|8th Annual Conference of the European Business History Association (EBHA)
Barcelona, 16-18 September 2004
Credit and information services: an example of inter-organizational collaboration between small firms and large firms. Argentina (1890-1930).
History Department, IESH
Universidad Nacional de La Pampa
The main object of our research is the study of business intermediation and rural entrepreneurship in the pampas from the final years of the nineteenth century until the 1930´s. In parallel, our study has attempted to illuminate the function of a small-family firm and the emerging of a regional commercial network in interrelated levels -local (retailers), national (banks, manufacturers and importers) and transcontinental (exporters)- to explain the internal market expansion in Argentina and the consumption of imports and local products in a new scale.
The trade-credit linkage constructed a dense network of market interaction in the Argentinean pampas from the final years of the nineteenth century until the 1930´s. In the base of this regional commercial network, acting as a focal point, was the local merchant.
There is not doubt about the centrality of local agents in the export boom at the beginning of the twentieth-century in Argentina, a country that ranked among the top five exporters of wheat in the world.1 The agrarian expansion was the motor of the economic growth of Argentina and it was part of a wider economic process that included other Latin American rural areas which developed forms of commercial agriculture. In this process rural merchants have been a key driving force behind rural-led economic development in the Argentinean pampas. By satisfying the demands of the population both as consumers and as producers and providing farmers with advice, vital finance, marketing, and others “community life” services, they have filled an entrepreneurial gap.
Banks, machinery importer, insurances companies and manufacturers rarely made direct transactions with farmers (who were renters in a 62 percent in 1914). But not only credit and material flows configured this regional network. The evidence suggests that each of these firms were seeking to combine their strengths and overcome weaknesses, and through informal contacts national or international firms obtaining efficient and reliable information to operate in the area. In this sense, this paper explores the role of the informal contacts in the process of overcome information asymmetries and particularly, the importance of local agents for expanded commercial credit and small business loans in the interior of Argentina.
The way in which commercial networks are organized varies over time and across space, and we are concentrated in one of the margins of the pampeana region (the National Territory of La Pampa). The main focus of the research is the history of the Casa Torroba Brothers which was the most important commercial house in La Pampa Territory.2 Casa Torroba was opened in Santa Rosa, La Pampa, in 1897. The firm expanded its activities by setting up branches in the province of Buenos Aires (1903 and 1911) and in the Commercial Bureau in Buenos Aires (1905). These first steps were strategic for the owners (Torroba Brothers) to widen their commercial knowledge, contacts and capabilities. From the 1910s till the 1930s they managed to diversify and make their commercial headings even more complex and varied. The firm’s commercial letters, consisting of 50 volumes of 1000 pages each, show clearly the inter-organizational collaboration between firms.
Some historical evidences: the role of rural merchants
The country general stores, called in Argentina "almacenes de ramos generales", played an important role in the agrarian expansion, channelling part of the production toward the port and providing inputs, machinery, capital but also clothes and dry canned food for rural producers until the major yearly crops were harvested. The commercial and credit practices of “almaceneros “ were related to the nature of the merchant profession in rural Argentina and in other contexts as shown by other researchers [Cerutti (1992), Langer (1994), Weimers (1985) Garate Ojanguren (1997), White (2001), Atherthon (1991); Benson (1992) for example]. Why they did do that?
a) Due to economic interest:
It should be noted that many agents in fact made little profit from re-lending bank or commercial money. Instead, the loans were vital to tie farmers into long-term trading relationship from which the agents derived most of their profits. 3
b) Due to “specialization”:
The merchant is more willing to assume the risks attendant on credit running for several months and without material security than was the bankers, because they were professional risks takers.(Livesay and Porter, 1971) In this affirmation we following new theoretical understanding of credit markets. These advances have evolved from a paradigm that emphasized the problems of imperfect information and imperfect enforcement4. (Hoff and Stiglitz, 1993 and Casson, 1998, Ayala, 1999) 5
Control of information is vital in sectors such as transportation, retailing and banking.
And particularly the crucial function of financial intermediaries is to be able to respond to information. The problem in the credit market is that important information is extremely costly to acquire and process (Godley and Ross, 1996). But the effort and cost in acquiring the information can be paid because they used the information for a variety of other purposes in addition to loans. Thus, the cost of information for a multi-purpose merchant was defrayed across a number of income generating retailing activities.
