Peons are agricultural workers tied to large estates (haciendas). In most cases they live on the haciendas, on land rented from the estate, and in return have to provide labor services to the landlord. In some cases peons live in semi-independent villages close to the estate where they work. Land and labor arrangements vary widely across Latin America, as do the names of peons. For example, they are called gañanes in Mexico, arrenderos in Bolivia, and inquilinos in Chile.
The development of peonage began soon after the Spanish Conquest. Although most Indians lived in independent indigenous communities, the Conquest dislocated many people from their villages. Also, as race mixture became common, some of the mestizos were unable or unwilling to join the communities from whence their mothers had come. When the Spanish began acquiring land, some of these men and women joined the newly founded estates as peons. This was especially the case in the north-central section of Mexico, where the silver mines stimulated the agrarian economy and the Spanish took over lands previously controlled by seminomadic tribal peoples. The sharp demographic decline of the indigenous population in Mesoamerica also freed up land and made other means of capturing Indian labor, such as the state-enforced corvée labor of the repartimiento system, less effective than was initially the case. Likewise, in the Andes after the Conquest, migration among Indians became common, with many ending up as peons on haciendas. The feared forced Andean mine labor, called the mita, which was required of all Indian community members in a wide swath of the Andes, also encouraged peasants to leave their communities and find protection as peons on the Spanish haciendas.
The rest of Latin America (other than the Caribbean, where the plantations were staffed by slaves) also adopted the hacienda model, which created more peons. By the end of the colonial period (around 1820), peons constituted perhaps a quarter of all rural labor. After independence, the proportion of peons remained relatively steady until the late nineteenth century. At that point, peonage increased as Liberal land reforms brought about the abolition of Indian communities, replaced in many cases by haciendas. Many of the former community members were converted into hacienda peons. By the 1920s, hacienda peons made up perhaps half of the rural population in Latin America.
In some regions, peonage was more restrictive than in others. In areas where there were many opportunities for working in other occupations, such as in northern Mexico close to the U.S. border, peonage was not as severe as elsewhere. Many peons were cowboys and lived relatively independently. In other regions, such as in the Yucatán peninsula and in the Andes, peonage was more exploitative. The landlords ruled over their charges, requiring obeisance, and, as in the Andes, the women were required to work in the masters' households, exposing them to sexual assault. Moreover, in the late nineteenth century debt peonage became more common, in which landlords tied the peons to their estates by indebting them to such an extent that they could never work off what they owed. In some cases, such as for highland Indians, recruiters for estates of the Peruvian coast provided large advances that the workers were unable to pay off. With increased police presence, the landowners were able to enforce these contracts, limiting workers' ability to leave.
Peonage declined by the middle of the twentieth century because of the extensive land reforms in Latin America. The first of these emerged as a result of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1940), and later reforms in countries including Bolivia (1953), Ecuador (1964), Peru (1969), and Nicaragua (1979) diminished the traditional type of peonage throughout Latin America. Elsewhere, such as in Chile and northern Argentina, the traditional peons disappeared with the modernization of agriculture, creating instead a rural proletariat with no land rights on the estates. In the early twenty-first century there are still peons in certain regions of Latin America, especially in frontier zones such as eastern Bolivia and in Brazil, where local elites are strong and the state is relatively weak.
See alsoDebt Peonage .
Chevalier, François. Land and Society in Colonial Mexico: The Great Hacienda. Translated by Alvin Eustis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963.
Peloso, Vincent C. Peasants on Plantations: Subaltern Strategies of Labor and Resistance in the Pisco Valley, Peru. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.
Van Young, Eric. "Mexican Rural History since Chevalier: The Historiography of the Colonial Hacienda." Latin American Research Review 18, no. 3 (1983): 5-61.
Erick D. Langer