By 1870 the henequén industry was well established in the Yucatan peninsula.
During the rainy season when humidity is at an average of 86%, the seedlings were planted, 64 to a mecate (400 square meters). During the first 4 years of their 7 year growth cycle – corn, beans and squash were planted between the young henequen plants. But once they were 5 years old, they were too large to give the other crops enough room to grow.
7 years after planting, the agave entered their 14 – 17 year harvest cycle. Three or four times a year the bottom leaves would be cut off for processing.
When the plants were fully mature, a flower emerged from the top center and no new leaves were produced.
By looking at the official statistics we can see how production expanded in less than 50 years
Year Mecates planted Cultivated Hectars
1865 65,000 2,600
1869 153,000 6,120
1878 781,000 31,204
1893 2,478,000 99,000
1910 * 4,580,000 193,830
*Last year of Porfirio Diaz’ presidency
By 1916, even though the Mexican Revolution was raging in other parts of Mexico, there were more than 8,000,000 mecates planted (that’s 5,1200,000 plants!) and Mérida had more millionaires than any other city in the country.
The steam engine and the invention of an automated leaf stripping machine called the Solis Wheel accelerated defibering on the haciendas. Lines of credit at American banks allowed the liquidity that the owners needed to constantly increase their operations. Even the geological location of the Yucatan worked to the industry’s advantage – the Mexican Revolution could not touch the affluent peninsula because there was no means of accessing it by land.
The population of Yucatan was not high enough to supply the haciendas with all the laborers needed by the ever-expanding henequén industry. Peasants from all over central Mexico, and from as far away as Korea and China were recruited. Even a group of 16,000 Yaquis from northern Mexico who had rebelled against the Federal government were shipped to the peninsula as laborers.
According to official State records from 1900, there were 80,216 peons working on the haciendas. This figure did not take into account the artisans, masons and underage workers.
Advertisements promised high wages and prime living conditions for those who accepted positions in the henequén industry.
At first the laborers were provided with one room thatched roof huts and a plot of land where they could have their own fruit, vegetables and chickens. The odd family had a pig. There was a well where they could draw water. But as more land was used to plant henequén, the living quarters were reduced and became unbearably crowded.
The peons were not paid in cash. They were given tokens that represented hours worked. These could only be exchanged for goods and services at the overpriced Hacienda stores. Of course, they soon fell into debt and became indentured.
There were just hacienda owners and those who tried to improve the laborers’ lot but the majority perpetuated systematic abuse. It got more and more out of hand as the landowners’ wealth and sense of privilege grew.
*** Images: The images are scanned from newspaper clippings (mostly The Diario de Yucatán) that my husband Jorge has saved over the years