The Fight for Access: Road Building, Legal Battles, and the Environment in Post-Revolutionary Mexico, 1922–38

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 2:50 PM
Forum Room (Omni Shoreham)
Michael Kirkland Bess, University of Texas at El Paso
In 1922, residents in northern Veracruz brought a series of complaints to the state governor against the Huasteca Petroleum Company (HPC). They demanded unrestricted access to the asphalt-coated, all-weather roads the company had built for its oil operations in the region. The HPC, however, restricted traffic claiming it had the right to do so because it had paid for construction of the road. After years of bickering and legal appeals,  the case went before the Supreme Court in Mexico, which upheld the rights of local communities to use the route. As the Mexican government settled the question of whether roads were public goods, local and regional actors debated how and where new thoroughfares should be built. Communities vied for limited state construction funds and made arguments that cited environmental hardship to press for the completion of weather-resistant, asphalt routes. Moreover, the actual work of building roads faced significant engineering challenges related to the environment, especially as weather conditions, climate, and topography affected the timetables that construction crews set to finish a given project. The policy decisions that national and state authorities made in response to these political and environmental considerations elicited significant public reaction over the long-term impact that road building had on existing land-use arrangements and regional mobility. This paper examines the convergence of these themes and the active political role that many everyday Mexicans asserted against corporate power in the 1920s and 1930s. It argues that the fight for local access to roads in many ways foreshadowed the later political battle between national leaders and the foreign-owned oil companies over who could lay claim to the country’s natural resources.