Book Review: Iron Horse Imperialism: The Southern Pacific of Mexico, 1880-1951

Lewis, Daniel. Iron Horse Imperialism: The Southern Pacific of Mexico, 1880-1951. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007. 192 pp. Paperback. $18.95

Iron Horse Imperialism Book Cover

For Borderlands historians, Iron Horse Imperialism: The Southern Pacific of Mexico, 1880-1951 offers an exemplary study of business, politics, and society. Daniel Lewis uses the history of the SP de México as a vehicle to explore questions of identity and state formation in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Incorporated in New Jersey, for many years, managers touted the company’s U.S. identity, characterizing the enterprise within an imperialist discourse that endeavored to extend “progress” to an “uncivilized” landscape. At the time, the government of Porfirio Díaz welcomed the new line as a means to improve access to Mexico’s difficult-to-reach northwestern lands, reinforcing its control over the region. Harsh terrain and local resistance slowed construction efforts, and over the decades, the company relied on often-contentious relationships with Yaquis, Cristero rebels, and the government to complete the track from the border to Guadalajara. In particular, the Mexican Revolution challenged expansion plans, forcing the company’s powerful U.S. parent to pour millions of dollars into the subsidiary’s operations to repair damage the conflict inflicted.

The Southern Pacific of Mexico’s example underscores the significance of national identity within political and economic contexts. Although its managers touted its American bona fides and often showed preferential treatment for U.S. workers, they also spent years lobbying the Mexican government to gain legal status as a domestic company. This recognition would have permitted it to utilize a more accommodating tax regime, but public officials repeatedly rebuffed these overtures. At the same time, the line also faced trouble from U.S. authorities who heavily taxed the goods it shipped across the border after Washington passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in 1930. Lewis clearly shows that in the SP de Mex’s attempts to balance Mexican and U.S. identities, the company ultimately failed to stake a clear advantage with either country. In large part, he argues that this occurred due to management’s refusal to fully appreciate the control that the Mexican government could exercise over corporate operations. Repeatedly, national officials levied tax and debt burdens on the company that denied the SP de Mex the same power and influence its parent enjoyed north of the border.

Lewis connects this arrangement to the broader history of the U.S.-Mexican relationship and the memory of 1848 land grab. He argues that although Mexico could not reclaim the territory lost, it reinforced its national sovereignty by exerting political and economic control over the foreign firms that operated inside its boundaries. The government—especially beginning with President Venustiano Carranza—used its regulatory practices as a check on U.S. power in the country, framing it within the language of political resistance stemming from the 1848 war.

Ultimately, Lewis’s study excels at bringing together U.S. and Mexican sources to clearly examine contrasting political and economic arrangements. He carefully highlights the politics of identity formation as nation-states adjudicated the contours and limits of corporate operations. In this way, the SP de Mex serves as a focal point to better understand how national leaders in Washington and Mexico City used commercial interactions along the territorial margins of both countries to articulate notions of national sovereignty and define concepts of “modernity” and “progress.”

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