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

Author(s):Mora-Torres, Juan
Reviewer(s):Baskes, Jeremy

Published by EH.NET (June 2002)

Juan Mora-Torres, The Making of the Mexican Border: The State, Capitalism,

and Society in Nuevo Leon, 1848-1910. Austin: University of Texas Press,

2001. 384 pp. $50 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-292-75252-0; $23.95 (paperback), ISBN:


Reviewed for EH.NET by Jeremy Baskes, Department of History, Ohio Wesleyan


Historians have long noted that Mexico’s extreme regional diversity makes

generalization impossible. Instead historians have stressed the concept of

“many Mexicos,” each with its own peculiar historical development. Juan

Mora-Torres examines one such “Mexico,” the northern region that became the

state of Nuevo Le?n, and particularly Monterrey, its heavily industrialized


During the colonial period, Nuevo Le?n was a peripheral territory possessing

little in the way of mineral wealth. Consequently, colonial rulers largely

ignored this frontier region, which was settled by poor peasants. These early

colonists lived in landholding communities that were united in their need to

defend themselves against “barbarian tribes.” These colonists were viewed by

rulers in Mexico City as a vital defense against the largely nomadic indigenous

tribes of the frontier. According to Mora-Torres, defense of the frontier

earned the settlers special rights that included exemption from tribute to the

Spanish Crown, and would endow the local population with what the author calls

a “fronterizo identity” that was distinct from that of Central Mexico.

Furthermore, “class and ethnic hierarchies of colonial Mexico were not

reproduced in Nuevo Le?n, a condition that permitted the development of a more

egalitarian society” (p. 16).

Isolated from the seats of power, the fronterizos enjoyed considerable autonomy

and resisted the weak attempts at centralization pursued by Mexico City after

the colony’s independence in 1821. Texan independence followed by the

Mexican-American War, however, had a profound impact on Nuevo Le?n and marked

the transformation of this region from “frontier” to “border.” After 1848 Nuevo

Le?n ceased to be an isolated frontier and became a critical Mexican region

bordering the rapidly developing U.S. economy. “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” (p. 9).

End of isolation, however, did not mean that Nuevo Le?n came immediately under

the authority of Mexico City, which still proved unable to exert much influence

in this border region. Instead, the creation of the border provided new

opportunities to Nuevo Le?n’s “increasingly confident merchant class” (p. 36).

In the decades that followed 1848, Monterrey merchants took advantage of their

location to deal in contraband smuggled in from Texas. Merchants on both sides

of the border were all too happy to evade taxes. In fact, Mora-Torres suggests

that a number of the border towns were founded because of the opportunities

afforded by contraband (p. 33). This prosperity also strengthened the local

caudillo (warlord), Santiago Vidaurri, who dominated the Northeast of Mexico

from 1855 to the end of the French occupation. Vidaurri succeeded in curtailing

contraband and reducing violence at the border even while he centralized power

in his own hands. The Nuevo Le?n economy received a real boost with the U.S.

Civil War. Because of the blockade of U.S. southern ports, much of the South’s

cotton exports were diverted to Mexico and exported through Matamoros.

The author details the process by which Mexico’s modernizing dictator, Porfirio

D?az, (1876-1911) finally “eroded the power of Caudillos and forcibly

integrated the periphery into a centralized political system” (p. 6). D?az’s

1885 appointment of Bernardo Reyes as interim Governor of Nuevo Le?n coincided

with the coming of age of Monterrey, “the sultan of the North.” During the

Porfiriato, D?az’s thirty-five-year dictatorship, Monterrey emerged as the

industrial leader of Mexico. Monterrey was blessed with an ideal location, near

to both the United States and important natural resources in bordering states

of Mexico. As Mexico’s capitalist engine of growth, Monterrey attracted

millions of migrants from the nation’s poorer southern states. According to

Mora-Torres, the ability of Mexican laborers to abandon Nuevo Le?n and migrate

to the “other side,” forced northern capitalists to pay higher wages and adopt

more enlightened employment practices than their southern compatriots. “A labor

market emerged in the northern Mexican states, set apart from the rest of

Mexico by free labor” (p. 127). One of the results was greater productivity in

the industrial sector.

