When I first came to the barrancas, I had no intention of taking part in political issues or getting involved in any village problems other than strictly medical ones. I did not wish to champion major changes in the way the people live. For I felt that in spite of the many hardships and inefficiency of labor there was still a great deal of beauty and joy in the lives of the villagers. There was a simplicity and vitality derived from basic living which I wished to learn from rather than to modify. Now, after three years in the Sierra Madre, I feel essentially the same way. I have discovered, however, that “simplicity” can get very complex. In a community where the subsistence of many people is marginal, village problems and political issues can have a crucial bearing even on the health of the inhabitants. The more I have come to know and care for the villagers, the more I am moved to take action where I can on certain vital issues. In this way “Project Piaxtla” has become involved in activities which go well beyond my original intention of providing provisional medical aid, yet in the long run are just as important to physical health.

Economic Exploitation, Hunger, and Health in the Sierra Madre

One such activity has been the initiation of a cooperative corn bank which offers the campesino or poor farmer some alternative to being exploited by the wealthy cattlemen and land barons. These land barons are the heirs of those who took the best farm-land from the Indians by force before the Mexican Revolution. Their families, although few in number, still claim possession of all the good bottom land along the Rio Verde near Ajoya. Resorting to “pay-offs” to government officials, intimidation of the poor farmers, and occasionally to murder, the land barons have successfully ignored the post-revolutionary laws requiring equitable redistribution of land. In effect, the Mexican Revolution has never reached Ajoya. The result is that the campesinos must either farm the steep, rapidly eroding mountainsides by the slash and burn method, or must labor for the land barons either as share cropping peons, or at a daily wage of 10 pesos.

The campesino is held at such marginal subsistence that the health of his family is affected

In either case, the campesino is held at such marginal subsistence that the health of his family is affected. He can rarely afford to eat more than corn, and sometimes beans. He cannot afford to buy meat, or milk for his children. If he succeeds in raising a few chickens, pigs, etc., he is often forced to sell or forfeit them to pay his ever-mounting debts to the wealthy land barons. I don’t want to portray the land barons as evil. They are my friends, also, and within their families they are often kind, even gentle. But they have inherited along with their land – which is not legally theirs – the tradition of exploiting the poor campesinos at every turn. Business is business. At harvest time the land barons buy corn from the need campesino at as low as 25 centavos per liter, then sell it back to him six months later at as high as 70 centavos to one peso per liter, forcing the campesino to sell any chickens and pigs he has been raising in the interim in order to buy back corn for planting. Or the land barons loan him corn, with a return of five liters for every two liters loaned. And if the campesino cannot pay on the set date, the land baron collects from him his burro, a hog, or sometimes even his house, although the object may be worth several tithes the debt. The campesino, even when robbed outright, has little effective recourse to law. To those with money, “justice” is easily purchased.

Hunger for the right kind of food is the most widespread physical hardship in the barrancas. The diet of the poor campesino consists of about 90% corn. Corn not only contains inadequate protein for human needs, but factors which inhibit efficient utilization of vitamins derived from other foods. In an attempt to offset the resultant deficiencies I have in the last three years, provided hundreds of thousands of vitamin and iron pills and many hundreds of pounds of powdered milk. The benefits are often quite dramatic, but they are also ephemeral. There is no end of tile need in sight, nor can there be until the people achieve a better diet.

Agricultural Improvements Unlikely Without Land Redistribution

Theoretically, a wide range of agricultural improvements are possible which could help provide the campesino with more and better food. The bottom-lands could be irrigated and fertilized to give double or triple their present yield. Vegetables and cash crops could be planted. With monumental effort, sections of the steep mountainsides might even be terraced and made more fertile. But in reality, such improvements are still a long way away. The good bottom-land is all in the hands of the land barons, who have no need of making it produce more. And as for the steep mountainsides, the reply of Martin Reyes, the boy I brought to study in California last year, is typical. When asked by his school counselor if he didn’t want to help his father improve a piece of land, he answered, “Oh, no! As soon as we got it improved, the rich would take it away from us!” Such events have frequently happened.

