Michael K. Bess’s Routes of Compromise: Building Roads and Shaping the Nation in Mexico, 1917-1952 is a comparative history of Nuevo León’s and Veracruz’s road building institutions and initiatives. Though in subject matter a history of infrastructure, Bess’s is, in approach and in the kinds of questions asked, much more a political and labor history. Though he professes to study “the Mexican state through the prism of its engineering bureaucracies” and to take a regional approach that “underscores the powerful influence of state officials and local groups vis- à- vis federal authorities”, Bess’s Mexico is still one in which the defining feature of any time period is the man who occupies the presidency, the idiosyncrasies of his individual personality, and his particular vision for a modern Mexico invariably thwarted or at least undermined by graft, nepotism, and corruption. Bess’s Mexico exists in and can be completely explained by a dialectical tug-of-war between agrarian socialism and industrializing capitalism, between subordinate cooperation with the US and national self-determination, between the “low” politics of campesinos and the “high” politics of elite politicians, and between the revolution’s promise of social justice and its promise of economic prosperity. This does not make it, prima facie, a bad or misleading history, simply a trite one.
Bess’s concluding remark, that
As the government points to road building as symbolic of economic progress, other people will dispute this narrative, converting roads and streets into spectacles of gridlock, burned buses, and political struggle. It is indicative of economic and social tensions rooted in the very idea of Mexico itself, dating not just to the causes of the Revolution but also to national independence and the legacy of colonialism
reveals the intractable sway this kind of narrative holds over Mexican history. Whether you are telling a story about the oil industry, land redistribution, structural adjustment, or, as in this case, road construction and automotive transport infrastructure, the government “points to [X] as symbolic of economic progress”, other people dispute that narrative, “converting [X] into spectacles of [insert examples of social fragmentation, economic inequality, and political struggle wrought by X] and X inescapably becomes “indicative of economic and social tensions rooted in the very idea of Mexico itself.” This particular simplistic dialectical idea of Mexico is not the dispassionate result of careful historical analysis that these histories purport it to be but rather the preconceived assumption that inevitably predetermines the conclusions of these histories. This idea of Mexico parasitically insinuates itself into the historical corpus, solely concerned with its own reproduction and propagation, consequently coercing the historiography of Mexico into the social reproduction of a caricature of Mexico sisyphean-ly enslaved to the revolution’s dreams and nightmares in perpetuity.
That being said, Bess succeeds at illustrating the productive role road building played in Mexican state building (and also, albeit less explicitly, the role it played in building institutions of labor solidarity often in opposition to the state and its partnerships with industry). Before nationalization of the oil industry, state governments, in concert with laws inflected with revolutionary ideals and sympathetic interpretations from the judiciary, were able to increase their sovereignty over foreign owned oil companies in Veracruz. After nationalization of the industry, the federal government was able skirt the consequences of nationalization and re-establish commercial amity with the United States by agreeing to a laughable one-time payment of US$37 million to Standard Oil in exchange for a bi-lateral agreement that included US$10 million for road building. After PEMEX tankers were sunk by a German submarine and the United States repatriated the recovered remains of Mexican mariners, the Mexican government paraded their bodies in state down the Pan-American highway, simultaneously fomenting support for the war and public emotional connection to national road infrastructure. While Bess succeeds at illustrating the relationship between road building and state building, there is nothing particularly revelatory about the claim that large scale government investments in infrastructure extend the power of the state. Bess could have elaborated these claims by gesturing to historiographic discussions of territorial politics (as Chandra Mukerji does for her story of state-building-through-infrasture), but does not. In fact, I am finding it difficult to find any attempt by Bess to engage with related ongoing historiographic discussions except, perhaps, when he mentions in the introduction that James C. Scott and Eugen Weber have also written about the role of road building in shaping national identity. They are never mentioned again, nor are any of the other historiographic issues mentioned in the introduction, so it is difficult to judge Bess’s contribution to the literature.
- 3 – In this book I explore the social, economic, political, and legal implications of road building as a critical aspect of state formation. Construction efforts not only manifested state power in large-scale infrastructure projects but also helped to mobilize public and private resources to once isolated areas.
- James C. Scott and Eugen Weber have written on the role that road- building efforts have played historically in shaping a sense of national identity as people traveled more easily from place to place. New roads joined regional markets into national economies as trade links extended beyond state borders, forging new avenues for international commerce and contact.
- Despite state claims to greater technical efficiency, road building was often politically messy, fraught with myriad social and legal complications that spanned national and local interests. In studying the case of Mexico, my work helps to pull apart the notion of a monolithic national state, highlighting how aspects of it were appropriated by special interests through legal means or otherwise.
