|"The Liberation of the Peon" by Diego Rivera|
I never fully understood the real meaning of the word "peon" until I began to read and teach about about the history of Mexico. To me, it had simply meant "a poor, uneducated Mexican."
When Mexico was conquered by Spain in 1521, its people suffered 300 years of domination by its often cruel and greedy hosts. In 1542, new laws were established concerning the "propriatory rights" of natives, indians. They were to be "free people" and slavery as such, was prohibited, except for the use of Black slaves which had been brought into New Spain from the mother country.
Under the new law, the "Encomienda" system was established, in essence a "payment" of land to the Conquisatdores for their "service" to Spain, and the right to Indian labor "for the state" one-quarter of the year. The rest of the year, they were allowed work on a small plot of land given to them for their own sustenance, though these laws were commonly abused. To skirt the law outlawing slavery, they were paid a measly wage, though working for wages was unknown to the native peoples.
After the War of Independence in 1821, the system continued but with a new sinister twist, "debt peonage". Indian workers were given "advances" in their wages with the distinct purpose of getting them in debt. In addition, they were paid in "script", a sort of coupon or promisary note, reedemable only at the company store owned by the "Encomendero", much like sharecroppers of the deep South, in the United States.
Prices for basic necessities were greatly inflated but the Indians were generously extended credit, plunging them deeper into debt, eventually forcing them to turn over their land and possessions to the master.
If they ran or tried escape, they were mercilessly hunted down, dragged back to the encomienda, or killed.
When the worker, who could never hope to pay off his death in his own lifetime died, his debt was automatically transferred to his first born. The child at birth, assumed the debt of his father and began to acrue his own debt as soon as he was able to work, and so on and so on, generation to generation! This practice continued until 1915, when a decree was passed by President, Porfirio Diaz, outlawing the use of peonage in Mexico.
Despite this law, forms of peonage continued until 1936, when Lazaro Cardenas created the "Ejido" system, agricultural land which had been expropriated from the encomiendas and haciendas, turned into communal farms, allowing natives to earn wages according to the amount of work performed.
Much of the rudimentary rationale behind Mexico's Revolution (1910-1920) was to take the land from the rich and give it back to the poor, as espoused by its leaders Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. For them, the "quaint" Hacienda was a an excess of wealth and land purchased by the sweat and blood of the "los pobres" (the poor). During the Revolution, Villa often rounded up the Hacendados (owners of Haciendas), and executed them, venting the rage of the poor for 400 years of abuse.
While this practice was obviously and inherently evil in its concept, for me there is a greater evil: the creation of a race of people who came to believe that their sole purpose on earth was to serve a "master", and which endures among many of Mexico's poor today.