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Nestled in a narrow desert valley in the rugged Mixtec region of Puebla, Zapotitlan Salinas (population 2,700) is a rural community 30km from Tehuacan, an industrial manufacturing and commercial center. The way villagers’ labor subsidized regional and national economies reflected the town's subordinate political, economic and social position. Zapotitlan had been an important salt producing center since pre-Hispanic times when salt was used as currency (Castellon, 2006, pp. 70-74). The name of the community refers to the salt-water wells and crystallization ponds (salinas) where salt forms through an evaporation process. Throughout the colonial period, Zapotitecos/as supplied New Spain’s silver mining industry with salt. The Crown maintained salt production under Indian control and made it illegal for intermediaries to buy or sell it. In salt-producing areas, Indian labor could not be appropriated for other industries, ensuring the mineral's constant supply to the mines (Ewald, 1985, 20, n 15, 24).

In addition to its role in precious metal production, salt from Zapotitlan was an essential element in the diet of livestock—mainly goats—introduced into the Mixteca region by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century. Moreover, caprine products from the region were used in many everyday items throughout New Spain. For example, goat fat was used in the manufacture of candles and lubricants for mining and domestic use. Fat, wool and hides—used in clothing manufacture—were exported to Spain (Mouat, 1980).

Zapotitlan was an important stop on mule train routes. Originating on the Pacific coast, the mule trains traversed the Sierra Madre Occidental connecting agricultural and industrial producers through the provision of local markets and regional commercial centers. A number of perennial fresh-water springs in Zapotitlan supplied the arrieros (mule drivers) and their animals, making the village the last resting point before reaching the large market in Tehuacan. When the highway linking Zapotitlan to Tehuacan was built in the 1960s, the arrieros were replaced by buses and trucks to move people, animals and goods through the mountainous terrain.

After independence and well into the twentieth century, Zapotitlan produced goats, ixtle (maguey fibers) and charcoal for the regional economy.2 These products tended to overshadow local agriculture as the principal economic activities. During the twentieth century, Zapotitlan, unlike Pahuatlan, was never a target

Surplus labor and restructured economies 33 for agricultural development programs and local producers received no subsidies for basic grain production. Erosion, poor soils and scarce rainfall limited farming to yields that provided subsistence a few months out of the year. While men and boys toiled in the salinas, in the desert pastures herding goats and in rain-fed cornfields, some adolescent girls found work as domestics in large cities such as Puebla and Mexico City to supplement rural household income.

Over millions of years, petrified salt-water formed travertine and marble deposits underneath or adjacent to the salinas.3 Local men quarried the rock, colloquially known as “onyx,” as early as the late-nineteenth century. However, its extraction intensified beginning in the 1960s with the completion of the highway and connection to regional markets. In the early 1960s, quarry owners sold the rock to workshops in Tehuacan, Tecali de Herrera and Puebla, nearby cities and towns situated within a well-established stone-working production network.4

The arrival of electricity in 1966 to Zapotitlan made it possible for the first onyx workshops to open. The burgeoning local industry manufactured a variety of handicrafts and some construction materials. Federal electricity subsidies supported the growth of workshops and represented the most significant state intervention into the development of the regional and local industry. The majority of workers previously employed in ranching and salt production shifted into onyx extraction and manufacture from the 1960s to 1980s. Men and boys hauled and cut rock, while women and girls worked as unpaid household labor to polish cut pieces, assemble products and pack the finished product.

The decline of this extraction and manufacture industry—detailed in Chapter 4—was partly due to neoliberal policies. Moreover, the devaluation of the peso in 1994 represented a dramatic blow to workshops already straggling to stay afloat, causing dozens of them to close. International migration to New York City accelerated, shoring up a process that had begun in the previous decade. Remittances became a crucial pillar of subsistence for hundreds of households in Zapotitlan, replacing the income earned from the quarries and the workshops (Lee, 2008).

