Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Sharecroppers and Campesinos: The American South, Mexico, and the Transnational Politics of Land Reform in the Radical 1930s

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Sharecroppers and Campesinos: The American South, Mexico, and the Transnational Politics of Land Reform in the Radical 1930s

Article excerpt

In the summer of 1937, Rexford G. Tugwell, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's top advisers on rural affairs, wrote to U.S. secretary of agriculture Henry A. Wallace about the momentous task ahead of them. Tugwell's letter came at a heady time, for in the previous months the New Deal had decisively turned its gaze toward the U.S. countryside, beginning an unprecedented campaign of resettlement, tenancy reform, and rural social engineering. But his letter to Wallace that day dealt not merely with national concerns. "I have been much impressed with the way in which [President Lazaro] Cardenas has tackled the agrarian problem in Mexico," gushed Tugwell. "He has very serious opposition, but is going ahead with the establishment of communal farms.... I think we should keep a close watch on this process for the lessons we may leam. Is there any way of setting up a serious study of it by Department experts so that we may have the benefit of the experience?" (1)

If U.S. agrarian reformers and bureaucrats were well aware of political developments south of the border, their equivalents in Mexico also kept a close and inquisitive eye on the rural New Deal. In October 1936 the executive committee of the Liga Nacional Campesina, or National Peasant League, convened in Mexico City to draft a resolution of praise and "warmest congratulations" to a "great statesman." Their meeting came at the height of Mexican agrarismo, the revolutionary movement to break up large estates and redistribute the land as communal plots to small-scale cultivators, and in a year when nationalist president Lazaro Cardenas had substantially escalated his agrarian campaign. On this October day, however, the league had not convened to praise their patron Cardenas. Its letter was addressed instead to United States president Franklin Roosevelt and "his 'New Deal,' which has resulted in such great benefit to the proletarian organizations in our Sister Nation." Likely responding to FDR's growing public interest in agrarian reform, the league expressed its hope that "the millions of votes of our brothers of this class in the United States will result in [his] re-election."" When the league handed the resolution to U.S. ambassador Josephus Daniels for transmission to Roosevelt, Daniels marveled at "how these people keep up with what is going on in the world and feel that they are a part of all movements to the enlargement of the prosperity the long forgotten man." (3)

It may seem unexpected that a league of revolutionary Mexican peasants and a U.S. agricultural economist believed that they shared a common mission. Yet their perception of a shared project was not simply imagined. From the mid-1930s through the end of World War II, the U.S. and Mexican federal governments both waged sweeping campaigns to transform the political economy of their respective countrysides. In the United States, the most socially aggressive wing of the rural New Deal targeted the plantation zones of the American South, whose inequality of wealth was deemed "the Nation's No. 1 economic problem." (4) In Mexico, Cardenas's agrarismo was a broader national project born of the unfulfilled promises of the Mexican Revolution. Yet despite the quite different contexts and contrasting outcomes of those two rural reform programs, this article argues that they were frequently in conversation with one another and that this dialogue had significant impacts on each. Rather than discrete political movements that can be understood in solely national contexts, the Mexican and U.S. rural reform movements of the 1930s were often intertwined. Their cross-pollination, particularly in the United States' observations of and borrowings from Mexico, broadened their respective visions of a more just countryside.

U.S. agrarian reformers' interest in revolutionary Mexico was especially magnified by the lens of regionalism. In fact, it was particularly U.S. southerners and those interested in the South who best understood the historic bond between their countryside and Mexico's. …

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