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The Making of the Mexican Border

The Making of the Mexican Border
The State, Capitalism, and Society in Nuevo León, 1848-1910

In this insightful history of the state of Nuevo León, Juan Mora-Torres explores how these processes transformed northern Mexico into a region with distinct economic, political, social, and cultural features that set it apart from the interior of Mexico.

September 2001
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360 pages | 6 x 9 | 12 tables |

The issues that dominate U.S.-Mexico border relations today—integration of economies, policing of boundaries, and the flow of workers from south to north and of capital from north to south—are not recent developments. In this insightful history of the state of Nuevo León, Juan Mora-Torres explores how these processes transformed northern Mexico into a region with distinct economic, political, social, and cultural features that set it apart from the interior of Mexico.

Mora-Torres argues that the years between the establishment of the U.S.-Mexico boundary in 1848 and the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 constitute a critical period in Mexican history. The processes of state-building, emergent capitalism, and growing linkages to the United States transformed localities and identities and shaped class formations and struggles in Nuevo León. Monterrey emerged as the leading industrial center and home of the most powerful business elite, while the countryside deteriorated economically, politically, and demographically. By 1910, Mora-Torres concludes, the border states had already assumed much of their modern character: an advanced capitalist economy, some of Mexico's most powerful business groups, and a labor market dependent on massive migrations from central Mexico.


Heritage Award WinnerWebb County Heritage Foundation

  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • One: The Significance of 1848
  • Two: The Taming of the Periphery, 1867-1890
  • Three: City and Countryside, 1890-1910
  • Four: Nuevo León and the Making of the Border Labor Market, 1890-1910
  • Five: The Crisis of the Countryside and Public Policy in the Late Porfiriato
  • Six: Class, Culture, and Politics in Monterrey, 1890-1910
  • Seven: A Tale of Two Porfirian Firms
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index

Juan Mora-Torres is Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at San Antonio.


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This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. That storm is what we call progress.

Walter Benjamin, Illuminations

Boundaries are points of contact between nations. This does not mean that all neighboring nations are equal in military and economic terms. In one of his most famous quotes, Porfirio Díaz summarized the power that the United States had manifested over Mexico: "Poor Mexico, so far from God and so near to the United States." Díaz, the ruler of Mexico from 1876 to 1910, meant that whether Mexicans wanted to or not, and for better or worse, Mexico could not escape from the shadow of its northern neighbor. At least since 1848 (and more precisely since the independence of Texas in 1836), the United States has been a major force shaping Mexico's economy, politics, culture, and society, and its greatest influence has been manifested in the border states.

What makes the U.S.-Mexican boundary so unique is that it has historically functioned as both a link and a barrier between two nations that have different economic systems, political systems, and cultural values. From its creation in 1848 to the present, this boundary has separated the United States, the land of plenty, from Mexico and Latin America, the land of want. In spite of heavy policing, the U.S.-Mexican border is not exactly the Iron Curtain, a line that divided a society into two different and antagonistic entities from its post-World War II inception to 1989. Border areas are also zones of permanent contact, and in the U.S.-Mexican borderlands national differences have engaged each other since 1848, binding the world's most powerful nation to its "developing" southern neighbor. These national differences, especially in the economic and cultural spheres, have undergone processes of mutation, creating a border society that is profoundly different from the interiors of both countries.

This study explores Mexico's "frontier to border" phase of this historical development by focusing on the northeastern state of Nuevo León, in particular the city of Monterrey, the industrial capital of the nation and the birthplace of the most powerful business groups in twentieth-century Mexico. The northeast was the first region in Mexico to come into permanent contact with the westward-expanding U.S. territorial state and economy. The starting point for this study is 1848, when the international boundary was created, and it ends in 1910, on the eve of the Mexican Revolution, the watershed event that established the foundations of modern Mexico. During this time the Mexican border region emerged as a geographical zone with distinctive economic, political, social, and cultural features. This period constitutes a well-defined historical era for northern Mexico, characterized by the transition from the "closing of the frontier," a phrase first used by Frederick Jackson Turner in his famous 1893 frontier essay, to the emergence of the border as the next stage of territorial development.

