Academic journal article Urban History Review

Public Health, Yellow Fever, and the Making of Modern Tampico

Academic journal article Urban History Review

Public Health, Yellow Fever, and the Making of Modern Tampico

Article excerpt

In the nineteenth century, emergent cities were important to Mexico's becoming a modern nation-state. Our understanding of the process, however, remains incomplete. There are abundant studies of the process for Mexico City, but a limited number analyze the role of secondary cities in the formation of the modern nation-state. (1) Rural to urban migration led to population growth in many provincial cities, and increased economic activity caused by dramatic expansion of the nation's railroad system converted provincial towns into emerging cities. Of special importance to this transformation were Mexico's ports, because they served as the link between domestic centres of primary product production and global markets. Nation-state planners targeted ports for modernization. They built new docks, improved sewers, provided potable water, and reconfigured public markets to meet new health standards. A key feature to the relationship between nation-state construction and the city was public health. Mexican health authorities faced a wide range of health and sanitation problems and undertook aggressive programs of health and sanitation as part of the effort to make Mexico modern. (2) Among the central challenges facing public health officials was the problem of yellow fever, especially in the Caribbean port cities, which were vital centres of commerce.

This essay offers a case study of the relationship between nation-state formation, urban transformation, and the public health problem presented by yellow fever in the port of Tampico, located on Mexico's Gulf Coast, on the border between the states of Veracruz and Tamaulipas. It examines the yellow fever epidemic of 1898 to illustrate how urban transformation generated conditions for the epidemic, and how local, state, and national public health officials addressed the challenge of combating the epidemic. Special emphasis is placed on how officials used quarantine in a vain attempt to contain the problem. As a result of its limitations, national authorities came to perceive quarantine as antithetical to the project of the modern nation-state, leading them to adopt urban sanitation projects as substitutes. The battle against yellow fever constituted part of an important shift in public health authority from the control of local officials to national authorities, which further consolidated the power of the nation-state. The essay concludes with consideration of the implications of Tampico's 1898 epidemic for a history of circum-Caribbean port cities.

Mexico became a modern nation-state during the late nineteenth century, a period known as the "Porfiriato," a term referring to Porfirio Diaz, who served as president from 1876 to 1880 and from 1884 to 1911. It was a time when past political instabilities and economic stagnation gave way to "order and progress." The Porfirian project was an attempt at modernization from above, an initiative thrust upon hundreds of Mexican localities throughout Mexico's many regions by national political and economic planners operating from the centre of the nation-state, Mexico City. Modernization, in the Mexican case, was the implementation of nineteenth-century liberalism copied from Europe. This process was of long duration during which post-independence Mexico made uncertain yet incremental steps toward the establishment of free trade capitalism, a free wage labour system, cultural values of a market economy and a capitalist work ethic, and a political system where the moderating power of the state is invested in a constitution and not the individual. (3) Porfirian planners were known as the cientificos (the scientists), because they sought to organize Mexico's political and economic development under the "scientific" political philosophy of positivism. They placed a premium on efficient administration of the nation's politics, an idea captured in the Porfirian slogan, "Plenty of administration and not too much politics." (4) Good administration, they thought, would result in progress, the program for constructing a modern infrastructure. …

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