Urbanization and Environment in Mexico since 1521
Summary and Keywords
Urbanization and environmental change have worked in tandem over the course of Mexican history. Hinterland production, the establishment of market economies, and the intensive transformation of nature have fueled urban growth. The concentration of capital and expertise in cities has, in turn, enabled urban elites to rework the urban environment by creating industrial centers, executing technical-heavy infrastructure, building new subdivisions, and regulating hygiene. From the beaches of Cancún and the air and water pollution of Tijuana’s industrial parks to the prolific silver mines of Zacatecas and the henequen monoculture surrounding Mérida, Yucatán, rapid urban growth and profound changes to the environment within and outside cities have depended on and intersected with each other.
Most Mexican cities were founded to concentrate colonial political and ecclesiastical authority over a rebellious indigenous society, but urban growth in the colonial period stemmed from a combination of two processes: the expansion of the market economy linking hinterlands to colonial centers, and the colony’s insertion into the networks of global commercial capitalism. As if in a positive feedback loop, environmental transformation tended to fuel further urbanization in the form of population growth and the concentration of capital. Though not without its booms and busts, colonial urbanization reached its apogee during the Bourbon era. By severing the ties between hinterland and city and disrupting economic activity across rural Mexico, the various insurgencies starting in 1810 that led to independence sapped urban dynamism. It was not until the restoration of liberal hegemony in 1867 and the rise of Porfirio Díaz nearly a decade later that Mexican cities resumed their steady growth closely linked with environmental transformation. From 1876 to 1910, Mexico’s integration into global capitalism drove hinterland environmental change and changes to the built urban environment, both of which, riven with inequalities, reaffirmed existing power relationships.
The revolution of 1910 and the period of postrevolutionary reform to about 1940 presented opportunities for urban populations to challenge reigning urban environmental inequalities and make claims to a more inclusive and just city. But the engine of capitalist urbanization rolled on, and the conservative turn after 1940 shut the door on most popular forms of urban politics autonomous from the corporatist state. Urban growth became synonymous with industrial growth, first in the centripetal Mexico City and the northern giant Monterrey, and subsequently elsewhere, particularly along the northern border and in the oil-rich southern Gulf coast.
Cities and Environment in the Colony
Hernando Cortés, his entourage of conquistadors, and the first colonial administrators transported to Mexico a set of beliefs about the city that shaped the colonial landscape. Drawing on Aristotelian and Renaissance traditions in which urban life represented civilization and rural life barbarism, colonial officials adopted the policy poblar y pacificar, founding towns to concentrate control and evangelize scattered Indian populations, to be hubs of trade and investment, and to serve as beachheads in the fight against nomadic Indians. In the tradition of Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo Bruni, the Italian humanist philosophers, the urbs (the architecture and physical manifestations of a city) embodied civitas (the collection of men who bonded together to form a virtuous, and Christian, community). City designers laid out gridiron streets centered on a plaza surrounded by the architecture of colonial authority: church and state. New Spain, like the rest of Spain’s American colonies, was meant to be “an empire of towns” with a traza española around the central plaza and a república de indios on the edges.1 Colonial authority was at once urban authority, created through the foundation of towns or superimposed on top of once-bustling native towns and cities such as Cholula, entrepôt of the textile trade, and Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec empire. In the northern stretches of New Spain, nomadic Indians who had yet to be resettled into the Christian reducciones were deemed heretical and barbaric, in part for their incapacity to escape from wild nature.
Whether the Spanish were ready to acknowledge it, the natural environment molded where they would establish cities and their early development. Cortés and the early Spanish colonists erected Mexico City on top of conquered Tenochtitlan, which before deadly epidemics of smallpox and measles and nearly two years of warfare had supported some 200,000 people. Mexico City would not approach that figure again for another three centuries. Tenochtitlan had been situated on an island in the northwestern corner of Lake Texcoco, joined to the mainland by four causeways. The Mexica relied on a system of dikes and other hydraulic infrastructure to protect the city and its agricultural centers from flooding and alkaline waters during torrential summer downpours, while the lacustrine system itself provided the basis for the subsistence and commerce of the entire Valley of Mexico. The highly productive agricultural practice of chinampería—in which farmers constructed soil beds in canals, marshes, and lakes to grow corn, tomatoes, and other crops—duck hunting, salt and bug collection, and other aquatic-based economic practices sustained as many as two million people within the valley. The Valley of Mexico under the Aztecs was highly modified, but it was a productive space in which aquatic ecosystems and human life maintained a rather delicate balance. The notion that the Spanish categorically rejected the waterscapes of the valley is largely fallacious. Many colonists surely fretted over “miasmas” supposedly emanating from stagnant waters, but for the first several decades of colonial rule many Spaniards lauded the lacustrine setting. In 1554 Francisco Cervantes de Salazar, connecting urbs to civitas, exalted the beautiful aquatic environment that gave Mexico City its vitality and identity as the center of the New World. Indeed, waterborne transport supplied residents with food and building materials for the construction of homes and the edifices of colonial power. Spanish views of the island city changed dramatically in the following year, when heavy rains overflowed Lake Texcoco, sending sewage-polluted water into the Spanish traza, damaging important buildings. What for the Mexica were the dynamic fluctuations of a lake that ultimately supported their civilization was for the Spanish a threat to their land-based mode of production, oriented increasingly around the hacienda and the urban real estate that defined civitas and reinforced the rural economy.2 Following another, more disastrous flood in the 1620s, the Crown considered moving the capital to higher ground, or alternatively outside the basin entirely, but the colonial elite centered on Mexico City refused to abandon their urban investments. Lake drainage, from that moment on, became the single most important public work of the colonial period, as the authorities set out to protect and advance a land-based mode of production firmly linked to urban economic and political power, while simultaneously harnessing the labor of the indigenous people and eroding their lacustrine mode of subsistence.3 The fateful decision to anchor colonial power over the old Mexica capital marked the beginning of a long history—indeed, one that continues today—of urban experts’ bid to eliminate floodwaters from the Valley of Mexico through river diversions, lake drainage, and sewer systems.
