Thomas D. Rogers
The Portuguese took sugarcane from their Atlantic island holdings to Brazil in the first decades of the 16th century, using their model of extensive agriculture and coerced labor to turn their new colony into the world’s largest producer of sugar. From the middle of the 17th century through the 20th century, Brazil faced increasing competition from Caribbean producers. With access to abundant land and forest resources, Brazilian producers generally pursued an extensive production model that made sugarcane’s footprint a large one. Compared to competitors elsewhere, Brazilian farmers were often late in adopting innovations (such as manuring in the 18th century, steam power in the 19th, and synthetic fertilizers in the 20th). With coffee’s growth in the center-south of the country during the middle of the 19th century, sugarcane farming shifted gradually away from enslaved African labor. Labor and production methods shifted at the end of the century with slavery’s abolition and the rise of large new mills, called usinas. The model of steam-powered production, both for railroads carrying cane and for mills grinding it, and a work force largely resident on plantations persisted into the mid-20th century. Rural worker unions were legalized in the 1960s, at the same time that sugar production increased as a result of the Cuban Revolution. A large-scale sugarcane ethanol program in the 1970s also brought upheaval, and growth, to the industry.
Juan R. García
The Bracero Program began in 1942 as a temporary wartime measure but was extended repeatedly until 1964. During that time, more than 4.5 million braceros received contracts to work in the United States, primarily as agricultural laborers. Before the program ended, braceros worked in thirty-eight states in the United States, with the majority contracted by eight states.
With the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941 and the subsequent sinking of two Mexican vessels by German submarines, Mexico and the United States entered into a bilateral agreement. In actuality, there were two bilateral agreements, the first extending from 1942 to 1949, and the second, enacted as Public Law 78, starting in 1951 and culminating in 1964. Throughout the program’s existence Mexico strove to ensure favorable conditions under which braceros were to be contracted, especially in light of the strong opposition to the program among a number of sectors in Mexico and the long history of discrimination against people of Mexican descent in the United States. Like Mexico, the United States faced opposition to the contract labor program from both employers and labor unions. Employers were wary of too much government interference in their ability to secure a plentiful and cheap labor supply, while labor unions viewed the program as a threat to organizing efforts and as an obstacle to achieving better working conditions and pay for agricultural workers in the United States. The Bracero Program also deeply affected the braceros themselves in both positive and negative ways. And it had a profound impact on the families of the braceros who left to work in the United States. The program was plagued by a number of issues and problems, primarily resulting from a lack of enforcement and widespread contract violations. Despite the problems associated with the program, both countries touted its benefits, not only to their economy, but to the braceros themselves. The braceros did not passively accept their fate and challenged their treatment in a variety of ways. Although the Bracero Program ended in 1964, its legacy continues to affect US–Mexican relations to this day. Furthermore, former braceros and their descendants have undertaken a movement to demand reimbursement for wages promised them under the requirements of the Bracero Program.
Marcia Guedes Vieira
The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 12.5 million children and adolescents under the age of fifteen currently working in Latin America and the Caribbean. Of these, 9.6 million (77%) perform tasks that pose a risk to their physical and psychological health. This article presents a brief comparative analysis of child labor in Brazil and Uruguay in order to discuss the challenges of confronting this phenomenon in two very different countries that have embraced divergent strategies to deal with similar problems. To do this, the article presents an overview of the incidence of child labor in Brazil and Uruguay and seeks to demonstrate how far the category of labor is from a universal definition in the academic world, which is also repeated in the debate on the definition of child labor. It is possible to identify different moments of the debate in Latin America regarding the concept of child labor. Some approaches have been more contextualized than others, but all remain controversial and are sometimes considered incomplete. It will also consider the changes in the world of labor and how they interfere in this phenomenon. Despite advances in the fight against child labor overall, Brazil is starting to stagnate in its efforts to reduce the number of child and adolescent workers, and its challenge is to find new political solutions to address this problem. Uruguay still needs to place the issue more centrally on the nation’s political and social agenda in order to guarantee consistent research on the problem that can guide its policy responses.
