Maya Autonomy and International Capitalism in Mexico's Chewing Gum Forests, 1886-1947


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships




Beginning in the late nineteenth century, eastern Yucatec Mayas had to contend with increasing threats to their autonomy, both from the Mexican government and from businessmen working in the natural gum—chicle—industry. As appetites for chewing gum grew, the Quintana Roo region of Mexico, a previously peripheral place and source of chicle, became suddenly lucrative. Instead of losing land and independence as outsiders encroached, however, Quintana Roo’s Mayas negotiated the terms of resource extraction with local capitalists, striking compromises that suited their interests. They were aided in their efforts by the region’s insalubrious malarial climate, which helped keep outsiders at bay. This project argues that capitalist industry preserved indigenous independence instead of suppressing it; Mayas retained access to land, worked in chicle when they chose to, and even served as powerful middlemen and concessionaires. Money earned in chicle provided economic independence and was used to purchase weapons to fight off Mexican incursions.