El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, 1880-1930: A material culture study of borderlands interdependency

Gladys Arlene Hodges, University of Texas at El Paso


Material culture theory informs this study of urban history and borderlands interdependency at El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, from 1880-1930. Features incised into and structures built onto the natural environment by the first arriving colonists after the mid-seventeenth century endured for more than two centuries. Over that period, the humanly-created material environment, a social product, fed back into the development of social forms--institutions, rituals, practices, modes of interaction, activities, and beliefs. A significant number of these social forms endured into the late nineteenth century and beyond, even after mechanization and industrialization arrived in the region known as The Pass, the area currently occupied by the two cities. ^ The analysis of the status of buildings as signifying systems on the border reveals shifts in border interdependency not often evident in written records. This work shows large architectural features to be contingent rather than autonomous and self-fulfilling, as enmeshed in circumstance, connected to power and institutional authorities. The constructed architectural object is understood as "text" that signifies and transmits socio-cultural meanings, but in a manner that is specific to architecture, whether produced through specialized aesthetic judgments or by shared cultural processes. ^ During the nineteenth century large scale shifts in political arrangements intensified the importance of the former supply station on Spain's northern frontier. Mexico's independence from Spain, 1810-1821, and loss of territory through aggressive acquisition by the United States, 1846-1848, created an international border setting. After 1880 arrival of the railroads propelled the two towns into rapid urbanization and modernization. The built environment of the two towns empowered municipal development, political, social, economic, and cultural. The first international railroad and street railway bridges furthered local and state relations and expanded bi-national trade and commerce in unprecedented ways. Their forms, based on developing trestle technology, added new dimensions to the physical infrastructure of the border towns and created trans-border investment and entrepreneurial partnerships. An attempt to exploit bridges as social agents shows the power of the built environment in its own right. ^ From 1885-1905 mercantilist architecture reflected Mexico's newly-reduced tariff rates and intentions to equalize economic opportunity in the borderlands. Many of the new-style department stores in Ciudad Juárez, funded and constructed by Europeans, communicated a global entrepreneurship active on this commercial frontier. Perceived as a challenge by El Paso's merchants, the buildings embodied a surge of investment on the Mexican side which engendered a period of fierce and bitter competition within the dual community. Research into El Paso's built environment of the period shows clearly that the town's overheated resistance to commercial success in its sister city was unwarranted and unwise. Mercantile emporiums and stores, warehouses, and railroad depots reified Mexico's experiment with tariff reductions and spawned a bi-national consumer pool. ^ Specific sets of objects shared the work--social, political, cultural, and economic--that projected the particular character of the built environment of the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez bi-national community. Groups of structures, acting as social agents, provided a means of interaction rather like language, but additional to it. Government halls and customshouses across the combined cityscape depicted and encouraged nationalistic fervor and zealous patriotism. I argue that social forms, for example, sodalities or congregations, are not only contingent on human activities but also depend on the material environment of those activities. Cultural institutions fit the pattern of objects that, once built, subsequently shape their human creators. Schools, libraries, hospitals, and churches projected powerful visual messages of economic development and cultural ambitions shared by the two towns. In part, the structural forms helped to shape local societies. Moreover, the edifices, many massive and imposing compared to preceding architecture, gave notice to the outside world of modernizing achievements on the fringes of both nations. ^ The sphere of transportation was especially formative at The Pass. Geographic location invited the physical reality of iron rails and steam engines which spanned the international border, cut through the hearts of both towns, and launched the region into its role as a hub for intersecting railroad companies. Architecturally speaking, railroads redesigned both towns by their preemption of local space, but also by reducing time and space for exchange of goods and movement of people, and by carrying wire connections for vastly-facilitated communication. Later airports served many of the same functions, further compressing time and space, stamping their imprint into the earth as had those first intrepid settlers. ^ This dissertation is intended as an introduction to the use of material culture as an analytic tool for further exploration into the social, cultural, political, and economic worlds in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. ^

Subject Area

History, United States|Political Science, International Relations|Architecture

Recommended Citation

Hodges, Gladys Arlene, "El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, 1880-1930: A material culture study of borderlands interdependency" (2010). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI3433699.