Ecuadorian indigenous workers strike for higher wages in Cayambe, 1930-1931

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
The end date is unclear. While protests against the land tenure system in general continued for a decade, this specific campaign in Cayambe seemed to end in March 1931
30 December
1930
to
March
1931
Location and Goals
Country: 
Ecuador
Location City/State/Province: 
Cayambe
Location Description: 
Pesillo hacienda
Goals: 
Raise wages, improve working conditions, a forty-hour workweek, returning huasipungo plots, compensation for the labor of women and children, and elimination of huasicama
 

Rural Ecuador had functioned under the huasipungo land-tenure system since the 16th century. The tenant farmers, called huasipungueros, were mainly of indigenous descent and worked 3 to 6 days a week on hacienda estates in the highlands, owned by absentee elite white families. In exchange for their labor, the laborers received a small plot of land for subsistence, access to pasture land for cattle, and a small cash wage. The indigenous farmers were highly attached to their land although their plots were still owned by the hacienda. The renters often expected huasipunguero families to work for free and demanded huasicama, unpaid personal services for the renters’ households.

On 30 December 1930, the workers of the Pesillo hacienda, the largest in the Cayambe region, went on strike, along with workers from Moyurco and La Chimba haciendas. The workers left the hacienda, heading to the high grasslands or Quito. According to a letter from local officials, the laborers attacked the main hacienda house and the hacienda employees and some local officials were forced to flee.

In response to requests from the hacienda renters and local officials, the government sent 150 soldiers with bloodhounds to the haciendas to arrest the leaders of the strikes and destroy their houses. The soldiers arrested five leaders and sent them to Quito to be prosecuted.

The Pesillo workers presented a petition to the government with seventeen demands, focused on improving economic conditions and worker relations with hacienda management. The demands included raising salaries, a forty-hour workweek, returning huasipungo plots, compensation for the labor of women and children, and elimination of huasicama. Urban leftists, especially the Communist party, supported the laborers. Lawyer Dr. Juan Jaramillo accompanied the Indians to the offices of the Junta Central de Asistencia Pública (JCAP), the governmental agency that administered state-owned land, in Quito to present the petition and protest the arrest of their leaders.

On 7 January 1931, Jose Delgado and Julio Miguel Paez, the overseers of the Pesillo and Moyurco haciendas, agreed to a settlement with the workers for an eight-hour day, one day off per week, payment of labor for women and children, an end to huasicama, and dismissal of workers only for bad conduct or insubordination. The workers then ended the strike.

On 12 January, a labor inspector visited the haciendas with the local official, Alfonso Jarrin and reported that the situation appeared normal. However, away from the eyes of government, the renters established a violent reign on the workers. To punish the workers, “eight or ten well-armed hacienda employees” attacked the farmers’ residences at night and whipped them. The houses were too distant from each other to call for help.

When Delgado and Paez did not adhere to the agreement, the workers went on strike once more. Soon after, the government shut down the First Congress of Peasant Organizations, planned to occur in Cayambe in early February. The congress was planned separately and months in advance of the January strike. Nevertheless, the gathering of more than a thousand indigenous activists made the government uneasy. The urban socialists, an ally of the rural protestors, helped advertise the conference and sent circulars to rural peasant groups throughout Ecuador.

For the month leading up to the Congress, the mainstream media in Ecuador had presented the indigenous peoples as weak, uneducated peasants vulnerable to manipulation by communists. On 31 January, the government closed roads to prevent more delegates from arriving at the Congress. When several hundred activists attempted to proceed with the Congress, troops shut down the meeting, stopped all traffic in the Cayambe region, and detained the leaders of the Congress. On 1 February, the government arrested several socialist leaders from Quito who came for the conference and held them until they signed a statement promising not to interfere with activities against public order. The government justified their actions claiming it needed to maintain public order and defend the country from communist threats, even though the activists were not armed and remained nonviolent.

These repressive responses by the government inspired the activists to not only demand changing of conditions but aim for reform of the entire land tenure system. Starting in March, the indigenous activists began marching to Quito in order to take demands directly to the national center of power. The first march occurred on 31 March 1931. 141 Indians, including 57 women and 12 children, left from Pesillo for a two-day walk to Quito. The urban socialists helped the indigenous protesters, who were illiterate and spoke only Kichwa, to translate their petitions to Spanish and turn them into a legally appropriate format. Urban unions provided housing and meeting locations.

Augusto Egas, the director of the JCAP, the governmental agency that administered state-owned land, sent the marchers to the police, who arrested them and returned them to Cayambe. Also in March, Egas convinced the Minister of Government to send police to forcibly evict 26 indigenous leaders. Accounts of evictions from the Pesillo hacienda renters and the activists differ. Delgado reported the “troublemakers willingly left,” and the hacienda was restored to peace, while the activists reported the police burned and destroyed the peasant dwellings. The exiled landless activists wandered to various towns, including Yanahuaico and Olmedo, and continued their organizing work. The urban socialists increased their support of the activists and Yanahuaico became the center of Communist Party operations.

Indigenous leaders continued to lead strikes throughout rural Ecuador calling for general land tenure reform. Reforms were finally achieved in 1938 when General Gallo overthrew president Paez and passed a progressive labor code that formalized already common labor relations between landlords and their workers. In rural areas, hacendados took advantage of the worker’s illiteracy to ignore parts of the code. Activists educated the rural workers about the labor code and used the progressive elements of the law to negotiate with the landowners. Indigenous leader Lechon maintained that strikes were responsible for ending forced labor on haciendas through motivating the workers to lose their fears, organize, and clarify their objectives.

Research Notes
Sources: 
"Pliego de peticiones que los sindicatos 'El Inca' y 'Tierra Libre' situados en la parroquia Olmedo, presentan a los arriendatarios de las haciendas donde trabajan," El Dia, January 6, 1931, 1. http://www.yachana.org/earchivo/pesillo1931.php

Becker, Marc. Indians and Leftists in the Making of Ecuador's Modern Indigenous Movements. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Meiri Anto, 18/02/2013