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Female entrepreneurship as a survival strategy: women during the early mechanisation of corn tortilla production in Mexico City

  • Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato (a1)

Abstract

Until the nineteenth -century tortilla production was carried out by women through rudimentary methods. New technology for corn milling spread during the 1910s, coinciding with the Mexican Revolution. The analysis of nixtamal corn mills and tortilla shops in Mexico City in 1924 shows that the mechanisation of milling led to masculinisation and an increase in the gender wage gap. However, since tortilla-making remained unmechanised, it allowed hundreds of women to establish tortilla shops that mostly hired women. Their entrepreneurship can be considered a survival strategy of women confronting a technological change in an era of political, social and economic turmoils.

French Abstract

L’esprit d’entreprise féminin comme stratégie de survie: les femmes face à la mécanisation précoce de la production de tortillas de maïs à Mexico

Jusqu’au XIXe siècle, la production de tortillas était assurée par les femmes selon des méthodes rudimentaires. Une nouvelle façon de moudre le maïs se répandit dans les années 1910, coïncidant avec la révolution mexicaine. L’étude des moulins à maïs – produisant une pâte de nixtamal – et celle des magasins de tortillas à Mexico en 1924 montrent que la mécanisation de la mouture a conduit à une masculinisation de la main d’oeuvre, augmentant aussi l’écart salarial entre hommes et femmes. Cependant, la fabrication de tortillas n’ayant pas été mécanisée, des centaines de femmes ont pu créer des magasins de tortillas qui embauchaient principalement un personnel féminin. Leur esprit d’entreprise peut être considéré comme une stratégie de survie de la part de femmes confrontées au changement technologique, à une époque agitée de troubles politiques, sociaux et économiques.

German Abstract

Weibliches Unternehmertum als Überlebensstrategie: Frauen während der frühen Mechanisierung der Tortillaproduction in Mexico City

Bis ins 19. Jahrhundert bedienten sich Frauen bei der Tortillaproduktion einfachster Methoden. Eine neue Technologie des Maismahlens verbreitete sich während der 1910er Jahre zeitgleich mit der Mexikanischen Revolution. Die Analyse von Nixtamalisationsanlagen und Tortillaläden in Mexico City im Jahre 1924 zeigt, dass die Mechanisierung des Mahlverfahrens zu Maskulinisierung und steigender Spreizung der Löhne von Männern und Frauen führte. Da die eigentliche Herstellung der Tortillas jedoch nicht mechanisiert wurde, waren Hunderte von Frauen in der Lage, Tortillaläden zu eröffnen, in denen hauptsächlich Frauen beschäftigt waren. Ihr Unternehmertum kann als Überlebensstrategie von Frauen verstanden werden, die dem technologischen Wandel in einer Zeit politischer, sozialer und ökonomischer Turbulenzen die Stirn boten.

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Footnotes

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I am grateful to Mijal Epelman and Yttzé Quijada for the excellent research assistance they provided. I am also grateful to the suggestions provided by Cristina Borderías, Manuela Martini and other participants of the session ‘Coping with Crisis: Labor Market, Public Policies and Household Economy’, held in the World Economic History Congress, in Boston in August 2018, as well as for those provided by María Teresa Fernández Aceves, Cristina Puga and other participants of the ‘Seminario Permanente del Programa Interdisciplinario de Estudios de Género’, held at El Colegio de México in November 2018. Romana Falcón's advice and suggestions were also very helpful in improving this article as well as those of the reviewers of this journal.

Footnotes

References

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Endnotes

1 Buckler, E. S. IV and Stevens, N. M., ‘Maize origins, domestication, and selection’, in Motley, T. J., Zerega, N. and Cross, H. eds., Darwin's harvest (New York, 2006), 81.

