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The Twin Cities

An Historical Synthesis of the Socio-Economic Interdependence of
The Brownsville-Matamoros Border Community to 1986[1]

By Antonio N. Zavaleta



The history of the Brownsville-Matamoros border community brings to life the fullest meaning of the concept of symbiosis.  In the biological sense, the term describes the mutual interdependence of two organisms.  However, when applied to bordertowns the concept implies the idea of interrelated cultures, economies, and societies.  One author described the relationship this way:

“Being on the border as they are, and serving different national economic regions, the two cities have a symbiotic relationship, both in complementary and supplementary senses, in that services available in one city complement or supplement and generally do not compete, biotic relationship is necessary for the economic coexistence of two large cities located so close to each other.” [2]

An examination of the rise and fall of the population and economy of Brownsville-Matamoros reveals a mutual interdependency founded upon interwoven relationships and networks.  It also reveals the emergence of a unique cultural phenomenon, different from either of the great parent cultures, but dependent upon each in many ways.

Numerous investigators, both popular and academic, have alluded to the interdependence of the U.S.-Mexico border community, usually focusing on single facets such as economy or society.  In his book, On the Border, Tom Miller states:

“Ironies and contradictions thrive on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, a region that does not adhere to the economic, ethical, political, or cultural standards of either country.”[3]

Indeed, as Miller points out:

“The symbiotic relationships shared by the many pairs of border towns…are born of necessity.  The cities couple like reluctant lovers in the night embracing for fear that letting go could only be worse.” [4]

What few, if any observers have done, is examine the origins of the symbiosis from a historical perspective for a specific pair of bordertowns.  This article undertakes that task, to examine the historical development of Brownsville-Matamoros, and the inseparable tangle of roots that have developed over the centuries.

The symbiotic nature of bordertowns is a single aspect of numerous components, which must be brought into focus in order to fully comprehend and appreciate the significance of the U.S.-Mexico border community in the 20th -21st centuries.

A general theory of international borders can be applied with modification to the U.S.-Mexico border, since it is unlike any other in the world.  Many of the forces, which have shaped the border, generate from the fact that the developed side of a border (U.S.) produces forces, which pulls people from the underdeveloped side (Mexico) to the developed side.  In addition, conditions on the underdeveloped side produce forces, which push people to the developed side.

Another significant factor, which has historically shaped U.S.-Mexico bordertowns, is their status as central places and as service centers.  In recent years, “central place” has become a major theory in explaining the relationship between geography, population and their economies.

A complete and functioning model for bordertowns can only be seen as a symphony of symbiosis, border theory, central place, and culture, which has been orchestrated by time and reviewed by history.



The work of Hansen enables us to conceptualize the development of the Brownsville-Matamoros community from the perspective of border theory with a U.S.-Mexico application.  In his book, The Border Economy, Hansen reviews the work of twentieth-century location theorists, Walter Christaller and August Losch, indicating that although neither had developed a systematic theory for border regions, they tended to regard them as disadvantaged areas because of the barriers to international trade and the threat of military invasion.  Precisely, in the case of the U.S.-Mexico border and her twin communities, Brownsville-Matamoros, international trade developed because of the border and its history of military activity.[5]

Christaller and Losch, provides us with a valuable glimpse into the historical formation of the Brownsville-Matamoros border community as an international centrally located service center.  The “twin cities” are particularly appropriate models for the study “central place” because there is always a mutual interdependence between any central place and its complementary region.  Therefore, in the case of central places, divided only by an international boundary, it stands to reason that central places such as Brownsville-Matamoros would fit the model and be interdependent, due to their strategic location at the mouth of the Rio Grande River, along the Gulf of Mexico, both the key factors of trade and transportation figured prominently in their development.

As Hansen outlines, central places located on international boundaries, face specific disadvantages as well as advantages.  What Christaller called the “sociopolitical separation principle,” is evidenced when the two nations and their border communities demonstrate strong feelings of community and defense.  Opposing feelings of nationalism and protectionism seems to supersede previously described factors affecting central place location, while political geography takes precedence.  The idea that “national frontiers artificially fragment complementary regions,” can certainly be substantiated in the Brownsville-Matamoros example, although equally compelling systems have been developed to downplay the “international interference” at the border.[6]

While historically, the communities have been affected by recurring war and revolution, largely, the Brownsville-Matamoros community has tried its best to ignore the rules, regulations, and intermittent wars, in order to proceed with the business of life.

Additional problems arise for central places located on international borders, since political and economic instability leads to “small complementary areas and limited development.”[7]  In his book, The Economics of Location, Losch argues that national boundaries hamper the economic development of the border communities because the border constitutes a block to market areas, thereby creating gaps in the market networks.  In addition, he feels that border areas often have depressed economies because investors find that “unstable” political boundaries often produce negative characteristics because:

  1. Tariffs separate economically complementary market areas.
  2. Differences in language, customs, and national character have the same

effect as customs duties.

  1. Public contracts and “official traffic” do not cross the border, and,
  2. Border-areas are the most threatened in military terms.[8]

On the other hand, politically and economically stable borders can and do provide many and diverse economic opportunities for the growth and development of their central service centers.  Stable boundaries may lead to greater trading activity along the border, and more diversified economy because of the income derived from import-export activities.[9]  Hansen indicates that:

        “Export-oriented industries tend to locate near borders (or at other points where international transfers can be facilitated) in order to reduce transportation costs.  In addition, the location of export activities in border regions will attract labor, capital, and related economic sectors to these regions.  The conclusion that may be drawn from this position is that the existence of tariffs does not necessarily cause a diminution of economic activities in border regions.  The extent to which tariffs and other barriers to exchange will repel economic activities and result in economic stagnation in border regions depends on the market characteristics of the affected industries.” [10]

The history of the U.S.-Mexico border community indicates that the theories of Hansen, Christaller, and Losch can be variously applied and supported.  While not always applicable, the study of the historical development of bordertowns demonstrates that both the advantages and disadvantages have applied at one time or another.