If the dynamic and seemingly uncontrollable aquatic environment of Mexico City formed an obstacle over which to triumph, environmental conditions of a different sort circumscribed the development of the coastal entrepôts Veracruz and Acapulco. These two port cities served as linchpins of the world economy: Mexican silver crossed the Atlantic to fill the coffers of Europe, while the yearly Manila galleon delivered fine silks and porcelains from East Asia and returned filled with precious metals and smaller quantities of other commodities produced in the colony. As important to global commerce as these towns were, neither became an important city under colonial rule. They did not constitute centers of indigenous population like central Mexico prior to the conquest, and with the goods came the mosquitoes that spread yellow fever and malaria throughout the tropical lowlands. Disease confined most Spanish and mestizos to the central Mexican plateau, a natural setting that could be more easily modified to resemble Spain, a “neo-Europe” in the phrase of Alfred Crosby.4
Guadalajara and Puebla fit the bill. The fertile Guadalajara Valley sustained the growing population of its namesake urban center with meat and grain.5 Puebla was founded in a similarly resource-rich valley with a temperate climate and abundant streams and rivers, on the route between Mexico City and the port of Veracruz. The regional hinterland of Puebla became the breadbasket of Mexico until Bajío area producers overtook it in the mid-1600s. The location of precious metals determined the site of the two biggest mining cities, Zacatecas and Guanajuato. Indians, Afro-Mexicans, and an assortment of castas (mixed-race people) flocked to these booming urban areas to work the mines, but the entire urban mining economy depended on the environmental transformation of a vast hinterland centered on the Bajío. Wood fueled the refineries and provided the raw material for construction, while extensive livestock raising and large grain-producing estates supported the booming populations of Mexico’s silver-mining centers, the raison d’être of Spanish imperial rule. Whenever droughts struck—such as the one in 1785—urban food shortages resulted. Colonial authorities would scramble to maintain adequate grain supplies and keep down prices to avoid mass urban discontent, such as the kind that hit Mexico City during maize shortages in 1624 and 1692. Colonial urbanization was closely entwined with environmental change and implicated vast spaces beyond the last cobblestone street or Indian neighborhood, including agricultural and resource hinterlands and reengineered lacustrine ecologies. Colonial cities were the hubs of commerce and credit, and in places like Puebla, of light manufacturing, even though most of the colony’s economic output, along with the vast majority of the populace, was rooted in the countryside.
New Spain’s urban population did increase, however, during the colonial period for two main reasons. The measles and smallpox epidemics that decimated the native population during the 16th century subsided, and rural population pressure mounted. As the indigenous population rebounded, Spanish and creole hacienda owners dispossessed pueblos of their communal lands and the water and forest resources off which they maintained their livelihood. The mass exodus from country to city that has only recently waned began in the 18th century, particularly during the Bourbon Reforms. Rural-to-urban migration accounted for the population growth of cities, since endemic and chronic urban diseases such as dysentery, typhus, and cholera precluded natural increase. Migrants joined the ethnically heterogeneous urban poor in Mexico City, Puebla, and Guadalajara, where they attempted to eke out a living—generally in the informal economy—to be able to purchase the staple foods originating in the same hacienda system that had expelled them in the first place. By 1810, Mexico City, the political, cultural, and economic capital of New Spain, counted about 150,000, making it the largest city in the Americas. Other secondary cities (except for Puebla, which at fewer than 50,000 suffered a marked decline from its heyday in the late 16th century) also picked up the pace; Guadalajara and Guanajuato, in the midst of a silver boom, both counted around 40,000. The Crown’s intention to segregate Spaniards from Indians and the rapidly growing casta population broke down; people of all classes and ethnicities occupied the same public spaces, carrying out their daily business. Living conditions, however, were highly segregated, even though in many cities the poor might reside in close proximity to the most affluent. In Mexico City, floodwaters did not discriminate by class or race, but the wealthiest were able to construct summer homes in drier suburbs to the south and west, leaving the poor to battle the filthy waters. In part because of the perennial flood threat and the diseases that poor drainage invariably brought, Mexico City was the least salubrious of all the major colonial cities. Nonetheless, throughout urban New Spain most people languished in squalid conditions. A majority of the urban lower classes lived in crowded vecindades (tenement buildings) without water, without access to a kitchen, and without waste removal services. Gastrointestinal diseases and typhus, transmitted by lice, thrived in such wretched conditions. The urban lower classes of mining centers such as Guanajuato faced similar environments: crowded agglomerations of straw huts or small adobe homes without any municipal service whatsoever.6 In Zacatecas, however, some urban Indians were able to acquire small milpa lots to, in a sense, reproduce a rural life on the outskirts of the city.7 The mining economy presented other dangers. Many refinery workers resided close to their workplaces, and they no doubt bore the brunt of mercury pollution both at home and at work. Mercury was used in the patio process invented in the 1550s to separate silver from the ore, and for every kilogram of silver produced, 1.5 kilograms of mercury were lost, according to one estimate. Poor handling often resulted in spills, and some mercury vented dangerously into the atmosphere. Miners deposited a quarter of utilized mercury as waste, and tailings entered groundwater and were washed down the rivers and streambeds along which many workers settled.8 Writing about Guanajuato, but equally applicable to Zacatecas, John Tutino maintains: “It was a city resistant to planning, driven by greed, and shaped by risk.”9
From Independence to Díaz
Drought gripped central Mexico from 1808 to 1810, destabilizing rural subsistence already under attack by encroaching haciendas. The drought caused food shortages in cities and catalyzed discontent across the countryside. As a motley crew of mineworkers, villagers, hacienda peons, and townspeople joined the forces of Miguel Hidalgo in September 1810 to wage war against the rural bulwarks of colonial authority, conditions continued to deteriorate in cities. The hungry masses became more susceptible to disease, and typhoid and yellow fever struck Puebla in 1811 and 1812.10 Despite worsening urban conditions, inhabitants of central Mexican cities refused to join the rebels. Rebellion was not a mechanistic reaction to material conditions, but rather a result of a range of factors including ethnic and class cohesion, the moral economy of food supplies, and the relative presence of state force.11 Large rebel armies led by Hidalgo and then by José María Morelos were defeated by the royalist elite pent up in pacified cities, but the insurgency turned into bloody and equally destructive guerrilla warfare. The creole elite led by Agustín Iturbide declared independence in 1821, but the protracted war ruined economic activity, the wellspring of urban vitality. In the first few decades following independence, Mexico experienced urban stagnation and a deintensification of environmental change.12
