"Mexican Urbanization Since 1821: A Macro-Historical Approach"
Robert V. Kemper (Dept. of Anthropology, SMU, Dallas TX) and
Anya P. Royce (Dept. of Anthropology, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN)
[Published 1979 in Urban Anthropology 8(3/4):267-289]
ABSTRACT: The temporal and spatial diversity of Mexican urbanization since 1821 correlates with the nation’s overall historical-structural transformation. After the War for Independence (1810-1821) and the Revolution (1910-1921), the country was dominated by forces interested in decreasing Mexico’s involvement in the international urban-industrial system. Thus the period from the 1820s to the 1870s was focused on the hacienda while the 1921-1940 period was oriented to agrarian reform programs. These centrifugal processes were reversed during the Porfirian era (1877-1910) and in the post-1940 period. During these latter two periods, governmental efforts to industrialize and modernize the nation brought about greatly increased participation of international economic forces in Mexican life. The resultant urban-industrial developments were concentrated in Mexico City (and, to a lesser extent, Monterrey) and thus encouraged centripetal forces within the urbanization process. The oscillations in the Mexican urbanization process since 1821 have not been uniform throughout the nation. The regional variations in the process are illustrated through analysis of the cases of four important urban centers: Mexico City, Oaxaca, Mérida, and Monterrey.
Mexican urbanization is a multidimensional process within the society’s overall historical-structural transformation. Its demographic, economic, ecological, political, and socio-cultural components must be examined within a unified framework that reflects the temporal and spatial diversity of the Mexican experience. In recent years, anthropologists and other social scientists have shifted their emphasis away from small-scale ethnographic studies (e.g., Lewis 1952, 1959, 1961) toward investigations of “macro”-scale historical and structural forces impinging on Mexican cities and their residents. This new trend in research paradigms has been widely discussed (Leeds 1976; Margolies 1979; Portes and Browning 1976; Singer 1975; Walton 1979), but relatively few social scientists have put their theoretical perspectives to the test of specific historical inquiry.
In this article, we focus on the development of the urban system in Mexico since 1821 (i.e., the “national” period in Mexican history), although we recognize (see Kemper and Royce, in press) the importance of the pre-Conquest and colonial periods for a full understanding of Mexican urbanization. Our analysis attempts to treat the temporal and spatial diversity of the urban process by first presenting a chronological overview of urbanization for the country as a whole and then considering four important cases of urban development. The particular experiences of Mexico City, Oaxaca City, Mérida, and Monterrey will serve to show the regional dimensions of urbanization since 1821 within the broader national and international context. As we shall demonstrate, each city has played a different role in the urbanization process but all have participated in its centrifugal and centripetal oscillations.
This synthesis of Mexican urbanization derives from an examination of a variety of “urban” units (i.e., localities and populations) studied by scholars of diverse disciplines across a broad range of temporal-spatial contexts. In this regard, our interpretation of the Mexican case reflects not only the traditional view of Mexican urban history (e.g., Kaplan 1964; Nutini 1972) but also a concern for the “city as context” (Rollwagen 1972), the role of urban phenomena in the national system of communities (e.g., Chambers and Young 1979; Schwartz 1978), and the function of the cultural systems of cities within a world system framework (Rollwagen 1980).
The Colonial Background
The fall of Tenochtitlán ushered in a new era in Mexican urbanization. Between 1521 and 1820, the Spaniards created hundreds of cities and towns, both on and near established indigenous sites and in newly conquered lands beyond the limits of the former Aztec empire. This considerable urban expansion was not carried out just to assure military and political control of the vast region that came to be known as New Spain, but to create a system for exploiting its human, mineral, and agricultural resources for the benefit of the home country (Bassols Batalla 1979:95-98). The settlement policy of the Crown and its representatives reflected what Morse has called the “centrifugalism of the Latin American town as a point of assault on the land and its minerals” (1971:5). In this context, the hegemony of Mexico City reflects an urban system designed to expedite the flow of goods between the hinterlands and the capital and thence through the port of Veracruz to Spain – as well as the reciprocal counterflow of goods and immigrants from Spain to Mexico.
The colonial urban system consisted of a variety of settlement types, dominated by the administrative-military cities such as Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Mérida, the port towns such as Veracruz, Acapulco, and Mazatlán, and the mining centers such as Guanajuato, Pachuca, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, and Taxco (Unikel et al. 1976:18. City-hinterland relationships developed into three main forms: (a) a few major urban centers (e.g., Mexico City, Guadalajara, Puebla, and Oaxaca City [Antequera]) controlled their respective hinterlands without effective competition from secondary towns; (b) parallel cities developed in particular regions (e.g., Orizaba and Córdoba had a symbiotic relationship as centers of transportation, manufacturing, commerce, and agriculture); and (c) a network of interdependent cities and towns combined agricultural, mining, and related commercial activities (e.g., the Bajío system of Querétaro, Guanajuato, and Zamora, and subordinate towns such as Acambaro, Celaya, León, Silao, Irapuato, Salamanca, and Salvatierra [cf. Moreno Toscano 1978]).
The urban network of colonial New Spain was essentially completed by the middle of the 18th century. It extended from Mérida (Yucatan) in the southeast to the hamlet of San Francisco (Alta California) in the northwest, with the focus always on Mexico City and thence to Spain and Europe. The exploitative, dependent character of Mexican urbanization during the colonial era reflected the economic, political, religious, and social institutions responsible for building and maintaining the hierarchy of cities, towns, and villages. The “closure” of the colonial urban system is reflected in the development of a rank-size demographic hierarchy by the end of the colonial period. For instance, in 1790, Mexico City had 113,000 inhabitants, while the second city (Puebla) had 57,000, and the third city (Guanajuato) had 32,000 (Wibel and de la Cruz 1971:95). This demographic hierarchy was flexible: Guanajuato’s population shot up to 71,000 in 1803 and reached 90,000 in 1809 before falling off rapidly during the revolution to just 36,000 in 1822, whereas Querétaro’s population swelled to 90,000 by the end of the Revolution, more than twice its former size. In sum, urbanization trends were affected greatly by the impact of political-economic transformations in the colony as well as by the population dislocations (and epidemics) that followed in their wake.