Until redistribution of the land is accomplished, therefore, or the extent of exploitation of the poor by the rich is curtailed, any proposals for significant agricultural improvements are unrealistic. The campesinos have repeatedly tried to organize. They have made repeated requests to the government to enforce the redistribution of land. But twice the leaders of the land reform efforts have been murdered, once in the nineteen thirties when the campesinos tried to organize an ejido (govt. sponsored cooperative community) and once two years ago, when the campesinos made efforts to recover use of some of the good bottom-land. Whenever government arbitrators
have come to enforce the land laws, they have been met by the land barons who, by padding their palms, have convinced them that no changes are necessary. The discouraged campesinos feel that there is not an official in the Mexican government who is not corrupt.

A Glimer of Hope—Dashed?

The land barons verbally gave in, agreeing to sign a statement to that effect

However, there is new hope in Guillermo Ruiz Gómez, State Director of Work and Social Action. Unquestionably a man of high integrity, Don Guillermo learned of my medical project in the barrancas two years ago, and befriended me. When I and a young campesino explained to him the land problem in Ajoya, he was outraged, and swore he would do something about it. Several months ago he got authorization from the governor to straighten things out in Ajoya. He arrived one Sunday in Ajoya with two land engineers, called a town meeting, and laid his cards on the table. He told the land barons that if they themselves equitably redistributed the land, they could claim parcels equal to those of the campesinos; if, however, they refused, the government would redistribute the land by force, and the land barons, who obtain ample income through their large cattle herds, would be given no farm land.

The land barons verbally gave in, agreeing to sign a statement to that effect. When the engineers returned two weeks later with the statement drawn up, however, the land barons refused to sign. The engineers got angry, ripped the paper to shreds, and told the land barons they would pay for their insolence. They drove away, and the next day the land barons dispatched a messenger requesting a new statement. The statement was delivered, signed by the land barons, and returned to the State Capital. Guillermo was delighted…

But that was last spring . Summer came and with it the new planting season, the rich proceeded to oversee the bottom-lands as they always have, and the poor proceeded to burn and plant the steep mountainsides. Little change has taken place. The last time I talked with Guillermo he sounded discouraged. He declined to discuss the matter, but said sadly, “These things take a long time.” I rather suspect the land barons went over his head.

Functions of the Piaxtla Corn Bank

The corn bank I have started now at least lessens to a small extent the degree of exploitation of the poor. The corn bank has two functions:

  1. It buys corn from campesinos at harvest time, and sells it back to them at planting time at virtually the same price.

  2. It loans corn at planting time, to be returned at harvest time at very low interest.

It presently has storage cribs in Ajoya and Jocuixtita, and proposes to expand to other villages when the villagers cooperate by constructing storage areas. All accounting and exchange is conducted by village volunteers, so that eventually the corn bank can be completely turned over to the villagers.

The response of the campesinos to the corn bark has been overwhelming. For many of the sixty families it involves it has been a life-saver. My biggest regret is that my own funds have been too limited to meet the demands. This summer I loaned out nearly 20,000 pounds of corn, which I went broke buying, and even so I only partially met the corn needs of the families I loaned to, in order that the benefits reach more people. Hopefully the bank can continue to grow.

In addition to the corn bank, I have opened a cooperative food store in the remote village of Jocuixtita, with the help of an especially conscientious villager, Daniel Reyes. The store also helps sidestep the exploitation of the rich by supplying staples such as rice, flour, sugar, salt, beans and soap on credit, to be paid, either in corn or cash, at harvest time. Purchasers who loaned burros for transport of supplies get reduced rates. The store has started off small, with only $250.00 worth of merchandise, which sold out the day the store opened. A drop in the bucket, perhaps …. but hopefully a seed in the soil.