Middle American Society

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Middle American Society

Cultural components

Recent historical background

Social organization

Power and prestige structure

Government and political organization

Research on Middle America


Middle America is a cultural and geographical region comprising Mexico, Central America, and Panama. Central America is composed of Guatemala, British Honduras (or Belize), Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Because of its size and many problems shared with the other countries, Panama is sometimes considered a part of Central America, although it was formerly a part of Colombia. The term Mesoamerica, coined by Paul Kirchhoff (1943), refers to a cultural subregion within Middle America, specifically the areas occupied by the pre-Columbian high cultures [seeUrban Revolution, article on Early Civilizations of The New World].

Mesoamerica was bordered on the south by a line that runs approximately from the Gulf of Nicoya (Costa Rica) to the mouth of the Motagua River (Guatemala). To the north, it included the areas set off by the northern borders of the Mexican states of Veracruz (including adjacent San Luis Potosi), Querétaro, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Durango, and the southern portions of Chihuahua and Sonora. Today Mesoamerica is a region of distinctive Indian populations surrounded by national civil populations. Culturally, the northern border of Middle America could be extended to include those portions of the southwestern United States that were formerly part of Mexico and that still have a significantly large and growing Spanish-speaking population.

The processes of economic and social development are presently affecting each inhabitant of Middle America, whether he cuts coupons in Mexico City’s plush pedregal or cuts sugar cane in the Pacific lowlands of Central America. Inextricably woven into the process of development is the very high population growth rate and a social structure dominated by a concern for power but technologically still heavily primitive and agrarian. It is this challenge of primitive technology, on the one hand, and the growing concern for control of one’s fellow man, on the other, that is shaping the development process in Middle America today. The heavily mercantilist export pattern that dominated the nineteenth-century political economy has continued, although industrialization and the national exploitation of mineral resources have made marked advances in Mexico.

Cultural components

Indians and mestizos

The contemporary Middle American population is predominantly mestizo, a mixture of Spanish and American Indian. (In much of this region, as elsewhere in Latin America, the term is also used to refer to the parallel cultural mixture.) In southern Mexico, Guatemala, and adjacent Honduras and El Salvador, the term ladino is used to refer to non-Indian peoples, especially to those of Spanish-American culture.

The concept of the plural society, often used in describing the societies of the Caribbean, is less applicable in Middle America, where its usage tends to obscure the continuing processes of integration and acculturation. In contrast to Guyana, where two distinctive ethnic groups contend for political dominance, Middle America is Spanish-American, and existing ethnic enclaves may be seen as a cultural pluralism that is gradually undergoing social integration. The term “ladinoization” (ladinización) (Adams 1957) has been applied to this cultural process in those areas where ladino is in use; elsewhere, “mestizo-ization” (mestizaje) is the more general term for the acculturation process. The Indians now form a very minor percentage of the total population of all countries except Guatemala. “Indian,” in the sense used here, refers to that sector of the population that retains the use of an Indian language (whether bilingually or monolingually) and specific forms of social organization that are considered by the Spanish-American population to be Indian. However, many of the specific customs that differentiate Indians from non-Indians today are of Spanish colonial origin, not indigenous origin—religious organizations such as the cofradía; many elements in the men’s costume, such as short trousers and split-side trousers; representational dances of the Christians and the Moors; much of the paraphernalia of the church and its rituals, etc. Similarly, many cultural traits of Indian origin are now common to the way of life of the national population—the basic diet of corn tortillas, which is supplemented by beans, yucca, and squash; basic agricultural tools such as the digging stick; and rural constructions such as ranchos, which are made of adobe, poles, and wattle-and-daub and have grass or palm roofs. Traits of Indian origin have tended to survive in matters pertaining to direct adaptation to the habitat, whereas traits of Spanish origin have dominated in matters pertaining to social organization and ideas and values.

The decline of the Indian component of the total population has been steady since the conquest; however, three major aboriginal patterns may be distinguished, each with a separate history regarding relations with the non-Indian population. Numerically and culturally the most important of the three patterns has pertained to the sedentary agriculturalist population of Mesoamerica. This population was organized under native states, and at the time of the conquest some of these provided an already “domesticated” population which the Spanish empire was able to take over and harness to its needs. The process of adaptation to the requirements of Spanish colonial activity, however, led to a continuing and sometimes precipitous decline of the Indian population lasting until about the middle of the eighteenth century. At that time, the combination of forced labor, wars, and disease had completed its work. It is reasonable to suppose that the two and one-half centuries of conquest had led to a severe natural selection of the Indian population and that the survivors formed a genetically different population than had originally encountered the Spaniards. The Spanish empire itself became so weak that colonial segments were perforce acting with more local autonomy; the Indian population increased from that time on.

By the time of independence in 1821, the Spanish, creole, and mestizo populations were still out-numbered by the Indians, but they were increasing more rapidly. The ratio of non-Indians to Indians showed a relative decline of the Indian population in spite of its absolute growth, but this also meant that the Indian was increasingly brought into face-to-face contact with the growing mestizo population. This process, combined with government action of the nineteenth century designed to reduce the organizational strength of the Indian population, caused a series of sharp acculturation situations that continue into the present.

The aggressive retention of “Indian” cultural traits in the nineteenth century was in part a response to efforts to disorganize the Indians so as to convert them into a more controllable labor force. The Mexican reform laws and the later efforts of Justo Rufino Barrios in Guatemala sought to break the control that the church held over extensive lands as well as what might be termed the “eminent domain” over communal lands jealously guarded by the Indians. These efforts did succeed in challenging the church to a considerable degree and in shattering some Indian enclaves, but it also led many Indian communities to adopt a defensive posture with respect to the efforts of both government and private entrepreneurs to obtain the lands.

The over-all cultural result, however, is that while the Indian population continues to increase in number, sectors of it that have been subject to special economic disintegration or political penetration rapidly acculturate and cease, in a cultural sense, to be Indian. This evidently has happened in El Salvador, where in the early 1930s an abortive revolution among the Indians was put down with such violence that the Indians over a wide region gave up their Indian costumes and tried to become ladinos in order to avoid further reprisals.