Continual warfare, military coups, and financial handicaps prevented national and city governments from making urban improvements. This is not say there was no interest. Bourbon colonial administrators had fixed their attention on public health reform to clean up the capital of New Spain and create productive subjects, and the new nation’s elites shared the same values. Leading liberals such as José Luis Mora and conservatives such as Lucas Alamán disagreed on fundamental questions of state, but they concurred on the urgency of completing the drainage of the Valley of Mexico, whose reduced lakes continued to jeopardize urban landholdings and public health. Mexico City’s built and natural environment constituted a national stigma, an embarrassment for Mexico’s ruling class on par with its indigenous and mixed-race majority. Modernity would be reached, the urban elite presumed, through urban-environmental improvements and hydraulic infrastructure that could harness and control nature. The liberals under Benito Juárez delivered the coup de grace against Mexican conservatism in 1867, executing Emperor Maximilian of Austria and other members of his royal court. The restoration of the liberal republic ushered in a new era of urbanization and, thus, of environmental transformation.
Urbanization and Environmental Change under Díaz
The modern environmental transformation of Mexican cities and their hinterlands stemmed from a bundle of political, economic, and intellectual forces. Liberals had firmly upheld federalism, but after 1867 liberalism underwent a dramatic shift. Aligning themselves with Comtean positivism, liberals from Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada to Gabino Barreda pushed for a strong central state led by a technocratic elite to advance Mexico into capitalist modernity. Porfirio Díaz cemented this shift to an authoritarian liberalism, and the positivist mantras “order and progress” and “little politics and a lot of administration” became governing principles. The Díaz government welcomed foreign capital to spur economic growth in the mining, agricultural, and industrial sectors. US railroad interests built an extensive network of railways connecting new commodity economies to ports and the US border. Political stability and renewed economic vitality organized around the railroad reinvigorated Mexican cities. The elite flaunted newfound wealth, while another wave of migrants flooded cities in search of work in the blossoming, but still small, industrial sector. The Porfirian ruling class, meanwhile, acquired capital to fund urban infrastructural improvements, particularly in Mexico City—the paragon of Mexican modernity. Their efforts were supported by a new class of urban experts who looked to adapt North Atlantic public health precepts, hydraulic technologies, and urban planning expertise to Mexican cities.
The railroad linked commodity-producing hinterlands to urban centers and urban centers to one another. The Veracruz to Mexico City line, the first railroad in Mexico, was completed in 1873 and was directly responsible for the port city’s economic growth. With the technical input of the British contractor Weetman Pearson, a familiar figure in Mexico’s environmental history, the Díaz government deepened the harbor by removing large quantities of coral and sand, erected breakwaters to protect the harbor and ease ship docking, and updated harbor facilities using over a million tons of rock from surrounding quarries and some 50,000 tons of cement, steel, and iron for construction.13 In Yucatán, the henequen (sisal fiber) industry and the intricate railroad network constructed to promote it turned Mérida into a booming state capital—hub of the sisal trade that linked wheat farmers of the United States and Canada to southern Mexico. Between 1877 and 1910 the city doubled in size, boasting a population of over 62,000.14 A new middle class of professionals and merchants accounted for some of this growth, but Mérida also received thousands of Maya Indians pushed off their land by the planter class known as the Casta Divina. Similar to Mérida, the city of Oaxaca witnessed a boom when new mining opportunities blossomed upon the construction of a rail line connecting the city to Mexico’s capital in 1892. The arrival of the railroad was also key for Monterrey’s growth, but in contrast to other cities that tended to serve as hubs of trade and credit for hinterland production, Monterrey’s merchant class set out to industrialize the city. The regiomontanos (as inhabitants of the city were called) argued that a prevailing regional culture of thrift and hard work characteristic of the ostensibly individualistic northern frontier accounted for the city’s rapid industrial progress. Industrial growth, scholars have emphasized, had much more to do with the city’s “proximity to and borrowing from North American markets, capital, technologies, and business cultures.”15 There is another explanation still; Monterrey was conveniently located near and connected by rail to the only major coal and iron ore fields in the entire country, as well as to extensive limestone deposits for the production of cement. Access to these raw materials provided the basis of much of the city’s industry. Monterrey capitalists were in a position to employ fossil fuels in manufacturing processes, thus transforming hinterland resources into commodities for a growing national market. Oil from the Huasteca soon contributed to Monterrey’s (and Mexico City’s) industrial output, driving urbanization and rapid environmental degradation in what was once the northernmost rain forest in the Americas. Tampico by 1911 was a boomtown of wealth and development, housing foreign oil company offices. Further north along the border, William Greene’s copper-mining enterprise brought vast wealth to the Sonoran border town of Cananea, where one American resident who had been apprehensive about her move there admired “an unruffled world” of well-built homes, “sweet-scented flower gardens” and wide streets.16
Political stability, institutional strength, and economic dynamism empowered urban experts and developers to make long-desired urban improvements. Mexico City received the bulk of the financial resources, however. Close to 45 million pesos were earmarked by the municipal and federal government to construct the General Drainage of the Valley of Mexico, the Xochimilco water supply network,17 and the city sewerage system. This triad of public works projects was the centerpiece of the city’s sanitary revolution, whose objective was to place Mexico City on the stage of Western modernity. City technocrats such as Miguel Ángel de Quevedo and Roberto Gayol touted the nation’s advances in hygiene at major late 19th century world’s fairs.18 Quevedo also teamed with finance minister José Limantour to improve and create urban green spaces in the Bosque de Chapultepec and the many new subdivisions that seemingly sprouted overnight in the expanding city.19 Urban experts believed that new technical applications, joined by the science of public health that emphasized bacteria-free water, the quick evacuation of sewage and potential floodwaters, and the importance of forests to urban hygiene, would elevate the capital to a world-class city and augment industrial and commercial investments.
