Crossing an Uneven Terrain: Capital, Labor, and State Power in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

The U.S.-Mexico border is a region of overlapping contact zones, an interstitial space where economic, political, social, cultural, and individual exchanges occur across the international boundary on a daily basis. Amid this personal and communal fluidity, however, the border also exists as an entity fixed by diplomatic treaty, militarization, and police enforcement as government agencies erect physical barriers for the abstract lines drawn across this area of North America. While state surveillance and regulation seek to make the region divisible, it is a project contested by the millions of undocumented immigrants, and others, who regularly defy its reductive processes. How the border is viewed and the vantage point from which it is observed are important subjective factors in a discussion of this area. In many ways, for the people who actually live in the borderlands, the national debate emanating from Washington and Mexico City can often appear astoundingly detached from the exigencies of everyday life.

The question of contact zones is an important one, relating to themes of modernity and nationalism. Claudio Lomnitz defines a zone as a “homogenous class of contact” related to economic, political, and cultural exchanges.[1] He labels the patchwork of distinctive contact zones as a “region” that serves as a space of identity production, which contributes to the formation of the national culture. This is a set of loaded ideas, especially at the border, because of the overlap that occurs across “foreign” societies. Lomnitz notes that the importation of material culture is a key factor within this process as international business influences how social identity is produced. The nation also cannot unilaterally steer identity formation; instead it is developed by a plurality of inputs that have originated from internal and external sources. The latter can be characterized by nativists as having a “corrupting” influence on the officially-sanctioned national collective identity.

The continuities and ruptures that have occurred in border society and politics manifest themselves in a spatial context as U.S. and Mexican cities and towns grew up alongside one another. W.I. Thomas’s observation that “If men define situations as real, they become real in their consequences” holds true for many border scholars as they study how difference is imposed by the state acting on a set national policy.[2] Tito Alegría finds that while border cities are spatially close to one another, in reality they are very distinct entities. He critiques the view that sees communities on the border as “twin cities” or “trans-border metropolises,” arguing against notions of homogeneity.[3]

In his study of Tijuana and San Diego, Alegría notes that significant institutional barriers complicate an individual’s ability to cross the border; for example, more than fifty percent of Tijuana’s population could not travel to the United States. Moreover, whether a citizen spoke English, Spanish, or both also determined the extent to which she or he could engage in regional society. He concludes that the data indicate that a lack of mutual understanding was prevalent in both communities, due to the institutional barriers that regulated the flow of people and their interactions across the border. Rather than use the term “sister city,” Alegría submits the concept “junto pero no revuelto” to acknowledge the geographic proximity and overlapping relationships each urban center shares, while remaining mindful of the differences that continue to exist.[4]

This idea can also be explored in work by Basilio Verduzco Chávez, Nora Bringas and Basilia Valenzuela Varela, characterizing Tijuana’s economic development in response to growth in San Diego and Los Angeles. As populations increased alongside political reforms that promoted greater social control in southern California, Tijuana served as an outlet for many Americans who hoped to avoid these ordinances. The authors emphasize that this reciprocity, which extended across the border economy, related not only to vice, but also covered labor relations and infrastructure development. They note that road construction played an integral role in how Mexican and U.S. border cities evolved and interacted with one another, as modern transportation facilitated economic exchanges between the two sides. They also argue that the emergence of San Diego as a strategic military and commercial port allowed Tijuana to fill the role of a support city that provided access to cheap labor and other services not readily available in the United States.[5]

From the early 1960s, the Mexican government built significant new infrastructure as part of the program extending road and rail systems, and also established new industrial parks in Tijuana, Monterrey and Ciudad Juárez. Patricia Moctezuma and Alejandro Mungaray emphasize the importance of the Programa Nacional Fronterizo as one of the first wide-ranging industrialization programs that targeted northern Mexico in an attempt to better connect the region to domestic consumer markets and stimulate industrialization. In four years, the region received more than four hundred million pesos’ worth of public investment; the PRONAF occurred within a socio-political framework that articulated economic projects with nationalist language and objectives. The goal was to promote a Mexican industrial base to support Mexican consumption and employment patterns, but in order to realize this plan state officials turned foreign corporations for investment.[6]

In 1965, Mexico’s Border Industrialization Program promoted export-oriented growth for the northern economy, introducing the maquiladora as an important manufacturing entity. Mario Margulis and Rodolfo Tuirán note that the rise of foreign-owned maquiladoras helped to expand the northern border’s economy, but also exacerbated the economic disconnection experienced between this region and the rest of Mexico. Foreign direct investment was very important to the success of this system, which served as a low-cost manufacturing base for an export market that relied on “free trade” principles to operate.[7]

When Mexico suffered the 1982 credit crisis, and later the 1994 peso devaluation, government authorities used these economic shocks to push through more neoliberal reforms. Grupo Monterrey, a consortium of industrial and commercial interests based in Nuevo León, asserted that in doing so Mexico could improve its infrastructural base and technological expertise with help from foreign corporations. They supported President Carlos Salinas de Gotari on the North American Free Trade Agreement, seeing it as a means to grow the economy by eliminating state regulations on the economy. Raúl Delgado-Wise and James Cypher challenge this position, arguing that instead of creating a vibrant industrial sector, commercial elites relied on cheap labor as the primary “export” of the Mexican economy. This arrangement represented a vast transfer of profits to the United States, where cost-savings gained in Mexico were rarely re-invested locally, but rather repatriated by foreign companies.[8]

While Salinas and his associates pointed to the successes of contemporary Asian economies and the integration of the European Union as models for NAFTA, Patricia Fernández Kelly and Douglas Massey critiqued this idea. They argued that the “Asian tigers” had pursued an aggressive program of government intervention in the economy via tariff protections, public investment in industry, and a coordinated policy between the state and private ventures to build a national high-tech manufacturing base. In Europe, the elimination of internal border controls was combined with capital investments from richer countries to poorer ones; the result created a space where not only money was free to travel across political boundaries, but also people.