This study begins with the premise that the frontier populations of pre-1848 northern Mexico shared a common experience that had evolved over a period of two hundred years. That experience was primarily conditioned by the long and deep-seated history of conflict between native people and colonists and by the frontier's geographic isolation from larger economies and the centers of political authority. The imposition of the 1848 international boundary prompted a series of profound changes that eventually brought an end to this isolation. Over the next sixty years two parallel processes ended the period of the northern frontier as the border emerged as the new stage of territorial development: first, the incorporation of the frontier into a centralized political system, a project that was completed during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz; second, the integration of the frontier into the capitalist economy, a process that foreign investors accelerated with massive infusions of capital into northern Mexico.

The strengthening of the Mexican state and the rapid spread of capitalism transformed the north from the "frontier" to the "border," especially during the Porfiriato (1876-1910). The northern states emerged as the showcase of the Porfirian economic "miracle" with its impressive railroad network linking cities, mining and industrial sites, and agricultural complexes to the United States and central Mexico. One of the far-reaching consequences of this "frontier to border" transition was that the center of economic gravity in Mexico tilted toward the north. As the zone binding Mexico and the United States, the border states leaped from their "peripheral" status vis-a-vis emergent capitalist development in Mexico to a "core" position.

During these years the Mexican border states acquired the peculiarities that would distinguish them from other regions in the country. In addition to fostering a political culture that revolved around federalism, liberalism, and anticlericalism, the border states produced a capitalist economy more complex than that in the rest of Mexico, including a regional economy that was largely an appendage to the U.S. economy; the ascent of fairly new native capitalist groups that in all probability would have merged into larger and more powerful groupings if it had not been for the Mexican Revolution, which eliminated most of them as the dominant classes in their regions; and, finally, a regional labor market based on free labor and dependent on large inflows of migrants who were lured by higher wages in the north. Indeed, the new north of 1910 was but a shadow of its former self. Ironically, the Mexican Revolution originated in the border states, the region where capitalist development had been most intense, suggesting a strong correlation between the rapid spread of capitalism and rebellion.

This book traces the development of the border as a continuously changing territory, but not by following a strictly diplomatic, evolutionary, and chronological format as other histories have done. It approaches the border as a location in which broad processes of state-building, emergent capitalism, and growing linkages to the United States transform localities and identities and shape class formations and struggles. The following chapters examine the key "frontier to border" transformations in Nuevo León, including the metamorphic evolution of classes from frontier merchants to industrialists; the creation of new classes; class conflict; the transformation of identities; the recasting of relations between periphery and center; and, finally, as the countryside declined economically, demographically, and politically, the ascent of Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo León, from a small and insignificant frontier town to Mexico's most important industrial center and the largest city in the north.

The Conceptual Background

In 1893 Frederick J. Turner lamented the closing of the frontier in his famous and controversial essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." He argued that the western frontier experience shaped both the American national character and its institutions, particularly its democratic tradition. His frontier thesis defined the historical canon until the 1960s, when a new generation of historians questioned his arguments and turned most of his assertions upside down. In spite of the new scholarship that has successfully challenged the Turner thesis, no new thesis has come close to replacing it entirely; as a result, it continues to be one of the most provocative ideas in U.S. history.

Mexico has produced neither a Mexican Turner nor such an alluring thesis to follow, challenge, or reinterpret for two reasons. First, no Mexican intellectual of Turner's generation lamented the closing of Mexico's frontier. Most intellectuals viewed Mexican history and society through the lens of Mexico City, the center of authority, and assessed the history of the north as one that went against the grain of nation-building. Second, a frontier thesis like Turner's cannot directly apply to Mexico, a country whose history has been dictated not by one large and overarching experience but rather by the multiple experiences of the "many Mexicos."

As a proponent of the "many Mexicos" approach to understanding national history, I strongly believe that one of the implicit weaknesses of Mexican regional history is the near-absence of interpretive studies on the relationship between and meaning of regions in the making of a national history. For the most part, historians have examined regional and local histories in isolation from the broader processes of state-building and capitalist development. Consequently, historians of the Mexican borderlands have the task of exploring and explaining what makes the north so different from the rest of Mexico. Why, for instance, did the north play a leading role not only in the unmaking of Mexico during the Mexican Revolution but also in its remaking when the victorious norteños directed the construction of modern Mexico? More currently, why was the north the first region to break the monopoly of one-party rule and become a bastion for political conservatism ?