Although the preponderance of monies for urban improvements went to Mexico City, urban elites in the “provinces” initiated smaller-scale projects to sanitize and embellish their cities—in some cases before Mexico City elites. Their efforts, rather than being derivative of the nation’s capital, were more contemporaneous actions involving many of the same engineers. In an effort to convert disease-ridden Veracruz into a healthy modern metropolis, Weetman Pearson also upgraded water and drainage infrastructure, while the city adorned the new malecón (esplanade) with tropical plants, turning it into a public space, albeit one primarily for the city’s thriving business class.20 In oil-rich Tampico, urban improvement was also driven by foreign wealth. As talk of revolution gripped the rest of Mexico, oil barons teamed up with municipal authorities to pave the city’s streets, install a trolley system, and erect a network of electric streetlights that made it the best- lit city in all of Mexico. European and American tourists, moreover, arrived by train to the pulsating city to hunt in the jungles and fish in the impressive lagoons and rivers—soon to deteriorate or disappear entirely due to the industry that brought tourists there in the first place. 21 Similarly, Yucatán’s governor and leader of the state’s Casta Divina, Olegario Molina, spearheaded a crusade to clean up the “white city,” as the state’s capital, Mérida, was named for its architectural gems, the product of henequen wealth. The government established new parks, paved downtown streets, set up a refuse collection service, installed a lighting system, and constructed a state-of-the-art market. Molina parlayed his political office to support his business ventures as well. His own company carried out a 5-million-peso drainage project, “transforming Mérida into Mexico’s most modern provincial capital.”22 Oaxaca City and Guadalajara followed suit, expanding green space, installing lighting, and paving the streets of the colonial centers. Guadalajara’s urban elite also updated the city’s drinking water system more than a decade before Mexico City enjoyed healthy water. The architect of Mexico City’s water supply network canalized (entubaron) the filthy, sewage-infested Río de San Juan de Díos, long viewed as a site of miasma and infection. The city developed the Calzada Independencia over the underground river with the hope that it would spur urban renewal and become the city’s version of the capital’s Paseo de la Reforma, first designed by Maximilian of Austria to resemble the Champs-Elysées.23 At first glance, this would seem to be another case of what two historians have called a “chilango blueprint”24 in which provincial elites mimic Mexico City designs, but one might also take another view: in the 1950s and 1960s Mexico City engineers would seem to emulate Guadalajara when they canalized the filthy rivers of the basin to turn them into major thoroughfares.
Lest this seem a story of universal progress, the Porfirian urban elites’ aims to order and sanitize Mexican cities aggravated existing inequalities and reaffirmed urban social hierarchies. Sanitary campaigns were also moralizing and disciplinary crusades and included efforts to crack down on prostitution and promiscuity, instill in the urban poor a culture of cleanliness by punishing unhygienic practices, and cut off certain municipal services for nonpayment—an action that tended to prejudice the lower classes. It was the responsibility of the expert and paternalistic elite to uplift the masses through new sanitary codes and technical interventions. Moreover, while the urban sanitary ideal was cloaked in the language of public welfare and general prosperity, interventions in the urban environment were highly skewed toward more affluent groups. The new sewer and water-supply networks in Mexico City, Mérida, and Guadalajara covered most of the city, but certain peripheral working-class neighborhoods were excluded from these basic sanitary services. Problems also surfaced in the surrounding hinterland as a result of urban sanitary engineering. In Guadalajara, the canalization of the Río de San Juan de Díos eliminated an important source of irrigation for local farmers, while outside Mexico City the extraction of Xochimilco springwater and the renewed drainage of Lake Texcoco threatened country people’s already precarious lacustrine mode of subsistence. As cities like Guadalajara demanded more and more resources, environmental disputes between hinterland communities and urban elites sharpened.
