Land of Necessity: Consumer Culture in the United States-Mexico Borderlands

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In Land of Necessity, historians and anthropologists unravel the interplay of the national and transnational, and of scarcity and abundance in the region split by the boundary line dividing Mexico and the United States. This richly illustrated volume, with more than 100 images including maps, photographs, and advertisements, explores the convergence of broad demographic, economic, political, cultural, and transnational developments resulting in various forms of consumer culture in the borderlands. Though its importance is uncontestable, the role of necessity in consumer culture has rarely been explored. Indeed, it has been argued that where necessity reigns, consumer culture is anemic. This volume demonstrates otherwise. In doing so, it sheds now light on the history of the U.S. Mexico borderlands while also opening up similar terrain for scholarly inquiry into consumer culture.

The volume opens with two chapters that detail the historical trajectories of consumer culture and the borderlands. In the subsequent chapters, contributors take up subjects including smuggling, tourist districts and resorts, purchasing power, and living standards. Others address home décor, housing urban development, and commercial real estate, white still others consider the circulation of cinematic images, contraband, used cars, and clothing. Several contributors discuss the movement of people across borders, within cities, and in retail spaces. In the two afterwords, scholars reflect on the U.S.-Mexico borderlands as a particular site of trade in labor, land leisure, and commodities, while also musing about consumer culture as a place of complex political and economic negotiations. Through itsfocus on the borderlands, this volume provides valuable insight into the historical and contemporary aspects of the big "isms" shaping modern life: capitalism, nationalism transnationalism, globalism, and, without a doubt consumerism.

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Editorial Reviews

Peter Dedek

“With its many illustrations and diverse essays, Land of Necessity is an excellent collection that sheds light on how the Mexican-United States border has created a unique culture of consumerism that has been impacted by wider trends in trade, politics, migration, and marketing in both countries.”
From the Publisher

“[S]tudents of the US-Mexico borderlands and people interested in the problems posed by globalization (which is connecting asymmetrical markets together around the world) will fin a lot to ponder in this collection. Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above.” - M. J. Van de Logt, Choice

“With its many illustrations and diverse essays, Land of Necessity is an excellent collection that sheds light on how the Mexican-United States border has created a unique culture of consumerism that has been impacted by wider trends in trade, politics, migration, and marketing in both countries.” - Peter Dedek, Southwestern Historical Quarterly

“This collection of essays by historians and anthropologists significantly deepens our knowledge about the cultural and commercial exchanges connecting the United States and Mexico. It will influence borderlands scholars, who will see the region anew through the prism of consumer culture, and historians of consumption, who rarely look to the borderlands for insight into national trends.” - Geraldo Lujan Cadava, Journal of American History

Land of Necessity offers a tantalizing variety of perspectives on consumerism and the circulation of merchandise in the US-Mexico borderlands. . . . Focusing on transnational consumer culture, as Land of Necessity so ably does, is an approach that will no doubt provide further insightful riches to be distributed, contemplated, and shared.” - Andrew Grant Wood, Canadian Journal of History

“I do not know of any other single volume devoted to the history of consumption along the U.S.-Mexico border. Alexis McCrossen has identified a very important area of inquiry that has been pursued only in scattered and fragmentary ways until now, and she has assembled an ambitious, well thought out, engagingly written, and remarkably well integrated collection.”—Andres Reséndez, author of Changing National Identities at the Frontier: Texas and New Mexico, 1800–1850

“This collection of cutting-edge essays reminds us that the U.S.-Mexico borderland is also a consumer marketplace and that consumption is motivated as much by necessity as desire. Land of Necessity makes a powerful case that this border matters for understanding consumer capitalism, not just immigration.”—Lizabeth Cohen, author of A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of mass Consumption in Postwar America

Andrew Grant Wood

Land of Necessity offers a tantalizing variety of perspectives on consumerism and the circulation of merchandise in the US-Mexico borderlands. . . . Focusing on transnational consumer culture, as Land of Necessity so ably does, is an approach that will no doubt provide further insightful riches to be distributed, contemplated, and shared.”
M. J. Van de Logt

“[S]tudents of the US-Mexico borderlands and people interested in the problems posed by globalization (which is connecting asymmetrical markets together around the world) will fin a lot to ponder in this collection. Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above.”
Geraldo Lujan Cadava

“This collection of essays by historians and anthropologists significantly deepens our knowledge about the cultural and commercial exchanges connecting the United States and Mexico. It will influence borderlands scholars, who will see the region anew through the prism of consumer culture, and historians of consumption, who rarely look to the borderlands for insight into national trends.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822344759
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 5/28/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 440
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Alexis McCrossen is Associate Professor of History at Southern Methodist University. She is the author of Holy Day, Holiday: The American Sunday.

