In Routes of Compromise Michael K. Bess studies the social, economic, and political implications of road building and state formation in Mexico through a comparative analysis of Nuevo León and Veracruz from the 1920s to the 1950s. He examines how both foreign and domestic actors, working at local, national, and transnational levels, helped determine how Mexico would build and finance its roadways. While Veracruz offered a radical model for regional construction that empowered agrarian communities, national consensus would solidify around policies championed by Nuevo León’s political and commercial elites. Bess shows that no single political figure or central agency dominated the process of determining Mexico's road-building policies. Instead, provincial road-building efforts highlight the contingent nature of power and state formation in midcentury Mexico.
About the Author
Michael K. Bess teaches history at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico.
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"A Good Road ... Brings Life to All of the Towns It Passes"
The Fight for a National and Public Road-Building Program
In the spring of 1921 Francisco Malpica Silva, the general manager of Veracruz's El Dictamen, joined a staff reporter to document his experience traveling in a motor vehicle from the port of Veracruz to the state capital, Xalapa. The main road between the cities was an old earthen path that snaked across roughly 100 kilometers of mountainous terrain and forest from the humid shores of the Gulf coast. It was a notorious example of the toll weather and institutional neglect often took on even economically important routes. Built by the Spanish, the road had helped transform Xalapa into an integral trading hub by the eighteenth century; however, state authorities largely abandoned it following the introduction of railroads to the region after 1880. The next forty years saw the road succumb to the effects of entropy as harsh weather conditions gradually made it difficult to traverse. Malpica Silva's travelogue describes the driving conditions: "The car was only able to accomplish the trip, overcoming tremendous difficulties, because oxen and mules were used to help the vehicle navigate through some of the most treacherous parts of the route. Nevertheless, the amount of public enthusiasm awakened by this trip has helped to plant the first seeds in favor of automobile-centered development."
This journey from the port to Xalapa was not the only trip of its kind undertaken to highlight the problems of motor mobility in revolutionary Mexico. In 1917 the national daily Excélsior dispatched a reporter to travel from the federal capital to Veracruz with a handful of Mexican and U.S. automobile enthusiasts. After several days of driving, the group finally arrived at the coast and hailed their excursion as a "major accomplishment" for motor travel in Mexico since their car had not broken down beyond repair while traversing the difficult terrain.
A mixture of optimism and frustration marked national and state newspaper coverage on road conditions in Mexico. While travelogues emphasized treacherous driving on existing routes unfit for motor travel and editorials decried the lack of asphalt-concrete motorways, official announcements for future road construction made front-page headlines with favorable coverage. In 1917 Excélsior reported, "Soon a marvelous network of motor highways will surge across the country." The newspaper described twenty-seven early stage construction and repair projects under way across seven different states that promised to "invade the land" with new roads. Likewise in 1919 El Universal described plans for a "colossal highway" from Tuxpan, Veracruz, to Puebla that would benefit regional oil-drilling operations. Other articles suggested that Mexico needed to follow the example of "civilized countries," where good roads led to increases in automobility and economic growth.
When delays or cancellations affected these projects, newspapers called on the federal government to act. In 1920 Excelsior emerged as one of the most vocal critics, arguing that existing road-building efforts were piecemeal and haphazard. It stated that regional caciques, wealthy citizens, and private oil companies financed distinct motorway ventures, but all of this work occurred without a coherent national strategy. The newspaper reported that the 1917 plan for road construction, which the Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Obras Públicas (Secretariat of Communications and Public Works, SCOP) devised amid considerable media fanfare, had since languished with little official attention paid to it. Moreover in April an essay by Mexico City's Automobile Club, a group of elite motoring enthusiasts that included Excélsior's founder, Rafael Alducin, urged the federal government to pass comprehensive legislation to address the issue of bad roads.
In response to popular pressure and public calls for action, President Alvaro Obregón finally outlined a plan to invest in the repair of existing roads and the construction of much needed asphalt-concrete routes. During his 1921 state of the union address, he framed road building as part of a larger program of economic and infrastructural reform. The president said that SCOP had earmarked more than 680,000 pesos in its annual budget for national road-building efforts. Obregón also praised the foreign-owned oil companies that operated in Veracruz and Tamaulipas for building motor roads from interior oil-producing regions in the Huasteca Veracruzana to the ports of Tuxpan, Veracruz, and Tampico, Tamaulipas.
Obregón's rise to power was an important national victory for northwestern elites. He had joined with fellow Sonorans Plutarco Elías Calles and Adolfo de la Huerta to oust Venustiano Carranza and establish a new political bloc that hoped to rule Mexico. Although they had viewed Carranza as a rival and an enemy, they held many beliefs about modernization in common. They agreed on the construction of a new state along capitalist and nationalistic lines, and they saw road-building efforts as a means to support private business interests and foster economic growth at a time when foreign bankers were eager for Mexico to resume payments of its national debt. Moreover, as Luis Anaya Merchant has noted, it may come as little surprise that the revolutionary caudillos who most fervently endorsed road building and automobility hailed from northern Mexico. Given their geographic proximity to the United States, Obregón, Calles, and Carranza had likely been aware of the large-scale infrastructure projects across the border, which may have inspired them to carry out similar programs in Mexico.