Porfirian growth detonated subdivision development as landowners speculated on peripheral land to build new colonias for the growing middle-class and elite clientele. These subdivisions, with names like Roma, Condesa, Moderna, and Reforma, exacerbated spatial and sanitary segregation. Well-to-do residents increasingly lived in verdant, well-serviced neighborhoods distant from the filth-ridden and crowded urban centers. In Tampico, the intersection of oil production and tropical nature added another dimension to environmental inequality. The companies built worker encampments close to the polluting, disaster-prone industry and in flood basins, leaving them more susceptible to malaria and yellow fever, while the foreign oil elite built homes with manicured lawns in the suburban hills.25 In central Mexico, urban developers occasionally laid out colonias for the working classes, but they rarely installed services, and single-family housing remained well out of reach of most inhabitants. Mexico City’s urbanization codes standardized sanitary and building requirements for the new subdivisions, but corruption dogged enforcement and many developers built illegally. The division between legal and illegal settlements commenced in the Porfiriato. Lower-class residents across Mexico’s urban milieu began to demand access to the modern sanitary city. Oaxacans complained of open sewers and foul water, while working-class residents in Mexico City petitioned city officials for water and sewer connections.26 These kinds of urban demands over the urban environment escalated during and after the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
Revolution and the Politics of the Urban Environment
The 1910 Revolution was primarily a rural drama, with country people and provincial elites as the protagonists and the urban working class as an occasional supporting actor. The main plot of the Revolution was arguably never about the urban environment, but this does not mean that the Revolution failed to alter the course of the nation’s urban-environmental history.
The Constitutionalists led by Venustiano Carranza triumphed over both the Porfirian old guard and the Zapatista and Villista movements, whose bases were the indigenous peasantry and northern popular classes, respectively. Constitutionalist leaders in Guadalajara and Mexico City immediately attempted to reestablish food and fuel supplies from the devastated countryside, guarantee healthy drinking water, eradicate typhus and smallpox, and clean up the city by removing chickens, pigs, and other domestic animals from working-class homes.27 These practices had much in common with the Porfirian moralizing campaigns of previous years, but they also responded to newfound expectations of government and the promise of the Revolution to improve urban life.28 Alberto Pani, an engineer and revolutionary politician, embodied the Constitutionalists’ Janus-faced views about urbanization, the environment, and the people who inhabited that environment. In his widely read treatise Hygiene in Mexico, Pani decried Porfirian public health measures and blamed the old government for Mexico City’s atrocious sanitary conditions. He called for the enforcement of sanitary codes under the new revolutionary government as well as economic improvements for the people, but in the same breath he derided the urban poor for their unhygienic practices and called the tenements “sinks of moral and physical infection.”29 The Revolution did not upend old assumptions about the cultural inferiority of the urban poor—claims that their dirtiness and diseases were as much their own fault as that of government policy or structural inequality. The seven years of widespread violence and protest, however, did push forward a new discourse of revolutionary accountability and justice, supported by the nation’s new unifying document: the Constitution of 1917. Article 123, for example, stipulated that hygienic and affordable housing be available to the urban masses.
The climate of revolutionary reform coincided with a surge in working-class unionism and leftist political activism. Anarchist and communist labor organizers saw great potential in tapping into discontent over living conditions: a working class forced into crowded and unhygienic tenement rooms at ever-increasing rental rates, while the elite enjoyed their spacious and hygienic single-family residences on the outskirts of town. The anarcho-syndicalist activist Herón Proal garnered resounding support for the tenant movement in Veracruz, which rather quickly escalated into a citywide strike. News of this organizing success spread throughout Mexico, and tenants in line with left-wing activists of different stripes organized unions or strikes in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Aguascalientes, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Monterrey, and even the young border town of Juárez.30 This nationwide urban movement for hygienic and affordable housing failed in the end to radically alter the nature of urban growth, but it did lead authorities to pay more attention to working-class housing. Ultimately, the postrevolutionary state sanctioned a new form of working-class housing, the colonia proletaria, where ex-tenants would gain favor from public officials to settle vacant peripheral lands. The urban corporatist machine of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) grew out of the politics of hygienic housing in the 1920s and 1930s: in exchange for land titles and a host of urban services such as pavement, water, and sewerage, inhabitants of these neighborhoods would become bulwarks of the authoritarian state.
The populist administration of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940) became known for its fulfillment of revolutionary promises: land reform, workers’ rights, and resource nationalism. Few have considered Cárdenas’s six-year term as “the sexenio of drinking water,” as one newspaper proclaimed it,31 yet improving water supply to the small and medium-sized cities of Mexico occupied many Cardenista politicians. In 1933 Pani had helped establish the Banco Nacional Hipotecario Urbano y de Obras Públicas (Banobras) to inject federal funding for municipal sewer and water services, and Cárdenas, upon assuming the presidency, expanded its role. Guadalajara, Oaxaca, Pachuca, Querétaro, Morelia, and other smaller cities received funding to boost their water services in 1935 and 1936. The state preferred the construction of wells to access water from underground aquifers over building expensive infrastructure for harnessing surface water. State efforts to expand the water supply to a wide array of Mexican cities helped kindle popular protest where water remained deficient and in private hands. In San Luis Potosí, the budding National Labor Confederation (CTM) organized workers to strike for improved water service and demanded Cárdenas’s intervention against the state’s longtime cacique (strongman) Saturnino Cedillo, who supported the private water company. The dispute ended with minor investments to improve water service and the state government’s purchase of the water company.32
The Urban Revolution
Revolutionary reform petered out by the end of Cárdenas’s term in office, and succeeding presidents succeeding in coopting or suppressing urban popular movements during the 1940s and 1950s to pursue breakneck urban industrialization, with Mexico City at the focal point.33 Over the course of three decades Mexico went from a predominantly rural country to one with a rapidly growing urban majority. Mexico City held a population of 1.8 million in 1940; in 1970 it was fast approaching 10 million. Planners had begun to develop subdivisions organized around the automobile as early as the 1920s, contributing to spatial segregation, and by 1970 car ownership combined with industrial growth was turning the Valley of Mexico into the world’s air-pollution capital. Meanwhile, rapid growth and the hydraulic infrastructure necessary to support it strained the valley’s delicate hydrology. While Mexico City, and Monterrey to a lesser degree, were the centerpieces of the urban revolution, industrial growth and intensified resource extraction triggered rapid urbanization elsewhere, including border cities like Juárez, Tijuana, and Nuevo Laredo, and by 1980 in oil-rich Tabasco.