Friedrich Katz theoretically advanced regional history by proposing in his classic work The Secret War in Mexico that the origins and outbreak of the Mexican Revolution cannot be properly understood without a close examination of the profound changes that the "frontier to border" transition wrought in northern society. He argued that the incorporation of the north into the capitalist economy and its integration into a centralized political system profoundly transformed the frontier, creating the conditions that provoked the north to violent intervention in the national affairs of 1910-1920. Surprisingly, no other scholar has yet pursued the "frontier to border" approach in a systematic way since Katz first presented it in 1981. Katz also applies this approach in his monumental work The Life and Times of Pancho Villa, which explores, among other themes, the creation of a revolutionary society in Chibuahua.

This book attempts to reconceptualize the history of northern Mexico in two ways. First, I argue that the history of northern Mexico needs to be organized by historical periods. I propose that the years between 1848, when the boundary was established, and 1910, when the Mexican Revolution erupted, constitute a defined moment in the history of northern Mexico. Second, I argue that Katz's "frontier to border" approach to the study of northern Mexico offers a clear analytic window for understanding change during a specific period and across a regional space.

The periodization of history is one of the elementary tools of the historian because it establishes time boundaries for the conceptualization of historical themes. Historians do not agree on all periods, as demonstrated in the discussions surrounding the periodization of the Mexican Revolution (for example, 1910-1917,1910-1920,1910-1923,1910-1940, and 1910 to the present), largely because of their differing implications for historical and political analysis. Fortunately, the time boundaries for the early modern history of northern Mexico are fairly well defined. The establishment of the international boundary at the Río Bravo (Grande) in 1848 marks the beginning of the end of the frontier's isolation as well as the initiation of the border as the next stage of territorial development—a process fairly well advanced by 1910. By 1910 the border states had already assumed much of the form they have today: an advanced capitalist economy vis-à-vis the rest of Mexico; the formation of powerful business groups; and a labor market dependent on massive migrations from central Mexico. Moreover, 1910 also marks the north's first contestation of national political power. Northerners later triumphed in the Revolution and thus appropriated the dual roles of constructors of modern Mexico and architects of the governing institutions of one-party rule and the concentration of power in the presidency.

Like other discussions on historical transitions (for example, from "feudalism to capitalism"), the "frontier to border" framework implies a transition from one form of development to another. The combination of state-building, capitalist development, and proximity to the United States transformed the north from a frontier to a border society from 1848 to 1910. The creation of the 1848 boundary initiated this transition, a relatively brief period of forty years dominated by the struggles between the periphery, which sought to maintain its political autonomy, and a central state committed to establishing its authority over every region in Mexico. During this period of transition, federalist caudillos (strongmen) rose, gained political control of their localities, and resisted the integration of their regions into a centralized political system. The transition from frontier to border came to an end around 1890, when the Porfirian state eroded the power of caudillos and forcibly integrated the periphery into a centralized political system.

The northern states began to emerge as the border region with their incorporation into the domestic and world economy. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the dual process of political centralization and capitalist modernization spread throughout all regions in Mexico. The north acquired its own regional and distinctive traits during this period; much of its uniqueness was due to its permanent position as the zone of contact between two nations that were, in many ways, worlds apart.

The Making of the Mexican Border, 1848—1910

David Weber provides a useful starting point for this study with his definition of frontiers as "zones of interaction between two cultures—as places where the cultures of the invader and of the invaded contend with one another and with their physical environment to produce a dynamic that is unique to time and place." To modify Weber's definition, frontiers were also regions with weak ties to centralized political authority and to largescale economic activity. Extending his definition to its logical conclusion, the frontier essentially became history when the invaders prevailed over the invaded. By 1880 the Native Americans had been defeated on both sides of the boundary.