Mexican Urbanization Since 1821
Independence from Spain did not usher in an era of rapid urban growth. On the contrary, the haciendas (which have been called “the ramparts of power in the countryside [Wolf 1959:245]) assumed a central place in the economic and political struggles between the new nation’s liberal and conservative forces. Not until the “Porfirian Peace” was established in the 1880s did industrial and urban development receive significant encouragement from the government. The overthrow of Díaz in the Revolution (1910-1921) was marked by a call for “land and liberty”; the Cárdenas regime (1934-1940) represented the apogee of this rural orientation with its emphasis on agrarian reform programs. Then, beginning in 1940 and continuing through the 1970s, industrialization and urbanization once more assumed a dominant place in governmental and private sector efforts to forge an economic development “miracle.”
This continuing dialectic between city and countryside in the national period of Mexican history can best be understood in the context of the international expansion of industrial capitalism during the 19th and 20th centuries. The United States, in particular, has played an important role as protagonist and partner in establishing the conditions within which the urban system of modern Mexico has developed. Throughout the period 1821-1880 (an era of “revolution and political reform”) Mexico and its northern neighbor were in confrontation. The war with Anglo settlers in Texas (1836), the conflicts in California and in the heart of Mexico (1846-1848), and the Gadsden Purchase in Arizona (1853) fundamentally transformed the national territory. From 4.2 million km2 at the time of Independence, the nation shrank to less than 2.0 million km2. A longer term consequence of these military and political conflicts was the creation of a vast frontier zone, which, a century later, would become one of the fastest growing urban areas in the world and would serve as a semi-permeable membrane between Mexican and Chicano cultures.
Mexico’s urban system changed little between 1821 and 1860, a period whose close may be marked by the Reform Laws in Mexico and the Civil War in the United States. The total population was 8.4 million and growing at a low rate of just 1.0% per year in 1862. Although the political and cultural hegemony of Mexico City (with an 1862 population of 210,000) was unchallenged, it was not until this point in Mexico’s post-Conquest urban history that the rank-size hierarchy of cities again gave way to a pattern of demographic primacy. This transformation can be traced in part to the effects of the Reform Laws, especially the disentailment of the holdings of large civil and religious corporations after 1859.
The 1860s saw Puebla fall from its traditional second place in the urban hierarchy as Guadalajara (65,000 inhabitants) prospered as a regional center in the western highlands. Meanwhile, Guanajuato and a number of other cities in the Bajío were beginning a gradual decline in importance. Although British capital had helped to finance the redevelopment of mining in many areas after Independence, by the 1860s Guanajuato (located in isolated, mountainous country, its silver mines exhausted, and its population down to 37,000) was a “dying city” (Wibel and de la Cruz 1971:98-99). The decline of the Bajío cities was offset by the efforts to spread trade to ports other than Veracruz. The development of Tampico as Mexico’s second major port, particularly during the gun-running days of the U.S. Civil War, was aided by its foreign merchants, who serviced the interior as far west as Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí (Wibel and de la Cruz 1971:100).
Thus, as Mexico entered the final three decades of the 19th century, it was saddled with a highly regionalized, weakly articulated urban system in which the cities were consumers rather than producers. Urban population growth rates were low, with cities rarely outpacing national trends. Mexico City was emerging as a primate city, not so much because of its dynamism as by default. Economic and political power was widely dispersed and keyed to haciendas and their regional domination. And, for the first time in Mexican (or Mesoamerican) history, a rupture had occurred between political and religious leaders that opened new possibilities for development.
Into this situation came Porfirio Díaz, who ruled from 1877 to 1911 with lofty disregard for the harsh existence suffered by more than 90% of Mexico’s population. By replacing the violence of the previous decades with a “peace” based on dictatorship, Díaz established a stable environment that attracted considerable foreign capital investment at a time when U.S. and European governments, banks, and corporations were eager to expand their worldwide holdings. In this period of dependent capitalism, the Mexican government granted numerous concessions to encourage industrialization and to shift the national economy away from its subsistence agricultural base. The combination of peace, growing mineral exploitation, industrial development, the beginnings of a national railroad system, and rising exports and imports gave a predictably sharp boost to urbanization.
The expansion of the railroad network was especially important for urban development. With the completion of the Mexico City-Veracruz line in 1872, and the expansion of the rail network to other cities in the core region by 1880, Veracruz reaffirmed its position as the major port city on the Gulf Coast. The construction of rail lines benefited cities connected thereby with the capital and the major ports, but marked the demise of towns bypassed. Mexico City, Guadalajara, Toluca, and Aguascalientes grew rapidly as centers of commerce and manufacturing; Puebla, Morelia, Tlaxcala, León, and Guanajuato were reduced to cities with limited regional markets. Torreón, Coahuila, provides the outstanding example of the positive impact of the railroad: it blossomed virtually overnight as a major center for cotton production and grew from a village of 200 residents in 1892 to a city of 34,000 by 1920 (Wibel and de la Cruz 1971:102).
In such circumstances, the larger cities began to assert their dominance, growing at twice the national rate, during the 1880-1910 period. For instance, in 1884 Mexico City had 300,000 inhabitants, Guadalajara 80,000, Puebla 75,000, and Monterrey 42,000. In 1910, these were still the largest cities in Mexico, with 471,000, 119,000, 96,000, and 79,000 inhabitants, respectively (Boyer 1972:157-158). During this period Guadalajara and Monterrey, as well as smaller cities like Mérida, San Luis Potosí, and Veracruz, grew even more rapidly than did the capital. As late as 1900, Monterrey was a more important industrial-manufacturing center than was Mexico City.