Mexico City’s rapid industrialization after 1940 was made possible by a state-supported energy transition and import substitution policies. Prior to about 1915, most of the city’s manufacturing was situated along rivers that could provide water power and near forests for fuelwood. Like Monterrey, Mexico City industrialists benefited from the railroad network that supplied coal and then petroleum to the city. Fossil fuels freed industry from the energy and spatial constraints of water and wood.34 In 1938, when Cárdenas nationalized the oil industry, factories hummed and automobiles sped across the city powered by Mexican oil, contributing to the ecological destruction of coastal Veracruz, Tabasco, and Campeche. Thousands of migrants flocked to the capital every year on account of land pressures in the countryside and the ratcheting down of agrarian reform. Some landed jobs in one of the new factories, but most worked in the informal service sector. Migrants increasingly settled in the urban periphery, where they either squatted on land illegally or received official authorization to occupy and build on vacant land. Much of this land was ecologically precarious—around polluting factories or the desiccated but flood-prone Texcoco lakebed and along rivers. In a routine perfected under Cárdenas and Ávila Camacho, the settlers would form a neighborhood organization to petition the state for land titles and essential services.
Urban experts understood that to sustain such industrial and population growth, drainage infrastructure had to be expanded and water had to flow in abundance. They continued the extract-and-expel model that began in earnest under Díaz with the general drainage of the Valley of Mexico and the Xochimilco water system. Grave unintended consequences inhered in this model. Lake Texcoco by 1950 had become a saline desert, but lake drainage did not curb flooding. The lakebed filled with sedimentation from deforested hillsides so that it no longer served as a container for excess water, leading to inundations of adjacent, urbanizing land. Torrential rains frequently overwhelmed drainage infrastructure, flooding low-lying and mostly lower-class neighborhoods. After summer rains passed, the dry months brought a different environmental threat. Winds swept up the saline dust from the dried Texcoco bed and dumped it on the city. Dust storms could last hours, contaminating markets, paralyzing traffic, and even closing the international airport. Meanwhile, deep well drilling to supply people and industry with water depleted the underground aquifer at the same time that drainage infrastructure prevented its replenishment. The land subsided at an extraordinary rate during the second half of the 20th century, damaging building foundations and infrastructure and worsening the effects of the deadly 1985 earthquake. Land subsidence also disabled the Porfirian drainage canal, and in the 1970s the city constructed a prohibitively expensive deep drainage system to forestall a catastrophic flood. In order to lessen dependence on the aquifer, the state captured water from the Lerma River (1951) and Cutzamala River (1970s), using a sophisticated network of dams, canals, and energy-intensive pumping stations. These massive infrastructural projects stretched the socio-ecological footprint of Mexico City well beyond the basin walls.
Mexico City exemplified the dreadful and inveterate environmental problems associated with rapid urban industrialization and the model of hydraulic engineering that underwrote it. No other Mexican city approached such dire straits at mid-century, but even as Mexico’s “economic miracle” dissipated at the end of the 1960s, oil production and cross-border trade drove industrial growth in areas that had heretofore been spared environmental degradation. The state’s Border Industrialization Program of 1965 stimulated maquiladora (assembly factory) operations along the US-Mexican border, an industrial sector that ballooned after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect in 1994. As Mexico City’s growth slowed, migration patterns shifted to the north; landless and land-poor peasants as well as unemployed urbanites traveled north in search of work in one of the thousands of maquiladoras producing plastics and electronics or businesses engaging in “sham recycling” of batteries and other waste. It was a familiar pattern; migrants settled, often illegally, on vacant, ecologically precarious lands, this time amid heavy-metal pollution. Since the turn of the 21st century, environmental justice movements have emerged along the border from Matamoros to Tijuana to contest the transfer of environmental pollution from the United States to the working-class communities of northern Mexico.35
In the southern states of Tabasco and Campeche, oil and gas production have urbanized wide swaths of the Gulf Coast. Cities such as Ciudad del Carmen and Villahermosa began their meteoric rise in the late 1970s, serving as investment hubs and staging grounds for offshore drilling and centers for refining operations. Urban industrialization has polluted air and waterways and altered landscapes along the Gulf Coast and the northern border. Oil production, in particular, has threatened local means of subsistence from shrimping to ejido (communal) farming.36
Industry does not account for all recent urban growth. Beginning in the late 1940s under Alemán, the Mexican state began to commodify its lush tropical beaches. Acapulco became one of the first beachfront tourist sites in the world, drawing thousands of Americans every year. Acapulco grew rapidly after 1950 owing to the booming tourist industry, even as overdevelopment and pollution threatened to undermine the very basis of the local economy. Other beachfront tourist destinations have followed a similar trajectory, and presently Acapulco, Cancún, and Puerto Vallarta all rank in the top forty of the nation’s metropolitan populations.
