Jessica M. Kim: Roads and Walls in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

Imperial Metropolis by Jessica M. KimToday we welcome a guest post from Jessica M. Kim, author of Imperial Metropolis:  Los Angeles, Mexico, and the Borderlands of American Empire, 1865–1941, published this month by UNC Press.

In this compelling narrative of capitalist development and revolutionary response, Jessica M. Kim reexamines the rise of Los Angeles from a small town to a global city against the backdrop of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, Gilded Age economics, and American empire. It is a far-reaching transnational history, chronicling how Los Angeles boosters transformed the borderlands through urban and imperial capitalism at the end of the nineteenth century and how the Mexican Revolution redefined those same capitalist networks into the twentieth.

Imperial Metropolis is available now in both print and ebook editions.


Roads and Walls in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

Much of Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric and policy proposals focus on the closure of borders, the building of walls, and limiting the flow of goods and people across international boundaries.  This inflammatory speech belies the deep historical connectedness of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, from migration and employment patterns, to the flow of trade goods and services, to the existence of transnational family units, and even to the construction of cross-border infrastructure.  As explored in my book Imperial Metropolis: Los Angeles, Mexico, and the Borderlands of American Empire, Los Angeles and Mexico, particularly northern Mexico, have been a profoundly integrated cross-border region for well over a century.  In fact, Los Angeles grew from a small town to a global city through investments in Mexico between the Civil War and World War II.

In this excerpt from the final chapter, I explore the history of a trans-border highway, designed by a number of American and Mexican business leaders and policymakers to link Los Angeles directly to Mexico City along the Pacific coast and to facilitate the flow of tourists and trade goods along an international road.  The history of this highway reflects how historically entrenched cross-border trade has been across the twentieth century and just how deep the relationship between the United States and Mexico runs.

“Early on the soggy morning of March 15, 1930, a crowd of 500 Automobile Club of Southern California (ACSC) staff, well-wishers, reporters, and photographers milled around a caravan of five touring cars in the courtyard of the club’s headquarters in Los Angeles. Equipment for a rugged journey packed the big Fords—a portable radio transmitter, camping gear, emergency rations, distilled water, cameras and film, spare car parts, first aid kits, medical supplies, ropes, picks, shovels, gas cans, oil, tools, and a ‘liberal supply’ of high-powered rifles, shotguns, revolvers, and ammunition. Nine men squeezed into the laden vehicles. Each wore a uniform they thought appropriate to their journey—heavy boots, khaki knickerbockers, and pith helmets. With a shout to clear the way and a rattling of motors, the crowd parted, and the caravan passed under the Spanish Colonial Revival archways of the club building and jostled onto Figueroa Street. The convoy, with the flags of the United States and Mexico fluttering from radiator caps, quickly turned southeast toward Arizona and the U.S.-Mexico border.

The motorcade was also part of a project proposed in 1929 by a group of Angeleno businessmen and a team of Mexican policymakers who hoped to capitalize on a far-reaching borderlands relationship following the end of the Mexican Revolution. It would be launched in Los Angeles but developed along a shared coast and proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Revolution south of the border and subsequent changes to the Mexican state and the Mexican Constitution led to the redistribution of Los Angeles–based investment properties to Mexican nationals and undercut ideas that Los Angeles could be an empire. The investment periphery that Angeleno investors had envisioned and bought up in Mexico no longer belonged to capitalists in the core. However, some of the same investors who lost properties to Mexican expropriation, including Harry Chandler and Henry Workman Keller, remained confident that Los Angeles must remain closely knit to the borderlands and beyond. This post-revolutionary web of relationships between Los Angeles and Mexico would take the physical form of transborder infrastructure, an eye toward commercial partnerships in trade and tourism, and the rhetoric of American hemispheric fraternity.

The promoters of the Los Angeles-to-Mexico highway also typified a new type of American empire building in Latin America, a set of policies and strategies that rhetorically renounced military intervention while embracing economic expansion. The revolution taught American investors and policymakers, including those in Los Angeles, that a robust economic nationalism in Mexico and greater Latin America could successfully challenge American influence in the region. Those Americans with interests in maintaining financial and investment ties south of the border, from local investors in Los Angeles to policymakers in Washington, D.C., turned instead to negotiating trade treaties, finding markets for American goods, establishing manufacturing facilities and production chains, and developing infrastructure. In short, the Mexican Revolution forced the U.S. government and American investors to renounce the strategies of ‘hard power’ while they simultaneously honed other ‘soft power’ tools of empire, including economic growth and integration, political coercion, consumption and travel, and, after World War II, an obsession with containing communism. In Mexico, many American investors returned in the 1930s and after World War II with the same aspirations they had carried across the border thirty or forty years earlier but with some new strategies, including tourism, travel, and increased trade. Their rhetoric also shifted and championed hemispheric fraternity even while they sought economic gain.

As the international tensions caused by the Mexican Revolution eased and hemispheric cooperation increased, particularly around issues of trade and economic development, Los Angeles investors and promoters and their Mexican partners reconceptualized Los Angeles and western Mexico as part of a shared Pacific alliance, one that would run from north to south along the Pacific Ocean and would promote tourism and trade. Their plan was to construct a transnational highway to connect Los Angeles to Mexico City via a road down the Pacific coastline. The road was part of the much-heralded International Pacific Highway (IPH), a 12,000-mile road linking the west coasts of North, Central, and South America along the Pacific. Initiated by members of the Automobile Club of Southern California, the nation’s leading motoring association, the road began in Anchorage, Alaska, and headed south through every country in the Americas that bordered the Pacific Ocean. When it was completed in 1957, it traversed thirteen nations and became one of the longest highways in the world. In 1929, when Mexicans and Angelenos began working on the project, most of the route from Alaska to Baja California had already been paved, due in part to enthusiasm for the automobile and the Good Roads movement in the United States. As a result, road promoters in Los Angeles and along Mexico’s west coast turned their attention to mapping, paving, and posting signage for the 1,600-mile section from Los Angeles to Mexico City. The highway project, promoted by several investors who had just lost properties in Mexico, demonstrates that revolution forced Angeleno promoters to relinquish many of their explicitly imperial aspirations, but they still hoped to capitalize on their proximity to Mexico. The highway project also epitomized a new type of American empire in Latin America, one that promoted free market capitalism and globalization…

As the IPH stretched the borderlands, it also signified a new era in the imperial relationship between the United States and Mexico, one that would unfold over the second half of the twentieth century and that had eerie echoes of the prerevolutionary period. While Washington, D.C., coupled the Good Neighbor Policy with strategies of economic development and stability, American policymakers and investors coupled this approach with demands for lifted trade barriers, increased globalization, and free market capitalism. When Blanco Vigil, one of the promoters of the highway, stood on the side of the IPH in 1957 and observed that the road would serve as an artery to carry chickens, melons, pigs, and trucks ‘freely’ between regions and nations, he made an accurate prediction about opening a ‘new world’ of trade and international relations. During the negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the 1990s, Henry Kissinger would use similar language to declare in the Los Angeles Times that unrestricted trade constituted ‘the new world order.’ Beginning in the 1960s and accelerating through the 1970s and 1980s, the United States in its policy toward Latin America would increasingly call for lifting regulations, freeing up trade, opening markets, and promoting private investment. One historian dubbed this the ‘third conquest of Latin America’ and America’s ‘new imperialism.’ Transportation corridors, such as the International Pacific Highway, that link global cities such as Los Angeles to cross-border manufacturing and production centers made much of this possible.”


Jessica M. Kim is associate professor of history at California State University, Northridge.  Follow her on Twitter.  You can read her previous UNC Press Blog post here.