Powering Mexico: Hydroelectricity, Foreign Interests, and the Modernizing State, 1900–20

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 10:30 AM
Murray Hill Suite A (New York Hilton)
Jonathan Hill, City University of New York, Graduate Center
Mexico experienced a burst of electrification in the early twentieth century, sparked largely by an extensive program of hydroelectric damming. Under the technocratic presidency of Porfirio Diaz, the federal government embarked on a project of infrastructural modernization which transformed traditional land and water use patterns, dissolving common landholding in favor of foreign-led development of natural resources. By the time Diaz was deposed in 1911, one of the world’s most productive hydroelectric plants was supplying Mexico City, and another ambitious project was already in the works in the arid border state of Chihuahua.

This northern project, called La Boquilla, drew on two technological innovations: the concave arch and development of long-distance, high-tension electrical transmission. The first of these allowed a relatively small dam in a narrow canyon mouth to retain the massive reservoir Lago Toronto, while the latter made hydroelectric distribution economically feasible in the sparsely-populated north. On the eve of the Mexican Revolution, for a brief moment, Mexico was at the cutting edge of global hydroelectric damming technology.

Yet while the Porfirian vision of modernity was explicitly national, electrical technology was implicated in scales far wider than Mexico. La Boquilla was proposed by local elites in Chihuahua and approved by officials in Mexico City. But, like the dam near Mexico City, La Boquilla was actually built through a tangled mix of Canadian investment capital, British hydraulic engineering, and electrical expertise and equipment from the United States. These multiple, overlapping interests defined La Boquilla as a project which was at once local, national, and international. This paper will explore how this project of national modernization was implicated, via technology, in international currents of change, and how these interests influenced the growth of electrical distribution in northern Mexico.

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