Between 1942 and 1964 millions of Mexicans came to the United States as guest workers, authorized by a set of bilateral agreements. Beginning in late 2005, a coalition of academic scholars and public historians from Brown University’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) at George Mason University came together to launch an effort to gather the stories of those workers. This unprecedented project resulted in the collection of oral histories, documents, and images over the course of five years. It involved not only scholars but also a host of local community groups that enabled the partners to surface previously hidden materials that were unlikely to make it into traditional archival collections. The collection and dissemination process was facilitated by the creation of the
Between 1942 and 1964 millions of Mexicans came to the United States as guest workers, authorized by a set of bilateral agreements. Beginning in late 2005, a coalition of academic scholars and public historians from Brown University’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) at George Mason University came together to launch an effort to gather the stories of those workers. This unprecedented project resulted in the collection of oral histories, documents, and images over the course of five years. It involved not only scholars but also a host of local community groups that enabled the partners to surface previously hidden materials that were unlikely to make it into traditional archival collections. The collection and dissemination process was facilitated by the creation of the Bracero History Archive (
The Bracero History Archive serves as the primary repository for the stories, documents, and artifacts associated with the migrant laborers from Mexico who came to the United States under the auspices of the more than 4.6 million contracts issued during the years of the Mexican Farm Labor Program. As such, it is an important complement to the established scholarship on the program. At the same time, the site serves as a model of how to undertake and complete a distributed collecting project that builds upon important community relationships. This combination of scholarly value and methodological innovation was essential to ensuring the funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities Division of Preservation and Access that made the project possible. In recent years, the project has proven important for contemporary work on the Mexican Farm Labor Program, and it has contributed to enhancing our understanding of migration, citizenship, nationalism, agriculture, labor practices, race relations, gender, sexuality, the family, visual culture, and the Cold War era.
Inés Pérez and Elizabeth Hutchison
The regulation of labor relations and social rights substantially changed workers’ lives over the course of the 20th century. Domestic service, however, was only poorly and belatedly protected under labor law, and its incorporation proceeded in a slow, ambiguous, and nonlinear manner. The specific ways in which domestic service regulation emerged in Chile and Argentina, respectively, offer insight into this process and also present some important contrasts, despite the nations’ geographic proximity. In Chile, although the rights recognized for household workers were limited, the Labor Code of 1931 included an article on domestic service. In Argentina, the first comprehensive regulation for this sector was a special statute sanctioned by decree in 1956. In both cases, the “special” nature of such regulation was attributed to the place of domestic service in family life. As domestic labor was reconceptualized through legislative reform in each country, household workers gradually came to enjoy some, but not all, of the rights guaranteed to other workers.
Since the immediate post–World War II era, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has played a leading role in the political, economic, and social lives of Latin Americans. Its role has evolved from the Bretton Woods era of the postwar period, through the era of the Washington Consensus, and into the post-2008 crisis period. However, throughout those times the institution served as the enforcement instrument for orthodox economic policies within the liberal international order. It conditioned emergency lending to countries in economic distress on the implementation of austere economic policies.
The region’s workers consistently bore the costs of the IMF’s prescribed policies. Such policies resulted in fewer public-sector jobs, reductions in welfare state benefits, and increased levels of foreign involvement in national economies. Consequently, the IMF became the subject of frequent labor protests. Workers understood the key role the IMF played in devising the policies that caused them pain and often took steps to resist.
Although the IMF’s effects on the working class are well understood within Latin America, it has not been the subject of sustained historical analysis. To understand the dynamics of the region’s political economy, historians should focus on the IMF to a degree similar to that of economists and political scientists. More specifically, the relationship between the IMF and Latin American workers is ripe for sustained analysis across disciplinary boundaries.