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Read an Excerpt


CONSUMER CULTURE IN THE United States-Mexico Borderlands

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4475-9

Chapter One

Alexis McCrossen

Drawing Boundaries between Markets, Nations, and Peoples, 1650-1940

When the political boundary has evolved by a system of contraction out of the wide waste zone to the nicely determined line, that line, nevertheless, is always encased, as it were, in a zone of contact wherein are mingled the elements of either side. ELLEN CHURCHILL SEMPLE (1911)

At the same time that Europeans began to settle North America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, international markets for commodities, finished goods, labor, and capital began to form, while Western Europeans were taking the first steps toward the largest increase in per capita productivity in history. Each development begot formal and informal efforts to draw and maintain boundaries around territories, peoples, and markets, such that the "wide waste zone" to which the geographer Ellen Semple refers shrank to the width of a "nicely determined line." Out of this process whereby political lines were drawn developed the very circumstances-"the zone of contact"-that would lead to the attenuation of the defensive purpose of the border. Nations require boundaries to delimit and separate territories and peoples, but markets are attracted to territorial and political boundaries, clustering around them, pushing against them, maximizing opportunities rising out of the accumulation of asymmetries in such close proximity.

The borderline separating the United States and Mexico after an 1828 "treaty of limits" became ever more visible with each decade-moving from a set of impressions keyed to landmarks, to agreed-upon geographic coordinates (which would be revised on occasion as the accuracy of surveying tools improved), to lines on official maps, to boundary monuments. By the 1880s, it was possible to stroll along wide, dusty streets that marked the line in border cities, stepping across the north-south railroad tracks that bisected the boundary. But soon wooden and barbed wire fences, and then chain link fences, and now electric fences, walls, and a multitude of barriers, went up, with the intention of rendering the line visible, but what is more, immutable and unpassable, as natural and imposing as an ocean or set of cliffs. And yet, people, enterprises, and wealth have clustered along the borderline, attracted, rather than repelled, by it, despite the ever-heavier policing of the line itself, increasing restrictions placed on border crossing, and the accumulating dangers, such as murder, lurking in the border's shadows. In this context, then, it is clear that drawing boundaries contributed to the particular development of consumer culture in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands that this volume investigates.

With broad strokes this essay explores the emergence of markets and nations between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries. In doing so, it focuses on the lands stretching from the Gulf Coast along the scrubby banks of the Rio Grande River, through the mineral-rich deserts of the present-day states of Arizona and Sonora, and across the California peninsula. This region initially seemed of little consequence in the intertwined struggles to define, promote, and protect the American and Mexican nation-states, economies, and peoples. But, as the essay shows, as nationalism and market-oriented capitalism each intensified after the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the U.S.-Mexico borderlands assumed astonishing significance. In this transnational region strenuous governmental and individual efforts were made to control, at times to prevent altogether, and quite often to facilitate, the passage of people, capital, commodities, and goods across the international border.

In the 1930s these tendencies toward national fortification increased. They resulted in the expulsion of unknown numbers of people of Mexican descent from the United States. Asserting its own national sovereignty, Mexico nationalized its oil industry, as well as hundreds of thousands of acres of Mexican land, some of it along the border. At the same time, each nation invested in public works projects meant to build up enterprise in their borderlands and encouraged a moderate amount of trade with each other by reducing tariffs after 1934. Ultimately, enhanced transportation, agricultural, and industrial infrastructures trumped nationalist and ethnocentric tendencies toward shoring up firm boundaries. Since the 1940s, the dissolution of boundaries between the two nations' peoples and markets has been the rule, despite the heavy patrolling of the border since the 1960s. That a transnational consumer culture and society had been developing in the borderlands for at least half a century prior to the 1930s only contributed further to undermining the geopolitical boundaries that were drawn and redrawn with such exactitude over the course of the nineteenth century.

Scarcity by and large defined human life across space and time before the seventeenth century. At that time, a multitude of factors-not least of which was what economic historian Jan de Vries has identified as "the industrious revolution"-set the stage for its retreat. It is likely that during the 1500s, investment and interest in trade networks, expansion of towns and cities, increased agricultural productivity, and population growth together combined to motivate certain groups to abandon what economists call "target income behavior" (working just to meet needs). As more members of households worked more intensely than before, productivity in western Europe and parts of the Mediterranean basin increased. Households devoted smaller proportions of their labor to securing food and shelter than before, while planning production for the market and engaging in discretionary spending. It was increased work effort, rather than application of new technologies, that first begot rising surplus: thus the nomenclature "industrious revolution." Which came first, surplus goods or surplus income, is endlessly debatable, so gradual and intertwined were their earliest appearance. What is known is that together they created a favorable climate for innovation and experimentation in agriculture and manufacturing, the construction of numerous public buildings and private homes, the extension of trade networks, and migration to cities and faraway lands.