In 1921 the federal government under Obregón prioritized building roads that improved access to the country's coastal ports and overland borders. This strategy included motorways from Mexico City to the ports of Acapulco and Veracruz, as well as a major road to the border from Enseñada to Tijuana, Baja California. One of the most ambitious projects that emerged in this period was the plan for a trinational road that united Canada, the United States, and Mexico called the Meridian Highway. Automobile enthusiasts and pro-business associations in the U.S. Midwest had developed the idea, inspired by another continent-spanning project: the Lincoln Highway, from New York to California. They envisioned a route that began in Winnipeg, Manitoba, crossed the border near Pembina, North Dakota, entered Mexico at Nuevo Laredo, and then continued to Mexico City. By the end of 1920 U.S. construction crews had already completed the route to the Mexican border, and U.S. representatives of the International Meridian Road Association met with officials from Obregón's administration, the state governors of Nuevo León and Tamaulipas, and local pro-business associations to discuss the next phase of the highway.
The Chambers of Commerce in Laredo and Monterrey played an important role in generating early cross-border collaboration on the Meridian project. In March 1921 a group of Texans involved in the undertaking offered financial data and survey maps to support any feasibility studies their Nuevoleonense counterparts needed to conduct. By the following month Governor Juan M. Garcia signaled his support and instructed the state's Department of Justice, Public Education, and Development to begin working with federal, local, and foreign groups already involved in construction planning. Supporters in Nuevo León saw the Meridian Highway as a potential boon to regional trade, especially the tourism industry, as automobile clubs from the United States organized driving tours into Mexico. The initial draft of the road project envisioned a route south from Nuevo Laredo to Monterrey and then westward to connect to the picturesque city of Saltillo, Coahuila, before continuing to Mexico City.
Across Mexico at this time regional civic improvement committees formed to organize fundraising campaigns and recruit labor in support of motorway infrastructure. For example, in Tuxpan, Veracruz, in 1926 the inaugural issue of the Boletín de Mejoras Materiales de Tuxpan reported that the local ladies' guild and five private citizens donated 4,937 pesos to coat the city's main road with asphalt and concrete, while the state government contributed 500 pesos to the effort. The newspaper also noted that local oil company managers had offered to lend construction equipment, while other residents volunteered their labor. The bulletin described the work as a broad, grassroots collaboration that involved "all social classes, workers, capitalists (even the oil companies have offered to give all of the asphalt needed), men and woman who desire to beautify Tuxpan and help it advance on the road of progress." Similarly in 1928 in Paso del Macho, Veracruz, citizens formed a local road board, which collected donations that ranged from five to 300 pesos. They held dances, festivals, and other civic events to help boost income when construction funds were low. Over two years private donations and public fundraisers accumulated more than 3,200 pesos, which the committee spent on road and bridgework.
Newspapers touted road building as necessary to economic development in Mexico. Dictamen's Malpica Silva and Excélsior's Alducin were not alone in their enthusiastic support for new construction efforts. The cofounder of Monterrey's El Porvenir, Jesus Cantu Leal, and the editor of El Norte, Rodolfo Junco de la Vega Voigt, also promoted infrastructure development as critical to the nation's future. In 1926, in an editorial entitled "We Need Highways," El Porvenir described new roads as an integral component of economic growth, arguing, "Our country has not been able to appreciate, in all of its magnitude, the benefit of highways, because we have been unable to enjoy these routes of transportation. In modern countries, roads have long received greater impetus, above all other improvements, to the collective interest, because national prosperity, the economies of the communities, have been stimulated in a decisive manner." The editorial continued by citing the commercial benefits that railroads had had on the development of Monterrey. Drawing on the history of the city's industrialization and market growth, it characterized motor highways as the next chapter in this story. Not only would these routes spur greater industrial activity, but they would also bring new streams of income from foreign tourists eager to tour Nuevo León's countryside. The essay ended by imploring the government "to take notice of these needs in order to combine market energies with the determination necessary" to carry out road construction. Journalists repeatedly made the case that good roads were necessary for broad economic growth. Their stories included images that depicted all of the stages of road building: tractors plowed land for a path, completed macadam and asphalt lanes extended to the horizon, and drivers in late-model automobiles were shown taking new routes.