Latin American labor has a well-established historiography, in dialogue with trends outside of the region. Environmental history is a newer and more exploratory field. In basic terms, environmental history explores the relationships of humans with the natural world, sometimes referred to as “nonhuman nature.” This can include how humans have affected the natural world, how the natural world has affected human history, and histories of human ideas and belief systems about nature. Labor and environmental history grows from explorations of the connections between these two spheres. Humans interact with the natural world through their labor and from their class perspective. The natural world shapes the work that people do and the institutions and structures humans create to organize and control labor. Changing labor regimes change the ways that humans interact with, and think about, the natural world. Both labor and environmental histories are in some senses investigations of how humans relate to nature. This essay sets Latin American labor and environmental history in global historical context. After offering a chronological summary, it briefly examines connections between U.S. Latino and Latin American labor and environmental histories, and ends with a discussion of contemporary Latin American critical environmentalisms.
Vicente Lombardo Toledano was born into a prosperous family in 1894 in Teziutlán, Puebla, and died in Mexico City in 1968. His life is a window into the history of the 20th century: the rise and fall of the old regime; the Mexican Revolution and the transformations that the revolution made in society; the intellectual and social reconstruction of the country under new parameters that included the rise of the labor movement to political prominence as well as the intervention of the trade unions in the construction and consolidation of the state; the dispute over the course of the nation in the tumultuous 1930s; and the configuration of the political and ideological left in Mexico. Lombardo Toledano’s life and work illustrate Mexico’s connections with the world during the Second World War and the Cold War.
Lombardo Toledano belonged to the intellectual elite of men and women who considered themselves progressives, Marxists, and socialists; they believed in a bright future for humanity. He viewed himself as the conscious reflection of the unconscious movement of the masses. With unbridled energy and ideological fervor, he founded unions, parties, and newspapers. During the course of his life, he adhered to various beliefs, from Christianity to Marxism, raising dialectical materialism to the level of a theory of knowledge of absolute proportions in the same fashion that he previously did with idealism. In life, he aroused feelings of love and hate; he was the object of royal welcomes and the target of several attacks; national and international espionage agencies did not let him out of their sight. He was detained in and expelled from several countries and prevented from visiting others. Those who knew him still evoke his incendiary oratorical style, which others remember as soporific. His admirers praise him as the helmsman of Mexican and Latin American workers; others scorn the means he used to achieve his goals as opportunist.
Lombardo Toledano believed that the Soviet Union had achieved a future that Mexico could not aspire to imitate. Mexico was a semifeudal and semicolonial country, hindered by imperialism in its economic development and the creation of a national bourgeoisie, without which it could not pass on to the next stage in the evolution of mankind and without which the working class and peasantry were doomed to underdevelopment. In his interpretation of history, the autonomy of the subordinate classes did not enter into the picture; rather it was the intellectual elites allied with the state who had the task of instilling class consciousness in them. No matter how prominent a personality he was in his time, today few remember the maestro Vicente Lombardo Toledano, despite the many streets and schools named after him. However, the story of his life reveals the vivid and contradictory history of the 20th century, with traces that remain in contemporary Mexico.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (b. Caetés, Pernambuco, Brazil, October 27, 1945) was born in severe poverty in the Brazilian northeast. “Lula” was a nickname which he legalized as an adult so that it could be listed on election ballots. He is universally referred to as Lula in Brazil. When he was seven years old his mother took the family on the back of a truck to the state of São Paulo in the hope of joining Lula’s father, who had abandoned the family. With her help, and without Lula’s illiterate and abusive father’s encouragement, he went to school to become a lathe mechanic. He then became a union activist and a leader of massive strikes in the industrial suburbs of São Paulo during the last years of Brazil’s military regime.
In 1980, Lula joined with progressive union leaders, activists, and intellectuals in organizing the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), or Workers’ Party. The PT was distinguished by its internal democracy and intellectual openness, and many on the left, in Brazil and elsewhere, believed it had great potential for reconciling socialist economics with political democracy. It initiated participatory budgeting practices in an effort to go beyond formal electoral democracy. Lula da Silva’s charisma made him the Party’s most popular leader. Lula won a seat in Congress in 1986, then was defeated in presidential campaigns in 1989, 1994, and 1998. In 2002, he adopted a more moderate campaign platform and was elected president of Brazil. He was re-elected in 2006 and passed the presidency on to his chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, at the end of his second term.
