The Southernmost City in Texas: Monterrey, Nuevo León
Why has Monterrey's prosperity long been intimately tied to the economic well-being of the United States?
- For more than 150 years, Monterrey's prosperity has been intimately tied to the steady integration of northern Mexico into the U.S. economy.
- The constant contact with American entrepreneurs, technicians, missionaries and adventurers has left its mark on the metropolis of Monterrey.
- Monterrey's inhabitants live and work to the rhythms of a Sunbelt metropolis, and its upper-middle-class families like to spend their vacations on South Padre Island along the Texas Gulf Coast.
- A two-hour drive from the Texas border, Monterrey's extensive ties to the United States were a direct result of the Mexican War.
It hits you almost as soon as you leave the glittering terminal of Monterrey's international airport.
First come the hotel signs with names so familiar to the American business traveler: Hampton Inn, The Courtyard, Best Western, Fairfield Inn. As you drive around Monterrey, the same restaurant and store logos that line American interstate highways dot the cityscape — Bennigan's, Applebee's, Office Depot, Chili's, Tony Roma's.
With a hefty dose of irony and a dollop of verisimilitude, the capital of Mexico's Nuevo León state is sometimes called the southernmost city in Texas. Where else in Mexico would you find a major avenue in the heart of a city's downtown named after George Washington?
In spirit as well as geography, Monterrey is closer to Houston than to Mexico City. Its rise as a manufacturing giant dates back to the opening of the first major railroad to the Texas border, and for more than 150 years Monterrey's prosperity has been intimately tied to the steady integration of northern Mexico into the U.S. economy.
The city's inhabitants live and work to the rhythms of a Sunbelt metropolis, and its upper-middle-class families like to spend their vacations on South Padre Island along the Texas Gulf Coast. The ultimate role model for regiomontanos, as the natives of Monterrey are called, is the self-made captain of industry.
Its richest suburb evokes the palatial homes and swank boutiques of Beverly Hills and La Jolla, and Monterrey's upper crust is thoroughly steeped in American culture and attitudes.
A two-hour drive from the Texas border, Monterrey's extensive ties to the United States were a direct result of the Mexican War. At the stroke of a pen, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war in 1848, brought the town of 20,000 people within striking distance of what would eventually become the world's richest economy.
The outbreak of the American Civil War ushered in the city's first bona fide economic boom, as cotton planters in the southern United States re-routed their merchandise through northeastern Mexico to skirt the federal blockade of the Confederacy's seaports.
The dawn of the railroad age in northern Mexico heralded an industrial boom that would make Monterrey the nation's steel-making capital and attract large flows of American capital. The city's elites were among the first Mexican families to send their children to American universities.
The constant contact with American entrepreneurs, technicians, missionaries and adventurers has left its mark on the metropolis of four million people — and if Mexico City lies at the heart of the country's Hispano-indigenous past and present, then Monterrey surely sits on the cutting edge of its Americanizing future.
One of Monterrey's best-known native sons is José Natividad Gonzal Parás, a French-educated lawyer who won the governorship of Nuevo León state as the PRI candidate in 2003, and he makes no bones about the state's future prosperity being inextricably linked to that of the United States.
"As time goes on, there are more synergies and positive encounters, along with the recognition of our respective virtues and differences," he says. "What Monterrey and northern Mexico in general have done is assimilate systems of economic organization that operate efficiently in the United States. Certain American paradigms of success are seen by us as accepted frames of reference."
"Nati" Gonzalez has an ambitious vision for Monterrey — to transform it into what he calls the City of Knowledge, a Mexican version of Boston that would one day become a focal point for new investment and scientific research.
One of the city's most prominent journalists is Ramón Alberto Garza, the son of a crop-duster pilot who started working at Monterrey's award-winning El Norte newspaper as a teenager and became editor-in-chief of his hometown paper at the age of 26.
At the behest of the owners of El Norte, the Junco family, Garza moved to Mexico City in 1993 to launch the new broadsheet called Reforma. Garza explained the different mindsets of the country's three principal cities.
"In Guadalajara, it's very important to know what family you come from," he noted, speaking to me in Spanish. "Oh, so you are so-and-so!" In Mexico City, it's very important to know who are the contacts you know. "Ah, so you're a friend of so-and-so. How marvelous!" In Monterrey, it's more important to find out what your project is, what it is you're proposing to do.
Editor’s Note: This is the first 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.
Read Part II here.