Dissertation Defense: Adrienne Kates

Candidate Name: Adrienne Kates

Major: History

Advisor: John Tutino, Ph.D.

Title: Life and Work in Mexico’s Chewing Gum Forests: Maya Autonomy, Export Capitalism, and the Limits of the Revolution, 1880-1940

From the 1880s though the 1940s, the Mayas of eastern Yucatán witnessed unprecedented change. The region they inhabited—the eastern portion of the Yucatán peninsula in southeastern Mexico— had long been considered economically marginal, was physically distant from centers of power, and was therefore a site of sustained indigenous independence. This all started to shift, however, in the late 19th century, when an expanding US consumer class developed a taste for chewing gum, and businessmen looked to eastern Yucatán as their primary source of chicle. Chicle is a natural gum base, which is extracted from trees that are native to and abundant in region. Suddenly, both foreign capitalists and Mexican government officials appeared in the jungles of eastern Yucatán hoping to glean profit from the once peripheral region, and local Mayas had to adapt to increasing pressure from state and industry.
My research reveals that Maya autonomy was not trampled as a capitalist export industry encroached; rather, Mayas used access to commercial networks to bolster their independence from the state, making strategic deals with business and keeping Mexico at bay. They willingly engaged in the trade as tappers, exporters, and proprietors of sophisticated businesses, and used money earned in chicle to purchase weapons, which they turned on Mexican state representatives. They further asserted their sovereignty by charging businessmen rents in exchange for access to the forests, designating where chicle could be tapped, and otherwise negotiating the terms of resource extraction in their region. Maya autonomy took several forms, and everyday tappers benefited from the chicle trade alongside Maya elites. Tappers enjoyed freedom from oversight in chicle jungles, and could engage in unregulated trade and evade debt obligations to their employers. Maya strategies changed over time and across space; some chose to repel incursions with violence, while others opted for calculated negotiation and compromise. But their goal—to preserve autonomy, in whatever form—remained consistent throughout.

Several factors worked in tandem to sustain Maya autonomy. The region’s malarial forests and inhospitable climate limited oversight from businesses and government. Eastern Yucatán had long been remote from the state, leaving it bereft of roads or rails when the chicle boom developed. Furthermore, there were no plantations in chicle jungles and production was decentralized; thus, tappers had the freedom to use their time and move about as they chose. In addition to structural elements like the environment and the nature of production, Maya choices shaped business relations and helped ensure their continued distance from the state.

The case of eastern Yucatán’s chicle trade suggests the diversity of labor regime types that can thrive in a capitalist context, and what we might find if we considered work from the perspective of those working. It shows the role of the environment in shaping history, and forces us to rethink national boundaries during a period of state consolidation in Mexico. To understand the Maya experience, I combined government documents, business records, ethnographic diaries, and newspapers with interviews conducted in Yucatec Maya language and the archives of an indigenous language radio station.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018 at 10:00am to 12:00pm

Edward B. Bunn, S.J. Intercultural Center, 662
37th and O St., N.W., Washington

Event Type

Academic Events, Dissertation Defense


Georgetown College, History, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences



Open to the public and the press?


Event Contact Name

Carolina Madinaveitia

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