The concept of “border” is, in this case, a political barrier or boundary separating one single community into two halves.  However, the border or international boundary, as it is viewed from the North American cultural perspective, is very different from the Mexican concept of frontera or frontier, which refers to something on the periphery.  Historically, the Anglo-American wanted to move toward the river and establish a boundary, while the Mexicans define society from the perspective of the Capitol strove to stay away from the frontier.  The North American was drawn to the borderlands, as if by destiny, the Mexican was banished to the frontera, sent in exile from his cultural heartland.  As numerous authors have described over the years, this trend led to the Americanization of the Mexican frontier, and the Mexicanization of the American border.  The result is an easily identifiable but largely understood border culture.  Weaver describes it aptly:

          “A border area is actually the place where the frontiers of two nations come together, intermingling aspects of two cultures, and we must be concerned with how these overlapping frontiers influence the institutions of both nations.  The omission of a theory, which encompasses such overlapping phenomenon, is an error, which comes from viewing an international border as a boundary, either in a cultural, economic, historical, or in any sense of the meaning of its being a clear demarcation between two entities, as being the end or beginning of something.” [11]

It is from the perspective of “border culture” that we develop the concept of one irredentist community, separated by political boundaries, but not by culture.  With nearly two centuries of mutual co-existence, the communities have grown together in culture and economy, while apart politically.  The socio-economic growth of the Brownsville-Matamoros community has come about because of its unique status as a central place.  Each city provides for the needs of its outlying satellites as well as for the needs of the sister or twin community across the river.  For example, the histories of Brownsville and Matamoros reveal the mutual development:

  1. Common economic features
  2. Similar governmental agencies
  3. Common social problems endemic to the area
  4. Other specialized activities and institutions, and five unique cultural practices. [12]



This need for very small amounts, distributed over wide ranges, could only be supplied by the emergence of, first, the itinerant peddler and later by the permanent merchant.  With time, the provision of goods was a service, which was provided on a permanent basis at a crossroads or major transportation route.  Annual or seasonal fairs, where people from the poorest and the most remote areas of the region could go to some central place, also worked in establishing border settlements.  As specialization, productivity, and the demand for trade and outside goods gradually increased, gatherings took place more often and became permanently located at a central place.  Groups of ranchers and later farmers, together with merchants and service providers, developed the periodic markets and service centers at Matamoros and Brownsville in the 18th century.

From the perspective of central place theory, first Matamoros and then Brownsville personified this continuum, transcending the steps from scattered subsistence ranches, to small squatter settlements, to village life, to bordertowns by the end of the 19th century, and finally teaching the small city stage in the 20th century and international metropolitan area in the 21st century.  The small city serves as a district capital (Cameron County Seat, Matamoros Municipio Cabecera), who’s geographic significance lay in its role as center for distribution and communication.

“It is at the bottom of the wholesale distribution ladder, that is, the smallest market that can efficiently support a middle exchange between manufacturer and retailer, merchant a sense, small cities are the outposts of metropolitan life.  These cities are ideally served by good transportation networks, roads, railroads, and seafaring, they are so located that in a day a family can travel to and from the center, having time to shop and do business.” [13]

Retail trade is clearly the most significant central place activity, however, as the central place develops over time, isolated retail trade develops into organized trade including wholesale.  This was the fact for Matamoros in the first half of the 19th century.  In addition, transportation is always a major feature of the development of any central place.



Spanish interest in the colonization of the lower Rio Grande river delta dates from the earliest record we have of the exploration and description of the area.  The actual settlement of the lower river valley, however, and especially the Brownsvi1le-Matamoros communities comes relatively late in the development of border history.  From as early as 1519, the Spanish Governor of Cuba, Garay, intended to follow the recommendations of Alonzo de Pineda, who in 1519 briefly explored the mouth of the river and its environs, christening it “Rio de las Palmas.”  Pineda had hoped that the river with it is seemingly numerous and friendly Native Americans would provide the Spanish with wealth and a foothold in Mexico to the north of Vera Cruz.  In the early days of the Conquista, claim of land promised considerable prestige at court and a guarantee of wealth and power, thus, producing intense rivalry among the early explorers and exerting considerable-pressure upon them to establish new holdings for the crown.[14]

The recorded history of the lower Rio Grande and what would eventually become the Brownsville-Matamoros border community began with a combination of military intervention and land speculation, a pattern that would become very familiar along the border well into the 20th century.

It is important to note that from the earliest attempts at colonization, the lower river area did not fit the model of the previous Spanish colonial experience.  That is, as with its other northern sites, the lower river was located too far away from the seat of power and prestige in Mexico City for it to be taken very seriously.  Hopes of finding immeasurable wealth in the area never materialized and interest waned.

The mouth of the river was the one place along the gulf coast that Pineda felt was best suited for colonization.  Although seriously considered for a while, it was doomed to failure.  Between the years 1519 to 1528, half a dozen attempts to settle the area were thwarted by a combination of vicious Indian attacks, political infighting among the Spaniards and terrible hurricanes.  For the next 200 years, the lower river area, which should have been an area of major colonization in the 16th century, was left to native control.



The advent of the 18th century found renewed interest in the Spanish colonization of the lower river.  In his book, Great River, Paul Horgan explains that:

“From high above the map in the last years of the 17th century, the way from Mexico City to the Rio Grande was seen as a single stem, winding this way and that around mountains and through valleys and across plains, pausing at watering places and isolated missions with their little forts, keeping alive as it went an occasional provincial capital where commerce and religion found rewards, and ending at Santa Fe.” [15]

The crown now wanted to establish an eastern branch of colonization extending to the Gulf creating a “pattern (branches) out of the single stem described by Horgan.  The renewed interest in colonization was based on an ancient Spanish fear, loss of control of their lands to other European powers.  Toward the end of the 17th century, in fact, Anglo and French colonies came dangerously close to the Spanish borders, and at several times the northern extent of Spanish rule were actually challenged.  Importantly, Spanish-French border squabbles seemed to always focus around the river as a northern boundary to “reasonable” Spanish domination.

It was the lack of significant Spanish activity in the form of investment and settlement in the area, north of the Rio Grande, which eventually prompted American and European empresarios and entrepreneurs to encroach on the lower river in the early part of the 19th century.  Historians agree that the Spanish efforts at colonization along the Rio Grande were historically too late to halt the invasion of foreigners and were at best a token effort.  The crown would not be able to hold the area north of the river through the 19th century.  However, there was one redeeming value to colonization; it established the territory known as Nuevo Santander with the development of its northern river communities.  Colonization would also establish the eastern trade route the Spaniards were looking for.  One important distinguishing factor was that the route would be a river for the first 150 miles (from the Boca Chica to Cd. Mier below Laredo).