As president of Brazil, Lula followed moderate economic and social policies, building on the accomplishments of his predecessor rather than making the radical changes many Workers’ Party activists and supporters wanted. The economy grew during his presidency, and he was able to increase funding for income redistribution programs that helped the poorest Brazilians. His administration was tarnished, however, by a massive corruption scandal involving illegal payments to members of Congress. Brazil went into a recession after Dilma Rousseff’s re-election in 2014, and there was an even larger corruption scandal involving the national oil company. Rousseff was impeached in 2016, and the Workers’ Party lost control of the Brazilian government and fared badly in municipal elections. Lula da Silva was convicted on corruption charges. If his conviction is not reversed on appeal, or if he is convicted on other pending indictments, he will not be allowed to compete for the presidency in the 2018 elections.
The history of Marxism in Brazil has been marked by discord. This tension makes sense considering that historical materialism developed in a European social environment, contrasted, to some extent, with the Asian context. The problem is, therefore, twofold. First, the theory proved incapable of reflecting the specificity of a particular social formation. The latter, differing significantly from the reality in which Marxism emerged, comes to be seen as “eccentric.” Moreover, Marxist theory seeks to transform reality, which contributes to a confusion between thought and politics. In the same sense, Marxism cannot be self-sufficient, because it must respond to the challenges of the environment in which it is inserted, contributing, in turn, to its contact with other intellectual and political traditions.
Marxist thought in Brazil can be divided into three main historical moments: the first was marked by the preponderant influence of communism, from the 1920s to the 1964 coup; the second was characterized by the emergence in the mid-1950s of a New Left; and the third was the debate regarding democracy, which has gained momentum since the end of the country’s most recent authoritarian period in 1985. Throughout this extended historical period, Brazilian Marxists have been preoccupied with a recurring concern: How will the Bourgeois Revolution happen in Brazil? The periodization is not exact, with trends often overlapping and fostering an evolving political culture. In this way, through opportunities seized and missed, the Left—whose main theoretical reference today is still Marxism—penetrated Brazilian society and became an important part of national life.
Supported by a multiclass alliance including the working class and some sectors of industry and the military, Juan Domingo Perón’s government (1946–1955) industrialized the country, modernized and expanded the state, transformed local and national politics, empowered the labor unions, and substantially improved the standard of living. Perón combined a strong nationalistic and anti-oligarchic discourse with concrete material benefits like high wages, the expansion and consolidation of the retirement system, paid vacations, housing subsidies, and full employment that ensured the political support of large sectors of the working population. Like the workers, various other traditionally disenfranchised social sectors took center stage. The very poor became the main beneficiaries of the charities run by first lady Eva Perón; women won the right to vote with a law passed in 1947 and were mobilized and politicized by the Peronist Party; and children were recognized by the government as the true heirs of the new Argentina built by Peronism and thus subject to co-optation and indoctrination. At the same time, internal migrants, attracted by the promises of a better life and industrial employment, left the countryside and small towns in the interior for the cities, propelling a profound process of urbanization. The cultural, social, political, and economic changes that marked the Peronist years had major consequences for gender relations, roles, and identities, transforming the ways of being a man or a woman in mid-twentieth-century Argentina. Those changes profoundly reshaped discursive and symbolic representations of masculinities as well as social and cultural expectations of manhood across different social classes while creating the political, social, and economic conditions that facilitated the transformation of masculinity as a lived, everyday experience.
From the time that Columbus arrived in the Caribbean until Spain surrendered power over its mainland American colonies in the early 19th century, Spanish and Portuguese colonial mines poured forth vast amounts of bullion, including some gold and a far greater quantity of silver, both in terms of weight and its overall value relative to gold. Fiscal records indicate that Spanish Americans officially refined gold worth approximately 374,000,000 pesos, each consisting of 272 maravedís, whereas the amount of silver produced reached a value of 3,432,000,000 pesos (to these figures need to be added contraband output, estimated to have been around 17–20 percent). In other words, the colonies refined nine times more silver than gold. While Columbus, Cortés, and other earlier explorers may have fantasized primarily about gold, it was the flood of American silver that touched off the price revolution in Europe and monetarized the emerging world economy, especially because China had a voracious appetite for silver, not gold. At the same time in the American colonies, mining distorted economic life because of the incentives the industry received from a silver-hungry monarchy. Mining also had profound consequences for indigenous society, severely exploited to provide workers for the mines and refining mills.