The Mexican revolution caused severe acculturation in a number of instances, and Mexican government action against the Yucatán Indians and the Yaqui brought about similar shifts. The sudden progressive liberalism of the Arévalo–Arbenz period in Guatemala, from 1946 to 1954, caused a series of acculturative changes that continued thereafter.

The rapid decline of the Mexican Indian culture in recent years, coupled with growing nationalism, has led the national government to try to preserve certain of the native craft industries. Here again, the actual products in many instances are of colonial Spanish origin, but in the contemporary world they are marketed as “Indian.” The Folk Art Museum of Mexico has achieved considerable success in providing a broader market for these industries, thereby strengthening their role in the local economy. Many of the Indian towns are becoming less and less distinctive as the demands and needs of the national scene impinge on the local organizational structure.

Although the tribes and lesser states to the south of Mesoamerica acculturated early to the efforts of the Spanish, in Costa Rica, Panama, and Honduras, where the population was much more sparse, the conquest and colonization led to severe losses in the aboriginal population, and, in many instances, flight into refuge areas. The contemporary Indians of Panama, especially the Cuna and Guaymí, are in fact the descendants of a number of distinctive groups, the remnants of which fled to avoid the pressures of European colonial rule. So far as can be determined, the surviving Jicaque, Sumu, Paya, and Mosquito of Honduras and the Nicaraguan Atlantic coast have somewhat similar histories. The last mentioned have long been racially mixed with Negroes, although their culture remains distinctively Indian.

To the north of Mesoamerica, the Spanish mission system brought under control various Indian populations, but as in the south, the Indian populations were sparse, and the effects of colonial control led to a much more severe destruction of the native cultures. By the nineteenth century, pressures from the north created by the expanding Anglo-American agricultural population increasingly forced bands of horse-riding “barbarians” into northern Mexico. Mexican efforts to control these bands, even with the loss of Texas and the greater southwest to the United States, were generally weak, since the northern frontier area was only sparsely settled by Mexicans far removed from the more central concerns of the government.

Culturally, the proximity of northern Mexico to growing centers of the United States led to an economic orientation toward the north, which tended by the early twentieth century to differentiate both the culture and society of northern Mexico from those in the center and south, and the continued interchange of population across the border has contributed to a growth of the Latin American population in the southwestern part of the United States. Northern Mexico, earlier a dry and sparsely populated area, today is one of the fastest-growing major regions in the republic, and one in which the Mexicans are achieving pronounced success in regional economic development.

In the general picture of ethnic distributions in Middle America today, the national mestizo, or Latin American, population is predominant in all but a few areas. Central Mexico, sectors of southern Mexico and Yucatán, and adjacent Guatemala contain the largest remaining Indian populations. Small enclaves are to be found scattered in western Mexico and in the remaining Central American countries.

Other ethnic groups

In addition to the Indian and mestizo populations, there are a number of other ethnic components that should be mentioned, either because of their past importance or because they remain today as ethnic enclaves, Negro slaves were brought into Mexico and various parts of Central America during the colonial period in an attempt to provide labor to substitute for the declining Indian population. In general, the settlement of these imported peoples was localized, and evidence of their presence survives today in a Negroid physical component in a few communities. Just prior to the end of the colonial period, the British shipped an entire population of “Black Caribs” from the Lesser Antilles to the northern coast of Honduras. Communities of these distinctive peoples today dot the littoral from British Honduras to southern Nicaragua. In spite of their name, they retain an Arawakan language and a culture that is more characteristic of the Antilles than the mainland. During the building of the Isthmian railway in Panama, the construction of the canal, and the two world wars, many English-speaking Antillean Negro laborers came to Panama and today form an important sector of the urban population. Their language and culture contrast with the Spanish-American culture of the mainland Negroid population. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Chinese have settled in many areas along the west coast of the New World; in the early days they were imported as labor, and in more recent years they have immigrated for independent motives. This population is usually occupied in commerce in larger towns and cities. In recent years Chinese have mixed increasingly with the mestizo population.

European populations of more recent origin include the English Bay Islanders off Honduras, the English of British Honduras, and the English, Spanish, German, and North American agricultural and commercial entrepreneurs who have been investing in the countries of Middle America during the past 150 years. In some instances, these peoples have maintained strong connections with their homelands, and even though technically native-born nationals, they are considered by many mestizos to be still essentially foreign.

Indian culture change

The surviving Indian population of Middle America is being acculturated, although the process is uneven. It is hastened by economic and political events and slowed by the continuing social, commercial, or geographic isolation of many of the groups. Acculturation occurs as the individual removes himself from the context of the Indian community by migrating to the city or to a plantation as a laborer; it occurs also as entire communities undergo pressures leading to a breakup of the older social structure. Thus the decline of the religious and political system of the highland Indians has been due primarily to political pressure from the government and an inability of the older ritual organization to hold the community together. The formation of sindicatos and gremiales (labor unions and organized interest groups) and cooperatives that include Indians has led to a new patterning of relationships that is increasingly pertinent to the way of life in some regions.

A few community organizations have resisted the pressures for change. The campesinos (countrymen) of Jalapa, Guatemala, persist in regarding themselves as “Indian” although they have no distinctive Indian costume and speak only Spanish. In this case, the basis for cohesion lies in the campesinos’ attempt to maintain their communal lands inviolate from the encroachments of neigh-boring ladinos. Generally speaking, however, poverty and political weakness characterize the Indians. This political inferiority is somewhat overcome when the Indian is economically successful. In a few places, such as Quezaltenango (Guatemala), and Tehuantepec (Mexico), a distinctive Indian middle class has emerged, composed of merchants who were long dominant in the market and are now among the major retailers in the city as well. This group has a heightened interest in forms of Indian organization that could prove politically viable within the nation.