As was the case in many areas of Mexico, the town underwent a gradual transition from an extraction and manufacture-based economy to a service economy from the 1980s to the 2000s. The remittance economy ushered in new services, both because there was money to pay for them and because the experience of living in the United States contributed to the development of new forms of consumption. Restaurants offering local foods opened alongside pizzerias as return migrants put their cooking skills—acquired in the United States—to use. Although a reliable bus service shuttled people between Zapotitlan and Tehuacan where many studied and shopped, a preference for more individualized transportation sendees was met with a growing fleet of taxis. Within the town, motorcycle taxis partially displaced walking and bicycles as a quotidian mode of transportation. When dozens of households became equipped with landline telephones in the mid-2000s, replacing the inadequate services offered by the handful of casetas (telephone booths) operated in town, the convenience of calling to place food orders and having them delivered by boys on bicycles ormotorbikes was widely appreciated. Not surprisingly, these services flourished with the growth of cell phones in the 2010s. An explosion of internet cafes in the 2000s gave way to individual contracts for service in homes. It was often difficult for small businesses offering goods or services to maintain even small levels of profitability and, therefore, remain open. However, there were always families opening businesses, replacing the ones that were forced to close their doors thereby contributing to the shift toward the tertiary sector.

The growth in the tertiary sector was also related to the development of nature and cultural tourism projects. For decades, researchers and visitors had been drawn to the dramatic desert landscape surrounding the town. Its flora and fauna were extensively studied, earning the region international recognition as an important center of biodiversity (centers of plant diversity). Politicians and government bureaucrats supported the institutionalization of the area as part of the Tehuacan-Cuicatlan Biosphere Reserve in the late 1990s. Throughout the 2000s, World Bank funding, channeled through the Mexican federal government, supported the development of local tourism projects to boost local development and ecological conservation (Lee, 2014). Restaurants sprang up along the highway, and a handful of hotels opened to accommodate domestic and international visitors for short stays. The incorporation of the desert into a natural protected area and the transformation of Zapotitlan into a tourism destination is part of the development of the "nature industry” that links the region to other parallel developments in Mexico and elsewhere (Martinez-Reyes, 2016; see also Macip & Zamora, 2012).

The local economic transformations can be traced through changes in the economically active population. The percentage of adults employed in primary activities, such as agriculture and onyx extraction, fell from 28 percent in 1970 to just 16 percent in 2010. The secondary sector, including manufacturing such as the onyx workshops, fell from 67 percent in 1970 to just 49 percent in 2010. Finally, the service sector grew from four percent in 1970 to 34 percent in 2010. (INEGI, 2010, 1972).

The dismantling of state supports for rural agriculture was accompanied by the growth of small programs targeting rural subjects and encouraging them to adopt practices to reduce their impact on the natural protected area. These programs aimed to stimulate local economic development through productive

Table 2.2 Zapotitlan: Economically active population by sector (1990-2010)






















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

Surplus labor and restructured economies 35 activities: agave cultivation for mezcal production, sheep raising (they were not as destiuctive of the local vegetation as goats) and cacti fruit harvesting, to name a few programs that came and went in the 2000s and 2010s. These programs operated through “selective hegemony” (Smith, 2011); they targeted the rural poor and women, were frequently tied to election cycles and distributed through family networks or party loyalists. Far from remedying the destraction of rural economies, the scale of the programs never reached a significant proportion of household income. They represented, at best, a modest complementary income. Nevertheless, on the village-level, they represented a significant amount of money, and stories of misappropriation of funds were common, creating tensions and conflicts among families.

While moneylenders among the villagers had always existed, new forms of debt became available. A plethora of micro-lending enterprises recruited groups of women to participate as agents in their own empowerment by financing their small-scale productive activities. While a few used the funds in this way, many used them for subsistence or to buy basic household appliances, covering the weekly payments through remittances or further borrowing from family and friends. National department stores offered credit to purchase clothing, shoes, appliances and electronics, permitting villagers to participate in a “global imaginary of consumption” (Suárez-Orozco, 2003). Villagers also organized themselves in rotating credit associations (Lara, 2010; Vélez-Ibañez, 2010), an arrangement that provided better savings and loan rates than anything available from national banks. However, and perhaps not surprisingly, the proliferation of debt forms brought no relief from debt. Rather, informants explained that they often used one loan to pay off other debts. “I ask for a loan to pay off another one, but I end up covering one hole and creating a bigger one,” explained Ignacio. Especially after the economic crisis and the escalation of border and interior enforcement, Zapotitecos/as more frequently patched together income from government programs, deplorable salaries from local jobs and loans from various sources to meet subsistence needs.

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