Two such distant places, the present-day eastern seaboard of the United States and the greater valley of Mexico, highlight the pivotal role trade played in the expansion of the world of goods and in the formation of nation-states. Mercantile trade with Asia, European colonization of the Americas and Caribbean, and the brutal harnessing of a tractable labor force on New World plantations, along with greater household productivity in northern Europe and the British North American colonies resulted in the trade of what might be considered the first mass-consumed non-subsistence goods: tobacco, tea, and sugar. In the eighteenth century, British officials implemented protectionist policies in the effort to favor not only merchants but also industrialists, particularly those running textile and ceramics factories. The British regulated trade in these goods, in part to raise revenue, and in part to maintain sovereignty over distant colonial holdings.

Between 1720 and 1770, British North American per capita consumption of "the baubles of Britain," as historian T. H. Breen memorably called tea, shoe buckles, candle wax, and other British imports, increased 50 percent. Although, as Breen explains, "the rich and well-born had been buying imported goods from distant lands for as long as societies have kept records," it was the first time that the marketplace offered "an opportunity to become a consumer" to nearly everyone. The extensive choice and variety of items at increasingly lower prices resulted in "a shared language of goods." As resentments over taxes and imperial regulations rose after 1760, diverse colonists stretching from Massachusetts to Georgia participated in a range of ritualistic actions centered on consumer goods-boycotts, destruction of tea, pledges against imports-that in Breen's view contributed to the emergence of a common sensibility as "American." This new nationalist consciousness, in turn, contributed to the Declaration of Independence, the subsequent armed struggle against Britain, and the formation of a new nation altogether.

In contrast, the role of consumer consciousness and needs has a far smaller place in historical interpretations of the Mexican quest for independence from Spain. At stake was far greater wealth than that extracted from British New World colonies, in the form of the minerals silver and gold, the dyes cochineal and indigo, and the stimulants sugar and tobacco, so the Spanish too instituted strict trading regulations and practices. Until the late sixteenth century, when the Pacific port of Acapulco opened up trade with Manila, and thus all of Asia, Veracruz was the sole destination of the Spanish galleons, large cargo ships that traveled in fleets, whose shipments were then loaded onto carts that traveled the well-worn road to Mexico City. In 1629, when handfuls of British colonists were barely eking out a subsistence in New England and Virginia and Native Americans still had effective control over present-day California, New Mexico, and Texas, the mayor of one of New Spain's smaller cities, Oaxaca, wrote, "It seems to me that one of the good and most important businesses in this land is merchandise.... The profit is so sure and so large that a well-stocked shop here is the richest thing in the world." Spanish clothing, paper, and wine, European velvet, damask, and linen, Asian spices, silks, and ceramics, he maintained, could be turned into gold: he called it "alchemy," so taken with the possibilities of trade in consumer goods was this merchant in a provincial Mexican town. And it was so throughout New Spain, with Mexico City and its hinterlands becoming the center of Spanish colonial trade, merchandising, agriculture, and manufacturing.

Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as the creole communities in New Spain's interior became self-sufficient in terms of the production of textiles, foodstuffs, agricultural implements, and housewares, all similar to like goods imported from Spain, they tended to seek only imports of what one historian has called "the luxurious, the novel, the status-conferring." On New Spain's northern edge, even after the 1690s when Spain established permanent outposts in the present-day border states, trade goods arrived once or at best twice a year via ox cart or mule train. Here the Spanish tried to regulate local trade, especially in symbolically potent goods like medicine and liquor. Hispanic material culture contributed to settlers' ongoing sense of themselves as Spanish, particularly as they intermarried with the native populations of the New World. The casta system depended not just on bloodlines, but on the skilled deployment of the clothing, foodstuffs, household items, and religious paraphernalia that underpinned Hispanic identity. Thus creoles were able to lay claim to Spain, and to develop as did colonial Britons an "imagined community" of Spaniards in the New World. We are only just beginning to understand how unassimilated native populations incorporated Spanish material culture into their daily lives and ritual practices, but there is little doubt about whether they did so.