Racial differences make almost no difference in the acculturation process. An individual is socially classified principally by his conduct. Indian physical appearance is significant only in terms of being one of a number of traits that may identify an individual as being “Indian.” When behavior changes, however, physical appearance is taken as indicative of genetic history, not current social allocation. The same holds true concerning people of Negroid extraction in Panama. Although an Anglo-Caribbean background gives them some cultural differences, when they assimilate into the Spanish-speaking Panamanian population their skin color carries no further social or cultural meaning.

Recent historical background

The termination of the Spanish empire in Middle America occurred in 1821. Mexico was formed of what had formerly been the viceroyalty of New Spain, but it also included Chiapas, the southern area that had been part of the captaincy-general of Guatemala. The Central American federation included the area from Guatemala through Costa Rica; and Panama was considered part of Gran Colombia. Politically, the federation disintegrated into its component parts in 1838. Although attempts have been made to reconstitute a Central American union, nothing has come of it to date.

Independence did not bring social or economic revolution to Middle America. Colonial mercantilism evolved naturally (and, in fact, had already done so through illicit trade) into an agrarian mercantilism whereby the Middle American countries gained their principal national income from the export of hacienda-produced crops, the extraction of forest and other products growing wild in the habitat, and from the continuing though much reduced mining. The governments alternated between a continuing conservatism, wherein the church played a strong stabilizing part and controlled a significant sector of the state territory, and the emergence of nineteenth-century liberalism, directed toward trying to exploit resources in order to foster economic growth. The collapse of the Central American federation marked the end of liberalism in Guatemala until the third quarter of the century, but liberalism continued in the other Central American states and in Mexico.

The private hacienda flourished during the nineteenth century; the hacendado essentially ran his private regional state when under the conservatives and received the overt support of the government when under the liberals. The condition of the mass of the population was basically of little concern to both conservatives and liberals. The last half of the century saw the ascendancy of liberalism, with the government of Porfirio Díaz in Mexico and that of Justo Rufino Barrios in Guatemala. The latter was killed in 1885, in an unsuccessful attempt to reconstitute the Central American union by force, but Díaz continued to lead Mexico until the revolution in 1910.

Middle America, like the rest of Latin America, constituted a part of the world’s hinterland at the time of the industrial revolution in northern Europe and North America. Industrialization in Mexico was encouraged primarily by foreigners, since it was they who had direct contact and experience with the process. By 1880, 400 factories in Mexico employed 80,000 laborers, and the mining population had risen to 70,000. Heavy industry was underway by the turn of the century; there were steel plants in Monterrey, and oil was extracted under foreign concessions. Although there were a number of at-tempts, some fairly active, to establish labor organizations during the latter part of the nineteenth century, it was not until the revolution that they became significant. Although by 1900 some industry had begun, the predominant pattern of life in Middle America continued to be a rural one. The few nascent industries in a sense constituted an extension of the northern industrial effort into the Middle American region. Industrialization was not growing up within Middle America but rather being thrust upon it in a relatively advanced form. This led to a secondary development, wherein the technology was basically borrowed and the society had to make major readjustments to incorporate it. For example, the exploration for and extraction of oil were achieved with a well-developed technology, so that the labor force did not grow with the complexity of the industry but rather had to be trained specifically to handle certain kinds of tasks. The same was true for the steel plants. The development of labor organizations essentially followed European, and to some degree, North American counterparts: the organizations placed emphasis on anarchist philosophies, but they were unable to organize effectively much beyond the level of mutual benefit societies.

The entire process of industrialization involved an essentially rural laboring population. Differing from an urban proletariat, the laboring force moved to industry from the country and in many instances moved back to the country. Although the life of the workers in the countryside was extremely harsh, and perhaps even harsher in the mining sectors, conditions in the cities were not so much better that they attracted a great number of people. There was no enclosure movement to force people off the land; indeed, the growing haciendas had to compete for the available labor, and the rural population was needed in the rural area. The developing industries found that they had to adapt to the customs of the rural population rather than the reverse. The regional hegemony that provided haciendas with control over their labor was not so easily achieved by the new industries.

Involving as it does the adaptation of a population to different and complex cultural forms, the process of creating an organized and urbanized work force has proved to be the basic difficulty for the economic development of the Middle American countries, just as it has proved to be elsewhere in Latin America. The fact that the countries had been politically independent for over half a century did not have the same significance as in Europe and North America, where the societies had been evolving as an intrinsic part of the growing demands of the technological and economic changes and advances.

The very success of Díaz’ economic development program can be measured to some extent by the degree of degradation to which the Mexican campesino was increasingly subjected. Mexico continued to be marked by strong regional ties and controls exercised as much by regional bosses as through derivative power of the central government. The Mexican revolution erupted in 1910 and shook the country for almost a decade. It is pertinent for understanding Middle America and its role in re-cent world history to recognize that this revolution was the first major successful social revolution to reflect the incredibly complex conflicts that were engendered by the industrial revolution. The fact that this occurred in a society controlled by an agrarian (although industrializing) oligarchy, not by the industrialists themselves, made the contrast between the conditions of the laboring population and those of the upper sector of the society especially visible. In the years that followed the initial outbreak, the Mexican revolution succeeded in eliminating much of the agrarian oligarchy, and it turned over much of the land to the hacienda laborers and neighboring communities of campesinos. It established a new set of community lands called after the earlier form, ejido, and, by retaining title, placed the recipients of this land under direct governmental control. The small subsistence landholder has not been supplanted, however, and the population expansion has brought increasing agrarian problems in its wake. None of the other Middle American countries has successfully under-taken such revolutionary reforms. The 1952 agrarian reform law of Guatemala lasted for two years and was then rescinded, and most of the expropriated lands were returned to their original owners.

