I like to bounce my opinions about social problems onto my friend Jorge. He’s unafraid to objectively analyze issues that concern his personal Mexican-American heritage. This time, in particular, I wanted to understand the traditional relationship known as “Patron-Peon”.
In the context of United States history, patron-peonage existed in parallel with our institution of slavery. How were the two different? Why have so many former slave-holding states retained their reputations of racism?
These questions arose in my mind when I spotted a short mention of the repeal of peonage in New Mexico in a discussion forum on the Internet, last week. It reminded me of the topic I learned in one unit of American history class. My understanding was very rusty, so I was eager to ask Jorge about these issues.
My friend said that he understood the patron, in his most benign form, as a person or overlord who provided leadership, social, and economic sustenance, through work. Ideally, the patron was a landowner who demonstrated leadership, courage, friendliness, and generosity towards those who worked his land. In return, the laborers, peons, adopted a position in the hierarchy that assured the patron of loyalty, a disinclination of initiative and independent thinking. This resulted in blind passivity to the will of the patron.
Culturally, patron-peonage can be seen as an extention of the patriarchal family, the interdependent nature of small farming village inhabitants, and the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Jorge compared this way of life with the European feudal system, in that there were landlords and peasants.
When the United States conquered over half of Mexico, the patron-peon system’s worst aspects manifested. The existing hispanic and native inhabitants were treated with contempt and bigotry. The passivity of the peons contributed to the ease in which the new English-speaking American landowners could exploit the peons, socially and economically.
My friend reminded me that New Mexico and southern Colorado remained culturally isolated from the rest of the former Mexican territories because of their particular agrarian nature and geographical locations. It was unlike places like California where large numbers of English speaking Americans quickly populated the state. California largely absorbed the existing hispanic peoples into the social fabric. Plus, it must be remembered that during the slavery era, California was a free state.
At around the same time, New Mexico territory’s economy included many slave holders. Most of the indentured servitude involved captive, enslaved Native Americans. Oddly enough, the New Mexico territorial legislature passed a slave code that restricted slaves from testifying in court and restricted slave travel. In effect, this law kept blacks out of the territory and preserved the institution of Native American slavery. The New Mexico code was short lived because the Congress outlawed slavery in the US territories, in 1862.
The isolated nature of New Mexico’s culture allowed a form of involuntary servitude to persist. The continuation of bias against Spanish speaking Americans contributed to the neglect of Hispanic civil rights until well into the 20th century. Patron-peonage had devolved into this status.
After the end of the Civil War, attention was focused on enforcing the Thirteenth Amendment that officially outlawed slavery. Due to the fact that peons had little or no control over their employment conditions, New Mexico became the focus of the Peonage Act of 1867. The act would abolish peonage specifically in New Mexico Territory and would also do so in any other areas that were previously overlooked. The purpose of the Peonage Act was to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment.
Even though patron-peonage had been outlawed, remnants of it remained until the Great Depression, when national economic difficulties extended into New Mexico and Southern Colorado. The depression helped destroy the isolation of the traditional rural villages.
Traditions die hard. Jorge believes that what remains of the patron-peon institution contributes to the difficulty of Hispanic American integration into the dominant English-speaking modern culture of parts of the United States.
Unfortunately, the cultural transition remains slow in parts of modern day New Mexico and other areas of the Southwest. Patron-peonage is another growing pain that the United States still feels as it struggles to mature into a fully integrated nation.