"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

HARD HISTORY behind Mexico’s HARD MONEY

By on May 28, 2019 in Travel with 0 Comments
Dale Foreman and the coin lady of Bucerias market: Not real money, but real work went into earning the tokens.

By Dale Foreman

For many of the last 35 years my wife, Gail, and I have been travelling to Mexico. 

We have gone on business trips, selling apples and pears. I have visited the huge produce markets in Mexico City and Guadalajara as a Washington Apple Commissioner. I visited Oaxaca as a part of a NCW Community Foundation study tour. We took vacations with our children to Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta when they were young, and now that we are grandparents, we have been able to watch each of our grandchildren enjoying the sunshine and friendly hard working people of Mexico. 

One of our activities is to visit the local markets. Each town has a weekly outdoor market and they all have fresh fruits and vegetables, clothing, electronics, hardware and tools, fish, meat, taco stands and all kinds of food. 

This year, I found a lady who was selling hard money — old copper coins she called Monedas Jornaleras. Her table was piled high with coins and old paper money, just past the tomatoes and surrounded by used pots and pans.

 Later that day I did some online searching and learned that these are also known as “Hacienda money.” They are tokens that day laborers, farm hands, pickers, got for each day of hard work. They could then use them as money at the local stores: Hard money for food and drink, a hard way to make a living.

Monedas Jornaleras — day laborer money — was issued by different haciendas and carried many different designs.

 As a Washington Apple Commissioner, one of my tasks was to work on the ag labor problem in Washington D.C. Each year from 2002 until I left the Commission in 2013, we had long discussions with our Congressmen and Senators about the need for a steady, reliable and legal work force to prune and pick our apples, pears and cherries. 

I cannot think back on those long meetings without disgust, so much wasted time meeting with politicians who failed, year after year, to fix our broken immigration system. I was unable to convince the hard line partisans of either party of the wisdom of compromising. I believe we should create a system for good workers to come north to work and then return to Mexico during the winter. 

 Why did so many people from Mexico want to come north and do hard, physical labor? They came because the economic opportunity was so great. Most of the pickers in Washington earn more than $125 per day, all earn at least the minimum wage. In Mexico they frequently earn $25-$30 per day. 

 The history of agricultural laborers in Mexico is very sad. 

Millions of oppressed people, many illiterate during the 1700s and 1800s, forced into near slavery by absentee landlords who not only paid a bare survival wage, but then paid in a currency that could only be spent at the local, company owned store.

 “What are these?” I asked the lady selling old coins in the Bucerias market place. 

 “Those are Monedas Jornaleras,” she smiled. It was hard to hear her in the hustle and hubbub of the market. I asked her to say it again and she picked up a pen and wrote the words down on a scrap of paper and handed it to me. 

“Day laborer money” was how I translated it. Not real money. Not issued by the government. Not silver or gold, just shapes of copper with some words or designs stamped on it. Some were round, like a 50-cent piece, but others were rectangles or triangles or squares. 

The oldest one was dated 1750. The coin was for eight reals, that is roughly a dollar in purchasing power. It was issued by a hacienda with the initials JR. Someone was given that coin after a day of hard labor and it has been passed around Mexico for nearly 270 years.

That coin is older than the USA. I turned the coin in my hand and wondered who worked and sweated under the hot sun to earn this coin. And how did they spend it? How many times was it recirculated, earned, spent, earned, and spent again? 

The old Mexican labor system was great for the bosses, but it was a terrible life sentence for the workers.

 I looked at each of her tokens. She had a fabulous square coin dated 1814, that is the year Napoleon was defeated by Wellington at Waterloo, and some poor peasant was working at a hacienda in central Mexico, earning his daily tortillas by stoop labor. The coin is stamped: “Hacienda de Santa Cruz” and has a beautiful cross. 

The reverse says: “Vale Por Una Tarea de Lena.” Now what is Lena? I looked in my Spanish dictionary and learned: Firewood. Worth one tarea of firewood. 

I pondered, would I rather have been a soldier in the mud of Waterloo or a worker in the fields of this Mexican farmer working for a load of firewood to keep my family warm at night? 

There were others, one from 1821, it reads: “Jornalada de la Flor” and has a beautiful rose on the reverse. What kind of work did they do to earn that one?

 And one from 1822 that says: “1/8 RM Jalapa,” and a fancy artistic logo that must have been the insignia of the proud Jalapa family. I presume 1/8 refers to the value, or 1/8 of a silver eight reales piece. In 1822 that would have bought food for a couple days.

And so I held history in my hand and thought about ag labor and the human beings who worked so hard for their life-sustaining food. 

I asked her where she got these wonderful old coins? She smiled a coy smile and said, “secreto mio.”

I asked her how much she wanted for them. She said, $25 each, and I bought them all.

The next Sunday, I returned to the market and saw her standing at her table in the same location. 

“Hola” I greeted her. “Tiene usted algo monedas jornaleras?” Yes, she smiled and showed me some additions to her inventory. I bought the 1845 from Zacatecas, which was the wages for picking one carga of maiz.

How long did it take that worker to pick a carga of corn? My dictionary says a carga is a load. How many pounds of corn does it take to fill a carga?

And I bought an undated rectangle from Guadalupe, Zacatecas with a huge muscular bull standing to the right, the reverse says: “Tienda Carga Metal.” So this one was for hard work, but was it at a cattle ranch or a mine?

A coin from 1862 from the Pueblo of Zayvla was worth one litre of frijoles — beans, good protein, but what a hard life. 

The 1870 coin from Hacienda de Tepa uses the official Mexican symbol of an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its beak. 

It is not an official government coin, but the symbol of fierce independence fitting for the men who minted these and the workers who earned them.

The 1875 piece from Hacienda San Jose Del Valle was for digging up a carga of carbon, that must mean a lode of coal.

I love the one from 1887 for cutting sugar cane. The Hacienda de Tovar Arandas, Vale por Carga de Cana. How hot was it when he cut a load of those razor sharp stalks of sugar cane? Blood, sweat and tears takes on a new meaning when you think how these poor people suffered to win their daily bread.

I returned to the little lady with the old copper tokens every week and some times she had found new coins, often she had not. But I bought every one she had. And what a story they tell.

 Now we are back home in Wenatchee, and I am researching the history of day laborers in Mexico and Hacienda tokens. Just a few key strokes on Wikipedia and the tragic history is revealed. 

During the 1800s, the government of Mexico did not want to deal with the labor issue either. There were no worker safety standards. There were few labor laws. 

Unscrupulous bosses terrorized the workers, raped the girls and beat the men. For their efforts they were paid in filthy copper tokens that could only be used at the local tienda, or store.

 The government minted gold and silver coins for the people who had money. They minted some copper coins for the masses, but it was uneconomic to spend so much effort making many coins of little value. Private enterprise had to fill the gap and make their own money, tokens, for the poor to spend. 

The owners of the haciendas, the Hacendados, made their money and paid the peones with the oddly shaped bits of copper or brass. 

When I hold these coins, my heart is filled with sorrow for the people who earned them.

And I think of our faithful, hardworking ag laborers here in Washington. 

The system has always been stacked against the poorest, least well-educated folks. They have always looked for a better life.

I wonder: Will our generation of growers and politicians help solve the ag labor problem in our own state, in our own time?

Dale Foreman is a lawyer and orchardist in Wenatchee. He served as Majority Leader of the State House of Representatives and Chairman of the Washington Apple Commission and the US Apple Association.

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