The role of foreign countries in this process must be noted, especially that of the United States. During the nineteenth century, Middle America and the Caribbean continued to be objects of com-petition and some conflict between various European countries and the United States. The French intervention in Mexico came, significantly, after the United States’ war with Mexico. In Central America, the British continued their territorial claims, which survive today in the colonial residue of British Honduras. U.S. policy in the Caribbean was an attempt to exclude European interests, and following the war with Spain at the end of the century, the United States began a program of “superpaternalism,” developing complete economic control of Cuba, retaining Puerto Rico as U.S. territory, and attempting to control the external financial affairs of Haiti and Nicaragua. At the turn of the century the United States had developed its interests in the banana industry in a number of countries, and, following the separation of Panama from Colombia, the Panama Canal was built. The weakness of the Central American governments was reflected in the continuing action of the U.S. Marines in Nicaragua that led to the establishment of the Somoza dictatorship in the 1930s; the strong influence of the banana companies (and growing coffee interests) in the governmental affairs of Honduras, Guatemala, and Costa Rica; and the maintenance of U.S. control over the Panama Canal.

Mexico’s concern for its own internal affairs and its desire to gain control of dominant foreign economic interests and nationalize its oil resources led that country to pay scant attention to the nations to the south, leaving the United States as the only major foreign power. Today, Mexico is finally capitalizing on its economic successes and in fact has challenged Guatemalan claims to the colony of British Honduras.

In a very real sense, the Mexican revolution culminated in the expropriation of foreign-held lands and interests under Cárdenas, head of state from 1934 to 1940, and in the great increase in agrarian reform activity. World War II brought to the Central American countries the same opportunity and cause for nationalistic development that occurred in Africa and Asia. During the period 1946–1954 Guatemala attempted to shed the controls exercised by the United States and to initiate strong national self-identification. This period in Guatemala was followed by a gradual shift toward the slower development that was occurring in Costa Rica and El Salvador after these two countries had ousted their dictators. Panama also has made a significant effort to provide national controls exclusive of foreign influence; Honduras and Nicaragua have showed somewhat less interest.

Among themselves, the five countries of Central America (Panama being excluded) have formed a “common market” organization that is scheduled, should things occur more or less as planned, to create a single economic entity of the entire region. Significantly, this union was initially encouraged by the Economic Commission for Latin America, an organization generally free of U.S. influences, although subsequently the United States has supported it with technical and economic aid.

Social organization

Although Middle America had several urban centers prior to the Spanish conquest and industry has become an integral part of the Mexican economy and a growing sector in the smaller Central American countries, the greater portion of the Middle American population is still agrarian in orientation, and much of the growing urban population has immediate rural origins. During the nineteenth century agrarian mercantilism created and perpetuated an upper class that lived on the land and a small service, commercial, and administrative class in the cities and towns. This pattern has continued. The middle-income group has expanded as the major cities have grown. The countryside and towns have an upper socioeconomic sector that is allied with the middle-income sector of the cities. The lower sector forms a continuous population from countryside to city, although there tends to be a sharp cultural differentiation between city dwellers of the second and later generations and those who have themselves made the move. Since so many migrants are recent, the poorer sectors of the city have a distinctly rural flavor. Guatemala City had no slums in 1950, but today it has a variety of shack towns. Mexico City has been the recipient of such migrants for some decades. Many are swallowed up in the older sections of the cities, moving in with earlier-arrived relatives until such time as they can be on their own. All the growing major Middle American cities are faced with the problem of rural migrants for whom there is not enough work and insufficient housing.

For the rural migrants, the major destinations other than the cities are frontier areas such as the Atlantic regions of Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala, and the northern and southern states of Mexico. Mexican migration to the United States over the past years has been large, although recent legislation has led to a severe restriction in numbers.

These population movements are creating broad kinship networks over great areas, extending from North American cities to the rural areas of Mexico. The household remains the basic kin unit, and migration to rural and urban areas establishes a chain of such households. Many Middle American rural communities have colonies in the major cities, and these serve to indoctrinate the newcomer, helping him to adjust to the exigencies of urban life. Advice from friends and relatives similarly leads people to seek out a better life in the frontier areas. This kind of broad geographical network has been long established among wealthier peoples, but among the poor it is fairly new. It has not led to a disintegration of kinship as a major relational system, but many specific obligations and responsibilities have changed. In the middle-income groups, women are increasingly emancipating themselves from the pattern of male dominance and the traditional restrictions that limited the range of their contact to female relatives and the nuclear family. This older pattern has not entirely disappeared, but it has always been less effective among the poorer people, especially in the cities, where there is a high proportion of households headed by women who have to earn a living and support their children without the aid of a regularly employed man. Under these circumstances, when women carry the major economic responsibilities of the family, there is little room for the older restrictions.

Urban organization

The plan of Middle American towns and cities generally follows a rectangular grid pattern, with one or more plazas. The major Catholic church and the municipal government building are found on the central or oldest plaza. In former years the houses of families in the upper social strata were generally located in or near this center. These houses were built with patios, the number of patios being some measure of the wealth and prominence of the family. The major cities today have grown far beyond this pattern; the automobile and bus have made possible middle-income and wealthy residential suburbs; projects have been developed for middle-income white-collar workers; and severe slums have grown up along the margins and in crevices of unoccupied land in almost all sections of the city. Workshops and house industries may be found in the older sections of the cities, but they are also scattered in the growing middle-income and lower-income districts.

The traditional centralism of Latin American countries is evident in the fact that the capital city in every Middle American country, with the possible exception of Honduras, is also the major commercial center, and it is five to ten times as large as the next largest center in the country. In Mexico some provincial centers have been growing more rapidly than the national capital. Regional industrial centers are of major importance, as are some regional educational institutions. In the Central American countries the national capital still dominates, although there is significant growth of some provincial centers, such as Escuintla in Guatemala and San Pedro Sula in Honduras.