By the first decade of the 20th century, the orientation of the railroad system, the strict governmental control of public finances, and the easy access of foreign capital to the national market combined to concentrate national affairs in Mexico City. The “stability” of the Porfirian era caused the countryside to stagnate: perhaps 80% of the rural peones (or 47% of the national population) were indebted to the landowners and could not freely emigrate. In this context, the impact of foreign and local investments in industrial-urban projects fomented an urban system that began to differ significantly from that of the early national period. By the end of the Porfirian regime, certain tendencies of 20th century urbanization were already established: the high primacy of Mexico City, the importance of Veracruz as the principal foreign port, the political and economic dependence on foreign countries, the configuration of the multi-functional system of cities in the Bajío, and the isolation of the ports along the western coast (Unikel et al. 1976:23-24, 36).
If the “Porfirian peace” had encouraged industrialization and urbanization through dependence on foreign investments, then the Revolution and its aftermath reversed priorities by attempting to resolve long-standing rural problems and by discouraging U.S. and other foreign intervention in Mexican affairs. Unlike the War for Independence a century earlier, the Revolution had a dramatic impact on the nation’s population structure and urban system. The total population fell from 15.2 million in 1910 to 14.3 million in 1921. The destruction of many small communities and the general insecurity in the countryside created a great wave of migration of wealthy hacendados as well as poor peones toward the cities. During the Revolution the number of localities with 5,000 or fewer residents dropped from 70,738 to 62,671, with most of the loss accounted for by the complete depopulation of the small ranchos (Unikel et al. 1976:30). The rural violence and consequent disruption of economic activities in the central region had a debilitating effect on several cities and towns in the Bajío. León had been the nation’s fourth largest city in 1900 but dropped to seventh in 1910 and eighth in 1921; Guanajuato had been eighth in 1900, 14th in 1910, and then fell to 27th in 1921; and Querétaro had been 13th in 1900, 18th in 1910, and 19th in 1921. In sum, the flow of refugees from the countryside increased the proportion of urban dwellers from 11.7% to 14.7% of the national population and, more significantly, firmly established the capital’s predominance in the urban hierarchy: Mexico City grew from 345,000 inhabitants in 1900 to 471,000 in 1910, to 662,000 in 1921 (Unikel et al. 1976:377).
The end of the Revolution per se may be marked with the ascension of Alvaro Obregón to the presidency in 1921, but “the turning point of Mexico’s Revolution” (Wilkie 1976:37) came with the election of Lázaro Cárdenas in 1934. Whereas earlier “revolutionary” governments had adopted a passive role in social and economic affairs, Cárdenas (from rural Michoacán) was determined to use state funds to achieve social justice, especially in the rural sector. He increased social and economic expenditures to a new high and firmly established what Wilkie (1976:37) has called “the active state.” The worldwide Depression of the 1930s provided Cárdenas the opportunity to turn the political revolution of 1910 into a true social revolution. His actions to nationalize petroleum properties (1938) and his efforts to develop agrarian reform programs that would break up latifundios and would create communal ejidos demonstrated his determination to lessen Mexico’s dependence on the United States and other foreign powers. In the process, he turned his administration away from urban and industrial challenges and reaffirmed his concern for the countryside where the bulk of the population lived.
The Revolution’s lingering effects on the national demographic structure and the peasant’s new hopes for economic prosperity through agrarian reform lowered the rate of cityward migration during the 1930s. The Depression disrupted urban life more than it hurt the villages. In addition, large-scale governmental irrigation projects in the northwest created alternative destinations for many potential urban migrants. Although the rate of city growth slowed, the population in localities with 15,000+ inhabitants still increased from 17.5% in 1930 to 20.0% in 1940 (Unikel et al. 1976:30-31).
In sum, the 1910-1940 period, an era of “revolution and rural reform,” was characterized by relatively slow rates of population growth and urbanization, with considerable variation among different regions. Guadalajara and Monterrey prospered as regional centers, while Puebla fell to fourth place in the hierarchy of cities. Tampico’s population jumped from 16,000 to 110,000 in three decades and it became the fifth largest city. Mexico City continued as the nation’s primate city as its population reached the 1.5 million mark in 1940.
The decade of the 1940s represents a critical inflection point in the process of Mexican urbanization. The end of the Depression, the creation of a migrant labor (bracero) program with the United States during World War II, the development of several major hydroelectric river-basin projects, the spread of government-sponsored health and education programs, and the continuation of agrarian reform schemes combined with new governmental policies oriented to industrial development to boost urbanization to new heights. The period since 1940 has been characterized by relatively rapid urban growth in contrast to that of the revolutionary era.
The total population of Mexico grew from 20 million in 1940 to 49 million in 1970, and is projected at 69 million for 1980. This rapid population growth, reflecting steady declines in mortality (and especially infant death) rates while fertility rates have remained high, is without parallel for a nation of this size. The overall high natural growth has combined with substantial cityward migration to force the urban population growth rate even higher. The population in localities with 15,000+ inhabitants grew from 3.9 million in 1940 to 22.0 million in 1970, and is projected at 36 million for 1980. Looking at this remarkable growth from a different perspective, 55 urban localities represented 20% of the nation’s population in 1940, while 178 had 45% in 1970, and 260 are projected to have 53% in 1980. Between 1940 and 1950, the urban population expanded at an annual rate of 5.9%. Subsequently, this population explosion has been only slightly mitigated: the rate was 5.5% for 1950-1960, 5.4% for 1960-1970, and is projected at 4.9% for 1970-1980. The imbalance between the growth of urban and rural localities was thus greatest in the 1940s, when the government shifted its focus away from agrarian reform to industrialization and urban infrastructure development. Cityward migration has been a major force for urban growth since 1940, accounting for perhaps half of all urban expansion during this period, although its importance has diminished predictably over time. The period since 1940 has also been characterized by high primacy. Given the dramatic growth of the Mexico City metropolitan area – from 1.5 million to perhaps 15 million in four decades – the relative stability of the primacy indices (the 4-city index has varied between 2.7 and 2.9, while the 10-city index has been between 1.4 and 1.7) shows that the other large cities are not lagging significantly behind the capital in their growth rates (Unikel et al. 1976:24-60, passim).
