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Research Summary

My research is a political economic examination of access to food, food supply policies and well-being in late colonial Mexico, a period of strong transformations in economic organization, distribution of resources and political power. Food production and acquisition became increasingly a matter of commercial exchange, while subsistence agriculture receded, and the price of land and rents soared.  Demographic growth and an increased demand for agricultural products allowed landed elites, usually referred to as the hacendados, to gain more power relative to other sectors.  Many indicators point to increased inequality in income and in the access to land.  These were also years of important administrative, economic and fiscal reorganization, usually referred to as the Bourbon reforms, that sought to strengthen the metropolitan control of the colonies and make the extraction of revenue more efficient

The starting point of the study is an analysis of heights, an indicator of nutritional status and biological well-being.  Using new evidence on heights for a large sample of military records, I find that height declined significantly in the mid eighteenth century, and afterward it stagnated through the early national era.  More significantly, socioeconomic height gaps broadened, while the urban-rural height differential decreased (and even changed direction in favor of city dwellers), suggesting important redistributions of resources and particularly access to food in the late colonial and early national periods. 


I argue that changes in access to food are related to the decline and rising inequality of living standards.  Since the market was a major means to acquire food, I focus on grain markets in the late colonial period.  Through the study of regulations, daily operations of municipal granaries and price trajectories, I find that grain markets were more competitive than usually believed and were becoming more integrated at the regional level in the last decades of the colonial period.  The pronounced food shortages of the late colonial period were not the consequence of the fragmentation of markets and the manipulation of a local oligarchy, but of the decline of market entitlements due to increasing impoverishment and rising inequality.  Market integration was beneficial to the cities because they had greater economic and institutional resources (such as purchasing power, a reserve granary, tithe stocks or Church-sponsored charity) to secure the access to food. 

The political significance of grain markets is finally apparent in the policies and conflicts about trade between jurisdictions and in the discourse on abuses in grain markets. I first focus on the unique problems of policy making presented by regional trade. Through the conflicts between the interests of food producers, consumers in exporting districts, grain-importing cities, and mining centers, and the local authorities, I study how the colonial administration mediated between the conflictive claims ofdifferent sectors and how policies changed over time to secure access to food to the cities, mining centers, and (in the 1810s) the army, the small fraction of the population on which the regime was more crucially dependent. The change in policies can be characterized from a framework that privileged the rights to local production of each district, to a pragmatic approach that centralized the decisions on regional trade in the hands of the viceroy. The shift in policies will eventually conclude with the liberalization of grain trade in the 1810s, although this trajectory lineal was not lineal in any way.

Finally, I trace public and official discourse on grain markets in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by narrowing the focus to the grain hoarder or regatón, a character that reveals desirable or undesirable characteristics of economic organization.  By analyzing published works such as periodicals, pamphlets and, to a lesser extent, government and judicial documents, I argue that the discourse on grain markets and hoarders became increasingly radicalized after the great famine of 1785. Such radicalization was not limited to peripheral actors, instead it was the viceroys and bishops who embarked in a sharp criticism against monopoly and greediness—an attitude that stood in sharp contrast with the moderate stance of their predecesors. In their actions, however, viceroys stopped short of taken any significant steps to modify the structural conditions of grain trade. I interpret this shift as a political strategy to strengthen the position of the central authorities in the colony. By contrast, the food crisis that ran in parallel to the rural insurgency of the 1810s was only matched with a moderate discourse of the higher authorities, now invested in a program of liberalization and free trade. Liberalism, however, acquired a different meaning in the hand of popular pamphlet writers who, in colorful descriptions, denounced monopolistic practices and implicitly criticized Spanish authorities for not stimulating more competitive marketplace.

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