Power Lines: Nation, Revolution, and the State in Early Mexican Electrification

Thursday, January 7, 2016: 3:30 PM
International Ballroom A (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Jonathan Hill Jr., City University of New York, Graduate Center
This paper traces material practices of state formation in the early twentieth-century though the construction of one of Mexico’s earliest large-scale hydroelectric dams. Proposed in 1905, La Boquilla was completed during the revolution on the Rio Conchos in Chihuahua through North Atlantic investment, expertise, and Mexican federal concessions. Local elites pitched the project as a boon to local industry and agriculture, though the majority of the dam’s load was absorbed by U.S. copper interests. Ostensibly a project of Mexican modernization, La Boquilla was implicated in scales which transcended the national.

Traditional narratives associate the presidency of Porfirio Diaz with intensive state-led development and expanding federal power. By contrast, the Mexican revolution is typically cast as a rejection of exploitative Porfirian policy. But when the revolution expelled both Diaz and U.S. copper interests, most electrical assets including La Boquilla remained in private hands. While the revolution rejected Diaz, it appropriated his complicated project of electrical modernization.

In the post-revolutionary era, new high-tension power lines carried La Boquilla’s surplus southward to Torreon, where famers and manufacturers on the Rio Nazas used Chihuahua power to create the now-bustling comarca lagunera – even as downriver Rio Conchos farmers faced water shortages. General Electric, though series of holding companies, muscled out Canadian promoters and oversaw the expanding Mexican grid until the mid-twentieth century. As during the Porfiriato, the material foundations of state and nation in post-revolutionary Mexico drew on global flows of capital, expertise, and political power.

The case of La Boquilla calls into question the range of practices through which state formation is narrated, as well as the extent and limits of these practices. In seeking to insert materiality into the conversation, this paper seeks to highlight within the Mexican grid the infrastructural manifestation of both state and imperial practices – national and foreign.

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