Personal supervision and monitoring6
As we affirmed a great deal of the information is required to extend credit in all of its forms. To improve enforcement, monitoring debtors or competitors of the firm needed relevant information on potential clients. But supervision required time, costs and ability and rural merchant expended significant time and resources to obtain information and screening the loan applicants to reduce the risk of default.
These were a highly specialized type of lending, particularly, for the function of screening borrowers. Ville (1996) found that "Networks based on personal relationships may prove to have a significant advantage as intermediaries, because they may have access to more and better information, and they may be able to interpret the information more accurately than banks". For example, an in-depth knowledge of the family background and personal integrity of an applicant may be seen as credible information within the orbit of a local or cultural/religious network, but not necessarily in a bank. Use of such information, however, would allow for a more efficient screening process. (Godley and Ross, 1996)
Their closer geographical and personal proximity to the rural communities facilitated information acquisition through direct observation and made its recollection easy. In general, this was because these stores were local firms whose staff came from the vicinity. The correspondence of merchants indicated that many were on close terms with local farmers and sometimes advised them on personal matters. 7
Looking inside the practices and terms in which merchants functioned as financial providers is not enough to understand their centrality because local tradespersons operated within complex networks of relationships, connected as they were to different groups. As Simon Ville showed for Australasian pastoral industry, they served as a conduit for the flow of financial, commercial, and technical services (Ville, 2000). Private records and letters show that much of commercial career success was attributable to relationships with different firms. Exposed briefly, the trade-credit linkage between local retailers and their suppliers created a dense network of market interaction. A particular characteristic of argentinean rural market was that banks, machinery importers, insurance companies, and manufacturers rarely made direct transactions with farmers (62 percent of whom were renters). The high risk of lending activities and the asymmetries of information were two reasons why national and international firms preferred to interpose a merchant as their agent or intermediary.
Overcoming the asymmetries of information:
A large body of literature shows that asymmetric information between borrowers and lenders can prevent the efficient allocation of credit.8 How was possible in settlement areas overcoming the uncertainty? Various information-sharing devices evolved to meet the problem of asymmetrical information. An informal mechanism was the use of letter of recommendation. In the commercial community, it was usual to sent and receive requests of commercial information. A favourable recommendation was indispensable for local retailers in its beginnings. The recommendation was a moral guaranty without implying a material one. For that reason, the credibility of information was based exclusively on trust in the source of information.
A second way of overcoming the information problem was institutionalized the use of credit reports to help determine whether credit could be given. An early example of this was the publication in 1889 of the “Veritas Financiero, comercial e industrial de la América del Sur”. The volume was dedicated to big importers and merchants of Buenos Aires and Montevideo cities, and sorting the firms into clearly discernible
groups: “serias, honradas, muy honorables, trabajadoras” (serious, honesty, very honourable and hard-working). Also the Veritas determined the firms' creditworthiness and provided a numerical ranking of borrower credit quality. The maximum category was A1 (unlimited credit) continuing through eleven minor categories (between $200.000 and $3.000). Finally, there were 8 lower categories of firms’ creditworthiness:
V véase el modo de trabajar (see the modes of working)
D moralidad dudosa (aun se dice) (doubtful morality)
Z (pedirnos informes complementarios) (ask for complementary reports)
N poco capital, crédito 400 (low capital)
X crédito discutido s/la plaza (discuss credit)
4 quisquilloso (aun se dice)( touchy)
B ha hecho malos negocios (bad business)
U abstenerse (abstention)
The complexity and commercial growth of Argentinean market caused the emergency of credit report agencies at the end of XIX century. Some of them were brands of American firms such as G. Dun & Co. 9 In the Unites status, since 1841, the commercial credit reporting agencies were consolidated as an established business institution due to the general economic change in the nineteenth-century America. Rapidly expanding markets, technological innovations and increased speed and volume in the production and distribution of goods created new problems as well as opportunities for credit report agencies (Madison, 1974:186).
In Argentina, as our evidence suggests, the first agencies were organized at the beginning of XX century in Buenos Aires, showing the demand of more sophisticated systems of credit reports. The development process of mercantile agencies in Spanish American countries was slow due to the contemporaneous views. Some local business man could not understand how they could be benefited by disclosing their affairs to a foreign concern, and they looked upon it as a piece of impertinence and trespass on their privacy. Still in 1915, William Lough, qualified as “moderate” the insertion of these firms into the local business practices: “the inadequacy of the old-time system, of estimating credit through purely personal relations and impressions has shown itself in its true light and has been to a considerable extent reformed. An American mercantile agency in Buenos Aires is doing its part toward popularizing the practice of giving financial statements. The banks are more and more interested –especially since the severe lessons of the recent crisis- on full and accurate information. It is expected that the access to credit information in Buenos Aires will from now on conform more closely to the practice in the United States”.