Nuevo Santander which encompassed over 20,000 square miles, stretched from Tampico on the southeast, to Nuevo Leon on the southwest, north to the river from the mission of San Juan Bautista in the west, to the mouth of the river on the Gulf of Mexico on the east.[16]

From the beginning, the river communities of northern Nuevo Santander varied from the Spanish colonial experience.  The man selected to spearhead the development, Don José de Escandon, was a new breed of Spanish-Mexican.  Born in Spain and member of a very prestigious family, he came to Mexico as a young military officer serving first in the Yucatan and then in Queretaro.

Escandon began his settlement with an ambitious and successful reconnaissance and mapping campaign, followed by the implementation of a settlement plan, which allowed for the 765 soldiers who originally participated in the program to become farmers and ranchers, by accepting grants of land and funds to allow for resettlement.  He reasoned that instead of establishing the classic Spanish settlement pattern of a mission and fortress, soldiers would lay aside their arms, though not too far, to farm and ranch and defend their land against Indian attack when it became necessary.  In this manner, Escandon founded fourteen communities, of which six were located along the river itself.  Thus, between 1749 and 1755, the river communities of Camargo, Reynosa, Dolores, Revilla, Mier, and Laredo were founded.[17]

From the beginning, hardship and poverty were by-words for the river communities.  Not only were they located at the very edge of the Spanish colonial empire, they were the most recently developed, and therefore viewed by Mexico City as isolated outposts on a desolate frontier.  Blistering summers, followed by frigid winters, sparse rainfall, and only a thin lens of rocky soil characterized the semi-arid nature of the area.  In the second half of the 18th century, from approximately 1755 to 1810, the Spanish colonists attempted to eke out an existence on the northern frontier along the river by farming small subsistence plots and by ranching.  With the exception of the verdant strip along the river, the land was barren and overrun with savages.

In the original plan for the northern settlements, Escandon questioned the wisdom of expanding settlements east of Reynosa to the coast.  His geographers supported the notion that the coastal lowlands were unfit for human habitation.  In his history of the area, Fehrenbach explained it this way:

“Escandon avoided the coast.  The entire Gulf was still a fever area in the 18th century, though the richest lands lay in the lower delta of the Rio Grande.  The settlements were sited far up the river, in the drier and presumably healthier climate from Reynosa west.” [18]

The humid, sweltering heat, the dense scrub and underbrush, and most of all the hostile Indian population made the coastal lands seem impractical for settlement but very attractive for cattle pasturing.  As our discussion departs the communities’ up-river to look east to the coast, it is important to recognize one of the most notable features of the Escandon river settlements.  The unique distribution of land grants called “porciones” created strips of land, which had river frontage but then extended from the river perpendicularly in the form of a very narrow strip for miles, thus guaranteeing the landowner water and river bottomland for farming, pasturing, and ranching land for livestock.

Many of the original “porciones” remain in the same grantee families to this day.  The Spanish settlements along the Rio Grande were never intended to amount to anything more than a Spanish presence along what most assumed would eventually be the northern border of Mexico.  The ranching-farming subsistence way of life was designed to support life and nothing more.  However, for most, poverty became a legacy, which was to be passed on from generation to generation to this day.  When in the early part of the 19th century capitalism and production for profit came to the river, the subsistence economy was no match, giving way almost immediately.

Indeed, in the last half of the 18th century, ranchers from Reynosa and Camargo first leased, and later purchased, pastureland in the area of present-day Matamoros needed for their rapidly expanding herds.  By 1774, a small ranching camp of semi-permanent lean-to’s and jacales had sprung up in the area and was named, San Juan de los Esteros Hermosos (Saint John of the Beautiful Lakes [resacas]).  This small community of herdsmen was of mixed-blood, having been produced by the admixture of Native American and European progenitors.  The Mestizo underclass of half-breeds was pressed into service on the ranches, and along with their families, formed the original nucleus that would some 40 years later become Matamoros.

At the close of the 18th century, missionaries from Zacatecas arrived in the area to formalize the community into a mission with church and school, and in 1797 the tiny settlement was renamed Congregacion de Nuestra Senora del Refugio de los Esteros (Congregation of Our-Lady of Refuge of the [resacas] Lakes) or Refugio for short.[19]

With the 19th century, dawning on the river, the tiny settlement of Refugio, with its fewer than 100 residents, could not have imagined what the future had in store.  In fact, all of the critical forces that would shape the border community were now in place and awaiting their cue.

At first, French and Anglo-American incursion to the area, which began about this time, was only considered a nuisance by the Spanish authorities.  The older communities’ up-river still held the socio-economic and political advantage since the major trade route between Mexico City and the north ran through Laredo with side roads to Reynosa, Camargo, Mier, and Revilla.

Foreigners were an unfamiliar and curious sight.  In 1800, Spain still thought itself to be firmly entrenched in Mexico, but internal discord and foreign interest were soon to change the course of history along the river.  Mexico’s northern boundary, which was for the most part a desolate buffer zone between foreigners and Mexico City, was colonized too late in the era of Spanish domination for its strength to insure a strong hold on the northern frontier.  The river had long been a source of boundary disputes between Spain and France, and the infant Anglo nation to the north now eyed the area as they debated manifest destiny in Congress.  One significant fact at the close of the 18th century, which would set changes in motion along the river, was that the river from the bay to as far west as Mier was now pacified, and finally free from the threat of Indian predation.

The ocean route from New Orleans up-river to Mier and then overland to Monterrey, Saltillo, and Mexico City, rapidly became the most desired means of travel from North America to the Mexican capitol.  However, this open route also expedited foreign incursion in the area.  Commercial speculation and growing Anglo-American interest in the river led Refugio’s (later Matamoros) population to grow to over two thousand at the time of the Mexican War of Independence (1810-1822).  Founded as nothing more than a ranch camp, the little community began to realize her potential as a commercial center and trade route early in the 19th century.  The factors, which would later establish Matamoros as a major central place, were set in motion.