Although the defeat of the Native Americans came approximately thirty years after the creation of the U.S.-Mexican boundary, 1848 marks the beginning of the end of the frontier era. With 1848 as a starting point, at least for Nuevo León and northeastern Mexico, the plotting of the border needs to be placed within the context of the history of the United States and Mexico. The 1848 redrawing of the U.S. and Mexican maps relocated the frontier from the edge of Mexico and the capitalist economy to the center of two nations on two completely different tracks of historical development, albeit at the periphery of these countries. The early years of border development did not follow any kind of blueprint because neither the Mexican government nor the United States had the capacity to police and administer the societies at the edges of their territories. Even though the United States had not consolidated its political control over most areas west of the Mississippi River, it was well on its way to becoming a continental power as of 1848. By contrast, Mexico was on the verge of disintegrating territorially and would not have a semblance of political stability until after 1876.

All international boundaries are human creations, including the U.S.-Mexican border, a crooked 2,000-mile line that artificially traverses an arid landscape. Therefore, years before cartographers and geographers mapped the flora, fauna, hills, and streams of the border region, fronterizos (borderlanders), regardless of ethnicity and nationality, instantly grasped the meaning of the new geography: those who resided north of the boundary were suddenly U.S. citizens living in the southernmost areas of the United States, while those who dwelled on the southern side continued to be Mexican citizens, residing on the northern edges of a Mexico that had just been reduced to half of its former size.

Considering that neither Mexico nor the United States had the ability to enforce its powers fully at its territorial edges, the new boundary at the Río Bravo abruptly put an end to the frontier's geographical isolation. The ending of isolation in the unguarded borderlands created the conditions that altered all established social relations in the northeast. The new boundary had the effect of harming the social position of groups who had wielded power in the confines of frontier isolation (mainly landlords and the independent armed-peasant communities) and improving the position of groups who, by the same token, had been marginalized (mainly indentured laborers and petty merchants). For the former groups, the new border improved their status vis-a-vis the dominant classes and institutions by allowing them a greater degree of freedom. In challenging their subordinate position, they trespassed the boundaries of written and unwritten laws and the established modes of conduct which had marginalized them. For instance, escaping from serfdom to freedom was no longer merely a dream for the thousands of indentured servants but a real alternative because of proximity to the Río Bravo. Servants not only escaped from serfdom by crossing to the "other side," but also undermined the authority of landlords who were losing control of their labor force.

The proposed argument that the Río Bravo created the conditions for human agency might appear to suffer from a heavy dose of geographic determinism. What is proposed here, however, is not that the simple presence of the Río Bravo tipped the scale of conflict in favor of groups which the frontier had assisted in marginalizing, but that the Río Bravo marked the international boundary and a zone of contact between Mexican borderianders and forces engaged in the "opening of the West" in the United States, as well as with groups who had greater capacities to wage violence (e.g., Apaches, Comanches, and bandits).

The immediate outcomes of this contact between two different societies in this stateless region included a dramatic increase in violence (raids, banditry, filibustering, etc.), mass-scale contraband, and population movements (not only runaway servants, but other Mexicans who crossed the river and built new towns such as Brownsville, Texas). By engaging in all kinds of struggles and often in illegal activities, it was borderlanders, rather than states, who shaped social relations within the Mexican borderlands during the first decades after 1848—their activities dictated diplomatic matters between the two countries.

"The history of the world is best observed from the frontier," wrote Pierre Vilar, the great historian of Spain. In spite of the distance, one can get a panoramic view of the history of the Mexican state from the borderlands. The strength of Mexico as a territorial organization has largely depended on the degree of absolute authority it has exercised throughout its territory, especially at its boundaries. The presence of the central state was weak in northern Mexico before 1848 and, for all practical purposes, absent from 1855 to 1880, a time when federalist caudillos gained local power. For example, Santiago Vidaurri, the governor of Nuevo León, ruled the northeast with an iron hand from 1855 to 1864.

The Liberals who came to power in 1867 after the defeat of Maximilian considered the north a major obstacle in the unification of the Mexican state. As long as the north enjoyed an autonomous political existence, Mexico could not be unified. Malcolm Anderson argues that''[t]he frontier is the basic political institution no rule-bound economic, social and political life in complex societies could be organized without them." Mexico had well-defined boundaries but no effective control over them. The Mexican state could not realistically expect to organize society and the economy, especially when caudillos made the unification of Mexico difficult. Liberals were also consumed by the fear that, unless Mexico controlled its boundaries, the United States would enlarge itself at the expense of Mexican territory as it had in 1848.