Fernandez and Massey contend that NAFTA failed on both fronts to develop either a carefully directed, state-managed program for market growth or address the issue of human mobility effectively. Although Salinas had hoped that the agreement would allow Mexico to “export goods, not people,” but the treaty’s deregulatory principles exposed greater numbers of Mexican farmers to powerful American and Canadian competitors who used agricultural mechanization to undercut prices. Fernández and Massey argue that by emphasizing the needs of corporate elites, and failing to adequately address the causes of systemic poverty in Mexico, NAFTA ultimately exacerbated extant socio-economic problems at the border and across the continent.[9]

Reduced controls over the flow of capital investments continued to grow northern Mexico’s maquiladora sector. Foreign electronics companies became an important source of employment at this time in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, incorporating the region into their supply networks focused on export to the United States. While American and European corporations maintained a presence, Asian producers from Japan, Taiwan, and Korea became particularly aggressive in establishing a manufacturing base in the region. Jorge Carillo and Alfredo Hualde explore the question of “border clusters” in the electronic sector where outside companies rely on imported parts from East Asia for assembly in Mexico and re-export to the United States as finished products. The industry relied on the development of local manufacturing infrastructure and expertise in the region; the authors note that Mexico was particularly attractive due to its proximity to American markets and its source of cheap labor. The concept of “clusters” is important here, because the facilities relied very little on local suppliers for parts; instead, companies formed tightly knit manufacturing groups that were much more oriented to international markets for supply and demand. The authors emphasize that the major input from Mexico in the foreign electronic clusters was low-cost wage labor.[10]

As this foreign capital flowed into the borderlands, and the region became a strategic site for manufacturing supply chains in the world economy, state restrictions on human mobility increased. The passage of NAFTA occurred alongside redoubled efforts by the United States government to erect barriers at its southern border to prevent the crossings of undocumented immigrants into the country. This aggressive policing program began in the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez area with Operation Blockade, followed by Gatekeeper in San Diego and Hold the Line in Arizona. They were made possible by the Immigration Control and Reform Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1986, which gave a path to citizenship to more than one million undocumented immigrants living in the country, while also raising budgets for immigration enforcement. Subsequent laws ratified in 1996 and 2005 continued to focus on the latter component of regulating human mobility.[11] Ultimately, the growth in surveillance increased the cost of crossing the border for many workers and reinforced policies in favor of militarization. Today, the use of drones and other technologies that were refined in theaters of combat increasingly find implementation in the borderlands under the guise of “homeland security” and the War on Drugs.

As an analytical framework, borderlands history offers a clear appreciation of the contours of transnational capital flows, human mobility, and state power in the modern world. The U.S.-Mexico border region has become an integral component in the global economy as foreign investment relies on maquiladora production for U.S.-oriented consumer markets. It has also become the site of contentious political episodes, most recently over international outcry over the treatment of child refugees from Central America These episodes uncover the deep social challenges and unfulfilled economic promises that mark the relationship between the United States and Mexico. Nevertheless, as thousands of individuals on both sides of the international boundary interact with one another, their daily lives speak to the vigorous character of everyday personal exchanges and offer hope for greater understanding in the future.

[1] Claudio Lomnitz, Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico: An Anthropology of Nationalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 130.

[2] W.I. Thomas, The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs (New York: Knopf, 1928), 571-72.

[3] Tito Alegría, “Juntos pero no revueltos: Ciudades en la frontera México-Estados Unidos,” Revista Mexicana de Sociología, Vol. 62, No. 2 (April – June 2000), 89-90.

[4] Ibid., 90-94.

[5] Basilio Verduzco Chávez, Nora Bringas, and Basilia Valenzuela Varela, La ciudad compartida: Desarrollo urbano, comercio y turismo en la región Tijuana-San Diego (Guadalajara: Universidad de Guadalajara, 1995), 22; 68-69; 72-74.

[6] Alejandro Mungaray and Patricia Moctezuma, “El mercado de la frontera norte y las políticas de integración del consumo fronterizo a la producción nacional,” Revista Mexicana de Sociología, Vol. 50, No. 4 (October – December 1988), 230-33.

[7] Mungaray and Moctezuma, 237-40.

[8] Raúl Delgado Wise and James M. Cypher, “The Strategic Role of Mexican Labor under NAFTA: Critical Perspectives on Current Economic Integration,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 610 (March 2007), 136-38.

[9] Fernández, 104-05.

[10] Jorge Carillo and Alfredo Hualde, “La maquiladora electrónica en Tijuana: Hacia un cluster fronterizo,” Revista Mexicana de Sociología, Vol. 64, No. 3 (July – September 2002), 128; 138-40. [

11] Fernández, 108-09.

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2 thoughts on “Crossing an Uneven Terrain: Capital, Labor, and State Power in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

  1. James Starling

    The spatial relationship between border cities fascinates me. Some of the U.S. cities adjacent to Mexican border cities function much like the large gated communities, and increasingly seem to be spaces for “expatriates” and privileged locals (the Euro-American minority and a Mexican border elite).

  2. Michael K. Bess

    I really hope we’ll see more work done on this dynamic from historical and sociological perspectives. The relative ease of movement for the border commercial/political elites complicates the whole notion of status between the United States and Mexico. Especially, in the everyday context of living and working on the border.

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