Storms of Iron and Copper: Reflections on the Social Impact of Industrial Technology in the Nineteenth-Century U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

Across the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, the extractive industries carved complex social and environmental changes that deeply affected the landscape and communities of the region. Private companies and governments collaborated to build new railroads to support mining and other commercial endeavors, while new groups of people arrived in search of work. Long-standing views of proper conduct within frontier society gave way to hegemonic ideas of what it meant to be a “good citizen.” These transformations were closely linked to the deployment of new time-saving technologies that mobilized capital resources on behalf of state and corporate agents. This essay offers brief reflections on the impact of technical infrastructures and industrialization on everyday life in northern Mexico and the U.S. southwest during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Before the advent of railroads, the lengthy travel times across the Borderlands had left many parts of the region remote. Samuel Truett notes that in the minds of nineteenth-century contemporaries on the east or west coasts of North America, China and Norway may have seemed closer. Anglo-American investors believed places like Arizona and Sonora to be too far from “civilization” and thus represented too great a cost for mineral exploitation. The end of the U.S. Civil War and Mexican Wars of Reform, however, was an inflection point for the convergence of certain commercial and technological factors. National states on both sides of the border used new weapons and old tactics against indigenous communities living in the region, while investors and engineers drove construction of technical infrastructure. By the 1870s, government forces had defeated Apache resistance, while the Southern Pacific Rail Company transformed how local and outside groups thought about physical spaces by greatly reducing the time and cost of travel. Truett notes that goods that had once required weeks to traverse the frontier could arrive from San Francisco in a matter of days, marking the start of a new era in the region’s history.[1]

In many ways, Arizona and Sonora emerged as an industrial hub that fueled Mexican and U.S. economic growth. The widespread use of copper as an electrical conductor spurred investment in local mining operations. The resource boom drove regional population increases and companies like Phelps Dodge set up towns to house workers. Labor migration from other parts of North America, Europe, and Asia peopled these sites, bringing with them dreams of prosperity informed by Eurocentric notions of modernity and progress. This trend was closely associated with public and private policy in the region, emphasizing a notion of “conquest” vis-à-vis nature. The border no longer appeared as a faraway land to the burgeoning populations of the U.S. and Mexican metropole. As railroads helped to “close” the frontier in the late 1800s, the region was repositioned in media narratives as a kind of “cornucopia” of mineral wealth that promised to feed Gilded Age America and Porfirian Mexico.[2]

Railroads and industrialization also brought social change that unsettled existing notions of status tied to citizenship. Describing the permeability of status and identity in the Spanish and Mexican frontier of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Ana Maria Alonso finds that subaltern groups could gain full membership within the normative social order by participating in specific types of communal actions. For instance, one could be described as gente de razón (people of reason, i.e., “civilized”) if he or she practiced Roman Catholicism, engaged in sedentary agriculture, and killed Indians. This last element was particularly important, because it worked within a paradigm that defined civilization in opposition to the indios bárbaros. By participating in a system that valued European cultural norms and attacked the beliefs and customs of “outliers,” lower-status individuals could gain social clout and also “whiten” themselves within the frontier’s framework of race and ethnicity.[3]

The late nineteenth century witnessed a transformation in this paradigm as a need for self-defense against the Indian “other” gave way to new “progressive” interests. In the 1880s, Porfirian Mexico turned against the Indian fighters who had previously been characterized as “agents of civilization.” Now, their use of violence posed a new threat to the state’s evolving social order. At first, the Díaz regime tried to co-opt the serrano fighters, but later deployed federal soldiers to defeat them. This new war against once loyal “instruments” of the central government continued into the early twentieth century and contributed to the popular outcry against Díaz before the Mexican Revolution.[4] Moreover, it represented a transformation in how modernizing elites characterized notions of status and power in the Borderlands, replacing older arrangements with new ones that favored national commercial and political interests.

The social turmoil in northern Mexico reflected similar trends underway in Arizona. Prior to the arrival of large numbers of Anglo-American immigrants to Cochise County, the region’s inhabitants articulated a language of power informed by Mexican customs. Furthermore, locals essentialized Apache as a threatening other, which encouraged solidarity among Mexicans and U.S. Americans living in the area. Katherine Benton-Cohen notes that as railroads extended the power of the state, however, this arrangement changed. The army forcibly removed indigenous peoples from their lands, while Mexicans and Mexican Americans were “othered” by a growing Anglo power elite. In large part, this occurred as new settlements of Anglo Americans, like Bisbee, were founded and expanded in the region after the Civil War. Along with new workers, industrial firms like Phelps Dodge imposed new policies that modified existing social and racial hierarchies in favor of white migration. Although the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had guaranteed Mexican Americans legal whiteness, company managers placed an increasing amount of cultural distinctions on non-Anglos that forced them into positions of lower status.[5]

Ultimately, the introduction of railroads reduced the steep travel costs that had long left the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands isolated from governmental and commercial interests. This technology facilitated new forms of exploitation as the extractive industries drove financial incentives to build transportation infrastructure and import workers. The industrial processes that consumed the natural environment irrevocably affected the region’s social landscape as well. As government forces waged an often violent campaign against local indigenous communities, commercial interests brought other pressures that imposed new social and racial hierarchies on inhabitants. The creation of these new economic and political arrangements after 1870 cast a long shadow over the region’s history with deep-rooted consequences that continue to mark life across the border.

[1] Truett, Fugitive Landscapes: The Forgotten History of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 44-5, 58-59

[2] Truett, Fugitive Landscapes, 68, 73-77.

[3] Ana María Alonso, Thread of Blood: Colonialism, Revolution, and Gender on Mexico’s Northern Frontier (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997), 70-1.

[4] Alonso, Thread of Blood, 86-101, 168-172.

[5] Katherine Benton-Cohen, Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 24-86.

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2 thoughts on “Storms of Iron and Copper: Reflections on the Social Impact of Industrial Technology in the Nineteenth-Century U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

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