Migration and Urbanization in Northwest Mexico's Border Cities

By Acosta, Jesus Angel Enriquez | Journal of the Southwest, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Migration and Urbanization in Northwest Mexico's Border Cities


Acosta, Jesus Angel Enriquez, Journal of the Southwest


This essay analyzes the influence of migration in the development of Northwest Mexico's border cities, most specifically in Tijuana, Nogales, and Ciudad Juarez. Northwest Mexico has become one of the most dynamic regions in the country, not only because of the maquiladora (assembly-plant) industry established since the 1960s in Tijuana, Mexicali, Nogales, San Luis Rio Colorado, Agua Prieta, and Ciudad Juarez, but also because of the consistently high levels of population growth and urbanization these dynamic urban areas have sustained since the mid-twentieth century. Among Mexico's border cities notable for their high rates of population growth and urbanization, Tijuana, Nogales, and Juarez are particularly exemplary. Today's booming border cities were, with the exception of Juarez, merely small frontier towns at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was not until the great post-World War II economic expansion of the U.S. Southwest that these border towns really began to take on urban dimensions. In Tijuana's case, early development was based on the establishment of dive bars and taverns, largely for the U.S. market, lending the town legendary status as a place of vice. Nogales, on the other hand, began largely as a port-of-entry for railroad and other types of cross-border traffic. The destiny of these cities was, early on, intimately linked to the United States, whose economic trends directly influenced the border's demographic dynamics as well as the flow of goods back and forth across the international boundary.

The powerful and deep transborder relationships established among cities on opposite sides of the line are characterized by the large structural differences between the two nations, and by the Mexico's dependence on the United States for manufactured goods, merchandise, capital, and employment. Mexican migration towards these border cities in the twentieth century was driven by the relatively open possibilities for crossing (legally or otherwise) into the United States, and by the access to relative economic prosperity that those cities offered, including avenues offered by the burgeoning drug trade. These cities are in many ways as much or more culturally, socially, and economically articulated with the United States than with Mexico.

The growth of maquiladora plants drastically altered the border cities' physiognomy and social dynamics. The industry provided an extreme shock to the regional (as well as national) economy, producing a huge boom in spin-off businesses that serve the maquiladoras. Heavy and rapid population growth brought with it enormous challenges for urban planning.

The pressure on city governments to maintain (much less expand) basic services, infrastructure, and equipment increased dramatically, while their capacity remained more or less stagnant. Insecurity and violence came to characterize large portions of these cities, as so-called irregular settlements grew seemingly overnight. Competition for urban land grew fierce, as the real estate market fueling "the city" boomed.

The growth of the maquiladora sector since the implementation of the 1965 Border Industrialization Program (BIP) thus multiplied border cities' attractiveness for internal migration, while also offering a new type of "urban settlement that did not have to face the contradictions or obstacles faced elsewhere in Mexico, the old social structures and pre-modern institutions characteristic of an agricultural and rural society" (Canales 2003: 163). Mexico's National Border Program (PRONAF) was created in 1961 to create the necessary infrastructure to absorb border-city growth. PRONAF also included a cultural component that would encourage identity construction amongst the new settlers.

The consequences of maquiladora activity and the related urbanization processes rendered the border cities extremely fluid environments. By 2000, Baja California contained 85 percent of the population residing in the border cities; Chihuahua contained 42 percent; while Sonora had 23 percent (SEDESOL 2001). …

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