In his Historia de Matamoros, Jose Raul Canseco mentions that the municipal court records of the day were replete with “foreign” names, a sign of things to come.  New faces and strange tongues were everywhere along the lower river from Refugio to Laredo.[20]

The Mexican War of Independence, in 1810, initiated a series of events, which would begin over one hundred years of civil and military strife along the river.  The war focused the attention of the two nations on their common border, spurred the arrival of entrepreneurial speculation and economic prosperity for Refugio, and eventually brought about the formation of her “twin-sister” community on the north bank, Brownsville in 1848.

By 1822, Spain had been violently banished from Mexico, which she had herself captured by violent means some 300 years earlier.  The imprint of Spanish culture was left indelibly marked upon the land and the people.  Independent Mexico immediately recognized the importance of Refugio’s location, wasting no time in granting her port status.  By 1823, the community boasted a population of 2,300.  Three years later, in 1826, the state legislature of the newly formed state of Tamaulipas changed the name of Refugio to Matamoros, after the famous revolutionary leader.  At the time of the name changes, the first official census   Matamoros fixed her population at 2,922 inhabitants. [21]

No sooner had Spain been expelled than the first foreign land settlement speculators arrived at the new seat of government in Mexico City.  Most notable was Stephen F. Austin who had left his small band of colonists on the Brazos River to await word of permission to settle in central Texas.  The Austin colony was granted settlement rights and as Horgan explains:

“It was the most fateful single act of the Mexican nation in the nineteenth century, for by it were released forces that must clash in always increasing energy until in the end they would meet in bloody battle along all but the whole course of the Rio Grande.” [22]

Horgan refers to the fact that the decision to allow foreign settlement in Mexico even on the frontier, would soon give impetus for thousands of Anglo-American settlers to pour over the border into Texas.  These North Americans had a sense of nationalism founded in a Calvinistic doctrine of superiority and predestination, and the fervor of manifest destiny would soon swing the balance of power and numbers in favor of the Anglo-Texans.

In 1800, the overwhelming majority of the 15,000 Spanish-speaking residents of Nuevo Santander were located mostly south of the Rio Grande, The uninhabited zone, between the river and San Antonio de Bexar, continued to serve as a buffer zone between the Spanish river communities to the south and the soon to develop area of Anglo settlement along the Brazos and Colorado rivers in central Texas to the north.  The ethnic balance of power was changing and by Texas Independence in 1836, the Texas empresarios, including the Austin family, had succeeded in promoting immigration to Texas at a level above 20,000 Anglo-Americans and their slaves.  This number amounted to a 10:1 advantage of English-speakers over the Spanish-speaking Texans north of the Nueces River.  The growing de-hispanization of Texas in the early 1830’s was alarming to the Mexican intelligentsia in Mexico City and frustrations mounted as they realized that they were, for the most part, powerless to counteract the trend. [23]

Along with the Anglo settlers, who were classic frontiersmen interested only in realizing the Jeffersonian dream in Texas, followed the many and diverse service providers.  The more developed European nations were in the early phases of the industrial revolution.  The industrial revolution embodied a system of mass production based upon a capitalistic form of economy, and was presently extending its influence to the farthest corners of the earth.  The distant river on the Mexican frontier was soon to become a major focus for entrepreneurial activity.  As mentioned earlier, the land route to Mexico City was long and arduous, while the Gulf-river route shortened the trip by many months and allowed for the more secure delivery of goods.  Matamoros and later Brownsville would benefit from speculative activity, increasing commerce, and by facilitating travel.

In summary then, Spain lost Mexico in the first quarter of the 19th Century.  Mexico then allowed Anglo-American colonization of Texas and encouraged foreign trade along the river.

Ocean-going vessels dropped anchor off the coast of what is today Port Isabel-Boca Chica, depositing people from foreign lands, bringing with them skills, merchandise, and money.  Since the gulf vessels could not navigate up river, there was a need to deposit the cargos on the sands, and have them hauled overland to Matamoros where the customs houses, import-export warehouses, government services, and wagon train companies would prepare the goods for the overland trip to the heartland of Mexico.  It was exactly this type of commercial opportunity along the river in the early 1800 is that prompted S.F. Austin’s cousin, Captain Henry Austin, in 1829, to bring his riverboat the “Ariel” up the river to Matamoros.  A proud ship, she sported two brass cannons and was able to carry 100,000 pounds of freight. Austin began hauling merchandise up-river as far as Mier.  The arrival of river boat transportation revolutionized the entire river community from Matamoros to Laredo, opening it further to foreign development and settlement, and most importantly, set the stage for the soon to develop battle between Anglo-Texans and Mexicans for control of the river.

In the 1830’s, the tension between the Mexican government and the Anglo-American settlers of Texas continued to escalate.  There was considerable government regulation heaped upon the “Texians,” and the Mexican attempts to abolish slavery in Texas was seen as a direct affront to the Texan way of life.  Since the Mexicans saw North Americans as their “most dangerous enemies,” the conflicts between North Americans and Mexicans heightened. In Matamoros, for example, a new law:

“Required all foreign merchants except the English, the German, and the Dutch to pay a tax on their capital in trade and on all importation during the previous year.  The specific expectation left only U.S. shipping subject to tax.”

The Americans were outraged by this direct attack on their livelihood.  The Mexican General at Matamoros, Mier y Teran, had made several recommendations, which characterized the Mexican fear of the Anglo colonization of Texas.  For example, he wrote:

“The government should send ethnic Mexican colonists to Texas; encourage Swiss and Germans to colonize; encourage trade between Texas and the Gulf coast of Mexico; garrison more troops in Texas, using convict conscripts who after their term of service might be forced to settle in the province.”

The Mexican apprehension of Anglo colonization along the river was well founded.  Emigration continued in even greater numbers, forcing an early confrontation between the Mexican government and the Anglo-Texans.

From the time of the earliest settlements of Escandon in the middle of the 18th century through the 1830’s, the north bank of the river across from Matamoros was pastureland.  However, the south bank was thriving.  In her early days as a commercial center, Matamoros was supported by numerous foreign merchants, soldiers of fortune, gamblers, prostitutes, and other entrepreneurs living and dying on a rugged frontier.  The European merchants plied their trade up and down the river, supplying the military garrisons and exporting goods to the interior of Mexico.  They were called “Anglos” collectively by the Mexicans, but were actually German, French, English, Dutch, and Austrian in origin.  They were different from the frontiersmen and other settlers that Austin and other empresarios had brought to Texas from the north.  These merchants were often from long lines of European merchant families who recognized the river as an economic opportunity to make fortunes in commerce, not in ranching or farming.  Although they were not men of the earth, many acquired great tracks of land in their dealings.  In short, they were capitalists.

