabitants are spread over 31 localities (Secretaría de Desarrollo Social, 2019), small towns lying among the hills. Despite its rugged landscape, this microregion has been linked to the Mexican Central Plateau since pre-Hispanic times (Galinier. 1987; García Martinez, 1987; Stresser-Peán & Guilhem, 2008).

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the county seat started configuring itself as a stocking center of agricultural goods from the region, transported by mules to the mining centers of the Hidalguense plateau. The agro-commercial vocation of Pahuatlán was underpinned by the rise of non-indigenous populations who settled in the region, Mestizos, Spanish, French and Italians. However, such vocation was strengthened by the liberalizing policies of the last quarter of the nineteenth century and was later consolidated by the building of a railroad from the city of Tulancingo, Hidalgo, and the opening of a station in 1908 in the neighboring locality of Chila Honey, 15 km from Pahuatlán. The railroad strengthened the economic and social connection of the municipality with the Hidalguenses cities of Tulancingo and Pachuca, as well as with the capital of the country. Thus, Pahuatlán became fully incorporated to the regional, national and international capitalist economy circuits. In this wealth production system, peasants, indigenous peoples and mestizos, progressively driven to the condition of specialized producers of cash crops (Wolf, 1982, p. 385), participated marginally in its distribution.

Two crops that became “planetary goods” (Trouillot, 2013, p. 34), highly profitable given their stimulating effects (Mintz, 1996; Wolf, 1982), dominated the Pahuatecan political economy: sugar cane and, later, coffee. Piloncillo—a sugar cane byproduct, manufactured in rustic wood mills and among the most important indigenous goods since its introduction in the region in the sixteenth century (Ruvalcaba Mercado, 1996) until the mid-twentieth century—was unable to compete with sugar produced in mills with more advanced technological components under state management. The cultivation of the sugar- cane and the manufacture of piloncillo harnessed labor from families and peons hired to work in cleaning, cutting, grinding and final preparation. During downtime, large groups of men and families were mobilized to agro-industrial areas in the region or to urban centers.

On the other hand, as Wolf documented for other regions (1982), the progressive specialization in coffee growing, as was the case with piloncillo, was the strength of the smallholders and, at the same time, their weakness. Even though they attempted to meet the increase in demand, they were vulnerable to price oscillation, disasters and environmental contingencies. Earnings depended on the appropriate and timely benefit obtained from the coffee to maintain the quality and aroma of the product, a significant challenge for these isolated and still poorly communicated communities. Since the nineteenth century, when coffee trees were introduced in the area, to the present day, the quality of infrastructure—roads, drinking water, power supply, sewer system, schools, clinics and supply markets—has been extremely uneven. This weak production base forces producers to sell their crops to hoarders or intermediaries from the same localities or the county seat who own the means of transportation and negotiate the price of the coffee beans right after being dried in the sun. Like piloncillo manufacturing, coffee growing demands the intensive use of labor in certain seasons. Women, children and the elderly actively participate in land cultivation and cleaning; peons—men, women and children—join the family unit for product cutting and hauling, hired under the modality of piece-rate payment. The division of labor in which this small commercial production lies gives rise to a selective migration according to age and gender: single women and young men are most prone to migrate seasonally, temporarily or definitively in these areas (see Nolasco, 1985). The transition of an economy based in cane sugar monoculture and piloncillo manufacture to another centered in coffee monoculture constituted a new phase in the integration and subordination of the municipality and the region to the dynamics of national and international capital.

Between 1959 and 1989, the Mexican Coffee Institute (INMECAFE, its acronym in Spanish), a parastatal enterprise, technically and financially directed the so-called social producers all over the country in the Economic Units of Production and Commercialization through a clientelist system of political-party production and control. One of its most important functions was the incorporation of medium and small coffee growers to an export platform regulated by the World Coffee Organization (Hernández-Navarro, 1992; Macip Rios, 2005; Rus, 1995). Between the 1970s and 1980s coffee growing experienced a boom in the municipality of Pahuatlán propped up by the intervention of INMECAFE. A heterogeneous group of politicians, bureaucrats, merchants, haulers, profiteers and small and medium owners, was able to insert itself at different scales in the chains of intermediaries in the Northern Sierra of Puebla (Arizpe, 1990). Numerous factors intervened in the loss of sustainability of local coffee growing: the end of the International Coffee Organization Agreement, the cancellation of the quota system in 1989, a frost that hit the region in December of that same year, and the beginning of INMECAFE’s dismantling at the juncture of the impulse of neoliberal policies.

The dissolution of the parastatal exposed even more the small and medium producers to the abrupt fluctuations of the international market, leaving them more decapitalized and helpless to respond to ups and downs and climatic

Surplus labor and restructured economies 31 contingencies, as well as drifting against the actions of brokers and transnational corporations (Velásquez, 2005, p. 190). In Pahuatlán, the heirs of the small agro-commercial bourgeoisie ventured into other commercial businesses: pharmacies, hardware stores, bakeries, grocery stores, transportation, tortilla factories, and construction materials. In addition to a corporation that buys up coffee on a larger scale and exports it to Villa Juárez, small coffee mills linked to the agrobusiness in the area continue to operate.

Over the past five decades, there has been a transition towards a servicebased economy and a relative loss of importance of agricultural activity, mainly that oriented towards producing basic grains for self-consumption or small commerce: corn, bean, chili, peanut, chickpea, citrus and fruit trees, vegetables and herbs for medical use. While in the 1960s and 1970s, 70 percent of the working population was employed in the primaiy sector, at the end of the first decade of the present century this percentage dropped to 42 percent. On the contrary, in that last decade, the population employed in the secondary sector grew more than 100 percent (INEGI, 1972, 1982, 1990, 2000, 2010). This increase is due to the growth of craft production—a highly feminized activity—and of employment in neighboring cities. The most visible transformation occurred in the first ten years of the new millennium in the tertiary sector with a clear increase in informal trade and services: bureaucrats, teachers, health personnel and, mainly, counter clerks and domestic work. These activities have proliferated under the Pueblos Mágicos program (see Chapter 5).

We identify in Pahuatlán a historically modeled social class configuration: on the one hand, a class of owners that monopolized the piloncillo and coffee trade, as well as the small production of huaraches, shoes, farming tools and equipment. At the other end of this class configuration lies a larger and more heterogeneous sector in terms of its social and ethnic origins. Contingents of Otomi and Nahua populations together with non-proprietary mestizos integrate the subaltern sectors: families of peons, smallholder peasants, sharecroppers, domestics, and manual workers. Paraphrasing Roseberry (1991, p. 173), we state that within a sector vaguely defined as “peasantry” on the basis of its origin and/or activity, a “proletarian community” seems to be hiding. They are the heirs of several generations that have worked as peons and day laborers both in local agriculture and in intensive agriculture areas, as well as salaried workers in the

Table 2.1 Pahuatlán: Economically active population by sector (1990-2010)






















Sources: Mexican census data, multiple years (1992, 2001, 2011).

automotive, textile, construction and manufacturing industry or in the service sector in neighboring cities. Some authors (Dow, 2005; Galinier, 1987) reported in the 1980s the existence of Otomi migratory flows from San Pablito Pahuatlan to the Southern United States and the continuity of migration within Mexican borders. The youngest—men and women—integrate a “new proletariat,” characterized by its flexibility and precariousness, forged in the 1980s and 1990s in Texas poultry farms, California’s agricultural fields and in North Carolina’s construction and service industry that joined the accelerated migration to the United States in the 1990s.

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