Caravans of Friendship: History, Tourism and Politics Along Te Mexico City-Laredo Highway, 1920s-1940s.

Author:Winter, Bryan

On the afternoon of May 12, 1931, the Mexican Minister of Communications, General Juan Almazan touched an "electric button" and set off a blast, clearing the last "big rock" from the new international highway connecting the Mexican capital and the US-Mexico border. Those present at the ceremony, which took place in the Mexican town of Tamazunchale in the state of San Luis Potosi, included Finance Minister Montes de Oca and the Head of Mexico's highway system, Sanchez Mejorada, both who applauded the highway's potential to advance Mexico's tourist sector. (1) Although opened to American traffic coming from north of the border, the 765 mile-long route to Mexico City would not be completed in its entirety until the summer of 1936. (2) That same year, while dedicating the highway from Laredo, Texas in a show of goodwill, then U.S. Vice President John Garner exclaimed: "this great highway Mexico has made...will bind in perpetual amity all the countries of the American continents. May caravans of friendship ever pass in every direction over this great highway of peace." (3)

As part of the eventual Pan-American Highway which would traverse both American continents from Alaska to Argentina, the Mexico City-Laredo Highway was Mexico's first long-distance paved roadway linking Mexico and the United States. At a huge total sum of over sixty-three million pesos, the Mexican government--with the help of tens-of-thousands of laborers--conquered Mexico's vast mountainous landscape to forge a physical connection with the United States. (4) The American media and U.S. government promoted the completion of the Mexico City-Laredo Highway as a symbol of friendship between the two countries, and caused some north of the border to claim that the highway raised Mexico's potential to become "America's annual vacation land." (5) Through widespread promotion of the highway's importance for both countries, the international highway led to an increased tourism across the Texas-Mexico boundary and permitted American motorists for the first time to embark on a "tour of Mexico." (6) Despite government-led repatriation campaigns that led to the forced removal of Mexican migrants and Mexican Americans during the 1930s, (7) promotional drives in American media began depicting Mexico as the "good, civilized neighbor," which solidified an economic, political, and tourism partnership between the two nations. (8) Hailed by the New York Times in 1932 as "the greatest single item in Mexico's vast plans for attracting tourists," Americans recognized the highway's development as a symbol of Mexico's modernization process. More importantly, and central to this work, the route was also seen as a tool for greater contact between the two nations. (9) It was said in 1929 by then President of Mexico Emilio Portes Gil that "the more America sees of Mexico, the more Americans will love Mexico and its people!" (10)

While historians and social scientists have produced a considerable amount of material on the social, racial, and economic influences of American tourism along the US-Mexico boundary, they have rarely investigated tourism as a mechanism to improve relations between the two countries. By investigating the promotion of friendship, by way of cross-border tourism between both governments, this paper shows that the Mexico City-Laredo Highway played an important role in mending the strained relationship between Mexico and the United States. Additionally, the completion of the route to Mexico City also led to an increased American presence in Mexico, which was vital to not only combating the negative views of Mexico but had also created a heightened sense of Pan-Americanism. While not an exhaustive study of border tourism, this paper adds to the knowledge of America's changing ideas and relationship with Mexico between the 1920s and 1940s, while also shedding light on how tourism across the border was inseparable from the realm of international relations. In the first section, this paper describes the planning and funding for the Mexico City-Laredo Highway as well as how some American media showcased great enthusiasm for the project during the 1920s and 1930s. How the highway was touted as a political symbol of friendship between the United States and Mexico is the focus of the subsequent section of the paper. When coupled with American media this emphasis acted as a magnet attracting American motorists across the border into "Old Mexico" for the first time in large numbers. For well-to-do adventurists, the highway offered encounters with the "exotic" near to America's door step, of course, which was made possible by the Laredo-Mexico City Highway project. The third section emphasizes how new perspectives of Mexico via media descriptions of locales, tourist sites, and towns found along the highway route forged alternative understandings of America's neighbor to the south. In conclusion, the paper makes clear how the highway crossing into the heart of Mexico promoted greater connectivity between the United States and Mexico while simultaneously bringing Mexico closer to the U.S. sphere of influence. Planning the "Great High Road" to Mexico City

Mexico's tourist industry away from the border lagged during the 1920s and 1930s, (11) hence the construction of an international highway was seen as vital for greater economic and cultural exchange between the U.S. and Mexico. After a rise in US-Mexico trade from 1923 to 1926, Mexico City devised an ambitious plan to expand its small but evolving highway system north to the border at Laredo. (12) During the 1920s, Mexico's leaders had praised roads and automobile transportation as both symbols of US-Mexican cooperation and the long-term benefits of economic development. For Mexico's state leaders, the relatively large gap in economic inequality and the challenges of sharing a border with the United States had proved prime reasons for the development of better road networks within the country. (13) If motor car traffic, especially coming from the United States, was to figure in to the development of industrial and commercial life in Mexico, highways between the two countries would need to be constructed. In 1925, Plutarco Elias Calles, then President of Mexico, emphasized the huge social and economic value of good roads for the overall development of Mexico. Calles, who one Texas newspaper dubbed "the strong man of Mexico," included the development of highways as one of the principal aims of Mexico's reconstruction program. (14)

The priority of constructing better roads in Mexico was also to attract American and foreign tourism to larger portions of the country. (15) While plans for expanding Mexico's roadways towards the border were under way, Mexico's newly formed Mexican Automobile Association, with its separate Mexican and North American memberships, recognized the boom to tourist trade that the development of highways could be. The Association lobbied all levels of Mexico's government to implement a gasoline tax which would help fund the Mexico City-Laredo Highway project, while also urging government officials to lessen the entry and exit regulations so that tourists could have easier access to Mexico. (16) Taking three centavos (three cents) for every liter of gas purchased, the revenues from the gasoline tax, in the first year, 1925, totaled more than 3 million pesos, and would grow to over 13 million a year five years later. (17) In August of 1925, a dispatch from Mexico City confirmed that the Mexican government had given the contract to a Chicago firm for the building and construction of the Mexico City-Laredo Highway, as well as other planned roadways. (18)

When the route for the Mexico City-Laredo Highway was selected by the Mexican government in 1925, both the Mexican people and American tourists expressed surprise. Many wondered why the proposed route did not follow the national railway lines of Mexico, which linked Mexico City with Texas, passing through important cities like Queretaro, San Luis Potosi, and Monterrey (the latter city was connected by the highway). Moreover, many further opined the fact that the vast open desert along much of the stretch would prove suitable for road building due to the openness of the region, as well as lessen the cost of the project. (19) Mexico City replied that the barren desert route in which the railway follows was seen as one of the main "drawbacks" as an attraction for American tourists. The proposed route, as described by the San Antonio Express, made available "a scenic landscape that will vie with any natural splendor anywhere offered the tourist." (20) In sum, Mexico City deliberately planned the route of the highway to follow a path of not only scenic, but varied landscapes that would suit foreign and American autoists.

As construction of the Highway commenced in 1925, U.S. President Calvin Coolidge also pushed for better roads...

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