Metropolitan Mexico City is one of the major cities of the world. Guadalajara, Monterrey, Puebla, Ciudad Juárez, Guatemala City, Panama, San Salvador, and Managua each exceed 200,000 in population. Industrial development in Mexico has been able to absorb a significant number of the rural and provincial immigrants, but there are still very many who lack basic skills and can enter the industrial labor force only in a completely unskilled capacity. This is also true in the smaller cities. The basically rural orientation of the migrants makes it difficult to organize them into syndicates or unions, although in Mexico such organizations have become large over the years and have played an important part in the consolidation of the single Mexican political party.

The organization of labor in Middle America dates back to the last century, but it has achieved strength mainly in Mexico, where well over two million men are involved. There are fewer than fifty thousand organized workers in each of the other countries, and of these, only in Costa Rica and El Salvador do unions have affiliations with an international organization. Unions have been under severe government control, and in Mexico especially the right to strike and the arbitration of demands are determined by what the government considers to be the national welfare. In many industrial and commercial firms there is still a strong paternalistic relationship between management and labor, but government action and the establishment of unions have done much to reduce this in Mexico and Guatemala.

While in Mexico and Guatemala government has attempted to balance industrial developments with the welfare of the general population, elsewhere private investment interests continue to be a stronger influence. In Panama and El Salvador the controlling oligarchies may not participate directly in political administration, but they effectively dominate the economic systems of the two countries. In Nicaragua, the Somoza family has, since the 1930s, exercised a political control that has enabled it to obtain ownership or interest in many of the enterprises of the country. In Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica those who possess the wealth of the country exercise considerable influence, but they do not seem to have the same degree of political control as their counterparts in Panama, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.

Agrarian structure

Only in Mexico has industrialization advanced to a point where it has assumed a significant role in the national economy; industry and commerce have each equaled or bettered the agrarian portion of the gross domestic product. In the other countries, manufacturing is less than half as large as the agrarian production, and commerce seldom reaches even a third. Furthermore, the greater part of the national wealth in these countries is still dependent upon agrarian products, of which there is generally only one or a few export crops. In 1960 coffee was the principal agricultural export in four of the countries (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua) and was the second most important export in all the rest. Bananas are the major export of Honduras and Panama and the second most important in Costa Rica and Guatemala. Cotton occupies first place in Mexico and second in Nicaragua.

This emphasis on one main crop in the Central American countries is a continuation of the nineteenth-century agrarian dependence, and much in the social structure reflects a similar continuation from that period. There has been a serious attempt to experiment with other crops that might require new forms of social organization, but except in Mexico it has had relatively little effect on the over-all picture.

In all countries of Middle America over half the economically active population is involved in agriculture, and in all but Mexico and Panama approximately one-half or more of all wage earners are so occupied. In Mexico, approximately one-third of the wage earners are in agriculture, and in Panama, because of the ready availability of free land, only 13 per cent are so employed. Subsistence agriculture, which emphasizes corn and beans (except in Panama, where rice is especially important), is still the basis of life for a large proportion of the population.

The subsistence agriculturalist still depends primarily on a few basic tools, such as the digging stick, the hoe, or the plow for planting, and the axe and the machete for clearing land, the last also being used for general work and occasionally as a weapon. The seasonal round of activity characteristically allows time for many subsistence farmers to earn wages as seasonal laborers on plantations or coffee fincas; there is also a period just before the first harvest that is known as the “hunger period.” Those who do not migrate seasonally usually have some crop or craft that provides a cash income, and in many regions, whole communities will specialize in the production of squash, onions, wheat, vegetables, fruits, flowers, or some other marketable produce for the cities.

Scientific large-scale agriculture is increasing, but it has yet to achieve any degree of stabilization. Heavy dependence on a single crop makes the enterprise subject to the whims of the world market, and the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides is merely beginning. The most successful advance in this area has been the Mexican irrigation projects—the Rio Grande, the Fuerte, the Papaloapan, the Tepalcatepec, and the Grijalva–Usumacinta. Developments in agriculture are bringing economists, engineers, agronomists, and other technicians into important professional positions in Mexico, and they are assuming a new kind of control within the social structure.

While Mexico alone has taken the major steps toward industrialization of agriculture, it too has extensive areas populated by small-scale subsistence agriculturalists, and the number of these people is increasing. Although agrarian reform was instituted shortly after the Mexican revolution and well over 115 million acres of land have been reallocated to small holders, there are still some very large holdings. Cline (1962, p. 220) estimated that in 1950, fewer than one thousand landholders still received 35 per cent of the total agricultural income. None of the other Middle American countries has been able to carry through any significant land reform. Guatemala’s attempt during the Arbenz regime, which lasted from 1950 to 1954, ended when Arbenz was exiled and has been replaced by rural colonization projects.

The contemporary agrarian structure is under three forms of pressure. First, the increase in rural population materially reduces the amount of land available per capita. Second, there is a demand for large-scale agricultural enterprises, since industrialization can best develop this way. Third, popular political efforts are aimed at reforming the entire tenure structure. To this, a fourth may be added, in Mexico—a gradual inflation that is making small-scale production increasingly noncompetitive at the national level.

Rural social organization

The lower sector of the agrarian social structure is composed of peasant farmers, small-scale subsistence agriculturalists (whether renting or owning land), and a variety of regular and seasonal agricultural wage laborers; the upper sector includes both corporately controlled agricultural entrepreneurs and individuals. The classic latifundia and minif undid are still in existence today, although the economic structure behind them has tended to change their appearance. Population increase in the rural areas has exacerbated the minif undid problem (i.e., the progressive diminution of land size due to equal inheritance in a population expanding through natural increase) and has led to an increase in demand for seasonal work. The latifundia is becoming more profit-oriented. The nineteenth-century-style hacienda, the private regional domain of its owners, has disappeared from much of the area. This development has occurred in part because of the laws protecting labor, but even more because of the appearance of younger aggressive agrarian entrepreneurs, who in some instances have developed large-scale plantations, often converted from the older haciendas and utilizing new crops. Others rent land and produce fast-growing crops that promise at the moment to be profitable on the world market. The speculator shows essentially no interest in the care of the land or the welfare of the laborer, and usually disappears, either wealthy or bankrupt, as soon as the market becomes unfavorable.