Recently Mexico’s “secondary cities” have grown at more rapid pace than Mexico City, owing in roughly equal measure to the government’s efforts at decentralizing economic and cultural activity and to the political-economic shift to neoliberalism. Social and spatial stratification are omnipresent across Mexico’s cityscapes, in a global trend that has led one socialist activist and urban historian to forecast the creation of a “planet of slums.”37 This is a bold prediction that is more provocative than indicative of reality, as many of Mexico’s apparent “slums”—such as Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl in the dried Texcoco lakebed—are in fact well-functioning and adequately serviced working-class neighborhoods, even if they continue to face myriad environmental and social problems. A country of slums or not, urbanization in Mexico has been unequal and segregated since the colonial period, and these inequalities—sanitary, environmental, and spatial—increased during the Porfiriato. The Revolution offered a glimmer of hope that this trend might be reversed, but Mexico’s mid-20th-century “economic miracle” reinscribed those inequalities at the same time that industrial expansion caused many urban environments to deteriorate further. With the exponential growth of dozens of Mexican cities over the past several decades, state and city officials will be forced to search ever deeper into the hinterlands for water resources and “ultimate sinks” for waste, leading to the kind of contamination and resource dispossession that has long affected the peoples of Mexico City’s hinterlands—from the Xochimilco and Lerma River basins to the farming communities of the Mezquital, where Mexico City sewage simultaneously fertilizes fields and infects them with industrial toxins. It is easy to see decline everywhere when writing urban-environmental history, and no doubt this is very much a story of environmental deterioration experienced unequally by the Mexican populace. On the other hand, there have also been success stories worth mentioning. Thanks to the imperative of economic development and political pressures from below, the state has provided drinking water and sewerage to a vast majority of urban residents, even if these services have not always been up to standard—a major achievement considering the prevailing scarcity of services in other regions of the world. Mexico City has alleviated smog and has been working on reversing some of the damage caused by the extract-and-expel hydraulic model. Likewise, environmental justice movements are working to counteract some of the most blatantly toxic forms of waste disposal, although they must contend with powerful national and international actors.
Discussion of the Literature
Mexican—indeed, Latin American—urban-environmental history remains in its infancy. Unlike in the historiography of the United States, there are very few articles or books on Mexico that one would label “urban-environmental history.” Nonetheless, there are many publications in which urban-environmental change is a chief theme, and many more from which information about urban environments can be gleaned. Many are economic and social histories about certain commodities or economic activities, or about the relationships between production and consumption, and hinterland and city. In all of these, the natural or the built environment figures prominently. Others are labor histories or bottom-up cultural and political histories that provide glimpses into the politics of urban-environmental change, protest movements, and daily life in cities. Still others are works in the history of the built environment—histories of design, technology, and planning—that deal specifically with elite environmental visions and the application of their ideas in material realities. Much of this work is Mexico City-centric, mirroring the history of urbanization in the country itself, but there exists a smattering of publications on other important cities. For the more recent period of urbanization, political scientists and sociologists provide crucial information on environmental protest, the character and consequences of industrialization, and the politics of settlement. The most notable urban-environmental histories of Mexico have been written within the last decade and include works by Vera Candiani on lake drainage and environmental change during the colonial period, Germán Vergara on energy and industrialization in the Valley of Mexico, Luis Aboites on postrevolutionary water supply, Emily Wakild on urban parks, Myrna Santiago on the ecology of oil and the urbanization of Tampico, and Matthew Vitz on land reclamation and responses to dust storms rising from the Texcoco bed.
Primary source material for researching the urban-environmental history of Mexico can be found in innumerable archives and libraries across the nation. Where one goes is entirely contingent on the urban area under scrutiny. Municipal archives are absolutely essential for interpreting urban-environmental change because city governments generally had jurisdiction over urban services, food supply, and markets; they issued urbanization codes and received complaints and petitions from the population. The Archivo Historico y Biblioteca del Agua (Historical Water Archive and Library, AHA) contains troves of documentation on urban water supply projects, drainage infrastructure, and scientific studies on urban-environmental dilemmas. It may seem counterintuitive to consult the Archivo General Agrario (Agrarian Archive, AGA), but files on expropriation housed there show glimpses of the infrastructural networks that linked city to hinterland, as well as the processes of settlement that often overtook ejido land. The Presidential Fund of the Archivo General de la Nación (National Archive, AGN) is an invaluable resource for all dimensions of urban-environmental history. The files of the ministries of Fomento, Hydraulic Resources, and Public Works, also located at the AGN, contain useful information on hydraulic infrastructure and other important urban public works across urban and hinterland spaces. The AGN is a wonderful resource for researching mining activities, forestry, and hydraulic projects in the Valley of Mexico. The Archivos Económicos at the Lerdo de Tejada Library provide important newspaper accounts of the urban experience, including material on commodity flows and consumption patterns. The Archivos Económicos material tends to focus on Mexico City, so finding periodical information on other regions generally necessitates a separate investigation. In the United States, the United Nations Archive houses documents from the activities of the Technical Assistance Association involving environmental planning and housing in Mexico during the 1950s and 1960s. It is also home to the papers of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, which has materials on energy development during the 1970s and 1980s. The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley contains abundant documentation on resource use and urbanization in Mexico.
A number of scientific and technical journals also aid in researching questions in urban-environmental history. They include, among others, Revista de la Sociedad Cientifica Antonio Alzate, Boletín de la Sociedad de Geografía y Estadística, México Forestal, Revista Mexicana de Arquitectura y Ingeniería, Planificación, Boletín de Pétroleo, and Ingeniería Hidraúlica.