2 The concept of survival strategies was first used in Duque, J. and Pastrana, E., ‘Las estrategias de supervivencia económica de las unidades familiars del sector popular urbano: una investigación exploratoria’, FLACSO, Mimeo (Santiago de Chile, 1973). Survival strategies can be defined as the short-term strategies developed by households or individuals to face daily life problems and hardships both expected and unexpected, carried out to secure their material and biological reproduction. A thorough survey of the use of the term survival strategy can be found in de la Rocha, M. González, The resources of poverty: women and survival in a Mexican City (Oxford, 1994), 11–6.

3 Keremitsis, D., ‘Del Metate al Molino: la Mujer Mexicana de 1910 a 1940’, Historia Mexicana 33, 2–130 (1983), 286; Bauer, A. J., ‘Millers and grinders: technology and household economy in Meso-America’, Agricultural History 64, 1 (1990), 13.

4 Pilcher, J. M., ¡Vivan los tamales!. La comida y la construcción de la identidad mexicana (Mexico, 1998).

5 Batalla, G. Bonfil, El Maíz, Fundamento de la Cultura Popular Mexicana (Mexico City, 2012), 717.

6 Aboites, J., Breve Historia de un Invento Olvidado: las Máquinas Tortilladoras en México (Mexico City, 1989), 11.

7 J. Storck and W. Dorwing Teague, A history of milling. Flour for man's bread (Minneapolis, 1952).

8 Bauer, ‘Millers and grinders’, 1–3.

9 ‘La esclavitud del metate’, in El Faro, 1 October 1902, 146.

10 This partly explains the large number of female domestic servants in Mexico City, 28,928 in 1895, 28,396 in 1900 and 33,514 in 1910. Mexico, Ministerio de Fomento, Dirección General de Estadística, Censo del Distrito Federal verificado el 20 de octubre de 1895 (Mexico, 1898), 62; Mexico, Secretaría de Fomento Colonización e Industria, Dirección General de Estadística, Censo y División Territorial del Distrito Federal verificado el 28 de octubre de 1900 (Mexico, 1901), 93; Mexico, Tercer Censo de Población de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos 1910, https//www.uv.mx/apps/censos-conteos/1910/menu1910.html [last accessed 21 July 1919].

11 A. Gringo, Through the land of the Aztecs or life and travel in Mexico (London, 1892), 23.

12 R. Sánchez Flores, Historia de la Tecnología y la Invención en México (Mexico City, 1980), 390–4.

13 Bauer, ‘Millers and Grinders’, 1–3.

14 Gringo, Through the land, 24.

15 ‘La esclavitud del metate’, El Faro, 1 October 1902.

16 Pilcher, ¡Vivan los Tamales!, 157–158.

17 ‘Cabos Sueltos’, in El Popular, 22 August 1902, 1.

18 Aboites, Breve Historia, 29–39.

19 Keremitsis, ‘Del Metate al Molino’, 286.

20 Mexico, Departamento de la Estadística Nacional, ‘Industria de producción de masa’ in Estadística Nacional, Revista Quincenal (7 April 1925), 26–27.

21 Mexico, Secretaría de la Economía Nacional, Dirección General de Estadística, Primer Censo Industrial, Resúmenes Generales por Industria 1930, Volume III Tome IV (Mexico City, 1934).

22 Mexico, INEGI, Estadísticas Históricas de México (Mexico, 1986), Table 1.17. Throughout this paper, we use Mexico City as equivalent to the Federal District, which then comprised Mexico City as well as some surrounding towns such as Tacubaya, Xochimilco and Coyoacán that later experienced a process of conurbation and today form part of Mexico City (the Federal District was renamed Mexico City in 2016).

23 J. Lear, Workers, neighbors and citizens. The revolution in Mexico City (Lincoln and London, 2001), 62–9.

24 S. Porter, Working women in Mexico City. Public discourses and material conditions 1879–1931 (Tucson, 2003), 19.

25 Mexico, Censo del Distrito Federal 1895, 63; Mexico, Censo y División Territorial 1900, 94; Mexico, Tercer Censo 1910. Rendón and Salas, ‘Evolución del empleo en México: 1895–1980’, Estudios Demográficos y Urbanos 2 (1987), 202.