The basic landholding system is still private, with the exception of the ejido system in Mexico. This system, however, involves only about a quarter of the Mexican farming population. Community landholdings are found in scattered areas. They may be lands dating back to old grants, but probably just as common are those which have been more recently created out of land purchased by a community. Community land as such, however, must not be confused with the Mexican ejido. The former is controlled by the members of a community (not necessarily all members), whereas ejido lands are controlled by the federal government. The two are structurally different, just as the profit-oriented plantation is structurally distinct from the disappearing hacienda.

Except in very poor communities (and communi-ties composed almost entirely of Indians) there tends to be a fairly evident local upper socioeconomic sector. Indian communities, especially those that have retained a corporate quality through collective interest in community lands or a strong local religious–political–administrative system, can seldom be differentiated into strata, although differences of wealth and prestige do exist and play an important role in the operation of the Indian community organization. In mestizo and ladino communities and those Indian communities with a significant non-Indian population, there is often a group of families that traditionally have taken responsibility for government and public leadership, and they usually have control of major local resources or manage them for those who do.

Rural community organization varies with many factors, but among the more important are whether the communities are composed primarily of land-owning farmers or rural laborers; whether or not they are expanding rapidly; whether they are old or of fairly recent origin; and whether or not the farmers have rights to community land of some kind. Old communities of independent farmers with collective rights to the land tend to be fairly exclusive and maintain fairly close internal ties insofar as the land can support them. As the population grows and opportunities for wage labor become increasingly necessary for survival, there is a tendency to slough off population, sending people to plantations, the cities, or frontier areas. People in new communities, even when there is community land, tend to identify with the nation, neutralizing an otherwise strong attachment to the village. Where there is no basis for corporate community involvement, such as land held in common, the orientation of each of the members will be toward his own self-interest.

From the point of view of national growth, rural organizations not based on the community are more important. Among these are the campesino federations of Mexico and Guatemala, the rural labor unions, and cooperatives. The Confederation Nacional Campesina is the largest Mexican rural “interest” group and is fundamentally composed of all the ejidatarios. A similar attempt to organize peasants and wage laborers in Guatemala was made during the Arbenz period, but it collapsed with his downfall. Recently it has been reinitiated under Christian-Democratic efforts.

Rural labor unions, though underdeveloped, are usually organized on specific farms. Access to judicial action in protection of labor’s rights has been established in all countries, although the bias of the courts varies considerably.

Recent years have seen a sudden proliferation of cooperatives, primarily of a producer type in handicrafts, and increased marketing of extractive products and farm produce. In Mexico the government has succeeded in obtaining and retaining a fairly strong degree of control over rural organizations; in the rest of Middle America landholders have a stronger lien on the government’s interests and have been fearful of such organizations. As a result, they have been fewer in number and less successful.

Power and prestige structure

The liberal power structure of nineteenth-century Middle America had an agrarian base oriented toward the export of a few basic crops and depending on northern industrial centers for necessary tools and the luxuries enjoyed by the small upper sector. At the head of government there was in each country a strong individual who tried variously to develop the country or his own fortunes through encouraging the expansion of exportation. This was particularly true in Mexico and Guatemala; less so elsewhere. In Nicaragua, power was thin and essentially balanced between the colonial cities of León and Granada; in Honduras the north coast was often beyond the effective control of the government of Tegucigalpa. The center of population in Costa Rica, the meseta central, and the population of Panama growing up around the transit zone were both effectively separated from all other centers by miles of un-inhabited land. Local leaders, because of distance from the capital, often exercised more power than the central government could bring to bear. Economically, some regions were all but independent from the capital. In a country as small as Guatemala, coffee production in the western part of the country developed a regional society, which included many Germans in the administrative sector. The port of Champerico was used as the area’s point of entry and exit. A similar society in the north, Alta Verapaz, exported directly through the Rio Dulce. The capital city had hardly any contact with people or products from either of these societies. Similarly, northern Mexico, Yucatán, and other regions were in many respects relatively independent of what was occurring in the country at large, and sometimes they had closer relations with foreign centers than with their own country’s capital.

In the provincial areas, political control was generally held by large landholders, not necessarily having extraordinary wealth themselves, but relatively much wealthier than the rural population surrounding them. They either belonged, or considered themselves to belong, to a society that reached into urban parts of the world, and their homes usually were combinations of the special riches of their region and clothing, pianos, and other articles of varying luxury imported from Europe or the United States. Some areas were specifically under the control of members of the clergy, and others were still under the corporate control of organized Indian villages. The liberal governments were concerned with strengthening the central government, thereby weakening the local and regional power centers.

Strengthening of the central governments has come about through a number of means. Federal or national troops of police frequently were established to roam the country and keep order, helping the regional power holders but at the same time making them increasingly dependent upon central-government action. The church was neutralized by Barrios in Guatemala in the 1870s, and in Mexico it was effectively restricted in the nineteenth century and later most specifically by the expropriations following the revolution. Debt peonage was abolished in Guatemala, and a vagrancy law was substituted, thereby bringing the labor force under government control rather than control by local landholders. Alliances with foreign interests provided the government with an income independent of the rest of the country. While this substituted one kind of regional control for another, it placed governments in a position where they did have more funds. The professionalization of the military started in Mexico in the nineteenth century and in the Central American countries proceeded gradually, providing government with a more dependable military arm. In Mexico, however, military leaders had grown so powerful during the revolution that the immediate problem was how to extract the power from the military without destroying it as a necessary government arm. This was accomplished over the decades following the revolution, and now the Mexican military is essentially fragmented into a great number of small units; officers are rotated so that the possibility of collusion among them is severely reduced; and the early revolutionary generals are now replaced by younger officers. However, the trend toward a more powerful military, evident elsewhere, could occur in Mexico. More important than specific changes in the controls exercised by the Mexican government have been the significant gains in economic development that have established new bases of power within the country. In addition, the entire revolutionary situation created new political and governmental tasks and responsibilities and has led to an expanding bureaucracy and party organization, thereby providing thousands of positions by which individuals may participate in economic and political action. This may be thought of as an expansion of the base of power within the area and, as such, an increase in the amount of power that is available for people to manipulate.

