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Published by EH.NET (April 2005)

Jurgen Buchenau, Tools of Progress: A German Merchant Family in Mexico, 1865-Present. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004. xi + 267 pp. $27.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8263-3088-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Marie Francois, Department of History, Auburn University.

The title of this book reflects in part the boom time for the German Boker family’s business enterprise during the positivist reign of Porfirio D?az (1876-1910), when Mexico experienced rapid liberal economic development. But the story starts earlier, when Robert Boker arrives as a “trade conquistador” to establish a hardware business during French rule under Maximilian, and continues through the 1990s. Jurgen Buchenau tells two parallel and interconnected stories in this engaging study. The first is about European immigration to Mexico, with the small German colony slowly transformed over a century and a half through accommodation, acculturation, and finally assimilation. The second story is about the changing political climates in which national and foreign entrepreneurs built, maintained, and sometimes lost their businesses in Mexico. While the Mexican climate for business ventures is the focus, German and worldwide political contexts were also important. This book is a successful marriage of elite family and business history which contributes an immigrant perspective to the literature which includes the studies by David Walker (1986) and Larissa Lomnitz and Marisol Perez-Lizaur (1987). The book also contributes to the growing literature on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Mexico City.

Buchenau, Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, interprets this business immigrant family that identified as both Mexican and German through a framework of transnational theory. Building on his earlier work in diplomatic history, the author adeptly builds international relations into the story. He filters a wide range of sources through the concepts of diaspora, cross-cultural trade, cultural enclave, and hybrid identities, thus situating the book in world history literature. Diaspora here captures both thematic threads of the book — the dispersal of German families across the Atlantic, as well as the distribution of companies and goods in international trade. While primarily a book about doing business in Mexico in the past, readers will appreciate the pertinent background it offers to historicize today’s globalization trends, as the larger Boker family’s interests stretched across the Atlantic from Germany to Canada, the U.S., Mexico, and Argentina, and across the globe to Australia. Archival sources from Germany, Mexico, Great Britain and the United States are used in concert with company records, records from the German cultural institutions in Mexico City, and family sources. A member of the Boker family himself, Buchenau makes effective use of letters, diaries and photographs from family archives, with the richest material coming from extensive interviews with almost fifty members of the family. The book is organized into three parts. The first comprises two chapters covering the periods 1865-c. 1900 when the German family establish themselves in Mexico; the second has three chapters covering the family and its business during years of revolution in Mexico and world wars, c. 1900-1948; and the third consists of two chapters looking at the Bokers during the “Mexican Miracle” of the 1950-60s and its aftermath, c. 1948-present.

The immigration story chronicles the maintenance of German identity in family compounds, the development of German schools and clubs, the movement back and forth across the Atlantic between Germany and Mexico, changing socializing and marriage patterns, and the tracking of five generations of family diaspora in Mexico, the United States, Germany, and other parts of the world. Buchenau’s examination of the Colegio Al?man, which had Bokers on its board and in its classrooms, is particularly illuminating. The author distinguishes the Bokers from other foreign businessmen (Spanish merchants, French owners of department stores and textiles factories, Americans, and Chinese) as well as from other Germans. The small German colony was fairly unified in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but the aftermath of World War II saw it splinter into at least five distinct communities along political and generational lines. This story is also situated comparatively in the Latin American immigration literature. Mexico was not a country that absorbed large numbers of immigrants, unlike the Southern Cone which absorbed hundreds of thousands of workers and refugees from Europe. Instead, Buchenau argues, Mexico experienced a “qualitative immigration” (p. 16) where a relatively few immigrants had a large impact. The Protestant German Bokers played key roles in the economy and occasionally politically, while practicing self-segregation socially from the Catholic Mexican mainstream. Not until the fourth generation did a few Bokers take Mexican spouses. With the separation of their Mexican business lives from their German private lives, the Boker women played to varying degrees a gendered role passing on German culture through language and lifestyle. The author successfully weaves emotions and perceptions into this analysis of cultural change as five generations of Boker men and women negotiated their relationship to both Mexico and Germany.

Taking a long view on the Boker hardware business, Buchenau highlights cycles in both the Mexican and world economy. The Casa Boker in the nineteenth century was the leading provider of imported tools, machinery, weapons, and household goods to a small modernizing middle class in Mexico City. By the twentieth century, the company found itself playing a declining role in the maturing consumer society. Into the twenty-first century, the Bokers are the “rearguard of globalization.” Challenging recent literature that emphasizes the role of U.S. capitalists in the modernization of Mexico, Buchenau argues that Europeans led the consumer revolution there. Without intermediaries such as the Bokers importing American goods along with European goods, American capitalism would not have had the reach it did in the late nineteenth century. This reviewer would have liked to have learned more about the merchandise sold by the early Casa Boker and the later Compa??a Ferretera Mexicana (Mexican Hardware Company, or CFM) which would allow a fuller look at the consumption contexts (such as domestic households, industrial arenas) of this business enterprise. Business historians will, nonetheless, find fascinating discussions and detailed examinations of business tactics and contrasting styles of successive generations of partners. The “kingly merchant”-minded German importers eschewed the emerging mass-marketing trends as consumption grew during the Porfiriato, sticking to their niche selling “inconspicuous goods” (p. 54). Careful diplomacy with revolutionary leadership combined with hiding the true ownership of the company amid Mexican nationalist fervor in the 1910s and 20s meant that the most tumultuous time in Mexican history was not bad for this particular business. In contrast, the firm was unable to avoid the biggest blow to company fortunes when it was taken over by the Mexican state during World War II after Mexico declared war on Germany, despite a careful “Mexicanization” of the company. Recovering control of the company after the war, the third generation of Bokers did not invest in the import-substitution “miracle” that hindered the growth of their import-based business. The mid-twentieth century company also faced a more combative union than in its heyday, and after the 1970s changing Mexican policies which alternated between hyperprotection and neoliberalism affected the company’s portfolio. Throughout the book, insight into organizational as well as operational decisions and outcomes will benefit those interested in issues such as the political and economic contexts for profit margins and the impact of shareholder interests in Germany on decision making by the closely held corporation’s directors in Mexico.

Tools of Progress is an intimate and fascinating examination of links between culture and economy in a transnational context. It successfully bridges disparate historiography on business, politics, immigration, and world history. Future historians of culture and economy will do well to follow Buchenau’s example.

Marie Francois is Associate Professor of History at Auburn University in Alabama. Her book, A Culture of Everyday Credit: Housekeeping, Pawnbroking, and Governance in Mexico City, 1750-1920, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press.