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Exploring Commodities

An Anthropologist on the Trails of Malinowski and Traven in Mexico

Scott Cook

Commodities of one type or other have been produced, transferred and consumed in the economic life of humanity through every epoch of its development and forms of sociocultural organization, but are pervasive in the varieties of capitalism dominating contemporary world economies. Even labor, a necessary element in all forms of commodity production, has itself been commoditized. Embodying three kinds of potentially realizable value – use, exchange, and symbolic – commodities reflect and affect various facets of humanity’s sociocultural life. They have been investigated by knowledge producers ranging from Aristotle and Ibn Khaldun through Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx down to a whole host of twentieth-century economists and others like the anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, and the storyteller, B. Traven.

In this book noted economic anthropologist Scott Cook draws on many decades of fieldwork in the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Tamaulipas to take on the challenge of crafting an academic memoir designed to provide insights into the role of commodities in his own life and times and especially in his anthropological career. He undertakes this project in conjunction with a running interpretation of the contrasting approaches of Malinowski and Traven to the topic of commodity production and exchange in Mexico.

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Chapter 7 Traven, Handmade Bricks, and the Texas-Mexico Border


The Rio Grande Valley of deep south Texas is truly separate and distinct from the rest the state – and even from that part above it to the north but south of San Antonio. Even most Texans who have been there agree that it’s a whole other world. The reasons for the detectably different existential look and feel of Valley life lie in history and geography. First off, it is not a valley but a river delta. The designation “valley” came from late nineteenth-early twentieth–century land developers who used the term “Magic Valley” to lure Midwestern farmers to relocate there on the railroad system out of St. Louis, Missouri completed in 1904 (Cook 1998:23–24). This project was successful and resulted in a few decades in a massive transformation of land tenure, use, and settlement patterns associated with demographic increase, urbanization, and ethno-political upheaval. This was largely an Anglo-American project to establish an Anglo agro-business culture with native Mexican labor. There was, of course, an emergent ethno-class structure that left some people of Mexican descent as landowners and as upper- or middle-class business owners – but political power for decades after the major towns along the railroad line were built – like Harlingen in Cameron Country and Mercedes, Weslaco, Donna, Pharr, McAllen, and Mission in Hidalgo County – remained mostly in the hands of the Anglo-Texan settler minority. Social life in the towns was originally segregated – Mexicans lived either north or south of the tracks which typically ran through the middle of...

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