The development of the present urban system is dependent not only on internal population trends and government policies favoring centralization but also on transnational economic and political forces. In this regard, the pattern of urbanization since 1940 bears certain important similarities to that of the earlier Porfirian period. For example, the correlation between urban growth and governmental policies of import-substitution industrialization in the 1940s and 1950s is obvious. Similarly, the expansion of large-scale irrigation agriculture in the north, the continuing problems of small-scale seasonal agriculture in the central and southern highlands, the participation of millions of men in the bracero program between 1942 and 1964, and the proliferation of investments in urban infrastructure and services all reflect the role of foreign investments in contemporary Mexico.
The results of this “dependent urbanization” (cf. Castells 1977) are everywhere apparent. Vast “backward” regions conjoin islands of wealth; huge cities grow inexorably at incredible rates; poverty is a way of life for all but a small minority of the population; environmental problems of air pollution, traffic, open space, and water and sewage are aggravated in cities and in the hinterlands; the flood of legal migrants and undocumented workers to the United States exacerbates conditions in the border cities; and tourism and petroleum exports seem to be the only means of generating sufficient foreign exchange revenues to keep the system going.
The landscape of contemporary Mexico reflects a process of slowing filling in the urban structure of the nation (Wilke 1976). Perhaps the most radical efforts to change the settlement pattern were the agrarian reform programs for establishing small ejidos. After an initial burst of activity in the late 1930s, the government has continued to create ejidos throughout the underdeveloped countryside, with the most recent programs involving colonization in Quintana Roo and Chiapas. Despite these policies to encourage peasants to stay in rural areas, it appears that urban growth has been fueled by the abandonment of small settlements. The number of localities with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants reached a peak of nearly 103,000 in 1940 and included 9.8 million persons representing half of the nation’s population. By 1970, there were still more than 90,000 such hamlets, with a total population of 13.5 million, but this represented just 28% of the nation’s total population.
In contrast to the ejido programs, the government has done much less to develop “new towns” within the urban sector. With the exception of suburban developments (e.g., Cuautitlán-Izcalli) in the Mexico City metropolitan area and two significant cases of industrial development (i.e., Ciudad Sahagun in the state of Hidalgo and Ciudad Lázaro Cárdenas in Michoacán), urban creativity has been oriented primarily to the tourist sector. The development of Cancun, Ixtapa, and a series of other coastal resort towns represents a very specialized kind of urbanization. Recently, the success of petroleum exploration-refining activities of the Gulf Coast area has led to the creation of petrotowns (e.g., Ciudad Pemex), which have their historical parallels in the specialized mining towns of the 17th and 18th centuries.
In the absence of serious governmental or private sector efforts to reduce the centralization of the urban structure on Mexico City in the four decades since 1940, it is especially noteworthy that the “filling in” of the settlement pattern has involved a historically significant shift of population away from the core region and toward the northern frontier (as well as to the west and east coasts). For instance, of the 15 largest cities projected for 1980, only Mexico City (1st) and Puebla (4th) are in the core region. In contrast, Guadalajara (2nd), Monterrey (3rd), Ciudad Juárez (5th), León (6th), Tijuana (7th), Mexicali (8th), Tampico (9th), Torreón (10th), Chihuahua (11th), and San Luis Potosí (12th) represent regional growth centers, while Mérida (13th), Acapulco (14th), and Veracruz (15th) are important ports for trade and tourism. The shift in population to the northern borderlands is of special importance because it corresponds to a parallel movement toward the southern “sun belt” within the United States. Cities like Tijuana, Mexicali, and Ciudad Juárez (as well as smaller border towns like Nogales, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, etc.) now dominate their U.S. “partners” along the Mexican-U.S. border. The large size and high growth rates of these cities make it unlikely that the interdependence between the two nations will diminish in the near future.
These transformations of the urban system and their attendant problems (e.g., housing, jobs, education, transportation, services) are the subject of the recent National Plan for Urban Development (S.A.H.O.P. 1978). Issued in mid-1978, this plan describes the urban structure as it exists now and is projected for the year 2000. Assuming that the nation’s total population may range from a low of 104 million to a high of 130 million by the end of the century, the authors of the plan suggest that the Mexico City metropolitan area would have at least 20 million residents, Guadalajara and Monterrey would each have between 3 and 5 million, 11 more cities would each have more than 1 million, another 17 cities would have between 500,000 and 1 million, and 74 more cities would complete the metropolitan (100,000+) hierarchy.
The purpose of the urban development plan is to coordinate governmental and private sector actions to establish a better balance in the nation’s urban growth than would occur through laissez-faire policies. The major aim of the plan is the decentralization of industries and population toward areas beyond the Valley of Mexico. To this end, a number of “parastate” enterprises are to be moved from the capital to other regions of the country and several hundred industries (especially those responsible for high levels of air contamination) will be transferred out of the metropolitan area beginning in early 1980. The plan also calls for shifting federal government budget priorities away from the Federal District and toward other, less well-developed regions, with special attention to the problems of the northern borderlands. Although the first actions in accordance with this plan have already begun, it remains to be seen whether such governmental plans (even if fully implemented and supported through a series of presidential regimes) can significantly affect the macrocephalic primacy of Mexico City without more drastic transformations in the national infrastructure.