- I identify how underlying processes of “disorder” in everyday construction efforts (acrimonious legal disputes, engineering delays, strikes and protests, corruption, abuses of power, bad weather) affected modernist projects that later became monuments to “orderliness” and government effectiveness in glossy tourism brochures and state propaganda.
- 4 – I analyze the Mexican state through the prism of its engineering bureaucracies, studying how these agencies functioned as social organizations that not only addressed technical issues but also engaged with local communities over their concerns for motorway infrastructure. A regional approach underscores the powerful influence of state officials and local groups vis- à- vis federal authorities in the decision- making process for new roads. No single political figure or central agency entirely dominated this process. Instead provincial road- building efforts highlighted the contingent nature of political power in Mexico.
- 7 – My work is the first to fully take on a study of the institutional and legal implications of road building at the national, state, and local levels.16 I scrutinize the activities of the federal juntas locales de caminos (local road boards) that directed regional construction efforts. These agencies worked alongside state and local entities, including pro- road- building committees that local citizens set up to have a voice in the negotiations and implementation of new routes. When disputes emerged, higher- ranking officials intervened, and often the courts became the final arbiters of who controlled access to road funds and labor.
- Is HTECH in the global south inordinately focused on infrastructure?
- 9 – In this sense road building and surface quality became metrics that national society used to gauge national “progress.” Motorways carried a dual narrative: on the one hand, they embodied the promise of technological modernization as footpaths and horse- drawn carts gave way to asphalt thoroughfares and automobiles; on the other hand, the effects of entropy due to use, weather, and the passage of time could transform these “modern” arteries into symbols of “backwardness,” decried by journalists and citizens if not properly maintained.
- 94 – In May 1942 Mexico declared war on Germany and the other Axis powers, following the sinking of two PEMEX tankers, the Potrero del Llano and the Faja de Oro, by a German submarine. Political leaders rallied the nation to support the Allied cause. In June, after Mexico recovered the remains of the sailors from the U.S. Coast Guard, the government launched a highly publicized caravan tour to deliver the bodies from the northern border to Mexico City. Trucks carrying the caskets passed through numerous towns and cities on the way, giving ordinary citizens an opportunity to feel connected with these larger events. By doing so public officials transformed the PanAmerican Highway into a kind of public stage that framed the official wartime narrative, encouraging citizens to express anger over the attacks.
- A use for infrastructure not unlike that in the 16th century Rome of Pamela Long
- 136 – As reflected in Dr. Méndez’s speech, road building underscored Mexico’s developmentalist ambitions after the Revolution. New motor highways and caminos vecinales played a key practical and logistical role, providing improved access to regional markets and connecting the nation more closely with foreign economic partners like the United States. They also existed as a kind of public stage to display modernization efforts to national and international audiences. Political and commercial leaders rarely shied from the opportunity to characterize roads as tangible expressions of their vision for building the nation.
- 144 – Beginning in the 1920s the Mexican state used road building to rebalance its political activities with foreign powers and other national, state, and local entities. Plutarco Elías Calles created the National Road Commission as a means to reexert national sovereignty at a time when the United States and Great Britain, through the banks and energy sector, restricted Mexico’s economic agency. By fashioning road policies and laws that emphasized the importance of hiring Mexican workers and guaranteed public access to motorways, the Calles government carved out space for the country to exercise political power against foreign influence.
- Road building as defiant self-determination
- 149 – Álvaro Obregón launched the first comprehensive program to build highways, but it was his successor, Calles, who established the national institutions that fulfilled Carranza’s ambitions. Road building in Mexico was wrought with national significance that extended beyond purely economic conditions. It became a symbol and a metric of material progress and a means for national, state, and local actors to articulate whether the government was achieving the Revolution’s promise to build a prosperous and equitable society.
- 151 – Between 1988 and 1994 the government under Carlos Salinas de Gortari built more than 10,000 kilometers of rural highways and caminos vecinales as part of his Programa Nacional de Solidaridad (National Solidarity Program).9 Even as he privatized toll road operations and doled out lucrative road- building contracts to construction companies, he wrapped these activities in the language of rural improvement. Not unlike Miguel Alemán, he framed road building as a populist good that benefited workers and the poor, while aggressively expanding corporate power in Mexico.
- 152 – As the government points to road building as symbolic of economic progress, other people will dispute this narrative, converting roads and streets into spectacles of gridlock, burned buses, and political struggle. It is indicative of economic and social tensions rooted in the very idea of Mexico itself, dating not just to the causes of the Revolution but also to national independence and the legacy of colonialism. Road building will remain deeply contested, as it is a political and technical project that reaches into the heart of communities and regions, weaving them into a national fabric marked by deep social divisions and economic inequality.
- How does this connect to Mukerji’s territorial politics?