The fact that ejidos continue to exist today in itself dispels much of the undue exaggerations in the literature on the impact of neoliberal reforms in rural communities. While it is true that, in many ways, neoliberalism contributed to the displacement of campesinos in Mexico, it is not the direct correlation presented by most scholars. Since they still exist, a relevant political question becomes: how do we support the ejido today? Is it possible to roll back reforms? It is true that the ejido in its current state has lost much of its collectivity and communalism. In its current state dominated by titled lands, it no longer presents us with a truly radical alternative to private property. But rolling back reforms without more significant structural change would eventually lead to similar results.
Beyond defending their existing form, a more robust defense of the principles behind the ejido is necessary. This means rural Mexicans must organize and restructure their relationship to the land in ways that collectively benefits their communities. Doing so would avoid the weaknesses built into the ejido from its start. Indeed, from its onset, the ejido functioned as a political tool for the post-revolutionary elite to use in exchange for large scale political support. We give you land and you support our rule. Investment and follow through was never enough, though, and today, it is worse than it has ever been.
The contemporary ejido therefore functions as a historical lesson in revolution. It continues to exist to this day only because Mexicans defended the institution, including with arms when necessary. Reactionaries and those who lost land were not able to recover their expropriated lands because campesinos organized and armed themselves through Las Defensas Rurales. Even in its depleted form, ejidos also provide rural Mexicans with memory of collective organizing and identity. To this day, peasant unions and actions take place and the ejido remains a central tenet for this type of organizing. Until rural Mexicans can once again reclaim land from the encroachment of capitalism in the countryside, and in preparation for such a day, we must learn the lessons of revolution, investment, organizing, and armed defense that the ejido has taught us over the last century.
Ejidos and Inequality
Some, however pull up short of this revolutionary demand, focusing instead on a narrower neoliberal time-frame and a limited view of recent policy’s effects. The effects on ejidos of the transition from “revolutionary nationalism” (economic nationalism) to neoliberalism in Mexico has indeed drawn much attention from scholars. Some have argued that neoliberal reforms “privatized the countryside.”6Michael Foley, “Privatizing the Countryside: The Mexican Peasant Movement and Neoliberal Reform,” Latin American Perspective, 1995; David Bacon, The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013). First, they assert that the opening of ejidos to privatization created a consolidation of land by wealthier groups in society at the expense of former ejidatarios, exacerbating inequality. Second, those ejidatarios who continued to work their land now faced competition from US agribusiness with less economic protection than they earlier enjoyed. As a result of these changes, or so the argument goes, many rural Mexicans were unable to remain in the countryside and were compelled to move to the United States to find work.
This narrative accurately identifies a correlation between neoliberal reforms and one of the largest migrations of people in the twentieth century. However, this explanation did not take into consideration pre-existing migration networks, particularly rural-to-urban migration. Likewise, migration to the United States had been present in large numbers prior to neoliberalism, including the mass exodus during the Mexican Revolution and during the period of state-sponsored, contracted labor known as the Bracero Program.
As a result, it is reasonable to question whether rural inequality was itself a byproduct of neoliberalism. Without comparing the conditions of rural Mexicans in the neoliberal period with the conditions of similarly situated rural Mexicans before the neoliberal period, it is impossible to draw meaningful conclusions about the effects of neoliberalism. In fact, a thorough examination of rural Mexico during the “Mexican Miracle” shows that rural Mexico’s relationship to urban centers of power and wealth were very unequal prior to reform. Testimony and archival evidence shows extreme poverty in rural Mexico during the nationalist period.7Maria Olalde speaks of severe malnutrition growing in in ISI rural Mexico. Death certificates from the period commonly list malnutrition as a cause of death. Olalde, interview; “Acta de Defuncion.” Mexico’s rural, cyclical, and mobile workforce produced massive amounts of wealth for both economic regimes. Inequality is thus far more constant than is believed to be the case. The more relevant change is who extracts the wealth. Mexico’s national policies have subjected campesinos to the whims of first domestic/urban Mexico and later, transnational actors taking advantage of neoliberalization. For this reason, focusing on neoliberalism alone will not resolve the problem.
With the consolidation of the Mexican state after the revolution, Mexico took on a policy of state-led development that centralized its investment in Mexico City. This concentration of resources in Mexico City manifested in a huge movement of people towards the Mexican capital. By the late 1970s, the final years of developmentalist politics in Mexico, the population had skyrocketed to fifteen million, making Mexico City among the largest cities in the world.8Robert Kemper and Peterson Royce, “Mexican Urbanization since 1821: A Macro-Historical Approach,” 267–89. Many of these residents were of rural origin, some residing in the city permanently but others migrating cyclically between the countryside and the D.F. Thus, Mexico’s transient rural population was substantial and provides us with a lens into Mexican inequality between both regions. The divide in investment, wealth, and economic opportunities was central to motivating campesinos to relocate to Mexico City. In order to be willing to upend their lives completely, migrants certainly recognized the discrepancy between these two spaces.
Historical studies of wealth development focusing on Mexico City and its production of, and draw on, rural poverty during the period of import substitution industrialization (ISI) are scant. However, many studies do exist of rural poverty following the transition towards neoliberalism at the end of the twentieth century. This is where the one-sided story about neoliberalism being the predominant cause of inequality comes from. For this reason, while the required historical and comparative work is difficult, it is nonetheless necessary to use all available resources in painting a more complete picture.
In lieu of other sources, demographic data and snapshots of ethnography recorded by anthropologist are useful. Demographic studies inform us that for the entire twentieth century, much if not most of Mexico City’s population descended from origins outside of the city, and most of these outsiders were of rural origin. They were poor peasants attempting to escape rural poverty by migrating to Mexico’s primary urban area. Investigations that date back to the ‘Mexican Miracle’ period tell us that these migrating peasants lived in self-built slums on the peripheries of the city.