Regional Dimensions of Mexican Urbanization
To illustrate the diversity of urban processes during the national period, we shall examine four specific cases: Mexico City, Oaxaca, Mérida, and Monterrey. Each of these cities and their respective urban regions has been important in the development of Mexican society since 1821. Moreover, for each there is an adequate quantity of historical and social scientific research for this comparative analysis. (It would have been interesting to include other, smaller communities in this analysis, but lack of systematic studies for the 19th and 20th century period makes this difficult.)
The urbanization of the Valley of Mexico has focused on Mexico City throughout the national period. The creation of the Federal District in 1824 codified the city’s special political-administrative status as headquarters of the federal government and ensured its continuing hegemony over the nation’s commerce. Independence from Spain did little to lessen Mexico City’s dominant position (with a population of 165,000 in 1823) in the urban hierarchy. No new cities emerged in the Valley of Mexico and the nearest cities (Puebla, Toluca, Querétaro, and Pachuca) remained subsidiary to the capital. As a result, the history of urbanization in central Mexico since 1821 reflects the capital’s demographic and industrial expansion beyond its traditional boundaries into the Federal District and, especially since 1940, into the adjoining areas of the state of Mexico.
In the 19th century, the urban area of Mexico City was contained well within the Federal District boundaries. Urban life was focused inward: the zócalo (central plaza) was the heart of government, church, commerce, and culture. The capital’s spatial form was simply a continuation and expansion of colonial and pre-Columbian patterns. The economic structure, patterns of property ownership, and transportation network were not altered significantly until the Reform Laws caused the disentailment of Church and corporation holdings after 1859. This expropriation process opened up new opportunities for urban development in the congested central city area and also provided peripheral lands for urban planning (cf. Moreno Toscano 1978). Subsequently, during the early years of the Porfiriato, the development of a national railroad network centered on Mexico City increased its dominance of national affairs. By the end of the century and in the first decade of the 20th century, industrialization (often linked to foreign investments) further strengthened the capital’s primary role in national and international economic structures. This commercial and industrial growth is reflected in Mexico City’s population growth: from 210,000 residents in 1862, the metropolis expanded to 300,000 in 1884 and then to 471,000 in 1910.
The 1910 Revolution brought a temporary halt to commercial and industrial development while turning the city into a place of refuge for peasants and elites fleeing violence of the countryside. The capital absorbed 60% of the nation’s urban growth between 1910 and 1921 and nearly half the urban growth between 1921 and 1940. In 1921 the metropolitan population reached 662,000, in 1930 it topped 1 million, and by 1940 it had jumped to 1.5 million. With the bureaucratic and institutional developments of the post-revolutionary period, the capital diversified and strengthened its social, economic, and cultural functions in the national system (Unikel et al. 1976:37). The city also expanded toward the peripheries of the Federal District. Large, upper-class subdivisions (e.g., Polanco and Lomas de Chapultepec) were developed in the western zones as many elite families moved out of their homes in the central city area (Corona Rentería 1974:282). This shift in elite population opened the way for the creation of central city slums where rent-control and small vecindad apartment houses were the forerunners of the ciudades perdidas of the 1960s and 1970s. The other effect of the city’s spatial expansion was the creation of the Department of the Federal District in 1929 to cope with urban problems beyond the narrow jurisdiction of Mexico City per se. Despite these changes in the capital’s spatial structure, urban life was still focused on the zócalo, and differed relatively little from that of the Porfirian era (Bataillon 1972:63).
With the 1940s came Mexico City’s urban and industrial “explosion.” As Gustavo Garza and Martha Schteingart (1978) have pointed out, government policies of import-substitution industrialization emphasized the locational advantage of the capital. Its centrality in the transportation network, its relatively well-skilled work force, and its large consumer population made inevitable the concentration of urban growth in the metropolitan area at the expense of other cities in the urban hierarchy. This implicit centralization policy involved not only industry but also all other aspects of social and political life, from services to insurance companies, banks, labor unions, and institutions of higher learning. As the Valley of Mexico was being industrialized, its urban infrastructure and services were being improved, more water and electrical power were brought in from distant regions, more upper- and middle-class subdivisions were built, and more peripheral squatter settlements were established. The combination of public and private investments in the capital was so high that intensive centripetal forces were generated (Bassols Batalla 1979:445).
By the late 1970s, the metropolitan population had climbed to nearly 15 million and the urban area had expanded to about 800 km2 in the Federal District and adjoining municipios in the state of Mexico. For example, Ciudad Netzalhualcóyotl (which did not exist officially in 1950) has a population of perhaps 2 million persons concentrated in a largely nonindustrial zone in the desiccated Texcoco lake bed. Current estimates suggest that perhaps 350,000 persons migrate yearly to the capital, while the natural demographic growth increases the population by a similar amount. Mexico City contains 45% of the nation’s industry, 55% of the service sector businesses, and 45% of all commerce. With 42% of all jobs, it is the largest employment market in Mexico. Its workers are paid 53% of all salaries and wages and generate 46% of the Gross Domestic Product. The metropolis consumes about 45% of the federal government’s total resources while contributing around 50% of total federal government tax income (Bassols Batalla 1979:446-450; Garza and Schteingart 1978:80-81). Obviously, past, current, and future initiatives by the government and by the private sector to alter the structure of the national urban system must take into account these problems of urban concentration in the Mexico City metropolitan area (Cornelius 1975; Eckstein 1977; Kemper 1977; Lomnitz 1977; Muñoz et al. 1977).
With the founding of the Republic of Mexico, the Spanish colonial city of Antequera became known as Oaxaca and became the capital of the state of the same name. The colonial heritage left Oaxaca and its region with a distinctive socioeconomic formation, consisting of the following elements: (a) a series of villages in which households were stratified in a civil-religious hierarchy; (b) a ceremonial cycle with prestigeful and (usually) obligatory sponsorships (mayordomías); (c) obligatory communal labor service (tequío); (d) institutionalized reciprocal exchange (guelaguetza); (e) intercommunity production specialization; (f) a regional system of cyclical, periodic markets and trade networks; (g) an indigenous labor force accustomed to exploitative work arrangements (peonaje); and (h) a clear-cut division between producers and nonproducers, with mechanisms of taxation and tribute for extracting surplus from the former class by the latter (Cook and Diskin 1976). The centrifugal aspects of 19th-century Mexican urbanization provided Oaxaca with the opportunity to enhance its provincialism.