A similar opinion was postulate by Santamarina in 1912: “The pioneer work of establishing branches of a mercantile agency in Spanish American countries proved to be a very hard proposition (…) The trained men sent by R. G. Dun & Co. to those countries for that purpose had to withstand many and continued rebuffs for a long time and to exercise great patience and diplomacy to overcome prejudice. But they have succeeded and now have branches in the various commercial and industrial centres throughout Spanish America. Through their able branch in Buenos Aires they are prepared to furnish American manufacturers and other interested in trade with the Argentine reliable information as to the standing and responsibility of the various companies and firms doing business there, in the same manner as with trade in the United States”.
Overcoming prejudices and difficulties and adopting to local idiosyncrasy, reporting credit agencies was developing in urban environments As theoretical works suggests, credit bureaus and mercantile agencies tend to emerge in countries where people were relatively mobile and, to a lesser extent, where the ratio of consumer borrowing to consumption was higher. But, what did happen in rural areas? How to reduce the cost of reliable information?
Inter organizational collaboration: the role of information10
Regional networks could overcome information asymmetries and therefore reduce screening, monitoring and enforcing cost in the rural areas for non-local firms. Some suppliers of credit had to deal with multiple borrowers at the same time in very distance markets. In rural areas, the “informal” channels provided the main source of credit reports. Evidence shows the centrality of this type of flux of information between different firms and how local merchants developed an extensive information exchange among themselves, with clients, and with other institutions.
National companies and different types of suppliers need to expanded their activities and operations with other small businessman or rural producers. For that reason, national companies need to develop systems to overcome the lack of information. The small business loan market is perhaps the segment of the credit market where asymmetric information was most pronounced (Japelli and Pagano, 1999:3). The function of local agent, through collaborative strategies with other firms, was sharing information and provided the services of commercial references, practices that went into the commercial networks codes of operation.
As Cole and Mishler (1998) shows in the US most of the early credit bureaus were cooperatives or nonprofit ventures set up by local merchants to pool the credit histories of their customers and to assist in collections activities. The ability of local agents to acquire better information more cheaply than national or international firms rested in their local networking capabilities. Traditionally, local agents’ services were acquiring information concerning loan applicants’ (firms or individuals) characteristics and functioned as informal mercantile agencies providing credit reports.
The main users of these services were commercial “allies” such as the Banco Español del Río de la Plata and the Banco de la Nación, the biggest financial institution of the country. The report forms included many questions with the intention of obtaining a truthful indicator of the “concept of the firm” (“verdadero indicador del concepto que la firma merece al informante”. In second place, we found the requests of the machinery importers (Agar Cross, International Harvester), insurances companies (La Rural) and manufacturers (Ford Co.; West Indian Oil Co., Terrabusi, Bodegas Giol, among others). All of these firms in their operations with small and marginal businesses could not appeal to geographical proximity for sorting and monitoring their clients, and used the services of local agents as Casa Torroba. For national or international firms, the principal cost of gathering information is the opportunity cost of the time spent in investigation (Casson, 1998)11. The nature of asymmetric information in the lending process means that this was a particularly difficult and expensive function for lenders to perform effectively, considering the particular context of an agrarian society (distances, isolated farms, bad roads, high spatial mobility). The centrality of this service is clear.12 It was vital for lenders to acquire a wide range of information as a basis for assigning risk categories to potential borrowers and then to be able to monitor their progress effectively during the course of the loan and enforce the contract if necessary.
Even the professional credit agencies, such as The British Information Bureau; the Opinión Comercial; Agencia Comercial Mayo; Dun & Bradstreet Co. and the Asesor del Comercio, relied on merchants information in the cases of distant and unknown firms. Obviously, that process was influenced by economies of scale; and also explained why is more evident the use of informal channels to obtain information on retailers from rural areas.
The suppliers of credit –banks, manufacturers, among others- had problems to serve small firms due to the high transaction costs and risks involved in its operation. Risk was resulting from insolvency due to cash-flow problems (because of growth and long debt collection) and could be exposed in the retailing commercial volatility. The volatility of the small-firm population reflected the competition, the uncertainties of everyday life but also the high risks of a liberal politics of lending. Birth rates were high but so too were death rates. Between 1900-1930, the 75 per cent of retail stores (almacén, tienda y ramos generales) had a life span of 5 years or less13.