Colonial refiners used two methods to beneficiate their silver ores, smelting and amalgamation. Smelting was suitable for all types of American silver ores but required large amounts of fuel to heat the ovens. It remained widely used throughout Mexico during the entire colonial period. Amalgamation was a newer technology, adapted to American ores during the mid-16th century. Although it did not require large quantities of charcoal and other fuels, as smelting did, amalgamation depended on the availability of mercury. Nearly all quicksilver used in colonial Spanish American silver mining came from either Huancavelica (Peru) or Almadén (Spain), with occasional supplements from Idria (Slovenia). Whereas both smelting and amalgamation were used widely in Mexico, Andean mines relied on amalgamation.
Since the mid-19th century, Argentine society has undergone significant demographic shifts. The expansion of capitalism and the growing complexity of the state apparatus increased the social importance of occupations that are usually considered to be part of the middle class, especially in the Pampas. There was a rapid increase in salaried labor and income distribution worsened significantly. A consumer society arose amid this climate and a good portion of the new trade opportunities rested in the hands of European immigrants, therein generating a complex panorama of both new and old forms of inequality. At the same time, various middle-class trades began to organize themselves in order to mobilize their specific demands. Nevertheless, they did not develop ties of solidarity between one another, nor a unified “middle class” identity. Such an identity would begin to form much later within the political sphere. Starting in 1919, politicians and intellectuals became concerned about the expansion of revolutionary ideas and labor activism, and in order to counteract this, they began to encourage pride in a middle class identity within the public sphere. The historical evidence suggests that from that time on, some members of the common people began to identify as middle class, thereby slowly transforming the perception of social difference that had up until that moment still been binary. A middle-class identity definitively took root after 1945 as a part of the political experience of the middle strata. Peronism, for its plebeian elements and for the social and symbolic space it granted the lower classes, posed a profound challenge to the concepts of hierarchy and respectability that had existed until then. This challenge paved the way for vast sectors to embrace a middle-class identity and to distinguish themselves from the pueblo peronista, as well as to assert their right to a central role within their country. In this context, the middle-class identity in Argentina assumed some characteristics unique to the region, weaving together narratives of nationhood that placed the middle class, the supposed descendants of European immigrants (the implication being “white”), in a place of preeminence as the champions of “civilization,” and therein, as enemies of Peronism and the cabecitas negras, or the “little black heads,” that supported him.
First utilized in Latin America in response to the mid-20th-century decline of populist economic policymaking in the region, modern neoclassical theory, or neoliberalism, can be generally defined as a market-oriented form of economy policymaking that seeks to decentralize state authority and redefine state administrative responsibilities through deregulation, privatization, and the creation of common markets. Based on principles of classical 19th-century economic liberalism, the economic and political framework of neoliberalism advocates for a dramatically limited role for the state, which should only act to maintain the integrity of contract law and private property as a means of supporting the market. In the absence of state intervention, neoliberalism in Latin America alternatively emphasized the role of multilateral organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and the U.S. Agency for International Development in bringing financial stability and growth to the region through the manipulation of interest rates, the devaluation of exchange rates, and the establishment of free-market pricing of goods. Ultimately, the widespread implementation of neoliberal reforms through the 1980s and 1990s ushered in a new era of transnational economic policymaking that had long-term, mixed results for the environmental, political, and social landscape of Latin America.
Before there was Mexico, there was oil. Millennia of organic matter that collapsed and liquefied into fossil fuel rested deep underground and underwater along the half-moon territorial formation that 19th-century geographers named the Mexican Gulf. Hidden by the lush tropical rainforests, marshes, and mangroves that occupied the landscape from the Pánuco River on the border between modern day Tamaulipas and Veracruz and the Bay of Campeche on the South, the oil seeped to the surface in small ponds, sometimes blackening the waters of streams and lagoons from Tabasco to the Huasteca. The human communities who inhabited that part of the globe thousands of years later knew about and utilized nature’s oozing sticky black tar.