Between 1821 and the 1910 Revolution, the city grew slowly, reflecting the low level of development in the Valley of Oaxaca and in the state. The market for cochineal dye declined considerably in the 19th century. As a result, Oaxaca City was left as a center for light industry and handicrafts supporting the region’s largely subsistence-oriented agricultural activities. The city’s fame in the 19th century rested primarily on being the birthplace of Benito Juárez (for whom the city’s official name was changed to “Oaxaca de Juárez” in 1872), the dictator Porfirio Díaz, and the brothers Flores Magon, who played important roles in the overthrow of Díaz. Aside from these national political figures, the city and its state remained a provincial backwater.
The railroad reached Oaxaca City from Mexico City in 1892. The intervention of foreign capitalists and entrepreneurs created a minor economic boom, especially in rejuvenating the mining industry. The mines flourished and commerce improved until the Revolution. The opening of the railroad across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to world trade in 1907 ushered in a brief period of prosperity. Then the region declined again until after the Depression. As the 19th century came to a close, Oaxaca City was only the 12th largest city in Mexico and had a population of just 35,000, barely double what it had at the end of the colonial period (Murphy 1979:35).
The Revolution had a serious effect on the city and state of Oaxaca. The urban population dropped from 38,000 in 1910 to 28,000 in 1921. Subsequent land and labor reforms combined with a series of severe earthquakes to stimulate further emigration, especially among the landed aristocracy and the urban elite. These social and natural upheavals caused the city’s population to fall to just 22,000 in 1931 (Waterbury 1970:127).
As in many other regions of the nation, the post-1940 period brought urban population growth if not economic prosperity. Since the 1940s, the city has grown at about 4% per annum: in 1950, it reached 47,000, by 1960 it had climbed to 75,000, and by 1970 had jumped to 111,000. The projected 1980 population is about 170,000 (Unikel et al. 1976:300, 378). This rapid population expansion has resulted in the predictable spatial expansion in the city’s urban area. Squatter settlements, middle-class subdivisions, and government-sponsored housing projects dot the periphery (Murphy 1979; Higgins 1974).
The period since 1940 has entrenched Oaxaca City’s position as a “secondary” urban area and an important regional marketing center (Waterbury 1970). The population is growing more rapidly than is the rate of economic development. In fact, Oaxaca is the poorest state capital in the nation: it is ranked at the bottom of all 32 capitals in measures of “gross regional product,” and of the largest 38 cities in Mexico, it ranks 31st in “degree of urbanization” and 28th in “life-style amenities” (Murphy 1979:31). For example, the state’s population is 8th of 32 entities, but it receives one of the lowest federal subsidies in the nation. Although the city has virtually no industry and serves only as a region redistribution center, it is precisely the kind of community that must undergo substantial urban and industrial development in the coming two decades if the national urban development plan is to be successful in reducing the primate character of the urban system (Murphy 1979:35).
Currently, the city’s economy is based on tourism, commerce, handicraft production and sales, and government services. Tourism, increasingly developed since the Pan American Highway link from Mexico City reached Oaxaca in the 1940s, depends on the attraction of the many nearby archaeological sites, the availability of handicrafts of high quality and low cost, and the possible expansion of seaside communities into “tourism growth poles” (Royce 1975). Since commercial television, with its inevitable links to national culture, only reached the Valley of Oaxaca in 1972, tourism plays an important role in regional urbanization.
Early 19th-century writers decried the provincial narrowness of Mérida and the surrounding Yucatecan region. After 1800, this situation of relative stability and isolation changed considerably. In the political domain, Independence broke the region’s ties to Spain but, at the same time, provided the impetus for the continuation of Maya rebellions that flared up again during the caste wars of the 1840s. These conflicts threatened the very existence of Mérida and Campeche as ladino communities. In the economic domain, the progress of Mérida and the region was linked to the international market in henequen (sisal fiber), first planted commercially in 1833 and of preeminence as an export crop after 1870. The importance of the region to the national economy was manifested by the construction in 1881 of a railroad between the port of Progreso and Mérida (a distance of 36 km.) and its extension to the interior of Yucatán by the end of the century.
By 1900, Mérida had firmly established itself as the one real city in the peninsula. With a population of 47,000 persons, it was the seventh largest city in the nation and far outstripped the only other towns of importance in the region. The success of capitalistic agricultural plantations based on the production of henequen was reflected in Mérida’s continuing prosperity and population growth through the revolutionary period. Its population grew steadily while the other regional cities in Mexico tended to suffer reverses during the 1910-1921 period. In 1910, Mérida had 52,000 residents and was the sixth largest city in the nation; in 1921, it had 62,000 and was fifth largest. Even the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s did not have severe negative consequences for Mérida and its region: the 1930 urban population was 95,000 to rank fifth in the nation and the 1940 population was 97,000 to rank seventh.
Certainly, the period of the 1930s is the best known aspect of Yucatán’s urban development. The research conducted by Robert Redfield and his associates in Mérida, Dzitas, Chan Kom, and Tusik, as summarized in the classic work The Folk Culture of Yucatán (1941), provides most social scientists their sole familiarity with the region’s urbanization. Basing his text mainly on the unpublished work of his associate, Asael Hansen, Redfield treated Mérida as the urban extreme of a hypothetical “folk-urban continuum” within the Yucatán peninsula. What a number of later investigators have characterized as an unusual region with Mexico was critical to Redfield’s controversial hypothesis. Therefore, it is appropriate to summarize briefly the urban situation as it existed at that time.