In stark contrast to Monterrey’s free labor regime, landowners in rural Nuevo

Le?n continued to depend on coerced labor, most notably debt peonage, as they

were simply unable to afford the high wages. As such, rural labor practices

more closely resembled the notorious conditions on southern haciendas during

the Porfiriato. Interestingly, however, largely absent in Nuevo Le?n was the

seizure of peasants’ lands that so characterized southern Mexico and which

contributed to the agrarian violence after 1910. The arrival of railroads did

not dispossess the peasants of Nuevo Le?n. Population growth within once viable

communities, however, did impoverish them. “Rural society was more or less

egalitarian: the great majority were poor but had land” (p. 106). Not even the

haciendas of Nuevo Leon fared particularly well during this age of export-led

growth. In contrast to the city of Monterrey, the rural economy stagnated.

Historians of Nuevo Le?n have traditionally emphasized the harmony of class

relations in Monterrey’s industrial sector distinguishing it from other regions

of Mexico. They depict the Porfiriato as a time in which Monterrey’s hard

working industrial class earned good wages from fairly enlightened employers.

Mora-Torres rejects this view arguing that Monterrey workers did have

class-consciousness and did challenge their employers on a number of issues,

such as the preferable treatment afforded to foreign workers or attempts to

reduce bonus pay. Despite this argument, Mora-Torres nonetheless portrays

Monterrey industrialists as more paternalistic than their southern counterparts

are traditionally depicted. Whether out of civic pride or economic necessity,

Monterrey businessmen pursued relatively enlightened employment practices.

The final chapter of this book is an interesting examination of Monterrey’s two

largest companies, the Cuauht?moc Brewery and the Compa??a Fundidora de Fierro

y Acero de Monterrey, the first steel mill in Latin America. The histories of

these two industrial giants differ notably. Cuauht?moc Brewery was established

in 1890 with a fairly small initial investment of 125,000 pesos. By the end of

Porfirio D?az’s rule in 1911, the company was worth five to eight million pesos

and had become “a key symbol of Monterrey’s industrial identity” (p. 236). Part

of the Brewery’s success in this highly competitive industry was attributed to

the fact that it vertically integrated glass production and enjoyed good

labor-management relations. While the government provided a favorable business

climate, the Brewery remained independent of the D?az regime. In contrast to

the Brewery’s small initial investment, the Fundidora steel works was founded

in 1900 with a ten million peso investment made jointly by Monterrey and Mexico

City capitalists. The steel industry was identified by D?az and Mexican

nationalists as an example of “progress” and “a symbol of Mexico’s attempts to

liberate itself from foreign domination of the economy” (p. 264). While the

Fundidora employed the most advanced technologies, it was unable to compete

with imported steel due to the high cost of coal and transportation.

Fortunately for investors, “Mexico’s nascent steel industry was too important

for the image-conscious Porfirian politicians to let it collapse” (p. 263-64).

The government kept the company afloat with lucrative concessions to produce

rails for the increasingly nationalized railway. In addition, the government

provided the company with subsidized loans. Unlike the Cuauht?moc Brewery, the

Fundidora became extremely dependent on the central state. While the author

does not emphasize the issue, the case of the steel works provides significant

evidence that runs contrary to the traditional depiction of the D?az

administration’s obsequiousness to foreign capital. Here D?az pursued an

interventionist policy to promote the nation’s perceived economic interests.

Juan Mora-Torres has written a very good book, which brings together a wealth

of detail on northern Mexico’s political and economic history. This work

reminds historians of Mexico that the experiences of its diverse regions

differed greatly. So much of Mexico’s traditional narrative simply does not

apply to the border region of Nuevo L?on, a region that was as deeply

influenced by events in its northern neighbor as those in Mexico City. As such,

this is a book that should interest U.S. historians as well.

Jeremy Baskes is author of Indians, Merchants and Markets: A

Reinterpretation of the Repartimiento and Spanish-Indian Economic Relations in

Colonial Oaxaca, 1750-1821 (Stanford University Press, 2000).

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII