The Rise of the Sultan of the North
How did Monterrey become one of the most prominent — and Americanized — cities in Mexico?
April 16, 2009
The dawn of the Industrial Revolution in Mexico transformed Monterrey into a vital pillar of the national economy. It began in 1882 with the opening of a major railroad line from Mexico City to the Texas border town of Laredo that ran right through Monterrey.
That helped trigger a surge in citrus fruit production in southeastern Nuevo León state that saw oranges overtake traditional crops like corn and sugar cane.
In 1890 the U.S. Congress approved a steep tariff on foreign imports that inadvertently spurred the industrialization of Monterrey. Prior to the imposition of the tariff, the Philadelphia Smelting and Refining Company had imported large quantities of Mexican ores for processing at a smelter in Pueblo, Colorado.
The new import duty posed a direct threat to the company's mineral pipeline from Mexico and led its owners, the wealthy Guggenheim family, to contemplate a major investment south of the border. "Why give up on Mexico?" asked the family's patriarch, Meyer Guggenheim.
"If we can't bring Mexican ores to Pueblo, let us take a smelter to Mexico. Monterrey's proximity to the U.S. border and its strategic location astride Mexico's expanding railroad network convinced the Guggenheims to select the city as the site for the Gran Fundición Nacional smelter that opened in 1891.
It was a wise choice: From their Monterrey facility, the Guggenheims steadily expanded throughout north-central and northeastern Mexico until, by 1907, they acquired a virtual monopoly over smelting in that part of the country.
By the turn of the century, American-style capitalism was firmly planted in the arid desert highlands of Nuevo León state. American technicians were recruited to install and maintain the machinery of the Cervecería Cuauhtémoc, which became one of the country's leading beer companies within a few years of its founding in 1890.
The brewery's insatiable demand for bottles spawned the creation of the Vidriera Monterrey, which soon emerged as one of Mexico's biggest glass factories. Headed by the brewery's main partners, Manuel Cantú Treviño, Isaac Garza and Francisco Sada, Monterrey's leading capitalists organized joint-stock companies to finance and regulate the city's unprecedented economic growth.
The city's meteoric ascent was crowned in 1903 by the founding of the Companía Fundidora de Fierro y Acero de México, a steel mill that eventually became the largest in Latin America, with a workforce of 2,000 and boasting the capacity to process a thousand tons of iron ore daily.
Business leaders and the local press dubbed Monterrey the “Sultan of the North” and hailed it as a city of "progress," a code word in the Porfirio Díaz era for entrepreneurship, urban development and modernization.
By the early years of the 20th century, Monterrey became for Mexico what Pittsburgh was to the United States — a hub of heavy industry that was playing a pivotal role in its country's rapidly modernizing economy. The city's industrial boom brought with it some early examples of American influence, though the phenomenon actually predated the economic transformation of Monterrey.
Religious missionaries first made their presence felt in 1852 with the arrival in Monterrey of Melinda Rankin, who opened a mission for the American Biblical Society. Twelve years later, two Baptists followed in Rankin's footsteps and founded the Primera Iglesia (First Church) in Monterrey, which was described at the time as "the first Spanish-speaking evangelical church in Latin America."
By 1898, a correspondent for the Mexico City newspaper El Imparcial was noting that the señoritas of the city's upper classes "speak English with admirable correctness."
At the turn of the century, the city hosted one of the largest American expatriate communities in the country.
That was reflected in the founding of two English-language newspapers, the Monterrey Daily News and El Monterrey News, and in the sons of Monterrey's elite families who "formed the vanguard of 'high culture' for the first two decades of the 20th century, albeit an imported culture."
It was these privileged young men who introduced English words like "cocktail," "lunch" and "surprise" into the common parlance of the day. Before long, some of the city's wealthiest industrialists started sending their designated heirs north of the border for a university education, led by Eugenio Garza Sada, who was among the first natives of Monterrey to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1917.
The Americanization of Monterrey proceeds apace a century later. It can be glimpsed in its residents' practical adaptation to the local climate. Perhaps owing to its unchallenged status as the country's historic and political capital, Mexico City has a rather formal urban ethos.
Suits and neckties abound in its restaurants on weekday afternoons and walking shorts are rarely seen on the legs of anyone except foreign tourists. But when the mercury rises in the dry summer months in Monterrey, a fair number of regiomontanos exchange their trousers for shorts, a concession to the element that few chilangos would make no matter how high the temperature might rise.
Editor’s Note: This is the second part in a three-part series from Joseph Contreras’ book, “In the Shadow of the Giant.” Copyright 2009 Joseph Contreras. Reprinted with permission of Rutgers University Press.
By the early years of the 20th century, Monterrey became for Mexico what Pittsburgh was to the United States.
By 1898, a correspondent for the Mexico City newspaper <i>El Imparcial</i> was noting that the señoritas of the city's upper classes "speak English with admirable correctness."
In 1890 the U.S. Congress approved a steep tariff on foreign imports that inadvertently spurred the industrialization of Monterrey.
Author of “In the Shadow of the Giant” Joseph Contreras is the author of “In the Shadow of the Giant: The Americanization of Modern Mexico.” During a twenty-eight-year career at Newsweek magazine he has reported from over 50 countries on five continents. He most recently was the publication's Latin American regional editor. Mr. Contreras is […]