In size [Mérida] completely overshadows all other communities. Its 96,660 inhabitants account for one-fourth of the total population of the state of Yucatan, Campeche, and Quintana Roo….This concentration of population is indicative of the dominant position of the city in the economic, political, and social life of Yucatan. It functions as the unchallenged metropolis. All lines of communication, both with the hinterland and with the outside world, converge upon it. It is the hub of trade and finance … Another aspect of the dominance of Mérida is its position as the center of “culture” and enlightenment … Mérida takes the lead in adopting new and modern ways from Euro-American civilization, which are then passed on to the hinterland….Mérida, therefore, serves as a focus of social change, as a source of what most people feel is “progress.” Since the city produces little of what it consumes, most of its supplies must be brought in. The size of the community and the varied tastes of its inhabitants make it dependent on other parts of Mexico and on the world beyond Mexico as well as on its own hinterland….These and many other things are characteristic of the mobile and heterogeneous city Mérida has become. It stands out among the communities of Yucatán as the place where the old culture has suffered the greatest amount of disorganization and where new ways of life, borrowed from other urban societies or developed under the stimulus of its own urban conditions, are most in evidence (Redfield 1941:19-35).
It is worth comparing this portrait of Mérida as of the 1930s with a sketch drawn by the geographer Angel Bassols Batalla at the end of the 1970s:
It is the center of the henequen region; it has no equal in the Yucatecan region; Mérida is taking advantage of its situation to become the point for integrating not only the CORDEMEX (henequen) industry but also a wide range of industries (e.g., food, textiles, fishing). It lacks a large regional market. As a consequence, Mérida should give first attention to improving the level of living among the Maya. The urban agglomeration is larger than 300,000 and is still growing, while the zones of influence of other towns (Campeche, Chetumal, Cancún, or Valladolid) are very small (1979:458).
It is clear that four decades have not changed the urbanization process in Mérida and its region very much. The urban population has grown steadily, if not spectacularly: from 97,000 in 1940 to 143,000 in 1950, and from 172,000 in 1960 to 217,000 in 1970, with a figure of about 350,000 projected for 1980 (Unikel et al. 1976:380-381). The effects of a recession in the henequen industry are visible only by examining Mérida’s slow decline in the national urban hierarchy relative to other rapidly growing cities. It was still 6th in 1950 but fell to 11th in 1960 and then to 14th in 1970, although it is projected to be 13th in 1980. Moreover, the recent developments in petroleum explorations are creating an urban boom for the city of Campeche (1970 population of only 71,000), while Cancún (1979 population of about 26,000) has become an important international (148,000 visitors in 1978) and national (37,000 visitors in the same year) tourist center since its development by the Mexican government as a regional “growth pole” in the early 1970s.
Without doubt, the study of urbanization in Mérida and the Yucatán peninsula represents a major challenge for anthropologists and other social scientists during the coming decades. The projected growth of Mérida to between 645,000 and 730,000 residents by 1990 (Unikel et al. 1976:301) in the context of major expansion of the region’s petrochemical and tourist activities demonstrates the urgency of following up the problems raised by The Folk Culture of Yucatan.
Following Independence, the Mexican government attempted to establish firmer control over the northern frontier area by encouraging colonization by foreigners and Mexicans alike. The ineffectiveness of these policies is reflected in the loss of almost half of the national territory through conflicts in Texas, California, and the rest of what came to be the U.S. Southwest. The geographical and political marginality of the northern zone, heightened by the lack of a large indigenous population capable of being exploited and by the natural disadvantages of lack of water and good agricultural lands, cause the settlers to develop a frontier spirit of self-reliance and entrepreneurship unlike that found anywhere else in Mexico.
As Balán et al. (1973:36-37) point out, “Monterrey is thoroughly within the spirit of the North….There is no doubt of the mystique of Monterrey in the Mexican context: it is hard work and industriousness.” The development of Monterrey as the principal city and industrial center of northern Mexico during the latter part of the 19th century belies its humble origins and demonstrates, once again, the importance of external events in the Mexican urbanization process during the national period.
In 1803, Monterrey was a small town with just 7,000 inhabitants and few prospects for future greatness. Cattle ranching and derivative activities dominated the local scene; compared to other northern towns, mining was of no great importance. The town participated in a regional urban-economic system weakly articulated to the central Mexican area. After the War for Independence and during the period of Liberal Reform, Monterrey began to emerge as an important regional commercial center. The war with Texas in the 1830s and the subsequent war with the United States in the 1840s simply set the stage for Monterrey’s role as intermediary during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The active commerce with the Confederates also reflected the increased manufacturing activities in the city (e.g., a major textile factory was built in 1856).
After declining in importance somewhat in the 1870s as a result of losing its distribution function to the port of Matamoros, Monterrey surged ahead during the Porfirian era. The capitalists and entrepreneurs of Nuevo León, for whom it served as state capital and principal urban center, took advantage of special tax laws in developing large commercial and industrial enterprises during the last two decades of the 19th century. In 1880, the city had 30,000 residents and this figure doubled by 1900. The energetic leadership of General Bernardo Reyes helped speed the coming of the railroads, which linked Monterrey with the port city of Tampico, with the United States, and with Mexico City. As we have seen with urbanization throughout Mexico during this period, the railroad network proved critical in establishing the city’s position at the head of a large regional urban system.
Foreign capital was attracted to local industrial opportunities during the latter part of the Porfiriato. The availability of a relatively skilled work force, the proximity to U.S. markets, and an adequate supply of water proved important as a foundation on which the distinctive entrepreneurial spirit of the regiomontanos might flourish. The substantial and diversified growth of Monterrey illustrates the impact of a period of political consolidation and capital accumulation (with a combination of local and foreign investments). In the 1890s and in the first decade of the 20th century, a number of new industries were built, including the first steel mill in Latin America (1900). At the same time, the industrialists expanded to make Monterrey a center for banking and commerce. The economic expansion had its demographic parallel: the urban population reached 79,000 in 1910 and Monterrey became the fourth largest city in Mexico (Bassols Batalla 1978:33-54).
