Mexican Brick Culture in the Building of Texas, 1800s-1980s

Mexican Brick Culture in the Building of Texas, 1800s-1980s

Mexican Brick Culture in the Building of Texas, 1800s-1980s

Mexican Brick Culture in the Building of Texas, 1800s-1980s

Synopsis

Although brickmaking was one of the first nonagricultural manufacturing industries in the lower Rio Grande region, this is the first ethnographic study of the industry. The important connections between brickmaking in Mexico and Texas lead author Scott Cook to consider many core issues in the interdisciplinary field of border cultural studies, even as he gives a clear picture of the development and decline of this binational industry.

Drawing largely on oral testimonies from living informants and from ten years of fieldwork in surviving brickyards, Cook explores the organization, development, and techniques of the border brick industry, cataloging the range of organizational forms of brick manufacturing from household-based petty commodity units to wage-labor-based petty capitalist units. He also highlights a series of linkages between production, labor markets, and commodity markets. Finally, he focuses on how and why handmade brick production disappeared in Texas just as it grew explosively in Mexico, roughly in the period from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Cook necessarily deals with both sides of the border. Historically, the circular flow of people, materials, and culture in the brick industry has defied the River as any sort of formidable barrier to movement. Yet this study documents that, especially in this century, the "Border" cannot be romantically dismissed as a fiction which has no commonplace effect on the movement of people, commodities, and culture.

Major themes include the development of Mexican brick culture in Texas, the Mexican brick export industry and the role of joint capital, the impact of intercultural relations on cross-border business, and issues of citizenshipand identity in the histories of border brickmaking families.

Excerpt

To my knowledge, this is the first study of the artisanal brick industry in the Texas-Mexico border region. This is surprising, considering that brickmaking was one of the pioneering non-agricultural manufacturing industries in the Rio Grande Valley as well as in other parts of the lower border region. It is also surprising in view of the important role played by Mexican brick culture in residential and commercial masonry construction in Texas from the 1800s to the present.

In 1979-80 I studied handmade-brick production as part of a wider project on craft industries in the valley of Oaxaca, Mexico. An ethnographically provocative newspaper article (McDonnell 1985) first drew my attention to the thriving handmade-brick industry on the Mexican side of the lower border:

Approaching from the high ground west of the Rio Grande, the community called Las Alazanas looks like a long-abandoned fortress city. Rising from the desert brush are squat brick structures, many scarred black and seemingly abandoned, as great walls of red and yellow brick line the rutted pathways that descend from the surrounding cliffs. But a closer look shows these are not ruins. Behind the walls are lines of men laboring with huge loads, others chopping on piles of gnarled mesquite, and still others tending fires, their sweat-drenched faces glowing red from the heat. This is the domain of the "ladrilleros," the brick-makers. Here, in a mile-long chunk of semidesert, hundreds of men labor to produce blocks used to construct houses, commercial buildings and other projects on both sides of the border.

Intrigued by the situation in Nuevo Laredo so dramatically described in these lines, and by additional information provided in the article, I decided to see for myself and, if I liked what I saw, perhaps undertake a comparative study of brickmaking in Nuevo Laredo and Oaxaca.

Through preliminary research begun in 1987, I learned that south of the border in the state of Tamaulipas, from Nuevo Laredo to Matamoros, there were many areas of artisanal brickmaking like those in Las Alazanas which had collectively, between 1950 and 1980, captured a substantial share of the Texas brick construction market. Clearly, it would be rewarding from an economic anthropological perspective to study a labor-intensive industry consisting of small enter-

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