26 Lear, Workers, neighbors, and citizens, 67.

27 Several studies have acknowledged many flaws in using census or parish register information for studying women's labour that derive from their occupational designations. Census occupations must be interpreted with care, with attention to the vocabulary of the source, and of the embedded social constructions and assumptions inherent in the collection and organisation of the data. See, for example, N. Folbre and M. Abel, ‘Women's work and women's households: gender bias in the U.S. Census’, Social Research 56, 3 (Autumn 1989), 545–569; S. B. Carter and R. Sutch, ‘Fixing the facts: editing the 1880 US Census of occupations with implications for long-term labor-force trends and the sociology of official statistics’, Historical Methods: A Journal of Quantitative and Interdisciplinary History 29, 1 (Winter 1996), 5–24; K. Inwood and R. Reid, ‘Gender and Occupational Identity in a Canadian Census’, Historical Methods 34, 2 (Spring 2001), 57–70; P. Pérez-Fuentes, ‘El trabajo de las mujeres en la España del siglo XIX y XX. Consideraciones metodológicas’, Arenal, Revista de Historia de las Mujeres 2, 2 (1995), 219–45; C. Borderías, ‘Suponiendo que este trabajo lo hace la mujer. Organización y valoración de los tiempos de trabajo en la Barcelona de mediados del siglo XIX’, in C. Carrasco ed., Tiempos, trabajo y género (Barcelona, 2001), 103–128.

28 M. M. Azcárate, Noticias estadísticas que sobre los efectos de consumo introducidos en esta capital en el quinquenio de 1834 a 1838 presenta el comandante del resguardo de rentas unidas de México (Mexico, 1839), 9.

29 Mexico, Dirección General de Estadística, Estadísticas sociales del porfiriato 1877–1910 (Mexico, 1956), 7.

30 T. Rendón and C. Salas, ‘Evolución del empleo en México: 1895–1890’, Estudios Demográficos y Urbanos 2 (1987), 190–2, 199.

31 See C. J. Haddad, ‘Technology Industrialization, and the Economic Status of Women’, in B. D. Wright et al. eds., Women, work, and technology: transformations (Ann Arbor, 1987), 33–57; J. Lown, Women and industrialization: gender at work in nineteenth-century England (London, 1990); D. M. Hafter, European women and preindustrial craft (Bloomington, 1995).

32 Keremitsis, ‘Del Metate’, 286; Porter, Working women in Mexico City, 27; Mexico, Secretaría de la Economía Nacional, Dirección General de Estadística, 2o Censo Industrial 1935, Molinos de Nixtamal, Volume III, Tome XX (Mexico, 1938).

33 Mills were inspected to verify their compliance with regulations that had been passed in 1913 as a result of public concern about the hygienic conditions of these establishments and the practice of adulterating the product. See, for example, ‘La Cuestión de los Molinos de Nixtamal’, El Imparcial, 22 July 1913, 2.

34 Archivo General de la Nación, Fondo Departamento del Trabajo, Box 324, Exp. 11, ‘Informe del Inspector Médico Roberto Cañedo relativo a los Molinos de Nixtamal,’ 21 de julio de 1921.

35 Since the largest share of the businesses that combined a mill and a tortillería was represented by the mill, we consider them in our database as mills.

36 Mexico, Departamento de Estadística Nacional, ‘Industria’, 26–27.

37 Sources of the period divide labour among two distinct groups: empleados and obreros. The first were managers or cashiers, and the second manual workers. The salaries of the first group were generally reported as monthly wages, while those of the second group were reported as average daily wages. I will use the term salaried employees to refer to first, and workers to the second.

