From the Desk of Michael K. Bess: Paths for Openness, Exchange, and Understanding

The following contribution comes from Michael K. Bess, author of Routes of Compromise
Building Roads and Shaping the Nation in Mexico, 1917-1952 (December 2017). Bess teaches history at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico. 

As a youth, I became involved with serving the Spanish-speaking immigrant community where we lived thanks to my mom, who grew up in the Republic of Panama and speaks fluent Spanish. She organized English classes and coordinated other outreach programs that aided immigrants arriving to our corner of South Carolina and Georgia during the 1990s and 2000s. I credit this experience with fostering in me an interest to learn more about Mexico as I matured, went to college, and entered graduate school.

At first, I studied Mexican immigration to the U.S. southeast, particularly its history in and around Atlanta, Georgia. During the late 1980s, demand for labor to prepare the city for the 1996 Olympic Games attracted many Mexican and Central American workers. Families and friends sent word home that jobs could be found in northern Georgia, which brought more people to the area. Besides construction, other industries also benefited, especially Dalton’s carpet-making mills and Gainesville’s poultry processing plants. Migrant workers moved further south, too, harvesting onions in Valdosta, and other crops across the state.

Along with the job market, regional transportation infrastructure helped expand Atlanta’s Mexican immigrant community. Interstate Highway 20, which stretched across the southern United States from Texas to North Carolina, passed through Atlanta, making it relatively easy to reach the state capital. Studies showed that the metro area enjoyed regular bus service to the U.S.-Mexico border since the 1980s. Local Spanish-speaking businesses, as well as social and religious organizations, became important nodes to help newcomers adapt to the area and settle down.

Examining the history of immigration to the southeast led me to study road building across North America. Understanding the impact of new roads and highways can help us understand certain aspects of internal and cross-border migration in Mexico and the United States. New roads supported the arrival of public and private transport services. Roads linked distant towns and cities together, and helped people cross political and physical boundaries more easily. Most importantly, they often reduced the cost of travel, especially when rural communities were linked to new asphalt-concrete roads for the first time.

In Mexico, this story began in the 1920s. As the country emerged out of the violence of the revolution, the new state built roads in earnest. Political and business leaders saw it as one means to rebuild the nation and spur economic development. Although not everyone approved of road building, many urban and rural communities demanded it and vied for preferred routes to pass nearby. Over the next forty years, a consortium of road-building groups, in conjunction with federal and state authorities, helped to construct thousands of kilometers of highways along with tens of thousands of kilometers of caminos vecinales (local roads) that branched out across the nation. It was a political project that ultimately favored some areas over others and reflected, in spatial terms, problems of economic inequality, cronyism, and patronage.

By the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, improved access to new highways and local roads drove urbanization. Mexico City grew rapidly, its population expanding from 3 million to 9 million inhabitants, during this period, as people relocated there from rural areas. The northern border also experienced marked population increases as industrialization policies, coupled with infrastructure development, brought tens of thousands of people to work in maquiladoras in Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and other cities.

Looking at this type of internal migration, the most difficult change for someone to make was, perhaps, that move from a small town to the big city with all of the social adaptations that shift entailed. Once families had experienced rural-to-urban migration, and traveled long distance from south to north within Mexico, it may not have been so difficult for individuals to look across the border and imagine what life might be like in Houston, Dallas, and the dozens of other U.S. cities that drew immigrants to the country.

As roads facilitated mobility, they also became double-sided symbols of modernity. Road infrastructure was used as a metric to define notions of “progress” in Mexico. On the one hand, mayors and governors used newly-finished construction projects to tout their effectiveness and highlight their political legacies. In annual addresses, presidents frequently bragged about the amount of money their administrations spent on roads and highways. On the other hand, failed or incomplete projects, or poorly maintained routes pockmarked by potholes, became examples people pointed out to lament the effects of corruption and incompetence.

This duality fostered complex social and cultural dynamics. Whereas commercial developers hoped highways would bring tourism and new business to Mexico, other factors came into play. In recent years, increasingly, protesters have blocked streets and highways, converting them into spaces to call for economic and political reforms. Police in many poor southern and rural states, like Oaxaca and Guerrero, violently tore down roadblocks and attacked activists. Criminal organizations have also used roads to stage bloody spectacle that publicly called into question the government’s authority and legitimacy. The possibility for roads as sites of conflict remain, and certainly these examples are not limited to Mexico, but rather can be identified in other countries facing contentious social, political, and economic challenges.

As the forces of xenophobia and protectionism appear to gain traction in many parts of the world, the study of road building becomes more important. In particular, road building can stand in stark contrast to Trumpism’s urge for wall building. Roads and highways collapse travels times within and between countries, and knit regional and national economies together. Alongside other transportation infrastructures, like railroads and air travel, they underpin the possibility for the free flow of people and goods. In contrast, wall building, and associated policies of border control, foster regimes of immobility that slow movement, restrict immigration, and ultimately—in the view of this author—make societies more insular and less welcoming. Through the study of road building we can appreciate how people debated the fundamental values of their societies as they grappled with the political promise and challenge of greater mobility and greater openness to new people and ideas in everyday life.