State and federal teachers joined in efforts to lobby government officials and the public in support of new motorways. Mary Kay Vaughan has written that the Secretaria de Educación Pública (Ministry of Public Education, SEP) and local educators played a central role in promoting progressive values, utilizing rural schools as a locus for spreading a message designed to turn peasants "into patriotic, scientifically informed commercial producers." The campaign for road building was closely tied to this project of modernization. In November 1921 the teacher and road-building advocate Carlos Barrios wrote a pamphlet to appeal to "lovers of progress" (amantes del progreso) in favor of a highway from Zaragoza, Puebla, to Tecolutla, Veracruz. Although a teacher's salary made his own car ownership unlikely, Barrios romanticized the transformational effects of motor travel for the country as a whole; he imagined a future countryside crisscrossed by automobiles that generated economic growth from tourism that would help finance public education. He saw new roads replacing the crude footpaths that existed in much of rural Mexico, reducing regional isolation by making it easier for cars and buses to reach once remote communities. In the pamphlet, which Barrios distributed in Puebla and Veracruz, and a copy of which he sent to President Obregón, he made his case for the highway:
The beautiful idea that many of us — lovers of progress — have had, is lofty and great ... an ample route through our lovely, rich forests; it will be the artery that carries life to all of the towns it passes. ... The Zaragoza-Tecolutla highway will be built by the people for their own benefit. ... All conscientious men who love our land will participate, ensuring that every town where the road passes will be able to generate funds from regional traffic dedicated to conserve the route and to support public education. Beautiful idea! Onward people! Help us, so that we may achieve our well-being!
Efraín F. Bonilla, another educator from Zacapoaxtla, joined the chorus in favor of the proposed road. On November 15 he published a flyer entitled "Proof of Our True Progress Is the Highway They Will Build from Zaragoza to Tecolutla." He reiterated many of Barrios's themes, arguing that "progress ... travels all across the world as a herald, its clarion call announces the evolution and revolution of our traditions." Bonilla identified road building as critical to this process, but warned of "retrogrades" who "shout spurious claims, opposing the great opening of the Zaragoza-Tecolutla Highway by whatever means at their disposal." He used ugly stereotypes of rural people to describe these opponents, calling them "illiterate farmers who oppose [this work] to the point of taking up arms" and "reveal ignorance of electricity, fearing it is the work of the devil."
Bonilla pointed to "progress" as an irresistible force that "surges forward and woe to those that try to weight it down." On the one hand, he highlighted the transformative effects of building the highway, writing, "Very soon we will have the satisfaction of seeing our wild mountains traversed by automobiles. Then, this rich land, once poorly exploited due to the lack of a good road network, will enjoy an era of great prosperity." On the other hand, Bonilla portrayed opponents to the project as closed-minded, trapped by superstitious beliefs that saw technology as witchcraft. He stressed that these people, all of whom remain unnamed and ultimately faceless within his account, were willing to employ violence in their opposition to progress. At the end of the piece he reveals this local hostility to be short-sighted and perhaps hypocritical: "It will not be surprising to see some of these same individuals who had once been obstructionists, become some of the first ones to take advantage of the benefits of this important public work."
Given the nature of Barrios's and Bonilla's criticisms, we can speculate that some of the people who resisted the road project may have seen it as a threat to their existing livelihoods and local culture. They may have viewed motor roads as another example of outside exploitation of their communities by the government or private enterprise. In studies on railroad construction, John Coatsworth has shown that reduced transportation costs amplified the power of landed elites who used political and economic clout to consolidate their hold on rural land, enlarging the size of their estates at the expense of local campesinos. It is not unreasonable to conclude that rural communities with memories of the complex challenges railroads brought may have also been skeptical of newer proposals for motor roads.
Challenges to Obregón's Roads Plan
The creation of cost-effective and weather-resistant routes was an important priority for Obregón's government, but high-profile engineering failures endangered the program. Carrying out roadwork was a painstaking process that required precise engineering specifications. For example, after road crews cleared away vegetation and cut an earthen lane, all excavated materials had to be removed and the lane swept clean. Next came the first layer of macadam rock, and any irregularities discovered in the evenness of the plane had to be addressed immediately. Afterward a steamroller sealed this initial tier. The asphalt-concrete coating, which consisted of a mixture of petroleum, sulfur, rock, and sand, was applied to the road at a temperature between 232 and 260 degrees Celsius. All materials had to remain absolutely dry and conform to specifications in size and weight to ensure that the concrete blend remained free of impurities. The introduction of water or deviations in the material proportions of gravel would weaken the road's structural integrity and lead to premature deterioration.
Excerpted from "Routes of Compromise"
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Table of Contents
List of Figures Acknowledgments Abbreviations Introduction: Revolutionary Roads Chapter 1: “A Good Road . . . Brings Life to All of the Towns It Passes”: The Fight for a National and Public Road-Building Program Chapter 2: “Everyone Was Ready to Do Their Part”: Road Politics and State Bureaucracies Take Shape in Nuevo León and Veracruz Chapter 3: “So That These Problems May Be Placed in the Hand of the President”: Roads and Motor Travel under Cardenismo Chapter 4: “We March with Mexico for Liberty!”: Road Building in Wartime Chapter 5: “Those Who Do Not Look Forward Are Left Behind”: Alemanismo’s Road to Prosperity Chapter 6: Charting the Contours: State Power in Mexico’s Road-Building Efforts Appendix A: Comparing the Real Cost of Federal and State Spending on Roads Appendix B: Comparing the Budgets for Program for Cooperation on Roads and the Comisión Nacional de Caminos Vecinales Appendix C: Minimum Wages in Nuevo León and Veracruz for Road Workers Notes Bibliography Index