38 Lear, Workers, neighbors, and citizens, 65.

39 Mexico, Departamento de Estadística Nacional, ‘Industria’, 26–27.

40 Gringo, Through the land, 22–23.

41 Tortillerías were formal establishments that required a license granted by the Mexico City government and paid taxes.

42 P. Piccato, City of suspects, crime in Mexico City, 1900–1931 (Durham and London, 2001), 21–3.

43 J. Womack, Zapata and the Mexican revolution (New York, 1968), 138–40, 167–75 and 268–9.

44 J. Covarrubias, La trascendencia política de la reforma agraria (Mexico, 1922), 16.

45 Robert McCaa has made the best estimation of the demographic costs of the Mexican revolution. He considers that the 1921 census was deeply flawed and it is better to rely on the 1930 census. He estimates that Morelos was the state with the greatest population loss, exceeding 60 per cent for both males and females born before 1910. Of 90,052 females counted in 1910, only 35,614 were enumerated in 1930. In contrast, in-migration led to survival ratios greater than 1 for females and of 0.88 for males in the Federal District. For the country, he estimates a total demographic cost of 2.1 million, of which excess deaths accounted for two-thirds, lost births one-fourth, and emigration less than one-tenth of the total. R. McCaa, ‘Missing millions: the demographic costs of the Mexican revolution’, Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 19, 2 (Summer, 2003), 368, 393–6.

46 Mexico, Quinto Censo de Población. 15 de mayo de 1930, Resumen General (Mexico, 1931).

47 Piccato, City of Suspects, 23.

48 O. Lewis, Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlán Restudied (Urbana, Illinois, 1963), 342.

49 M. Redclift, ‘Survival strategies in rural Europe: continuity and change. An introduction’, Sociologia Ruralis 26, 3–4 (March 2008), 218–27.

50 Porter, Working women in Mexico City, 181.

51 Fowler-Salamini, H., Working women, entrepreneurs, and the Mexican revolution. The coffee culture of Córdoba, Veracruz (Lincoln and London, 2013), 148–9.

52 Aceves, M. T. Fernández, ‘Once we were corn grinders: women and labor in the tortilla industry of Guadalajara, 1920–1940’, International Labor and Working-Class History 63, Spring (2003), 81101.

53 Porter, Working women in Mexico City, 109–117.

54 Porter, Working women in Mexico City, 3, 43–5.

55 Chassen-López, F. R., ‘“Cheaper than machines”: women and agriculture in Porfirian Oaxaca, 1880–1911’, in Fowler-Salamini, H. and Vaughan, M. K. eds., Women of the Mexican countryside, 1850–1990 (Tucson and London, 1994), 39, 43.

56 Porter, Working women in Mexico City, 43.

57 See Deane, P., The first industrial revolution (Cambridge, 1987), 90–1; Berg, M., The age of manufactures: industry, innovations and work in Britain 1700–1820 (Oxford, 1985), 122; Prude, J., The Coming of Industrial Order. Town and Factory Life in Rural Massachusetts 1810-1860 (Cambridge, New York, 1990), 36–7, 72–3; Escandón, C. Ramos, Industrialización, Género y Trabajo Femenino en el Sector Textil Mexicano: El Obraje, la Fábrica y la Compañía Industrial (Mexico, 2004), 90110, 331–4.

58 Boserup, E., Women's role in economic development (New York, 1970).

59 A study of microbusiness in Mexico in the 1990s reached similar results, showing that microbusinesses headed by men were bigger and more profitable than those established by women. Sánchez, S. M. and Pagán, J. A., ‘Sobre las diferencias de género en los ingresos del sector microempresarial’, in Katz, E. G. and Correia, M. C. eds., La economía de género en México (Mexico, 2002), 222.

I am grateful to Mijal Epelman and Yttzé Quijada for the excellent research assistance they provided. I am also grateful to the suggestions provided by Cristina Borderías, Manuela Martini and other participants of the session ‘Coping with Crisis: Labor Market, Public Policies and Household Economy’, held in the World Economic History Congress, in Boston in August 2018, as well as for those provided by María Teresa Fernández Aceves, Cristina Puga and other participants of the ‘Seminario Permanente del Programa Interdisciplinario de Estudios de Género’, held at El Colegio de México in November 2018. Romana Falcón's advice and suggestions were also very helpful in improving this article as well as those of the reviewers of this journal.

Female entrepreneurship as a survival strategy: women during the early mechanisation of corn tortilla production in Mexico City

  • Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato (a1)

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