Agostoni, Claudia. Monuments of Progress: Modernization and Public Health in Mexico City, 1876–1910. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2003.Find this resource:
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Bataillon, Claude. La ciudad y el campo en el México central. Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1971.Find this resource:
Bennet, Vivienne. The Politics of Water: Urban Protest, Gender, and Power in Monterrey, Mexico. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.Find this resource:
Boyer, Christopher M. A Land Between Waters: Environmental Histories of Modern Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012.Find this resource:
Breglia, Lisa. Living with Oil: Promises, Peaks and Declines on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.Find this resource:
Candiani, Vera. Dreaming of Dry Land: Environmental Transformation in Colonial Mexico City. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:
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Vitz, Matthew. “The Lands with Which We Shall Struggle: Land Reclamation, Revolution and Development in Mexico’s lake Texcoco Basin, 1910–1950.” Hispanic American Historical Review 92.1 (2012): 41–71.Find this resource:
Vitz, Matthew. “To Save the Forests: Power, Narrative, and Environment in Mexico City’s Cooking Fuel Transition.” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 31.1 (2015): 125–155.Find this resource:
Wakild, Emily. “Naturalizing Modernity: Urban Parks, Public Gardens, and Drainage Projects in Porfirian Mexico.” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 23.1 (2007): 101–123.Find this resource:
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Wells, Alan, and Gilbert M. Joseph. “Modernizing Visions, ‘Chilango’ Blueprints, and Provincial Growing Pains: Mérida at the Turn of the Century.” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 8. 2 (1992): 167–215.Find this resource:
Wood, Andrew. Revolution in the Street: Women, Workers and Urban Protest in Veracruz, 1870–1927. Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 2001.Find this resource:
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(1.) Richard Kagan, Urban Images of the Hispanic World: 1493–1793 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 20–22.
(2.) Vera Candiani, Dreaming of Dry Land: Environmental Transformation in Colonial Mexico City (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014), 30–31.
(3.) Candiani, Dreaming of Dry Land.
(4.) Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900, 2d ed. (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
(5.) Eric Van Young, Hacienda and Market in Eighteenth-Century Mexico: The Rural Economy of the Guadalajara Region, 1675–1820 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).
(6.) Dana Velasco Murillo, Urban Indians in a Silver City: Zacatecas, Mexico, 1546–1810 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016), 121–122; John Tutino, Making a New World: Founding Colonialism in the Bajío and Spanish North America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 182.
(7.) Velasco Murillo, Urban Indians, 120–121.
(8.) Jerome O. Nriagu, “Mercury Pollution from the Past Mining of Gold and Silver in the Americas,” The Science of the Total Environment 149 (1994): 177–178.
(9.) Tutino, Making a New World, 182.
(10.) Guy P. C. Thomson, Puebla de los Angeles: Industry and Society in a Mexican City, 1700–1850 (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1989), 123.
(11.) Eric Van Young, “Islands in the Storm: Quiet Cities and Violent Countrysides in the Mexican Independence Era,” Past and Present 118.1 (1988): 130–155.
(12.) Christopher Boyer, ed., A Land Between Waters: Environmental Histories of Modern Mexico (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012), Introduction.
(13.) Andrew Grant Wood, Revolution in the Street: Women, Workers and Urban Protest in Veracruz, 1870–1927 (Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 2001), 3–6.
(14.) Alan Wells and Gilbert M. Joseph. “Modernizing Visions, ‘Chilango’ Blueprints, and Provincial Growing Pains: Mérida at the Turn of the Century,” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 8.2 (1992): 167–215.
(15.) Michael Snodgrass, Deference and Defiance in Monterrey: Workers, Paternalism and Revolution in Mexico, 1890–1950 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 11.
(16.) Samuel Truett, Fugitive Landscapes: The Forgotten History of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 106.
(17.) Jeffrey M. Banister and Stacie G. Widdifield, “Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System: History and Visual Culture during the Porfiriato.” History of Mexico, Cultural History, Environmental History, 1889–1910.
(18.) Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo, Mexico at the World’s Fairs: Crafting a Modern Nation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 148.
(19.) Emily Wakild, “Naturalizing Modernity: Urban Parks, Public Gardens, and Drainage Projects in Porfirian Mexico,” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 23.1 (2007): 101–123.
(20.) Andrew Grant Wood, Revolution in the Street: Women, Workers, and Urban Protest in Veracruz, 1870–1927 (Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 2001), 4–5.
(21.) Marcial E. Ocasio Meléndez, Capitalism and Development: Tampico, Mexico 1876–1924 (New York: Peter Lang, 1998), 128–129.
(22.) Wells and Joseph, “Modernizing Visions,” 195.
(23.) Rafael Torres Sanchez, Revolución y vida cotidiana: Guadalajara, 1914–1934 (Sinaloa: Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa, 2001), 56–57.
(24.) Wells and Joseph, “Modernizing Visions.”
(25.) Myrna Santiago, Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900–1938 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 179–191.
(26.) Mark Overmyer-Velázquez, Visions of the Emerald City: Modernity, Tradition, and the Formation of Porfirian Oaxaca, Mexico (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 66.
(27.) Torres Sanchez, Revolución y vida cotidiana, 207–250.
(28.) Ariel Rodríguez Kuri, Historia del desasosiego: La revolución en la ciudad de México (Mexico City: Colmex, 2010).
(29.) Alberto J. Pani, Hygiene in Mexico: A Study of Sanitary and Educational Problems (New York: GP Putnam’s Sons, 1914), 91.
(30.) Wood, Revolution.
(31.) Luis Aboites, “The Illusion of National Power: Water Infrastructure in Mexican Cities, 1930–1990,” in A Land Between Waters, edited by Christopher Boyer (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012), 223.
(32.) Aboites, “Illusion,” 224–227.
(33.) For a fascinating study of an urban popular movement in 1940s Oaxaca, see Benjamin T. Smith, Pistoleros and Popular Movements: The Politics of State Formation in Postrevolutionary Oaxaca (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009).
(34.) Germán Vergara, “Fueling Change: The Valley of Mexico and the Quest for Energy” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2015).
(35.) David V. Carruthers, “Where Local Meets Global: Environmental Justice on the US-Mexico Border,” in Environmental Justice in Latin America: Problems, Promise and Practice, edited by David V. Carruthers (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008).
(36.) Lisa Breglia, Living with Oil: Promises, Peaks and Declines on Mexico’s Gulf Coast (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012).
(37.) Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso, 2006).