Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Mexican Urban Colonias in the Salt River Valley of Arizona

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Mexican Urban Colonias in the Salt River Valley of Arizona

Article excerpt

In 2005 the Salt River Valley, (1) commonly known as the "Phoenix metropolitan area," comprised a vast sprawling, horizontal geography with 3.7 million residents. Modern settlement of this region derives from a massive post-World War II Anglo population immigration and suburbanization (Gammage 1999; Gober 2005). (2) This characterization comes from the "popular perception that suburban development is essentially a postwar phenomenon, with the 1950s being the touchstone decade" (Harris and Larkham 1999,1). Mexicans were central to the early suburbanization process of the Salt River Valley through colonia settlements on the urban periphery, yet the notion that Phoenix developed as an almost entirely Anglo metropolis persists despite evidence of substantial Mexican roots in the city (Oberle and Arreola 2008).

In this article we show how and why urban colonias emerged across the Salt River Valley before the post-World War II-boom industrial agriculture practiced on the periphery shaped the area's early-twentieth-century economy. "Industrial agriculture" refers to the extraction of a primary resource and achieves economies of scale when high levels of agricultural productivity and the size of production (in acreage) leads to low costs and high profits. Mexicans were critical to the success of this enterprise owing to their presence in the valley, their underclass status, and their knowledge of irrigation skills and labor practices in arid environments.

Urban colonias in the Salt River Valley formed in one of three ways: as working-class neighborhoods on the fringe that filtered down from Anglos to Mexicans, as settlements based on real estate promotions in environmentally sensitive areas or on unproductive lands, known as "disamenity zones," or as settlements forged by company-sponsored housing schemes. The first process is characteristic of Phoenix's southern fringe beyond the Salt River, neighborhoods abandoned by Anglos after the disastrous 1891 flood (Luckingham 1994, 25; Dimas 1999, 23-24). The second method is responsible for the majority of urban colonias, most of which were proximate to industrial agricultural areas or existing Anglo towns (Vinson 1991; Reynolds 1998; Harner 2000; Benitez 2002). The third type came in the form of cotton camps associated with industrial agriculture (Figure 1). These highly decentralized settlements spurred Mexican peripheral population concentration greater than previously recorded in the valley (Arreola and others 2008). Cotton was the first form of industrial agriculture to achieve economies of scale heralding the destruction of the small-farming landscape as "large-acreage agglomerations with absentee land owners, tenant operators," all served by a large pool of cheap Mexican labor, took over the valley (Hill 2007, 208).


We contend that the latter two formation processes were central to the history of early suburbanization in the Salt River Valley. In the United States suburbs are commonly "defined as political entities, democratically run and with constitutional power" (Harris 2001, 259; see also, Ashton 1984; Binford 1985; Keating 1988). But this definition only describes a portion of the formation and experience of the suburbanization process, especially as it relates to the United States before the 1950s (Harris and Lewis 2001). Suburbs are conceived in a number of different ways, which include being peripheral to the urban core (Clawson and Hall 1973; Gardner 2001; Harris 2001, 2004), being residential or industrial (Douglass 1925; Harris and Ullman 1945), comprising low-density settlements (Clawson and Hall 1973; Gardner 2001; Harris 2001, 2004), having high levels of owner occupance (Jackson 1985), and exhibiting a distinctive way of life that is characteristic of the middle and upper classes (Sies 2001).

Though not politically autonomous communities or emphasizing the middle to upper classes, urban colonias in the Salt River Valley fit within the new urban history definition of suburban formation in the pre-World War II era, especially as it relates to industrial decentralization and the marketing of inexpensive land on the urban fringe (Harris 1996, 2001, 2004; Harris and Larkham 1999; Harris and Lewis 1998, 2001; Gardner 2001, Wiese 2001). …

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