The combined events and developments taking place along the river led eventually to the Texas War of Independence, which would lead in 1836 to the formation of an independent Texas nation.  Although this war was not fought on the river, Matamoros played a major role.  The lower river communities from Laredo to Matamoros were major debarkation points for the Mexican armies, who when they arrived north of the Rio Grande, found themselves in a war zone.  Conversely, after the end of the war, the Mexican armies retreated to the river.  The infant nation and her leaders realized that any modicum of stability for the settlers in central Texas would have to come by holding the Mexicans below the river.  Therefore, Texas regulars, militia, and the newly formed Texas Rangers began pouring into the area below the Nueces.  Mexico, which never recognized Texas independence, had hoped that Texas would claim the Nueces as its southern boundary, but the Rio Grande was a more natural boundary, and the Mexicans were powerless to enforce a line or discourage Texas encroachment to the Rio Grande.

In the years between 1836 and 1844, Texas fought the land, the Indians, and the Mexicans, for survival.  The river braced itself once again for war, the second in 8 years, and Matamoros swelled to over 16,000 inhabitants.[24]

Washington had for years been observing with great interest the events along the river, and in 1845, with Texas statehood in sight, President Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to the river.  With his encampment established at Point Isabel overlooking the Brazos Santiago pass, Taylor detached Major Jacob Brown to camp on the north bank of the river directly across from Matamoros.  The events of the ensuing war and the battles and personalities of the next three years have been well described by historians.  Most notable were the official establishment of the river as the U.S.-Mexico boundary, and the formation of a permanent American settlement on the north bank directly across from Matamoros.  The settlement grew rapidly and was named for the fallen hero Major Brown—hence, Brownsville, Texas.

The site that was selected for the construction of the military encampment was a cotton field located in a conspicuous bend in the river directly across from Matamoros.  During the first four decades of the 19th century, merchandise unloaded on the gulf coast 20 miles to the east had to be hauled by ox-cart to Matamoros.  The American military presence on the river during the late 1840 has introduced a lighter, shallow draft steamboat to the river.  This faster, more navigable boat revolutionized river travel, thus, eliminating the problems of the much slower, deep-drafted boats of an earlier era.

In the years between 1844 and 1848, before the establishment of Brownsville, several other small settlements in the area made bids for legitimacy as the first American township on the north bank.  In her book, Historic Brownsville: Original Town site Guide, Betty Bay notes that: the concept of a Brownsville emerged rather late in the bidding.  Two small American settlements were located on the river west of the fort site at the end of the war.  Freeport was the docking area for Capitan Patrick C. Shannon who operated a service, which ran between the gulf and Matamoros, while Mansfield was promoted by Matamoros businessman, Asa Wheeler.  Both sites were located in the same general vicinity, to the west of present-day Brownsville. [25]

At the end of the war in 1848, U.S. troops pulled back from Matamoros to the north bank, seeking a location for a permanent fort.  A favorable site was selected approximately one-half mile north of the earthen river fort, Fort Texas, the site of the first battle of the Mexican American War, on higher ground above the river flood plain.  In the years after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, there was considerable question concerning how its first Anglo-American owners acquired present-day Brownsville.  In his book, Lone Star, Fehrenbach described some of the typical problems of the day:

“The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo confirmed all Mexican land titles in principle but could not guarantee then in practice.  A horde of American businessmen, squatters, and ex-soldiers arrived on Espiritu Santo lands; many bore headrights, bounty warrants, and Texas veterans’ land certificates.

There was a general claiming that the lands around Brownsville were “vacant,” or national land, and thus public land under Texas law by right of conquest.  A swarm of claims were filled, and a swarm of carpetbagger lawyers found employment.”

It was at this time that Charles Stillman, a respected Matamoros merchant from New York, speculated that the land adjacent to the new fort would be more appropriate for a civilian settlement than the existing settlements to the west, including Santa Rita, Freeport, and Mansfield.

Stillman, along with several partners, purchased approximately 1,500 acres of the original de la Garza grant from lawyers, effectively stolen from the family who owned it.  Stillman’s newly formed Brownsville Town Company hired a surveyor to lay out lots in the finest American tradition with perpendicularly crossed-streets.  The town site was in constant litigation from the beginning.  The lawyers from whom Stillman purchased the land had “exacted three square leagues of land” from the de la Garza grant in order to “secure” the remainder for the family, a practice which was to be questioned in the courts for years.  The Spanish-surnamed landowners of the Brownsville area were able to protect their land in court, and with their wealth, were able to fend off Anglo-American incursion.

“The imposition of American law infuriated most Mexican landowners.  They had to defend their ancient titles in court, and they lost either way, either to their own lawyers or to the claimants.  In these years, the humbler classes of Mexicans were finding that they were treated with contempt, and that the American law would not protect their persons.”

Charles Stillman’s investment was returned many fold.  Within twelve months the property, which was purchased for $10,000, appreciated to a value of more than one million dollars.  Betty Bay reports that the new town of Brownsville was the cosmopolitan boomtown of the U.S.-Mexico border.  “Inhabitants of the new town of Brownsville numbered both men and women of distinction.  Many of them bore noted names.”

Her new population included many professional people from many countries including Spain, Ireland, and France.

Thompson reports that the 1850 census of population for Brownsville placed the population at 8,541.  Importantly, two-thirds of these were listed as “Individuals Born in Mexico (mostly laborers),” who formed the first underclass in Brownsville which continues to this day.  Both Matamoros and Brownsville developed, as business opportunities arose on the river.  From 1848 to the turn of the century, the social and cultural interdependency of Brownsville-Matamoros continued to develop.  Thompson states:

“Gradually the Americans began to absorb Spanish customs; the society of Matamoros was Spanish, and it was customary for the Brownsville citizens to be accepted and to participate in social, civil, and military affairs and to reciprocate.  The Spanish culture of the cities in Mexico was always cosmopolitan in nature, and Cameron County society with a relatively large, mixed European influence, became more cosmopolitan than most other areas of Texas.” [26]

The war caused the population of Matamoros to decrease slightly, but with the exception of Mexican troops, the war was not waged against the town’s physical structure or it’s folk.  The majority of the significant battles had been fought on the unpopulated fields of the north bank.  The names Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma remind us of a time of courteous wars and of lunch baskets of curious observation.

