The word hacienda has dual meaning: it refers to an estate or large tract of land, and also to a factory, plantation, or mine that is located on said large estate.

Similar to the feudal system in Europe, haciendas in Mexico were owned by the nobility, employed local peoples in agriculture and production, and formed the basis of the economic system for hundreds of years. Prior to haciendas, agriculture and mining were used to support the local population. Suddenly, with the arrival of the Spanish, the country had demand for its exports overseas.

While haciendas in Mexico date as far back as the 16th century, they flourished from the 1800s to early 1900s. Those focused on producing agricultural products were prevalent.

With a minimum of 2500 acres, hacienda owners (called hacendados) couldn’t work their fields alone and brought in workers to live on and work at their estate. At first, these workers came from the surrounding areas. Then, to meet the growing demand for laborers, workers began to come from overseas. These large privately owned properties operated more like autonomous cities than businesses or farms; each had its own school, store, health facility, and chapel.

On the surface, the hacienda may seem similar to America’s southern tobacco and cotton plantations that functioned around the same time period. However, workers on the hacienda weren’t slaves, but were dependent on the hacendado, like a serf with his or her lord.

After falling into disuse in the early 1900s, most haciendas remained abandoned until the early 21st century, when many were restored to be used as hotels and restaurants.