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Bookshelf: From the Grounds Up

book cover - From the Grounds Up

There were times, Casey Marina Lurtz says, when the progress of her book—on how a district in southern Mexico connected to the world economy—paralleled the subject of her research.

Just as growers in the state of Chiapas found attempts to bring their coffee to the world market sometimes stalled by a washed-out bridge over a stream or riverbed, Lurtz occasionally came upon an unexpected gap in her research on how that coffee helped the Soconusco District in Mexico enter the global market.

Digging into government archives, she would discover an interesting land sale or survey dispute and follow the paperwork trail as the case wound its way through the system, only to find the document with the final resolution missing.

“That’s the spottiness of archives,” says Lurtz, an assistant professor in the Department of History and a core member of the Latin America in a Globalizing World Initiative. “You don’t always find the end of things.”

Still, those “bundles of paper in the back of a government building” that had survived rain, humidity, and apathy, abetted by other sources, yielded enough information for From the Grounds Up: Building an Export Economy in Southern Mexico (Stanford University Press).

The book, her first, was an offshoot of her thesis research in Chiapas, a state largely isolated from the rest of Mexico by the Sierra Madre highlands and lack of safe harbor on the Pacific Ocean.

“I was interested in labor and interested in this era (1860–1910) that preceded the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920),” says Lurtz, now on a fellowship at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Studies. “But I was not expecting to find all this push and pull, that there were a lot of participants buying into a global economy.”

“I can still see that document in my head. It was incredibly dehumanizing.”

—Casey Marina Lurtz

The book details how the district, near the border with Guatemala, connected to the world by fits and starts, as its residents found benefits in government bureaucracies that eliminated uncertainties about labor practices, legal contracts, land ownership, credit, and transportation.

The biggest surprise in her research was the number of women’s names she found on official, and unofficial, documents and forms. “They [women] were at least a third of the participants whose names were legally written on contracts and such,” Lurtz says. “They were very active participants.”

Seeing numbers, instead of names, entered into an official record of deaths due to a smallpox outbreak in the region was one of the most discouraging results of her research.

“I can still see that document in my head,” she says. “It was incredibly dehumanizing.”

William Forsyth, the British manager of a coffee plantation, had brought 237 residents of the Gilbert Islands in the South Pacific to work his fields in 1891. Only 58 survived the epidemic in the fall of 1892 that killed Mexicans and Guatemalans, merchants, managers, and workers.

“Forsyth noted the tragedy by renumbering the unnamed migrants in his ledger book and complaining that he had lost his labor force. His records indicate no sympathy for the remaining family members, no provision for their mourning or burial. For Forsyth, the deaths of a large portion of his labor force instead were recorded as a substantial hurdle for the plantation,” she wrote.

Deaths of more well-known figures also played roles in Soconusco’s entry into the world economy.

The assassination of U.S. President John Garfield, for example, derailed American influence on settling the long-standing border dispute between Guatemala and Mexico.

Correspondence Lurtz found revealed pettiness and name-calling across Mexico’s southern border. “It was messy, gossipy,” she says. “The letters between the ministers were so funny. They were posturing so much.”

The United States had stepped in to aid Guatemala in exchange for assistance in building a canal in Central America.

But the American diplomat, James Blaine, the secretary of state, lost his job when Chester Arthur became president. Less than a year later, the two nations reached an agreement on their own.

The death of political strongman Sebastian Escobar removed a significant obstacle to the government’s surveying of land. That was important as an increasing number of residents saw value in official recognition of their ownership of the land they had developed to grow coffee.

Escobar was shot by a former employee. His death is one of the few references in the book to the violence that was a part of life in the region.

Archives for the area’s criminal justice system were inaccessible, Lurtz wrote.

“What you have access to really shapes how you write,” she says.