The American military presence in Matamoros during the war years drew to the river in the years between 1846 and 1860 and Americanization of Matamoros and the creation of her sister community Brownsville to the north.  Matamoros blossomed with the arrival of still greater numbers of empresarios and entrepreneurs and matured in the years after the war.  For Matamoros, an old Spanish way of life was to die, and a new Anglo-European capitalistic system replaced it with inseparable ties to the community on the north bank.

“Gamblers and saloonkeepers from the States swarmed up from Point Isabel and opened their shops to a rush of custom.  Dance halls equipped with musicians, girls, and upstairs rooms, found a large trade.  Settlers came with stores of goods, to be sold at sky-high prices, shipments of ice arrived, and whiskey juleps could be had at the bars.  An American vaudeville company true to the tradition of the pioneer theatre appeared and occupied the old Spanish opera house.  And presently arrived four thousand Bibles, shipped out by the American Bible Society, and soon the moan and stammer of the voluntary revivalist were heard amidst the carousing.”

These were boom years for Brownsville and Matamoros, whose location promised the romance of the frontier coupled with a European flavor, which was found in few other places west of the Mississippi.

Brownsville promised to be an American town the magnitude of St. Louis or New Orleans.  By the 1850, no fewer than twenty riverboats could be seen meandering up and down the river between the mouth of the river and Camargo/Mier.  The lower river valley and her Queen cities of Matamoros and Brownsville were booming.  By the early 1860, Matamoros boasted a cosmopolitan population of 25,000, while Brownsville had rapidly grown to 9,000 in just ten years.

The river had become a river of invasion and conquest and reinvasion and “reconquista.”  The people of the border accepted their fate along with changes in their political identity, paying little attention to military uniforms, and proceeded with their business of making money.  From the beginning of these prosperous years illegal activities flourished.  Money was to be made in the avoidance of government taxes, resulting in the smuggling and theft of goods.  The concept of contraband and banditry, plus the infamous border “contrabandista” was born.

Far from the border, along the Eastern seaboard extending into the Deep South, an uneasy calm was about to erupt into a war between the states.  Although remote, the strategic geographical location of Matamoros/Brownsville, coupled with their role in international trade, would demand that the sister communities once again play a part in the economics and politics of the War Between the States.

However, a world away from Richmond, Virginia the river played a major role in the Confederate war effort.  The Texas coast had been blockaded since 1861, but ships flying foreign flags were permitted to sail to Bagdad at the mouth of the river and load Texas cotton, which was shipped from Matamoros to foreign markets.  The newly formed international border (1848) once again proved to be a boon, as both Matamoros and Brownsville benefited economically from the American Civil War.  Hundreds of French and British ships, their crews, and representatives lay anchor on the coast and travelled inland to negotiate cotton deals.  Cotton was golden, traded for other goods sorely needed by the Southern war effort.

However, in 1863 the Union moved enough troops into the river area to seriously curtail shipping activities:

“Neutral brokers in Matamoros held chests of medical supplies, new Enfield rifles, and gold for Texas; thousands of European ships lay waiting off the river mouth.”

The end of the U.S. Civil War brought a short-lived military peace to the border, while ushering in a very treacherous period of increased banditry along the river.  Brownsville’s population had increased to 25,000 in just 20 years of existence, while Matamoros had the astonishing population of 40,000 Fehrenbach described the population as:

“A polyglot, with peddlers, merchants, deserters, gamblers, swindlers, undercover agents, and whores from a dozen nations.  Times were flush; a number of merchants made immense fortunes from the cotton trade.  Common laborers earned $5 to 10 daily, paid in good silver, when hourly rates were then an unprecedented 20 cents in St. Louis.  There is no record of how much prostitution and swindling paid.  But millions in gold passed through all three towns, Matamoros, Bagdad at the mouth of the river, and Brownsville.”

“In addition, the smuggling of contraband goods was highly organized.  Matamoros might have been the official port of entry for Mexico on the lower Rio Grande, but upstream, whole towns were established as stations for the illegal passage of merchandise by enterprising Americans.”

Most of the smuggling operations were being run by American businessmen based in Brownsville.  The smuggling business was seen as part of border life; “it was illegal, it was adventurous, it was a game.”  Born in wars of the period from 1810 to 1865, the border communities, Matamoros and Brownsville, had grown together in economy, in marriage, and most importantly in culture.  During many decades after the war, life on both sides of the river held the same flavor, without sharp differences resulting from the American ownership of the north bank.  Settlers and vagrants from the United States attached themselves to the towns, to engage in trade and wagon driving.  Almost none took up ranching or agriculture.  The backcountry life of the rancherias continued in the Mexican tradition, apart from the world of commerce.

The period after the end of the American Civil War saw a reduced military presence along the border and at the same time an increase in lawlessness.  Hundreds of former soldiers and thousands of new arrivals looked for work in the diverse economies of Matamoros and Brownsville.  Many found that there were fortunes to be made quickly in smuggling and in cattle rustling.  During the decades after the Civil War, to the turn of the 20th century, the cattle industry flourished in the Brownsville area with the Chisholm Trail originating at the river.  However, as the great herds increased so did the banditry.

Mexicans and North Americans alike regularly engaged in organizing the theft of cattle to be driven across the poorly patrolled river.  These years also marked the first time in approximately thirty years that open, hostile military Action was not taking place along the border.  However, the remote character of the border in the years between 1865 and 1900 produced lawlessness, which was far worse than the organized military efforts of the previous thirty years.  The “duty free” zone created along the border by Porfirio Diaz heightened commerce in the area, but it also encouraged the blatant cattle rustling and smuggling activities that flourished from Brownsville to Laredo.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the burgeoning populations of Brownsville and Matamoros were plagued by hurricanes and a cholera and yellow fever epidemics.  The results of border banditry, natural disaster and disease in the 1880’s, reduced the populations to half their pre-civil war size.

As the 19th century wore down along the border, all of the factors considered significant in the explanation of the socio-economic characteristics of the Matamoros-Brownsville border communities were in place.

