Industry, Community, and Social Change: Brief Reflections on the Impact of Infrastructure Development in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

This short essay is a spiritual sequel to a post I wrote for the blog in February 2015, adapted from a conference paper about infrastructure, economic development, and state formation presented at a meeting of the WHA. -MK

The implementation of new infrastructure technologies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had a profound impact on society in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. The desire to improve the mobility of goods and people conflicted with desires to control who could be considered part of the towns and settlements that appeared around mining operations. It is a history that informs many contemporary political discussions about the border, foreshadowing future problems that can emerge from state and national governments hostile to diversity.

The growth in national rail networks linked once remote regions together and greatly reduced travel times. Sam Truett describes how the desire for access to copper reserves in Sonora drove economic expansion, which was facilitated by the arrival of new iron pathways. Whereas entrepreneurs had long lacked access to mineral resources due to the high cost of extraction and transport no longer faced such an insurmountable, railroads changed this condition. In Nacozari, Sonora, the U.S. firm Phelps, Dodge and Company expanded copper operations and connected the town to its burgeoning transportation network. Despite environmental challenges, corporate managers and engineers were more concerned with growth that fit within the parameters of the “regional empire” being built by Phelps Dodge.

Examining social change and racial division, Katherine Benton Cohen’s work on the creation of a “white man’s camp” in Bisbee, Arizona is a key example of the role of infrastructure development in the borderlands. She notes that whereas whites had tended to assimilate into Mexican cultural norms in the region in the mid-1800s, this gradually changed. The growth in Anglo migration, in conjunction with the removal of hostile Indian communities in 1886 undermined previous social dynamics. Phelps Dodge also had a hand in this process as they expanded mining operations and developed labor hierarchies that inscribed different racialized ideas onto the local community. A dual wage system for workers favored whites and rendered Mexican labor as “inferior” by paying them a lower rate. By the late 1800s, in Bisbee, Phelps Dodge had been the town’s largest employer and had used socially divisive labor hierarchies to its advantage. Company managers forged paternalistic practices through the construction of schools and development of other social services for whites, placing these activities under the guise of “modernizing” the community.

Benton Cohen’s research parallels Truett’s work on Cananea, Sonora, where Phelps Dodge representatives imported “American-styles” of living, going so far as shipping pre-fabricated homes from Los Angeles for Anglo residents. Both authors note how these architectural norms reinforced notions of racial inferiority as the company constructed smaller, cruder dwellings for Mexicans. In many respects, industrialization and urbanization brought new social pressures as local elites sought to inscribe a tiered notion of status not only in people’s pay, but also in the spaces where they lived. The idea of “America” championed by Phelps Dodge and others sought to reinforce these uneven relationships among Anglos, Mexicans, and other participants in the industrializing project that transformed the frontier into the border.

Miguel Tinker Salas approaches the question of border society and infrastructure development from the perspective of Mexico. He attempts to bridge the scholarly divide by drawing transnational connections between Arizona and Sonora as a Latin Americanist scholar studying the borderlands. Tinker Salas discusses the motivations for railroad construction among contemporary Sonorans, who saw the technology as an “instrument of progress.” He finds that local elites’ embrace of this new form of transportation went beyond economic calculations and included a socio-cultural impetus. Since railroads represented a modernizing project with substantive transformative aspects, Sonorans hoped the technology could allow their state to assert itself vis-à-vis regional economic competitors in the United States.

By the early twentieth century, government officials and popular opinion among whites, especially during the Great Depression, turned against the on-going demographic changes that greater mobility had afforded the borderlands. In response to the country’s economic crisis, state governments and federal authorities began rounding up and deporting Mexican immigrants, as well as U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. These openly racist program, which Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez study, merged with policing practices to become an infrastructure of deportation that affected thousands of families across the region. Its dire consequences left a lasting impact on the country’s history, while also harkening to present-day concerns around hostility to the Dreamers and millions of other undocumented residents of the United States. The past has shown that officials have been willing to adapt existing infrastructure and policy norms in order to carry out government orders to identify and persecute whole communities.

The study of infrastructure transformation in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century borderlands uncovers a complex history that incorporates the significance of modernization alongside compelling critiques related to notions of “progress.” Transportation technologies played an integral role as railroads facilitated the flow of people and goods across the region. The history of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands represents a useful tool to better understand the role of industrial development. These processes are fraught with socio-political challenges and unfulfilled economic promises, but also speak to the robust character of exchange, as millions of individuals on both sides of the international boundary interact with one another and influence broad trends of identity production.

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