While the dynamics differed from the "market revolution" tearing Britain's North American colonies away from the home country, after the 1750s the demand for and availability of foreign goods undermined the Spanish Empire's control over its northernmost regions. Due to the enfeeblement of the Spanish crown, foreign ships crowded Veracruz's port, while imported goods spilled out of Mexico City's stores. In response, Spain's Bourbon reforms of the 1760s and 1770s sought to foster a similar pattern of development as in the British Empire: Spain would manufacture and export consumer goods, and its colonies would supply the raw materials. But New Spain would follow its own path, despite the mother country's policies. In part this was because, unlike British North America, it was self-sufficient in terms of necessities due to vigorous intercolonial trade, the work of skilled artisans, and obrajes (workshops) that employed as many as fifty hands well before any such enterprise on the Atlantic seaboard hired half as many. Furthermore, New Spain's large indigenous populations consumed but a few Spanish goods, whereas native people in the British colonies, especially the Iroquois and Cherokees, ably and eagerly traded for European consumer goods. Finally, New Spain's creole elite desired French and English-not Spanish-manufactured goods. Thus, while there may be as of yet undiscovered connections between emergent Mexican nationalism and common consumption habits developed under Spanish rule, they likely did not animate the Mexican quest for independence.

Demand for and availability of foreign goods also contributed to the unraveling of the northern edges of Mexico. When the newly independent Mexico opened up trade with foreigners (1821), the flood of what one historian characterizes as "colorful, exotic, and cheap efectos de comercio" (trade goods) via the Santa Fé Mexican Trail and Texas settlements elicited nationalist fears about the strength of the borderlands as a barrier against North Americans. As the traffic increased in volume and value, particularly after the inauguration of wagons on the trail, low grade conflict between traders and native Americans ensued, increasing in intensity until caravans of traders traveled together, seeking safety in numbers. The talented chronicler of the Santa Fé trade, merchant and traveler Josiah Gregg, described how the "arrival of a caravan at Santa Fé changes the aspect of the place at once." He favorably contrasted "the bustle, noise and activity of a lively market town" with what he perceived as its usual "idleness and stagnation." Even two decades after the opening of trade, direct trade did not replace the trickle from Santa Fé to Chihuahua, due to a combination of high import tariffs, the "derecho de consumo" (consumption duty), the "tedious ordeal of custom-houses on the frontier," and the scrutiny the cargo underwent when passing through every town. Nevertheless, between 1824 and 1831 traders did take small amounts of U.S. goods to Sonora and California, and eventually the Chihuahua trade, through New Mexico, was large enough that some contemporaries estimated it being worth two to three million dollars annually. Nowhere was Mexico more vulnerable to encroachment than on its northern frontier, porous as it was to foreign consumer goods, stolen horses and cattle, traders traveling solo or in groups, itinerant bands of Indian warriors, and foreign armies.

By the time of Mexico's independence, Western European nations and the United States were in the midst of a second industrial revolution, whose enormity made abundance appear to be "a great historical force," as the historian David Potter put it. Whereas an increase in total household work time and effort haphazardly led to the seventeenth century's industrious revolution, and the use of machines in new spaces devoted only to production, called factories, resulted in the first industrial revolution, the second industrial revolution was due to technological and organizational innovations leading to astounding increases in productivity beginning in the 1780s. Previously, mills used the energy of moving water, animals, and wind to process agricultural commodities like grain, cotton, wool, and wood. But when steam engines harnessed the power of coal to operate boats, railroads, printing presses, and farming and factory machinery, the volume and speed of transportation, communication, and production together reached unimaginable levels. Engineers, machinists, journalists, accountants, and, above all else, managers innovated and applied organizational techniques in order to keep up with the demands of the new technologies. The consequent heaps of output in turn generated what became the central problem of industrial capitalism: distribution.


Excerpted from LAND of NECESSITY Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Drawing Boundaries between Markets, Nations, and Peoples, 1650-1940 Alexis McCrossen....................48
Domesticating the Border: Manifest Destiny and the "Comforts of Life" in the U.S.-Mexico Boundary Commission and Gadsden Purchase, 1848-1854 Amy S. Greenberg....................113
Selling the Border: Trading Land, Attracting Tourists, and Marketing American Consumption on the Baja California Border, 1900-1934 Rachel St. John....................143
Cinema on the U.S.-Mexico Border: American Motion Pictures and Mexican Audiences, 1896-1930 Laura Isabel Serna....................168
Promoting the Pacific Borderlands: Leisure and Labor in Southern California, 1870-1950 Lawrence Culver....................196
At the Edge of the Storm: Northern Mexico's Rural Peoples in a New Regime of Consumption, 1880-1940 Josef Barton....................248
Confined to the Margins: Smuggling among Native People of the Borderlands Robert Perez....................274
Using and Sharing: Direct Selling in the Borderlands Peter S. Cahn....................298
The Study of Borderlands Consumption: Potentials and Precautions Howard Campbell and Josiah McC. Heyman....................333
On La Frontera and Cultures of Consumption: An Essay of Images Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo....................355
Selected Bibliography....................397
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