The Revolution had a great impact on Monterrey and its region. Nuevo León was a center for conflicts between the forces of Villa and Carranza, but even in the worst of times the industrial development was not brought to a halt. The population in 1921 reached 88,000 as new furniture and food industries were established. After the Revolution, industrialization and urbanization continued. Despite the problems caused by the Depression, and the weakness generated by Monterrey’s ties to the United States and world economies, many more companies continued to be established. Many firms were fused into conglomerates that combined industrial capacity with banking and commercial expertise to dominate national markets. The changes in the national economic structure as a result of the labor and land reforms of the 1930s also had a certain effect on Monterrey. Of special importance was the expropriation of the oil industry in the Tampico-Huastecas and Reynosa areas, which guaranteed a steady supply for the region.
By 1940, when the overall political and economic climate in Mexico was encouraging massive industrialization, Monterrey was well positioned to take advantage of the opportunity. The 1940 population of 190,000 (now third in the urban hierarchy) jumped to 354,000 by 1950 and then to 699,000 in 1960. In the 1950s and 1960s, the economy of Monterrey grew even stronger, thanks to better supplies of gas, oil, and electricity. Migration became a constant factor in the population expansion, especially from within Nuevo León and from the adjacent states of San Luis Potosí, Coahuila, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas. The urban concentration was so great that the city soon burst its nominal administrative boundaries as squatter settlements and middle- and upper-class subdivisions appeared in outlying areas, even invading illegally the National Park lands set aside during the Cárdenas regime (Montaño 1976).
What Bassols Batalla (1979:452) has described as Monterrey’s “first stage of metropolitanization” has seen the center city population decline with respect to the total urban population (from 95% in 1950 to 72% in 1970). This shift in population toward the peripheries has occurred as the population has continued its upward climb: from 1,096,000 in 1970 to a projected 1.7 million in 1980. It seems likely that the central city and peripheral redistribution of population will level off in the 1980s, as the metropolitan population of Monterrey reaches 2.6 million (Unikel et al. 1976:301).
Mexican urbanization has demonstrated dramatic cyclical fluctuations over time and through space during the national period. The four examples – Mexico City, Oaxaca, Mérida, and Monterrey – illustrate the diversity of urban development in Mexico. The role each city plays with respect to its immediate hinterland, the rest of the national urban system, and the international economic system is distinctive. The temporal and spatial dimensions of urbanization among these four cases merit close attention because one sees how a variety of local, regional, national, and international forces combine to shape urban development. There has been a constant dialectic between city and countryside, with the balance of power and control swinging from one to the other depending on current conditions. These centrifugal and centripetal aspects of the urbanization process have corresponded not only to internal events but also to events beyond the boundaries of Mexico. We may summarize the Mexican urbanization process since 1821 as follows.
The 19th century brought an end to the colonial regime. Independence brought a period of violence and turmoil that caused economic reverses for the new nation of Mexico. The new ruling class was composed mainly of conservative criollos who were more interested in their landed estates than in urban commerce or industry. The conflicts with Texas and the United States resulted in drastic reductions in the northern frontier area but had the positive effect of eliminating a vast zone that had, in any case, been weakly linked to the rest of the country. The wars of the 1830s and 1840s, and the subsequent involvement with the U.S. Civil War, brought Mexico into direct and constant confrontation with its northern neighbor. During the first part of the 19th century, urbanization was slow and population and economic growth unspectacular. The Reform Laws brought a major impetus to change in the urban system with the expropriation of church and corporate lands and urban properties. Then, during the last two decades of the century, the Porfirian dictatorship turned Mexican affairs toward industrial and urban development. The creation of a national railroad network was critical in centralizing the urban hierarchy on Mexico City, with Veracruz as the key port for exports and imports. The role of foreign capital increased and dependent industrialization began in earnest. Related activities in large-scale mining, agriculture, and ranching provided the rural dimension to a major spurt in urban development.
The 20th century brought with it the overthrow of the Porfirian regime. The countryside was swept with fighting and the cities emerged as places of refuge for peasants and aristocracy alike. Mexico’s leaders turned their attention inward and, especially in the Cárdenas era, were concerned with reforming land and labor laws. Although there were considerable differences in regional population and economic growth in the period between 1910 and 1940, the general pattern was a slowing of the pace of urban development and the emergence of Mexico City as even more dominant than before. The emergence of an activist state prepared the way for a greater role of the federal government in future urban and industrial growth.
The period since 1940 has generated an explosion of industrial and urban development. Cities have grown rapidly and the entire nation’s population has expanded as a result of lower mortality rates and continuing high fertility. Cityward migration has reached very high levels, thus providing a base for future high natural urban growth rates (Arizpe 1978; Butterworth 1962). During this period the urban structure of Mexico has been filling in the gaps, with notable urban development in the areas to the north and west of the central highlands. The linkages with the United States have been strengthened as a result of the flow of migrant workers (both legal and illegal) and the spectacular growth of Mexico’s northern border cities in the 1970s. Throughout this period, Mexico City tightened its grip on the national urban system. It emerged as one of the great metropolises of the world – with a population of perhaps 15 million in 1980 and an inordinate share of the nation’s economic, political, social, and cultural activities. This centralization of the urban system has been widely observed by social scientists interested in urbanization in recent decades, but until the end of the 1970s little effective governmental action had been taken to shift the balance of power. The new efforts to counteract policies that encouraged urban and industrial concentration will not result in immediate decentralization. The historical and structural aspects of Mexican urbanization cannot be so easily altered by mere legislative measure. It remains to be seen whether the most recent period of urban centralization, spurred on by intensive investments by multinational corporations and international monetary agencies, can be counterbalanced during the remaining two decades of this century.
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