Mexican History Essay, Research Paper
After the conquest the Spaniards, recognized the existence of indian communal lands.
Encomiendas (large land grants) were given to the conquistadores by the Spanish Crown.
During the early encomienda period (1540 – 1650), encomenderos had complete control over
everything within their land grant including the indians. The Crown was theoretically quite
enlightened toward their indian citizens in New Spain. They attempted to establish laws which
would limit indian exploitation by fixing the hours slaves could work in the mines, the wages which
encomienda and free indians were to be paid, and allow indian villages to retain their system of
communal lands which the Spanish called ejidos. The 17th and 18th centuries saw many of these
communal lands illegaly expropiated by unscrupulous tax collectors and landowners.
Consequently, while indians were protected by spanish laws, in practice they had little defense
against corrupt officials; a problem worsened by ignorance of Spanish law.
The 19th century saw a major emphasis on private property with the Ley Lerdo (1857), which
sought to place all land into the hands of private land owners. The backers of Ley Lerdo probably
sincerely believed that the privatization of all lands would lead to a more equitable distribution of
the land in Mexico. They also sought to break up the large holdings of the Catholic Church. For
indian communities, this had a most devasting effect: The potential sale of ejido lands. For most
Mexican Meztizos desirous of land, the purchase of expensive Church properties was not an
option. They, consequently, turned to ejido lands as a source of inexpensive new land. The sale of
indian land led to a number of inidan rebellions. The Crown responded by dividing indian
communal lands only among indian community members. This didin?t, however, stop the avarice
of the mestizo landowners who purchased the land inexpensively and directly from the indian
The lone figure in the 19th Century who successfully defended indian ejidos from external
encroachment was Benito Juarez (1857 – 1872).
The Mexican political climate changed significantly, however, with the regime of Porfirio Diaz
(1876 – 1910) or the Porfiriato. During this period, Diaz twice (1888 and 1902) demanded the
enforcement of the Ley Lerdo. The result was similar to the previous enforcement of this law.
Indian land was easily stolen or purchased by non-indians. The demand for indian ejido lands was
further enhanced by the fact that there were no limits on the amount of land an individual could
privately own. There was considerable indian opposition to this, but ultimately the indians lost their
land. The impact of this is most clearly seen in the Yucatan where in 1901, 50 landowners owned
50 million acres and controlled the labor of 100,000 mayan laborers who were virtual slaves in
Henequen plantations which produced rope and other products sold primarily to the US.
Most people associate the ejido with the second Mexican Revolution (1910 – 1917), and see the
Revolution as a type of peasant revolt. However, there was a clear lack of peasant consciousness
about revolutionary objetives. This is reflected in an almost complete lack of political songs,
poems, and texts in the rural folklore of the time (Alba 1967:109).
Briefly, we can divide the Revolution into three distinct “revolutions”, the Political, led by Madero
and Carranza (1910-1913), the Agrarian, led by Zapata and Villa (1913-1917), and the Nationalist
which embodied elements of the latter two.
The Political Revolution centered around a reaction to Diaz?s dictatorial hold on Mexican politics,
and his allowing tremendous quantities of foreign capital to enter into Mexico.
The Agrarian Revolution focused on the redistribuition of lands. Emiliano Zapata, one of the more
intellectual of the agrarian reformist, developed the Ayala Plan (November 25, 1911) which
clearly stated the demands of this group. The plan demanded that land that had been taken by the
big haciendas from peasants be returned, and, in addition, another 1/3 be distributed among them.
Zapata?s army conquered the states of Morelos, Puebla, and Guerrero, burning haciendas and
killing their managers as they went. He was systematically eliminating the enemies of the indian.
The Zapatistas sought neither power nor money, rather land. Zapata emerged as the only
coherent and logical voice of social reform in the revolution.
As this was happening, Luis Cabrera (not the first revolutionary president Madero) was entering
social legislation into the Mexican Congress in December of 1912 to establish all haciendas as
ejido land. The forces of social /agrarian reform had a formidable barrier in the form of Carranza
whose government was officially installed in 1916, but who held authority for two years previous.
In January of 1915 under pressure from Villista and Zapatista forces, Carranza proclaimed a law,
drawn-up by Cabrera , to restore ejidal lands. This law has served as the foundation for the
Modern Ejido System which we see today. As a point of refernce, Villa was defeated in 1916 an
fled to Chihuahua. Zapata?s forces held out until 1919 attempting to protect the land won in battle.
They feared that it would be taken away if they stopped their resistence. Zapata was assasinated
on April 10, 1919 by forces sympathetic to Carranza.
The Carranza regime was far from a champion of social reform. In fact, felt social reform would
have to wait for political reforms to take effect, within his government, however, there were some
radical elements. General Francisco Mugica penned Article 27 of the Constitution which allowed
for the repatriation of indian ejido lands which had been expropriated and the nationalization of
foreign-owned domesic resources, including mines and oil fields. According to this article, ejido
lands were to be returned to their villages, and if this was insufficient, neighboring properties
would also be expropriated. In each case, the hacienda owner was to be reimbursed. Ejido land
was to be inalienable and considered communal property which, in accord with indian tradition,
was divided into plots for individual use. Succeeding presidents of Mexico have distributed lands in
varying quantities depending on their political and economic perspectives, and their interpretation
Each ejido is a land grant held in trust by the Mexican government for a peasant group of 20 or
more families. Ejidos are required to have a governing body made up of a mayor-domo
(representative to the church), a delegado or comisariado (representative to local and state
government) who is aided in his duties by a group (consejo) of village elders. It is the job of the
comisariado to allocate the ejido lands and to make sure that some simple laws are respected by
the ejido members in the use of their plot of land. These include: ejido lands must not be left in
fallow for more than two years, and ejidatario (member of the ejido) can?t rent or sell his plot of
land. Each ejidatario has an average of no more than 12 acres of temporal land (i.e., the land is
irrigated by nothing more than seasonal rains) on which he is lucky to grow enough corn and frijol
for his family for a year. In other words, the size and quality of ejido lands is such that ejido
farmers are subsistence farmers (i.e., they consume all that they produce).
