Myths of Modernity

Peonage and Patriarchy in Nicaragua

Myths of Modernity

Book Pages: 272 Illustrations: 17 illustrations Published: January 2006

Author: Elizabeth Dore

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, History > Latin American History

In Myths of Modernity, Elizabeth Dore rethinks Nicaragua’s transition to capitalism. Arguing against the idea that the country’s capitalist transformation was ushered in by the coffee boom that extended from 1870 to 1930, she maintains that coffee growing gave rise to systems of landowning and labor exploitation that impeded rather than promoted capitalist development. Dore places gender at the forefront of her analysis, which demonstrates that patriarchy was the organizing principle of the coffee economy’s debt-peonage system until the 1950s. She examines the gendered dynamics of daily life in Diriomo, a township in Nicaragua’s Granada region, tracing the history of the town’s Indian community from its inception in the colonial era to its demise in the early twentieth century.

Dore seamlessly combines archival research, oral history, and an innovative theoretical approach that unites political economy with social history. She recovers the bygone voices of peons, planters, and local officials within documents such as labor contracts, court records, and official correspondence. She juxtaposes these historical perspectives with those of contemporary peasants, landowners, activists, and politicians who share memories passed down to the present. The reconceptualization of the coffee economy that Dore elaborates has far-reaching implications. The Sandinistas mistakenly believed, she contends, that Nicaraguan capitalism was mature and ripe for socialist revolution, and after their victory in 1979 that belief led them to alienate many peasants by ignoring their demands for land. Thus, the Sandinistas’ myths of modernity contributed to their downfall.


Myths of Modernity is a superbly crafted work that will appeal to scholars of gender and class relationships in Latin American history.” — David Greenawalt, American Anthropologist

Myths of Modernity is an important book that approaches mutations and contradictions of labor and land rights’ transformation within a distinct ethnographic context. I recommend this book to anyone interested in capitalist development in Latin America, as the author brilliantly presents her arguments. . .” — Valter Cvijić, Anthropology of Work Review

“A deeply researched, clearly argued case study of the intersection of class, ethnic, and gender identities . . . of interest to historians and graduate students interested not only in Nicaragua but all of Latin America.” — Alan McPherson, The Latin Americanist

“[I]nsightful and provocative. . . . Dore reminds us that history matters and that an accurate interpretation of social reality must always be predicated on a thorough understanding of the past.” — Debra Sabia, The Historian

“Dore has produced an admirable pioneering study well worth reading.” — Arthur Schmidt, International Labor and Working-Class History

“Dore provides us with a well researched and thorough descriptive analysis of the transformation of a complex and unusual community during an important formative period of modern Central American history. She shows how class, ethnicity, and gender are inextricably intertwined in the everyday life of a community such as Diriomo. She highlights several themes—patriarchy, the brutal struggles for land and forced labor, for example—that have widespread relevance in the history of Latin America, and that continue, like the ghosts of the past, to haunt Nicaraguan history and society to the present.” — James Phillips, Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology

“Dore reminds us that history matters and that an accurate interpretation of social reality must always be predicated on a thorough understanding of the past. Myths of Modernity makes a meaningful contribution not only for understanding a part of Nicaragua’s past, but in providing tools for understanding its present and appreciating the likely complexities of Nicaragua’s future.” — Debra Sabia, The Historian

“Dore’s book is a model work of scholarship, combining theoretical insights with documents culled from archives as well as interviews with people who experienced the final stage of debt peonage. It makes contributions to the history and modern politics of Nicaragua as well as to academic debates in feminist studies, peasant studies, and the history of political economy.” — G.B. Paquette, Canadian Journal of History

“Dore’s contributions to the gendered history of Latin America and to the relations between gender, ethnicity and class, are spectacular and merit emulation.” — Justin Wolfe, Journal of Latin American Studies

“In Myths of Modernity: Peonage and Patriarchy in Nicaragua, Elizabeth Dore skillfully engages with several relevant theoretical, methodological, historical and political literatures and produces a solid contribution to the historiography of agrarian social relations in rural Nicaragua.” — Les W. Field, EIAL

