Veins Across the Border: Building the Monterrey-Reynosa Highway and Its Impact on Everyday Life in Northern Mexico

The following essay is drawn from my dissertation research, which covers road building and motor travel in Mexico from 1920-1952. 

The celebrations that commemorated highway openings in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands reveal the optimism and ambitions that local communities had for greater binational engagement. In September 1941, for example, thousands of people gathered in Monterrey from across the region to inaugurate the new road to Reynosa, Tamaulipas. It was a great spectacle. The city police’s mariachi band and a travelling orchestra from Laredo, Texas played open-air concerts, while vendors lined the streets selling food and trinkets to visitors. Political speeches filled the day. Even the transit authority joined in the festivities, organizing a park for children to play-act driving with miniature automobiles and learn about motor safety.[1] These events evoked a sense of community, reflecting a passage from President Manuel Ávila Camacho’s first state of the union address: “It is not possible to truly integrate a sense of the nation without an ample road network that facilitates economic exchange [and] connects human groups.”[2]

Road building represented a significant financial commitment. In 1940, Nuevo León increased the highway budget by seventy-five percent to 1.2 million pesos, earmarking much of the money for the Reynosa road.[3] For state planners, it was a sound investment. Motor highways to Mexico had already helped bring in many new visitors as well as the promise of commercial growth. By 1937, the New York Times estimated that 30,000 automobiles crossed the border annually en route to Mexico City; in 1938, that figure more than tripled, and was expected to rise to as high as 400,000 vehicles the following year.[4] Moreover, when the road finally opened, not all of its promoters expected travel to only be southbound. The Chamber of Commerce in McAllen, Texas ran advertisements in Monterrey’s newspapers, promoting the border town as a nearby tourism and shopping escape for middle-class and wealthy Mexicans.[5]

Yet, the public festivities and glossy tourism ads overlooked a complex part of the story. The new highway also generated political conflict as it affected local everyday life. Wealthy landowners sued the state government to recover property damaged by construction efforts, while others who lacked the resources to wage legal battles had few options to block roadwork.[6] In other cases, increased motor traffic changed local spatial configurations. For example, in 1942, a farmer complained that the Reynosa highway had divided his land, putting his cattle at risk when they crossed to a nearby water source. He asked the state to install an irrigation line underneath the road to alleviate the problem. A more tragic case, however, occurred in the summer of 1945, when a bus traveling from the border to Monterrey struck and killed a six-year-old girl. The local outcry blamed reckless driving by outside motorists and demanded that the state transit police intervene to improve public safety in the area.[7]

These stories underscore larger issues related to access and modernity tied to road building in the twentieth century. On the one hand, highways reduced travel times and put once faraway destinations within reach. On the other hand, the benefits were uneven as new motor roads negatively affected some rural communities. In this way, although the Monterrey-Reynosa highway helped to grow the border economy, facilitating tourism and motor travel across the region, ironically, many residents who lived along the route saw their own spatial mobility reduced within a local, everyday context.

[1] “Mañana se inaugura la carretera,” 18 September, “A las diez horas de ayer partió la comitiva inaugural,” 20 September, El Porvenir.

[2] Manuel Ávila Camacho, first state of the union address, 1 September 1941, Informes Presidenciales, Cámara de Diputados (Mexico City: Dirección de Servicios de Investigación y Análisis, 2006), 45.

[3] Junta Local de Caminos de Nuevo León, Report to the Fourth Pan-American Congress on Highways, 11 January 1943, box 36, Junta Local de Caminos (JLCNL), Archivo Histórico (AH), Archivo General del Gobierno de Nuevo León (AGGNL), Monterrey.

[4] Russell C. Franck, “Good Roads in Mexico,” New York Times, 3 September 1939.

[5] “La ceremonia de la Inauguración de la Carretera y los Festejos de McAllen,” El Porvenir, 21 September 1941.

[6] Ernestina Díaz de Leal, lawsuit against the Junta Local de Caminos de Nuevo León, 30 June 1941, box 30; Petra & Maria Rodríguez, letter to Pablo Domínguez, head of Nuevo León’s road-building agency, 21 June 1944, box 40, JLCNL, AH, AGGNL.

[7] Armando Arteaga y Santoyo, letter to Domínguez, 17 August 1942, box 33; Letter from residents of Paso de la Loma to Domínguez, 9 July 1945, box 40, JLCNL AH, AGGNL.

Categories: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Veins Across the Border: Building the Monterrey-Reynosa Highway and Its Impact on Everyday Life in Northern Mexico

  1. James Starling

    This piece is an excellent preview for your dissertation.

    I am struck by the parallels between these highway projects of the Ávila Camacho presidency and the railroad building that took place during the porfiriato. This study will enable a fuller comparison of Mexican “liberalism” with the “revolutionary” state that followed in the twentieth century.

    This excerpt also demonstrates how well you incorporate social history and popular reactions into a topic that could easily be a top-down study of government policy and elite designs.

  2. Michael K. Bess

    James, thank-you very much. The parallel between railroad and motor road building is something I very much want to explore in the introduction to the dissertation to help frame the historical context of modern infrastructure development.

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