Located primarily in Yucatán, the extraction of raw fiber from the henequen agave and the production of rope and twine therefrom was at one time a thriving industry. Henequen rope was used by the ancient Maya and then by the Spaniards as rigging. Extraction of the fiber was so labor-intensive that production was limited. In the 1850s, however, when the Yucatecan invention of the steam-powered decorticator to remove the fiber made mass production possible, the hacienda owners of northwestern Yucatán began planting large quantities of henequen. Demand abroad was stimulated by the invention in 1878 of the McCormick reaper, which required large quantities of binder twine.
The economy of Yucatán came to be based on henequen exports, especially to the United States, and the state became the wealthiest and most opulent in Porfirian Mexico. Profits at first went mostly to the landowning elite; the workers—Maya Indians, many of whom were debt peons—received few benefits. Labor relations reflected cultural values. While labor shortages existed, landowners would not hire women because this would have created tension with male indigenous workers. However, with the creation in 1902 of the International Harvester Corporation—a U.S. trust that established almost complete control over the purchase of henequen on the world market—a large part of the profits went to the United States. This situation continued until the breakup of the trust in 1915.
The Mexican Revolution brought about the abolition of peonage and the emergence of free labor on the haciendas, while competition from other producers changed the world market for twine and led to declining prices. Agrarian reforms in the 1930s resulted ultimately in the destruction of the landowning class, but mismanagement and corruption in the state-run economy led to the impoverishment of the peasants. Foreign competition also cut into profitability, and by 1990 henequen production was no longer a significant segment of the economy of Yucatán. The state also privatized the industry in 1990. The Cordemex factory, which employed 5,000 people in the 1980s, had only 500 workers in 1998.
Narcisa Trujillo, "Las primeras máquinas desfibradoras de henequén," Enciclopedia yucatanese, vol. 3 (1947), pp. 627-656.
Gonzalo Camara Zavala, "Historia de la industria henequenera hasta 1919," Enciclopedia yucatanese, vol. 3 (1947), pp. 657-725.
Enrique Aznar Mendoza, "Historia de la industria henequenera desde 1919 hasta nuestros días," Enciclopedia yucatanese, vol. 3 (1947), pp. 727-787.
Moisés González Navarro, Raza y tierra: La Guerra de Castas y el henequén (1970).
Allen Wells, Yucatán's Gilded Age: Haciendas, Henequen, and International Harvester, 1860–1915 (1985).
Jeffrey Brannon and Eric N. Baklanoff, Agrarian Reform and Public Enterprise in Mexico: The Political Economy of Yucatán's Henequen Industry (1987).
Baños Ramírez, Othón. Neoliberalismo, reorganización y subsistencia rural: El caso de la zona henequenera de Yucatán, 1980–1992. Mérida, Mexico: Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, 1996.
Sabido Méndez, Arcadio. Los hombres del poder: Monopolios, oligarquía y riqueza Yucatán, 1880–1990. Mérida, Mexico: Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, 1995.
Robert W. Patch