“In this engaging study of how patriarchy impeded capitalist development during Nicaragua’s coffee revolution (1870–1930), perhaps Elizabeth Dore’s most exciting assertion is that ‘history matters’. . . . Well written and cogently argued. . . . [T]his fine-grained local history is one that will appeal to scholars of Central America and a broader audience interested in the past’s influence on the present.” — David Carey Jr., Hispanic American Historical Review

“This book is a real gem. . . . [It] is a model for students and scholars for the clarity of exposition, but above all for the nuanced theoretical analysis.” — Cristóbal Kay, Journal of Agrarian Change

“This book is an important contribution to the sparse archival based, regional historiography of Nicaragua. Based on impressive and extensive local archival and ethnographic sources, Myths of Modernity provides a detailed local history of coffee production, land, labor and gender relations in the village of Diriomo (Granada) between the mid 19th century and the early 20th.” — Aldo Lauria-Santiago, A Contracorriente

“This excellent book is thoroughly researched. It is conceptually sophisticated and touches upon pertinent and important theoretical matters. . . . It presents a wealth of empirical substance for the argument and provides attractive reading through a clear style and a plethora of demonstrative and telling cases and examples.” — Ton Salman, European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies

“This is a remarkable and fascinating book that successfully examines interactions of how class, race, and gender fostered the emergence of a unique type of agrarian capitalism in Latin America. The result is a volume well worth reading for those who are interested in a deeper understanding of economic underdevelopment in the Latin American countryside.” — Marc Becker, Agricultural History

“Those trying to understand agrarian change and rural society in Latin America, and elsewhere, can find much that is informative and useful in this marvelous book.” — Jim Handy, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

“A skilled researcher and potent polemicist, Dore is at her best when she combines archival digging with colorful interviews to prove beyond doubt that political power and patronage, not market forces or the rule of law, have long determined who holds land in Nicaragua.” — Richard Feinberg, Foreign Affairs

“This book makes an important contribution to a growing literature on the contradictory nature of liberalism in Latin America. . . . The book is provocative, well written, and clearly argued. It will be essential reading for Latin American historians in general and those interested in gender, liberalism, and labor studies in particular.” — Ann Zulawski, American Historical Review

“This is a real gem of a monograph. Methodologically, Dore takes the combination of ethnography and archival work to a new level.” — Ben Fallaw, American Ethnologist

Myths of Modernity demonstrates why an understanding of history is important to current policy debates and why a misguided analysis of rural class relations contributed to the eventual electoral defeat of the Sandinistas.” — Carmen Diana Deere, coauthor of Empowering Women: Land and Property Rights in Latin America

“As ideal a combination of fine-grained, historically rich ethnography; astute political economy; and powerful feminist scholarship as one could possibly hope for. A standard to emulate.” — James C. Scott, Yale University

“In this uniquely researched study, constructed in dialogue with generations of members of the Diriomo community, written records, scholarly debates, and revolutionary policymakers, Elizabeth Dore shows why debt peonage and land privatization in the Nicaraguan coffee boom failed to generate capitalism. Gender is an important element in her argument and one that economic and social historians can no longer afford to ignore.” — Mary Kay Vaughan, coeditor of The Eagle and the Virgin: Nation and Cultural Revolution in Mexico, 1920–1940


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Elizabeth Dore is Reader in Latin American History at the University of Southampton. She is the author of The Peruvian Mining Industry: Growth, Stagnation, and Crisis; the editor of Gender Politics in Latin America: Debates in Theory and Practice; and a coeditor of Hidden Histories of Gender and the State in Latin America, also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
2. Indians under Colonialism and Postcolonialism 33

3. Patriarchal Power in the Pueblos 53

4. The Private Property Revolution 69

5. Gendered Contradictions of Liberalism: Ethnicity, Property, and Households 97

6. Debt Peonage in Diriomo: Forced Labor Revisited 110

7. Patriarchy and Peonage 149

Conclusion 164

Epilogue: History Matters—The Sandinistas’ Myth of Modernity 172

Notes 181

Glossary 213

Bibliography 217

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: Who Controls the Past Controls the Future 1

1. Theories of Capitalism, Class, Gender, and Ethnicity 17

Index 239
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3674-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3686-0
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