Understanding Historical Dependency through Commodities
Lesson Plan from “From Sugar to Coca-Cola” Syllabus
This lesson traces the entwined histories of henequen binder twine and grain commodities to examine relationships of economic dependency between the United States and Mexico in the early twentieth century. It uses Alan Wells’ chapter from From Silver to Cocaine and Sterling Evan’s Bound in Twine to explore a case study of what Evans calls the “henequen-wheat complex,” a double dependency between American and Canadian grain farmers who needed twine and the Mexican fiber market that required demand from the North American plains. This lesson is designed to fit into a course that uses commodity histories to link the story of the United States with far-flung parts of the world. The histories of commodities, from luxuries like sugar and furs to everyday products such as cotton and Coca-Cola, enable us to use commodity chains as we look at the relationships and connectivity between producers, intermediaries, and consumers. As we move chronologically from the late fifteenth century to the present, the course aims to demystify the things that we have taken for granted and unpack our contemporary connectedness. Students will learn about the commodity chain as an analytical tool—how it illustrates global connectivity and why commodities matter. This lesson plan might fit into a range of classes; relevant fields include but are not limited to sociology, geography, and history.
By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:
• interpret and apply arguments from secondary sources
• understand and analyze the basic principles of dependency theory by identifying cores and peripheries
• map historical dependencies and prepare students for the final course project
Because the course is organized roughly chronologically around when each commodity was most prominent in global trade, this lesson plan falls roughly in the middle of the course. The first unit of class introduces theory, historical scholarship, and a model case study on commodities as well as themes that will reemerge over the semester. These themes include commodification, capitalism, social and environmental consequences of production, the social biographies of things, as well as the ideas of cores and peripheries. The second unit focuses on prominent products and aspects of the global economy from the colonial era. The third unit looks to new aspects of the global economy (technology, economies of scale, and industrial linkages) through oil, rubber, bananas, and henequen, which is where this lesson plan falls. The final unit brings the class to the present through the commodity chains of Coca-Cola and t-shirts.
This lesson plan will take place in the third unit and is meant to prepare students for their final project: an illustrated commodity chain.
This lesson is based on two readings:
• Wells, Allen, “Reports of its Demise Are Not Exaggerated: The Life and Times of Yucatecan Henequen,” in Steven Topik, Carlos Marichal, and Zephyr Frank, eds. From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500 – 2000. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. Pp. 300-320.
• Evans, Sterling. “Chapter 1: On the History of Binders and Twine: Agricultural and Industrial Transformations in North America” & Chapter 2 “Yucatan Henequen Industry: Social and Environmental Transformation & Chapter 4 Twine Diplomacy: Yucatan, the United States and Canada during the Sisal Situation in 1915” In Bound in Twine: The History and Ecology of the Henequen-Wheat Complex for Mexico and the American and Canadian Plains, 1880 – 1950. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2013. Pp. 1-66 & 68-90.
This student-centered activity is meant to be a fun way to map historical dependencies in the specific case of the henequen-fiber industry. After a brief lecture on the content of the reading, break class into groups of three or four and tell students to draw the Northern American henequen-fiber industry. Lay four pieces of paper on the floor along with markers. Encourage students to sit on the floor around these pieces of paper. How might you map this historical dependency? I have emphasized the verb “map” because students can be as creative as they want. While explaining the activity, pass out different kinds of maps: ranging from conventional political maps as well as more abstract maps [see bottom]. They idea is that they will discover and apply the concept core and peripheries throughout the guided questions that accompany the activity.
• Large pieces butcher paper for each group of students
• Several markers
• Example maps (see bottom)
• Lecture (10 minutes)
I will first lecture on the required and recommended readings, starting with the histories of binders and binder twine and the agricultural and industrial transformations that they represent. I will then explain the henequen-fiber industry, why it developed and why it was most profitable for United States and Canadian corporate interests to import binder twine (henequen and sisal fiber) from the Yucatán in Mexico to the United States. I will also explain what production looked like in Mexico. And that to ensure steady supply of cordage, the henequen fiber industry established large plantations at the expense of native peoples who have lived there for years. Then, I will narrate when this dependency was threatened in “the Sisal Situation in 1915,” and how North American corporations responded in the wake of potential twine shortages due to the Mexican Revolution.
• Introduction of the activity (5 minutes)
• Activity (brainstorm 5 minutes, drawing 15 minutes)
• Reconvene for analysis and discussion (15 minutes)
Directions for Students
Student, in groups of three or four, will be asked to come up with an illustration for the henequen-fiber industry described from the readings and opening lecture. The professor will have examples of maps ranging from conventional political maps to the more abstract. Students are encouraged to think creatively about this commodity chain. They may elect to highlight all or some answers from the guiding questions. Also, the professor should encourage students to spend five minutes brainstorming answers to the question as well as plan how they will execute their drawing. This section is intended for students to think about the different components of a commodity chains, the actors, as well as the relationship between producers (henequen/sisal), intermediaries (cordage manufacturers), and consumers (North American farmers). It is meant to illustrate historical dependency and to serve as practice for the student’s final poster project illustrating a commodity chain.
Questions for students to consider as they draw:
• How are henequen and wheat related?
• Why might there be an industry that brings these two commodities together?
• Who are the historical actors?
• Where does twine come from? The environment? The people?
• Who relies on twine—directly and indirectly? Where do they live and work?
• What is the henequen-fiber industry?
Examples for students to consider as they draw (see bottom):
• Figure 1 is an example of traditional, spatial, and political map that emphasizes trade routes and connections. How might this model help show connections in the case of the henequen-fiber industry?
• Like Figure 1, Figure 2 uses a traditional map, but instead it focuses on spaces of production. How might this model help us think about environments of fiber and grain production and consumption?
• Figure 3 is a concept map that shows the movement of inputs. How might a similar concept map of bread in the twentieth century show us where sisal/henequen and grain fall in in the commodity chain?
• Like Figure 3, Figure 4 focuses on the commodity chain. How might this model help us think about the different historical suppliers in the henequen-fiber industry?
• Figure 5 looks at the lifecycle of a production. How might it be used to think about the physical and social biography of henequen — from seed to fiber?
• Lastly, Figure 6 maps the different components of the commodity chain. How might this model demonstrate the many components of the henequen-fiber supply chain?
After twenty minutes of drawing, students will display their illustrations and take a few minutes to walk around and examine the diagrams. Regroup and discuss the maps and the following questions.
Questions for discussion:
• Who is producing the twine? And who uses the twine? What are the characteristics of each of these regions?
• What might be some impacts of this industry? On the Yaquis? On the environment?
• What does Mexico provide? What does the United States provide? Who is dependent on whom? Which country or countries might represent the periphery and which country or countries might represent the core?
• What do we think will happen when the combine is invented and US farms no longer need twine?
• Which country benefits? Which doesn’t?
• How might we narrate our images? How did your group best decide to represent this historical example?
The students and professor will spend the last five minutes of class on a more in-depth discussion of dependency. Allow students to take a few minutes write one or two sentences on the major takeaways from the lesson. They will submit this to the professor. Lastly, the professor will relate how this lesson has ideally prepared students for their final project in the course.