In the Central American countries specific relations within the power structure are more varied. There have been no revolutions to completely dis-place the older landowning oligarchy, but in part this has been the case because such an oligarchy was not always dominant. In the early twentieth century, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Costa Rica had a fairly large proportion of small and medium farmers; concentration on export crops—first coffee, then cotton and other field products—has led to the accumulation of lands in relatively fewer hands. At the same time, however, the economic development that has occurred in the wake of cash cropping has provided the same expansion of the power base that has occurred in Mexico, and the sector of the society that operates in this framework has concomitantly expanded.

This broadening of the power structure has produced what many have considered to be an emerging middle class, middle sector, or middle mass. Considering economic measurements, i.e., the income gradient of the population, and the growing white-collar sector, these terms are applicable. This development, however, has been accompanied by an unfortunate tendency to attribute the origin of all new things to the members of this middle class: they are presumed to possess the ideology of nationalism; they are expected to produce industrial and commercial entrepreneurs; and they are thought to be the potential source of a stable political society in the Western tradition. While there is something to recommend these suggestions, they have become intellectual blinders to the fact that changing power bases have also served to perpetuate features of the nineteenth-century oligarchic structure.

The vast gulf between the ways of life of the older upper and lower classes produced a system of prestige behavior that identifies certain forms of behavior with the upper sector and certain others with the lower. Manual labor, or earning a living with one’s hands, is generally regarded as the mark of a person of low prestige; work, in this sense, is not regarded as a goal of those individuals who aspire to a better way of life. Socially, this idea has led to a continuation of an apparent dichotomy between those who are satisfied with work as a means of employment of time and those who reject it. The idea is no longer clearly congruent with differences in income, because there are craftsmen and farmers with moderate holdings who, through the organization of workshops and employment of labor, have succeeded in achieving considerably more wealth, both in land and in cash, than the average white-collar worker. Also, while the per capita income of the countries has increased, there is no evidence of a significantly wider distribution of wealth among members of the lower classes. White-collar workers do not generally enjoy a large income but regard it as important that they not be marked as manual workers. The means to social mobility do not stem from the power that accrues from wealth but rather from the ability to control the behavior of others in a variety of ways. This, in turn, has perpetuated a series of what have been termed “vertical” relationships in the society. Through kinship, friendship, reciprocal help, influence, using one’s position to achieve a slightly better one, and so on, there continues to be a strong set of interdependencies that relate people high in the power structure downward, in separate lines, to many people lower in the structure. Since power always works two ways, these are the very lines that are used by people lower down to better their positions.

In spite of new wealth and the growth of an economic middle class, Middle American society is still recognizably divided into two prestige sectors, many characteristics of which are derived from the past. While the power base has expanded, there seems to have been little to change the orientation toward work and wealth that has characterized the lower sector or the upper sector’s orientation toward power manipulation in order to achieve a better position in the prestige system.

The orientation toward work in the lower sector is not necessarily manifested by a devotion to work. Among wage laborers it is often quite the reverse; the economic development process has not yet materially raised their standard of living, and they have recognized that work does not mean upward mobility. Work is seen as a necessary means to survival, measured by cash income. Working for additional income is not seen as crucial, since the amount of income such work makes available will have no material effect on the person’s access to power. By the time a person may in fact achieve an income that will permit him such access, he has learned that money is still not enough: power is exercised through a variety of exchange devices and vertical relationships. The lower sector may be seen, then, as a survival sector, whereas the upper sector, having mastered survival, seeks political position, use of luxury goods (although not necessarily their ownership), ownership of land (the continuation of the old symbol of power), and leisure.

The power structure of the countries of Middle America has not fundamentally changed in shape, although there have been important shifts in emphasis. It has conserved certain features that used to be thought peculiar only to agrarian states. Many of these features appear to be viable in a situation of economic development and, as such, are responsible for many of the characteristics that have been called “Latin American” by those who have equated progress with the ways of life of Europe and the United States.

Government and political organization

The formal administrative structures of Mexico and the Central American countries differ in details, but they are basically the same in manner of operation. The Central American countries are divided into departments or provinces, the administration of each of which tends to be nominal, since most power is vested in the national executive and the congress. The minimal unit of territorial and administrative organization within the national structure is the municipio (distrito in Panama, cantón in Costa Rica). There may be several small towns within a municipality, but they are completely subordinate to the capital, which gives its name to the entire territory.

All the Middle American countries are constitutional republics and have legal systems based on civil law. Only Mexico is technically a federal republic. Even in Mexico, however, the president has the power to remove any state government that is felt to be unequal to its tasks, and so in effect the central government exercises considerable power over the states.

The mode of election of the congresses and their specific breadth of responsibility and authority vary. Congresses are generally responsible for major legislation, usually supporting the executive policies. Situations such as have occurred in Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, where the congress may oppose the president for extended periods, have not been common in Middle America. Overt dictatorship began to decline following World War II, when some dictators resigned, as in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, and others were killed, as in the case of Somoza in Nicaragua. But violence has accompanied both constitutional and nonconstitutional rulers, with the recent exception of Mexico. Since World War n the military has played a central part in establishing or removing the executive in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama (where the national police function as an army). Following the 1948 revolution in Costa Rica the president disbanded the army entirely.

The judiciary operates at the local level through justices of the peace, who are in some instances also the local administrative officers. The courts of each country are based on civil law rather than constitutional law. There are special courts, such as labor courts, in some countries where the government felt that the regular courts would tend to operate unfairly with respect to a particular sector of the society.