To avoid this possible scenario and to unify Mexico, Porfirio Díaz made the taming of the north one of his priorities. The Porfirian state imposed its authority over the north by removing caudillos from power and by gaining greater law-enforcement authority, especially along the boundary. It replaced caudillos with imposed governors and (with the help of a loyal army, customs guards, and rural police) also gained a stronger policing presence, reducing illegal activities such as contraband and all-out violence, including Apache raids. The taming of the north coincided with Díaz's successful strategy of improving diplomatic relations with the great powers, especially with the United States. Thus, state-building in Mexico came at the expense of the north's political autonomy; as the Porfirian state gained greater power throughout Mexico, it also made the modernization of the economy its next priority.

All regions in Mexico were incorporated into the central state during the Porfiriato. In spite of this shared episode, modern Mexico has remained from that time to the present a nation composed of "many Mexicos," with at least three distinct regions: the north, center, and south. Each region has its own unique social, political, economic, ethnic, and cultural peculiarities. Among the most important features that distinguished the north from the south and center was its proximity to and evolving economic relationship with the United States.

The United States emerged as the world's leading industrial power during the time frame of this study. Mexico, in contrast, pursued economic development primarily as an exporter of raw materials and tropical goods. According to the best economic estimates, Mexico's total income was approximately 8 percent of U.S. income in 1845, three years before the creation of the international boundary. Notwithstanding the rapid modernization of the Mexican economy during the Porfiriato, the gap had widened to approximately 2 percent of the U.S. economy by 1910. Matías Romero, a diplomat and Mexico's foremost expert on U.S.-Mexican relations during the Porfiriato, noted that the differences in economic histories met at the border, where "two peoples were brought into contact with each other whose economical and commercial condition offered a striking contrast...."

Northern Mexico became a permanent zone in which the economies and cultures of two nations that were in many ways worlds apart engaged each other, creating a unique region different from the interiors of both Mexico and the United States. Substantial foreign (mainly U.S.) investments in railroads and mining sparked the development of capitalism in the north, which spread more rapidly and thoroughly in this region than in the rest of Mexico. Two of the major outcomes of this process were that the northern economy became an extension of the U.S. economy and that the north turned into the new center of Mexican capitalism. Mexico modernized by following an outward (export-led) strategy of economic development: one-third of all exports passed through northern ports of entry by 1911 (over 60 percent if Tampico, a northeastern port, is included), compared to less than 2 percent in 1878.

Emergent capitalism transformed northern society in all aspects, including the creation of fairly new classes. New groups of "self-made" entrepreneurs sprouted up from modest roots, built business empires, and eventually sat on top of the north's economic and political hierarchy: the Terrazas-Creels of Chihuahua, the Maderos of Coahuila, the agrobusiness elites of La Laguna, and Monterrey's industrialists. The Garzas, Sadas, and other Monterrey families were among the best-known industrialists in Mexico, and the city was known as the "Chicago of Mexico."

Concurrent with the emergence of northern entrepreneurs who were among the most powerful business groups in Mexico, the border as a "permanent zone of contact" between two countries molded thousands of uprooted migrants into the large northern working class. "Pushed" out of their localities by the forces of economic modernization, thousands of migrants from Mexico's interior were "pulled" to the north and to the southwestern United States by the prospects of higher wages and employment opportunities. Due to labor shortages and intense competition for unskilled Mexican workers between employers from "el norte" and the "other side," a distinct labor market emerged based upon free wage-labor, where workers sold their labor power to employers who purchased it in market-style relationships, as opposed to the unfree and low-wage labor practices that prevailed in much of the rest of Mexico.


“Juan Mora Torres's work is a delightful, intellectual tour de force that brings history alive.”
The Historian

“This book is an important breakthrough. . . . It demonstrates how a regional economic elite emerged in an underdeveloped country and developed strategies that enabled it to interact with U.S. capitalists on its own terms. In doing this, the author presents a deep understanding of Mexican political, social, and economic history.”
John Mason Hart, Professor of History, University of Houston


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