However, there’s a gap we have to notice: owning land in Mexico at those times was not like owning land today.
My uncle, the brother of my grandmother, was a landowner in the Copán area (in Honduras, near the border with Guatemala). My father was used to tell me that in the 1920s and 30s, he owned not only the land as far as the eye could see, not only the natural resources on and under the ground but also everything that breathed on that land, heads of cattle and heads of human beings included.
Does it hold true for the Terrazas’ estates as well?
The great majority of the people working in the don Luis’ haciendas was not in a condition of servidumbre, debt slavery, or feudal-type serfdom: in Chihuahua, there were not many peones endeudados, unlike in central Mexico, where the peonage system (a form of forced labor) was a real plague. Except for some Indians and a few slaves, the majority of the people working in the Terrazas’ haciendas were legally free. It was a rural proletariat made up of peones acomodados, privileged servants living inside the hacienda, and peones acasillados, permanent resident workers such as vaqueros, shepherds, artisans, and peasants; all received a (low) wage plus a ration of food and some basic goods. There were also two other groups of people: the temporary workers such as the jornaleros, day laborers, more vulnerable to the economic ups and downs; and the arrendatarios, that’s to say, tenants and sharecroppers who paid the hacendado, the landowner, a fixed sum or a share of their harvest (usually a third or a half).
Don Luis, therefore, was not a sort of feudal lord and did not resemble the master of a cotton plantation. However, his decision-making power over the people living in his land or working in his haciendas knew no obstacle and had no boundaries. Legally there was no serfdom, but the landlords like don Luis were masters of the land and of the peons.
In 1892, he purchased la Hacienda del Carmen, a wide area that included the hamlet of El Carmen. The village and all of its inhabitants became a part of this new Terrazas’ estate. The Hacienda embedded the village and converted it into one of its many production units.
Here, as in all of his haciendas, don Luis had the power to decide whether to build schools or not, to provide medical facilities or not.
He had the right to fix all wages and could also force “his” peones to buy goods at the hacienda’s stores at the prices he had arbitrarily fixed.
He could affect most of their daily lives and he did it. In all of his haciendas, «the stables were more elaborate than the living quarters for the workers» (VV.AA., The magnetism of Mata Ortiz, see Bibliography). This was his choice as well. A “reasonable” choice from an economic point of view: a cow was certainly worth more than a cowboy.
He could exert strict social and political control over “his” workers (through a hierarchical chain of command), and he did it.
Last but not least, he allowed local chiefs and the rural police to inflict violent punishments and tortures on unruly or disobedient peones. Even for negligible errors.