There are two basic types of ejidos: the most common form is the ejido where land is fractioned
into small, individual plots, and each farmer is responsible for the production and distribution of
crops grown on that plot. Far less common are the communal ejidos where production is on a
profit-sharing basis. The orignal idea was that large tracts of land could be worked more
efficiently utilizing such modern techniques as large machinery, fertilizers, and insecticides which
are not accessible to the small scale farms due to economies of scale. It was hoped that these
communal enterprises would turn into flourishing capitalist enterprises. The theory and practice, it
turned out, were quite far apart. These operations were, in general, dismal failures. Production
tended to fall to the level of the least productive and inefficient worker.
Based on this background one can now ask, “what is the ejido? is it an economic or social reform
?” From 1876-1940 the Mexican agricultural economy has been stagnant and production has
remained almost unchanged (small increases were made in the level of cash crop porduction, but
a decrease in subsistence crop production). From 1940-1960, we see a massive increase in
production of 225% (Parkes). Why such a sudden surge in production? After 1940 it became
clear that the ejido was not going to be the solution to Mexico?s growing demand for agricultural
products. Consequently, tremendous efforts went into the support and development of the private
sector including, large scale irrigation projects, fertilizer and insecticide use, as well as accessible
credit to private landowners. Furthermore, the amount of land under cultivation increased
dramatically between 1940 (35million acres) to 1960 (57 million acres). The role of the ejido in the
developmental spurt is marginal. Most ejidos are located on inferior quality land with no access to
irrigation of the 18,699 functioning ejidos in 1960, only 5,088 had any form of irrigation(Chevalier).
Given the poor land, small size of individual plots of land, lack of credit, and poor education, the
ejido has become a stagnant subsistence-based insitition. This is hardly a vehicle for rapid
economic development and agrarian/economic reform.
What the ejido has done is to provide a social reform to rural Mexico. For a Mexican peasant, the
control of a plot of land where they can grow their crops is their goal. It means freedom apart
from the dominance and exploitation of large land owners. Yet here we have a paradox, for the
ejido is the pacifier of the ever-growing rural population. To use a bad cliche, it keeps the peasant
barefoot, happy and controllable. Therefore, is the ejido truly a social reform or merely a means of
perpetuating an archaic system of land tenure and an ever growing gap between the social
Oddly enough, the ejido has had an unforseen effect on rural economic development. Private land
holders have been forced to make serious improvements in the managment and production
techniques of their farms (or sell their farms to those who will do so) in order to guard against the
expropriation of their lands for ejidos. Mexico is truly a land of strange paradoxes.
List of important presidents in ejido history:
Obregon (1920-1924) – Saw ejido as a safety-valve to appease peasant discontent. Made
it difficult for peasants to get land. They had to initiate the application process and were
intemidated by both haciendas and Church. 3 million acres redistributed to 624 villages. 300
million acres remain in control of several thousand haciendas. Results were poor; no
government support in the form of credit, machinery, education, etc. Land to be worked
communally and supervized by an ejido government.
Calles (1924-1928) – 8 million acres distributed to 1,500 villages. To break the grip of
indian Caciques, land was immediately divided into small, individual plots. Rural banks
established to provide credit to ejidatarios. Four-fifths of credit goes to large land holders.
Cardenas (1936-1940) – 45 million acres redistributed (more than twice the amount of land
of all previous governments) among 750,000 peasant families living in 12,000 villages.
Large landholders still possess the majority of land (60% of land is owned by 10,000
hacendados and there are still 300 hacendados with over 1,000 acres.) these figures
include the large cattle ranches of the north where cultivation is imposible. In areas under
cultivation, 17.5 million acres are ejido and 19.5 million acres are privately owned.
Cardenas develops experimental communal ejidos (Laguna district of Coahuila and
Durango, Yaqui river in Sonora and Sinaloa, and the Mexicalli valley in general. Result of
massive distribution: Mexico becomes economically dependent on ejido production and
efficiency. The ejido is no longer marginal to the Mexican economy and is now crucial to
Mexico’s economic infrastructure.
Camacho (1940-1946) – Realizes the ejido is not economically successful or has changed
the quality of peasant life. New emphasis on working ejidos more efficient rather than
working more ejidos. Only 7 milliion acres redistributed.
Lopez Mateos (1958-1964) – Period of general rural unrest. Redistributes 40 million acres
(second only to Cardenas) to 245,000 families. Unique to Lopez Mateos is the large size of
ejido grants (in recognition of inferior land quality). Average grant was 150 acres as
opposed to 50 acres with Cardenas.
Lopez Portillo (1976-1982) – Denounces further ejido land grants. First time a Mexican
president has directly stated that the ejido (e.g., symbol of the revolution) is not a viable
Carlos Salinas Gotari (1988-1994) – Offers ejidatarios title to their lands.