We don't have contemporary estimates on annual average loss of the commercial sector (neither of wholesaler or rural merchants), but the large number of commercial societies bankruptcy is an indirect sign of how large the loss on bad debts could be. 14 Since the harvest or wool products served as the guarantee for the credits (in their different modalities), crop’s failure inflicted losses on the creditor as well as the debtor. And in years of poor crops the merchant's losses were, consequently, relatively high.15
For that reason, we interpreted that Buenos Aires commercial community preferred to deal with long-standing clients. The game between a lender and his clients is likely to be repeated over a succession of years, the lender should find it less difficult to distinguish between bad luck and creditworthiness.
To sum up, the study of thousands of commercial transactions and commercial letter shows that not only credit and material flows configured this regional network. Information was essential to making economic decisions: improving provisions, increasing security, and thus gaining major control of an area still under construction, where difficulties in communication were frequent, economic operations were risky, and distances significant
Methods and classification:
Casa Torroba used different methods to recollect information. Their closer geographical and personal proximity to the regional business community facilitated information acquisition through direct observation. In a complementary way, they listened and inquired into what happened in the surroundings. For those reasons, they used their social and political influences and contacts, visiting regularly local bankers, authorities and colleagues. Another point was to be on the alert when customers gathered in front of the counter.
Casa Torroba also used indirect methods to obtain information. In those cases, they explained in their letters that the data was obtained through indirect mechanisms mentioning: they said to us (nos dicen); a trustful client gives the data (Un cliente de nuestra confianza nos da los datos), we asked at our relationships for references, (preguntamos entre nuestras relaciones por referencias, a friend of us supplied the data (un amigo nuestro nos suministra los datos)”. If those resources were insufficient, they sent employees with the mission of procure the data requested (“el práctico que mande es de confianza”. In another occasions, they wrote letters to some colleges explaining: “A pedido de nuestras relaciones y a quien queremos darle los datos más certeros…” (T., C. 44, F. 448, 1925).
To illustrate the internal methods of sorting clients, we could mention the system used in 1912 for Casa Torroba with their own customers. They classified clients into four categories of creditworthiness: all right (de confianza); good (buenos), regular and without credit (sin crédito) 16. This classification was available on the counter for the permanent consult by employees. In general, the good references expressed: "people of good morality and trustworthy" (gente de buena moral y cumplidora), the intermediate cases were: "clients for little and short-term credit” (clientes para poco crédito y de corto plazo esto a nuestro parecer) and in the opposite side were the cases denominated: “birds of bad omen" (pájaro de mal agüero).
Different requests of credit reports arrived daily and the answers of Casa Torroba started with: “regarding the information requested”17.The credit reports combined two types of criterions: objective (level of capital, indebtedness, family composition, and some times, ability to pay) and subjective. In the last cases, the focus of information was on the willingness to work and concepts related to honourable behaviour and being able to keep word of honour (valor de su palabra). Firms’ creditworthiness was shaped by the multiple attributes of the small retail business.
The subjective valuation was plenty of references related with character, morality and personal habits. Laziness and bad habits were opposed to hard-working and good morality. Sometimes local merchants considered the administration of home economy and the level of spending. The small businessmen were also classified according to their commercial trajectory and the outlook of business performance, where the difference between prosperous merchants and those who only were able to maintain themselves was notorious.
Positive references included the qualifying as good firm, active person, energy, economical and trustworthy (cumplidoras). The negative ones comprehended concepts of regular firms, dishonest, extravagant and other definitions such as: no es de progreso, poco económico, demora sus pagos y poco serio.18 In that sense, and as a particularity of non-professional system of reporting, this method of obtaining information could be influenced by rumours or personal bias. The informal methods of exchanging data relied on the local agent subjectivity and in knowledgeable evaluations of the individual’s business experience and personal reputation on his community. Character functioned as an effective substitute for provide information without specialized rules or training.
Using those criterions, each lender was evaluated and classified into creditworthiness categories and providing timely information about the characteristics and behavior of potential borrowers. Unlimited credit and low credit were the two extremes of a large continuum of credit range. (Nuestra opinión es que un crédito de 1000 pesos han de cumplirlo). A good synthesis of credit relationship inside the commercial community was José Mieres´s assertion in his book about the “significance of morality in commerce”: El crédito es el producto de la historia general de un comerciante multiplicado por la responsabilidad del mismo. Prueba de la fuerza de la moral aún en lo más rudo del mercantilismo es que, el hombre sin capital pero con buena historia, consigue crédito, y, el hombre con él, pero de mala fe no lo consigue” (Mieres, 1918).
