Connecting Chiapas: Coffee and the Expansion of Transportation Networks in Late Nineteenth-Century Soconusco

Friday, January 6, 2012: 9:50 AM
Wrigleyville Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Casey M. Lurtz, University of Chicago
Connecting Chiapas: Coffee and  the Expansion of Transportation Networks in Late Nineteenth Century Soconusco

The introduction and rapid growth of the coffee industry in late nineteenth-century Chiapas brought the fertility, and the isolation, of the region into stark relief. Its situation on the contested border with Guatemala, its dependence on foreign currencies and credit, and its increasingly multinational population, when combined with the wealth the export trade was bringing to the area, made the assertion of Mexican sovereignty a delicate and necessary process. At the same time, with an economy dependent on a commodity with no local market, demand for improved communications with the rest of the country and the world was continual from within the Soconusco.  This paper looks at the means by which the national- and state-level governments and local investors worked together to physically link the increasingly fruitful Soconusco to its customers across the globe and those hoping to reap economic benefits closer to home. Arguing that developments in transportation were a means by which the Mexican government and Mexican citizens maintained their role within an agricultural industry increasingly dominated by foreigners, I examine the path that coffee took from the plantation to market and the actors who helped modernize the means by which it traveled.  In the process of making the Soconusco more accessible and attractive to foreign investors, advancements in transportation also strengthened their ties to and dependencies on local representatives of the federal and state government.  Campaigns for the expansion of transportation were generally led by a coalition of actors from multiple national backgrounds, but the positions of leadership in the resulting offices or companies were dominated by Chiapanecos, increasing national representation in an area where few markers of Mexican sovereignty had ever existed.