Principle among these characteristics was the institutionalization of a rigid social class system in the community.  The feudal class system developed by the Spaniards with the landed aristocracy at the top, along with mixed-bloods and Indians at the bottom, accommodated the English-speaking merchants and other recent arrivals at the top.  Although not slaves, the Mexican peasant class was treated like slaves by both the Mexican and Anglo upper class.  In all probability, the Mexican peasant classes were worse off than the Black slaves had been, because of the endless supply of Mexican peasants, who had little commodity value.  This fact would linger throughout the 20 century.

Fehrenbach described it this way:

“The terror of Mexican life remained almost unchanged at the bottom, but at the top political control passed completely into the hands of the new arrivals.  …This was not part of any ethnic plot to disposes the Mexicans, who by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo were U.S. citizens.  But few Mexicans were literate; they refused to learn English, and even the upper class was entirely ignorant of Anglo-Saxon institutions and politics and tended to be contemptuous of both.”

The U.S. Mexico bordertowns including Brownsville were dominated during the years before the 20th century, by a small group of leading merchants and financiers.

“This peculiar political system, in which ethnic Mexicans usually possessed numerical superiority but remained politically inert as individuals, became a lasting feature of south Texas life.  It was a logical outcome of centuries of Hispanic-Mexican tradition, in which the Indian and mestizo base were allowed no function in politics and in which event the Spanish landed elite possessed any initiative beyond being 45 permitted to sit on local municipal councils.”

In addition, the close contact of the two ethnic groups and their cultures tended to produce a polarization of values.  The characteristics of socio-economic dominance are well described.  The North American minority along with a few wealthy Mexican families made up the privileged class with all other Mexicans at the bottom.  The gap between the two polarized groups was so formidable that upward mobility was very improbable but not impossible.  The upper classes of both ethnic groups adopted certain desired aspects of the other group.  For example, Americans adopted many of the elitist views of the upper class Mexican, vestiges of a Spanish social class heritage.  The Mexican on the other hand, admired the work ethic and the determination of the North American.  The result was a social intermingling; the two intermarried, and formed a new breed of 20th century border native.

Matamoros had in the middle of the 19th century given birth to the Brownsville community, and by the end of the century, the younger had grown in the image of the former and their social, economic, and political structures were now mirror images of one another.  This remarkable symbiosis so evident today was in place by 1900.



The dawn of the 20th century on the river brought new economic vitality for the sister communities.  The south Texas ranching country, which had extended to the river in Cameron County on the north bank and in the municipio of Matamoros north to the river on the south bank, was now giving way to extensive land clearing and leveling operations.  Large-scale commercial agriculture had arrived in the river valley.  These early labor-intensive operations required an increased sphere of service activity to be delivered from the ever-increasing importance of the Matamoros-Brownsville central place.  Labor-intensive agriculture meant many jobs for the Mexican peasantry to the south, if only seasonally, as well as jobs for the emerging middle-class in Brownsville.

The arrival of the 20th century along the river witnessed two proud communities with illustrious histories, strong economies, and a society and culture, which bound their people together.  Brownsville and Matamoros were well-established central places, with specifically adapted economies, each supplementing and strengthening the sister economy across the-river.

Brownsville was described at the turn of the century as a “busting city” full of friendly intercourse back and forth across the river.  Full employment seemed to have been the rule, and capital expansion of the time produced public buildings, which “will compare favorably with those of any city of its size in the country.”

One epitaph of the early 1900’s reveals many of the sociocultural realities of Brownsville society of the day:

“It has been shown that wealth abounded in former years and that it was lessened by the unsettled condition of the border during a long period.  There remain many evidences of that prosperity, in the social refinements and educational advantages which wealth procured, and in the opportunities for travel and familiarity with the world, which were extensively utilized.

            The position of the city, on the farthest border of our territory and without the means of rapid transit to and from the great centers of population, combined with half its inhabitants being foreigners who clung to the traditions and customs of their native country, are facts which have heretofore retarded its growth and nurtured procrastination in developing its natural advantages.  The sociology of this people (Brownsville) for nearly half a century past is peculiarly remarkable and borders upon the romantic, replete as it is with incidents of pastoral ease and plenty; urban success and luxury; intermarriages and social-seclusion; moral courage and freedom from crime.”

Chatfield implies that the more prosperous days of economic windfall were gone with the 19th century, but that the wealth had brought “social refinement” and “educational advantages” to certain classes of people in Brownsville and Matamoros that remained.[27]

Interestingly, he reveals a familiar bias, the feeling of recent arrivals to the area, that Mexicans are “foreigners.”  Forgotten is the fact that fifty years earlier Brownsville had been Mexico.  Because of the social class arrangement mentioned earlier, ethnic division in Brownsville has always played a much less important role than class distinction.  From the beginning of Brownsville’s history, critical class divisions were set up along upper class vs. lower-class lines, rather than along Anglo-American vs. Mexican lines.

At the turn of the century, Brownsville harbored high hopes for a bright economic future centered on her strategic location for expanded commerce and transportation, as well as by growth of her status as a central place for the delivery of services to the surrounding populations.  For example, in the late 1890’s, Brownsville felt quite certain that the great Pan-American Railway would cross the Rio Grande at Brownsville and link the two continents.


Chatfield reported:

“Brownsville, besides offering many inducements to a local transportation line, is squarely located on the shortest route to the City of Mexico, and will thus become of great importance as an intermediate station on the great Pan-American Railway which will cross the Rio Grande at this point.”

While Brownsville did get a life-giving railroad, the major link touted by Chatfield in 1893 was routed through Laredo, rather than Brownsville, thus, connecting the great railroads of the Midwest with San Antonio, Laredo, Monterrey, and then south to Mexico City.  Brownsville was by-passed.

The turn of the century saw Brownsville and the Lower Rio Grande Valley, become an area of increased land and agricultural speculation, and less of a commercial trade and transportation route.  Once again, agricultural development hinged around the possibilities of what a railroad would bring.

Once again, Chatfield stated:

“The merchants, farmers and manufacturers of the United States who shall have located at Brownsville or its vicinity, and reaped the advantages of being early in the field, will assuredly be in a position to introduce their goods and products into the markets of Mexico, Central and South America, at figures with which it will be difficult for more distant trade centers to compete.”