The Olmec, who flourished in southern Veracruz from 1200 to 400
This article examines the long history of Potosí, Bolivia, home of the world’s most productive silver mines. The mines, discovered in 1545 and still active today, are discussed in terms of their geology, discovery, productivity, labor history, and technological development. The article also treats the social and environmental consequences of nearly five hundred years of continuous mining and refining.
Both Ecuador and Bolivia have gained a reputation for powerful social movements that have repeatedly challenged entrenched political and economic interests that have controlled the countries since their independence from Spain almost two hundred years ago. A wealthy and powerful minority of European descendant landowners ruled the countries to the exclusion of the majority population of impoverished Indigenous farm workers. Repeated well-organized challenges to exclusionary rule in the late 20th century shifted policies and opened political spaces for previously marginalized people. Social movement organizations also altered their language to meet new realities, including incorporating identities as ethnic groups and Indigenous nationalities to advance their agenda. Their efforts contributed to a significant leftward shift in political discourse that led to the election of presidents Evo Morales and Rafael Correa.
The arrival of Christopher Columbus in the northern Caribbean with three Spanish ships in October 1492 marked the beginning of continuing European contact with the Americas. With his second voyage of 1493 permanent European occupation of the Caribbean began, with enormous consequences for the peoples and ecology of the region. Failing to encounter the wealthy trading societies that Columbus had hoped to find by reaching Asia, Europeans in the Caribbean soon realized that they would have to involve themselves directly in organizing profitable enterprises. Gold mining in the northern islands and pearl fishing in the islands off the coast of Tierra Firme (present-day Venezuela) for some years proved enormously profitable but depended on Spaniards’ ability to exploit indigenous labor on a large scale. The imposition of the Spanish encomienda system, which required indigenous communities to provide labor for mining and commercial agriculture, and the large-scale capture and transportation of Native Americans from one locale to another wrought havoc among the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and circum-Caribbean, resulting in high mortality and flight. Spaniards in the islands soon sought to supplement indigenous labor by importing African slaves who, in the early 16th century, became a significant if not always easily controlled presence in the region.
From the earliest years the Spanish Caribbean was a complex, dynamic, and volatile region characterized by extensive interaction and conflict among diverse groups of people and by rapid economic and institutional development. Although the islands became the launching grounds for subsequent Spanish moves to the nearby mainland, throughout the 16th century and beyond they played a crucial role in sustaining Spain’s overseas empire and integrating it into the larger Atlantic system.
Reinaldo Funes Monzote
For the greater part of the 19th and 20th centuries, Cuba, the largest island in the Antilles, figured as the principal exporter of sugar cane, a product that dominated the country’s agro-industry. In this way, Cuba became illustrative of the economic, social, political, and environmental impact of basing an economy on monoculture in order to supply foreign markets. This does not mean, however, that sugar cane was the only major crop being grown in the Cuban fields, as there was no dearth of different plants destined for foreign markets, such as tobacco and coffee, or for local markets, such as yucca, plantains, corn, sweet potatoes, and rice, not to mention a long if little-known livestock tradition. However, the dominance of agro-industry almost always eclipses agricultural and economic alternatives that could become potential competitors, despite the periodic adverse circumstances that affect consumers. But, in the 1990s, the production and exportation of sugar suffered an abrupt fall, creating a vacuum that allowed diversification of land use and that prompted a search for alternative agricultural models.
Aridity, a significant characteristic of the U.S.–Mexico borderlands, has affected water use patterns for different groups of people in this region for thousands of years. From indigenous groups to European invaders and colonizers to 20th- and 21st-century farmers, ranchers, and policy-makers in Mexico and the United States, controlling the area’s scarce water resources has been a vital concern for survival and economic success. Given that an international border divides the region, national-era relations between the United States and Mexico often have been marked by water issues and the development of water projects and policies. And on both sides of the border these projects and policies have caused environmental changes that merit attention. Much of that history revolves around agricultural development with the need to ensure steady sources of water for irrigation. But industry and urban areas have also been enormous consumers of scarce water resources in the region, issues that are discussed here.