The asymmetrical relationship between American and Mexican border regions is nonetheless relatively recent. Until the twentieth century, both sides of the border were, in the jargon of today's economists, underdeveloped out-of-the-way towns of little consequence to the financial capitals of Mexico and the United States. The border, in the eyes of most Mexicans and Americans, was still a frontier. For the United States, that began to change in the late nineteenth century, when the arrival of the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific Railroads opened the Southwest to mining and commercial agriculture and linked the cattle ranches of Texas to the stockyards of Kansas City and Chicago. Still, disparities between the American and Mexican borders were merely getting underway.
It was developments in the 1920s, for which Americans are largely answerable, that turned the character of Mexican border towns upside down and, in so doing, exacerbated the existing inequality between Mexico and its northern neighbor. What turned awry—and yes, perverted— the imbalance of yesteryear was the Volstead Act of 1919. Better known as Prohibition, this bit of puritanical mischief banned the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. From that time on, the American fancy for booze and the Tartuffery required to give the lie to it, set the course of the border drama. For a decade or more, lines from The Jester's Plea aptly epitomize what transpired on the Mexican side of the border: "The World's as ugly, ay, as Sin,—And almost as delightful."
Mexicans are hardly blameless for what befell them. Whether eagerly or not, they embraced the American mafiosos of sin and booze and most of them eagerly rushed to bend a knee before the onrush of foreign visitors. By 1920, Mexicans had endured nearly ten years of internecine strife, as opportunistic politicos and tinhorn generals by the dozens fought over