The misery of peonage


After a column of mine dealing with Hispanic household servants, I received several complaints from readers chiding me because I had barely mentioned the practice of peonage, a labor system once common in New Mexico.

That was not an oversight on my part. Rather, I had avoided the subject, owing to its complexity, intending to return to it at a later date, which has now arrived.

Simply defined, peonage was a system of debt servitude that was established early in central Mexico and spread northward to New Mexico after its founding.

Typically, the peon was a poor man who went to work for a large landholder who became his patrón (boss), paying him a mere trifle.

With establishment of this master-servant relationship, the patrón lent small sums of money to his peones for special needs, such as a christening robe for a new baby or the funeral expenses for a parent.

Rather quickly, the peon accumulated a sizeable debt that he could never hope to repay, one that was passed down often to his son and even grandson.

Peonage provided a stable and inexpensive work force for the patrón, while his laborers found themselves virtually bound in slavery. After the United States took possession of New Mexico in 1846, peonage was recognized by the new territorial government as part of the area’s economic and legal heritage.

Statutory law required that a master write up a labor contract for each peon, but they were always on his terms. No law regulated the peon’s rights.

If he ran away from his master, he became a fugitive from justice. Should he, or she, be arrested and hauled before a judge, the fugitive could be assessed court costs.

A case of that kind was decided by Associate Justice Horace Mower at Socorro in May 1853. He arrived in town, riding circuit, and heard evidence against Dolores Mirabal, who had fled her patrón.

Justice Mower found her guilty and ordered the woman to pay a $1 fine and $29 in court costs.

He further instructed the Socorro sheriff to sell at auction the defendant’s labor to the highest bidder. In the distant future, when her legal debt had been paid off, Dolores was to be returned to her original master.

Upon outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the U.S. government, being short of regular troops, began recruiting young New Mexicans. Many of those were working under a peonage contract and their masters would not permit them to enlist.

A military order put a stop to that. The result was reported by the New Mexican, on April 2, 1864.

“The U.S. soldier’s pay much exceeds the former prices for native labor in New Mexico. A large number of peons have extricated themselves from their thralldom as servants by going into the volunteer regiments.”

Nevertheless, peonage still flourished at the end of the Civil War, since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not seem to cover it. That oversight led to a March 2, 1867, act of Congress declaring “The system of peonage in the Territory of New Mexico and elsewhere is abolished and forever prohibited in the United States.”

Tradition on the upper Rio Grande, however, did not yield quickly to change. In reality, debt peonage retreated into the isolated nooks and crannies of New Mexico, surviving deep into the 20th century.

A story, for example, in the Albuquerque Journal, April 26, 1967, was published under this headline: “Rancher Answers Charge of Peonage.”

With it was a picture of an aging cowboy, captioned, “ALLEGED SLAVE: Abernicio Gonzales, a ranch hand in western Sandoval County is suing his employer Joe Montoya for $40,000, which he alleges is due him for wages he earned at a rate of 50 cents a day for the last 33 years. Gonzales claims he was held in peonage at the ranch.”

In a separate story, Gonzales’ lawyer charged that “half the ranch workers in northern New Mexico are laboring in semi-peonage.” Surely, he was exaggerating, but by how much?

Here, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the peonage saga. One of these days, I am sure, someone will publish a fat book on the subject.