The information obtained for local agents was detailed and covered a multiplicity of ranges: climate, political and productive conditions, local market conditions and consumption patterns. Every year bankers, industrialists, importers, or security managers also wrote asking for statistics and data concerning agricultural activities. For example, Casa Torroba sent a letter to the Spanish Bank (branch of Carhué) in 1919: “We have received your letter and following your request we attach lists of firms in the second section of this government. All of them own land, and the ones marked with an X are businessmen who own capital and can be recommended for their excellent morality and background. We have a great number of tenants and ranchers who would also share these characteristics but we have not listed them as we wanted you to have a sample of the best clients in our area.”
Another example was this answer to the Nation Bank from Torroba in 1925: “As an answer to your letter received yesterday, we must inform you that we are carrying out a very extensive survey of the area under cultivation which has not been completed yet, due to the fact that flax is still being sown but we may state that approximately 25000 hectares have been sown with wheat, 5000 has oats, 8000 has Rye, 4000 has barley and 6000 has flax. From these figures we estimate between 1 and 15 percent will be stored in the nearby railway stations.” These kinds of data were vital to determining entrepreneurial strategies and enlarging control over the market.
Trade requires people to make contact with each other, to communicate their needs, to explain what they can offer in return, to negotiate prices, and to monitor the fulfilment of their contacts. Intermediation can reduce the costs of these activities. Market-making intermediation is thus a value-added activity; indeed, it is one of the most important sources of added value in the entire economy (Casson, 1998). Unique historical conditions determined that local agents in La Pampa filled an entrepreneurial gap by satisfying the demands of the population both as consumers and as producers, providing farmers with advice, vital finances for short-term marketing, and other “community life” services.
Hence, we can nuance the classic image of rural merchant as a monopolistic and isolated economic agent with a broader analysis of merchants’ activities, showing how we can only understand them through reciprocal patterns of communication and exchange with other firms. Networks were vital to credit, products, and information flows within and between communities. Regular day-to-day contact was vital for negotiation of contracts, the distribution of goods, and agreeing on terms of credit. This research, through case studies, highlights different dimensions of inter-organizational collaboration between firms in two relevant dimensions. First, webs of credit (or debt) undoubtedly created special relationships between firms. Second, the vitality and functionality of these economic cooperative relations reduced the costs of reliable information derived from the specialization and proximity of local agents. As Casson and Wadeson ( 1996) pointed out communications costs provide a metric for measuring the economic distance between the source of information, its storage location, the locus of control and the task which ultimately needs to be carried out”.
Most of the literature neglects the exchange of information with other lenders as an alternative way to learn about one's own customers. This exchange was voluntary and operated on the principle of networking reciprocity. We found that networks based on personal relationships might have a significant advantage as intermediaries because they provided fast access to reliable information, allowing firms to respond to changing economic circumstances. As Powell (1990) observed you trust most the information that comes from someone you know well. In coincidence with the expansion of more formal methods of exchanging information (as agencies), many companies continued to rely on personal ties for acquiring data. The principal segment of requests was the consumer credit and small business loans.
As the evidence suggests, regional networks can overcome information asymmetries within loan contracts and therefore reduce screening cost.19 However, the type, quality, and quantity of data available, and information-sharing mechanism, vary greatly. Rural merchants agree to exchange of information spontaneously because they had strong commercial relationships with the national or international firms and bank.
We regard this paper is no more than a first step in the empirical analysis of the effects of information sharing inside commercial networks. And we are conscious that it is inaccurate to characterize networks solely in terms of collaboration and concord. Each point of contact in a network can be a source of conflict, particularly when each member retains considerable independence. As we studied in another work, the principal points of conflicts or tensions between local agents and national/international agents were localized in prices, sales terms (periods and interest rates), services and responsibilities, and finally, the definition of the area of operation (derechos territoriales).
In recent years, business historians have explored the significance of “networks” and their role in linking many small and family firms in order to broaden our understanding of the complexity of interactions and transactions.20 In this vein, I have attempted to illuminate the function of a small-family firm and the emergence of a regional commercial network in interrelated levels to explain internal market expansion and the process of economic growth in rural areas.
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