Although all the countries of Middle America have political parties, these are by no means similar. Both Honduras and Nicaragua have a two-party system, Nicaragua’s dating from the nineteenth century. For the past thirty years, however, Nicaragua has been controlled by the Somoza family. Mexico has had basically a single party for the past 35 years, but the party is so organized that it has sectors representing most of the major groups in the country—ejido families, rural unions, industrial and labor unions, civil servants, cooperatives, small proprietors, merchants, professionals, etc. While there have been opposition parties, none has been able to win sufficient support or success to retain a consistent front of opposition to the main party. There has been some continuity to party organization in the other countries, but for the most part, parties have arisen and been especially important at the time of elections.

The major political process of recent years has been that referred to as “politicization,” the recognition of the state as the ultimate authority and the recognition of legitimacy of certain governmental processes. Elections in all countries have become regular events, even though in all but Mexico and Panama they have been interrupted by coups d’état that have displaced the duly elected officials or put off elections that apparently were not going to be favorable to the army. Since university education in Middle America is still available for relatively few people, it is in the secondary schools that the real politicization takes place. In the schools there are usually strongly nationalistic opinions, and the students are generally willing to turn out, or be turned out, for demonstrations of a political nature. University students also become involved in these activities, and frequently the police and army are called upon to restrain demonstrators. The party organization in Mexico has done much to facilitate the political participation of a wide segment of the population, as have the political events of recent years in Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama. Nevertheless, a large portion of the populations, especially the rural sectors, still do not participate in the political process because structures are not developed to keep an electorate interested and governments tend to inhibit popular participation, being afraid of a popular swing to support of either a demagogue or a leftist.

The major ideologies that operate in most countries involve some combination of nationalism (sometimes openly coupled with anti-U.S. positions, sometimes merely subtly so), promotion of economic development, and promotion of democratic and constitutional procedures (governments recently taken over by the military always immediately profess plans to return to these procedures). In general, all governments recognize, at least on paper, the need for social development and the responsibility the state has in this development.

Incumbent governments and the military in the Central American countries have dealt with opposition either by stopping an election if the opposition looked too promising or by outlawing the opposition’s participation in the constitutional procedures.

The Roman Catholic church has played an important role in politics. It was restricted by the revolutionary government of Mexico, and only in the most recent years has it gradually become again a political influence of some importance. The Barrios regime set the number of priests to be permitted in Guatemala. As a result, Guatemala has the lowest ratio of priests to Catholic population of any country in the Western hemisphere, and during the Arbenz period the church’s hostility did not deter much of the population from supporting the government. The efforts of Protestant missionaries have increased in recent years, and although they have not been marked with overwhelming success, they have stimulated the Catholic church to improve the quality of its own clergy. The role of Catholicism has remained one of participation by the clergy in political action rather than involvement with political ideology.

The influence of foreign powers in Middle America has a long history, but in recent years the United States has been most in evidence. The United States has retained the control over the Panama Canal and has exercised strong influence over a number of the governments, especially those of Guatemala and Nicaragua. Concerned that the incumbent Arbenz government was being taken over by “communists” the United States provided funds, equipment, and administrative aid in the “liberation” of Guatemala by Castillo Armas in 1954.

The Central American republics have increasingly been integrated into a Central American common market, and steps are taken annually to promote this development. This does not include either Panama or Mexico. Such a development does not mean that there will be a serious move toward Central American political union, since the conditions for this eventuality are not politically attractive for the external relations of the small countries, nor would it necessarily resolve their internal political problems. Mexico is a member of the Latin American Free Trade Association and therefore is not involved in the Central American Common Market. The smaller union has been undertaken with the view of providing a more viable entity that might ultimately participate in the Free Trade Association.

Research on Middle America

In the nineteenth century, most research in what today would be regarded as social science was natural-history reporting. Much of it was of high quality, such as the work of Alexander von Humboldt, John L. Stephens, Ephraim George Squier, A. P. Maudsley, and others. Otto Stoll, Eduard Seler, Walter Lehmann, Franz Blom, and Franz Termer have maintained a long tradition of Germanic scholarly work. French interest has concentrated more in Mexico, stemming in part from France’s political interests during the period of Maximilian. Spanish scholarship, as well as that of the Middle Americans themselves, has until recent years focused on the colonial period. U.S. interest, while scattered through the nineteenth century, was marked by the major studies of Hubert H. Bancroft on Mexico and America. It matured into specific disciplinary concentrations in economics and anthropology early in the present century. The indigenismo movement stimulated work in Mexico, principally under Manuel Gamio, José Vasconcelos, Moises Saenz, and others. In Latin America this movement had little effect beyond the boundaries of Mexico, with the exception of the Andes region and Brazil. Interests stemming from philosophical traditions marked socio-logical studies until the period of World War n, when more empirical research began. Political science, marked by national and international biases, may be said to have started about the same time.

Besides the national libraries and archives of the region, other important research collections for the area are those at the University of California at Berkeley; the University of Texas in Austin; the Middle American Research Institute of Tulane University in New Orleans; the Library of Congress; the Instituto Ibero–Americano of Berlin; and the libraries of Seville, Barcelona, and Madrid. There are still many important private collections.

Research needs in Middle America are of two major types: (1) those concerned with preserving records of now disappearing entities; and (2) those emerging from concern with problems attendant on contemporary society. Among the first are ethnographic studies of gradually (and in some instances rapidly) disappearing indigenous cultures, especially in Mexico and Guatemala, as well as studies of ways of life that are being crowded out by population expansion and urbanization. The second includes the entire range of issues in economics, sociology, and political science having to do with the continuing adjustment of societies to the rapidly changing modern world. Contemporary understanding of Middle America is still fettered by a Euro–American intellectual inheritance that often obscures elements in the empirical situation. The advancing technology of the social sciences is gradually being applied to Middle American studies. What is most lacking is the development of new concepts for use in studying an increasingly complex evolutionary picture.

Richard N. Adams


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