As early as 1888, American railroad builders had approached the merchants of Matamoros and Brownsville, concerning the efficacy of building a railroad line from Matamoros to Linares, Nuevo Leon, and south to Matehuala, San Luis Potosi, thus connecting with the central Mexican route to Mexico City.  However, late in the 19th century the port of Bagdad, the commercial mainstay of the area, was falling out of favor with the major shipping lines due to the fact that the harbor had not been improved and successive hurricanes were rapidly silting the channel, making it increasingly hazardous to enter.  The result was that many vessels were now opting to sail the safer route down the coast to the growing port of Tampico or to the ancient port of Vera Cruz.

Although the local business communities were ecstatic about the idea of a railroad, only 27 kilometers of rail had been laid by 1889.  The project was halted when the port of Bagdad was permanently closed after the hurricane in 1889.

Tamaulipas historian Jose Canseco indicates that this very negative turn of events in the economic history of Matamoros dealt a divesting blow to the economy.  As a result, much of the commercial wealth in Matamoros relocated in Monterrey.  In fact, a number of the major industrial families in Monterrey today had ancestors who were the early entrepreneurs in Matamoros.  They had hoped that Matamoros would become what Monterrey is today, the industrial capital of Mexico.  While the government of Porfirio Diaz was petitioned by the border communities to grant public works assistance to reopen the port, he never took interest in the economic plight of the floundering city on his northeastern frontier.  The astute dictator did, however, authorize the construction of a railroad from Matamoros to Monterrey, which was finally completed in 1905.  Diaz realized the growing restlessness in Mexico and anticipated civil conflict.  He reasoned that transportation to Matamoros on the northern coast would be critical from a military point-of-view.  Thus, once again Brownsvi1le-Matamoros benefited economically from something, which was politically and militarily motivated.

Further elaborating on a socio-economic problem, which has persisted to this day, Canseco writes that General Servando Canales, governor of Tamaulipas from 1870 to 1876, wanted to discover the true cause of the constant activity of “guerrillas, bandolerismo, and insurrection” that constantly plagued the state and especially the Matamoros-Brownsville area.  Canales felt that the “roots of evil had their base in unemployment, provoked-in every case by natural disaster (hurricane).”  The incessant rains associated with recurring hurricanes drove workers from the fields and ruined the crops, necessitating their search for “survival” in other means, often illegal.

Associated with the completion of the Matamoros-Monterrey railroad in 1905, was an equally important event, which marked a renewed socio-economic interdependence for Brownsville-Matamoros at the beginning of the 20 century.  The first international bridge for the area, a railroad bridge, was completed in Brownsville in 1905.  This impressive structure would inseparably “link” the two communities by facilitating commercial and social interaction.  This “bridge” between nations and their cultural-economies was realized via an initiative included in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo to build bridges along the Texas-Mexico border, thus, spurring economic development of the area.  The construction of the bridge at Brownsville was begun in 1889 along with the railroad to Monterrey; it featured two swing spans, which could be opened to parallel the river in order to allow riverboats to pass up and down the river uninhibited.

Porfirio Diaz’ vision of revolution came early in the 20 century.  By 1910, Mexico was in the midst of a bloody civil war, which focused its northern campaign on the border communities.  Matamoros and Brownsville once again became the passive beneficiaries of the economic spoils of war.

In 1900, Matamoros’ population was recovering from twenty years of devastation, in the form of hurricanes, epidemics, and emigration due to a faltering economy.  In the 1870’s, Matamoros had enjoyed a 10 to 1 population advantage over Brownsville, her infant sister on the north bank.  The American Civil War had served to pull people and prosperity to Matamoros.  Now economic decline and civil unrest would push people to Brownsville.  By 1900 Matamoros’ population advantage had dwindled to three to one over Brownsville and during the Mexican Revolution the population differential narrowed further, so that in 1920 the communities had approximately identical populations.  During the Mexican Revolutionary War and the decades of civil strife, which followed, Brownsville’s population doubled and redoubled, reaching 20,000 by the 1930 census.  Now Brownsville was truly booming, as the economic emphasis along the lower river shifted from commercial merchandizing to trade, and thus agriculture.  Although the river delta had long been recognized for its agricultural potential, most agriculture in the area took the form of small subsistence farms until the emergence of commercial agriculture in the early 20th century.

From the beginning, cotton was king in the Brownsville-Matamoros area.  It was the natural product along the gulf coast, from the Deep South to Brownsville.  At times sugar cane cultivation was attempted but harsh freezes and fluctuating world markets never allowed its development into a staple crop the magnitude of cotton.

Cotton was introduced into the south bank in the late 1850’s.  Coupled with the establishment of the “free zone” and the booming port of Bagdad, Matamoros enjoyed economic prosperity from the American Civil War and the export of cotton.  Even during the decades of decline in the late 1800’s, cotton farming established itself as a major industry in the region.  In the 1930’s cultivation of cotton had reached an incredible 35,000 hectares.  By the 1950, the number of hectares in cultivation had increased to 350,000, or ten times in twelve years.  In the first quarter of the 20th century, a similar phenomenon was occurring on the north bank.

Brownsville and the surrounding area pushed back the thick south Texas scrub and emerged into a cotton powerhouse.  The major agricultural expansion witnessed on both sides of the river, from the early 1900’s to the middle of the century, was due to the many major irrigation and dam building projects of the period.  The emergence of controlled irrigation along the river served to open the land for major development.  Furthermore, the construction of dams “tamed” the river, thus ending a 200-year history (1750-1950) of river travel in the area.  In the early 20th century, focus shifted away from the river as a transportation and commercial route and toward the river as a boundary.

The agricultural era spawned new opportunities for Brownsville and Matamoros to develop as central service centers.  At the end of the 19th century, Chatfield speculated that,

“Brownsville possesses all the attributes which marked the birth of the great cities of the West, and in some respects has superior advantages.  The settler coming here finds himself within reach of all supplies he may require to begin work immediately; he can stock a farm without leaving the main street of the city, and without the vexatious delays occasioned by sending to remote dealers for his implements and livestock.  He can furnish his house, clothe himself and his family, lay in stock of provisions, load them into a wagon with a good span of mules attached (which he can buy on the same street), and drive off to his farm.  If proper arrangements have been made by the dealers, the settler can buy a ready-made house, too, and have it delivered at any point within twenty miles, free of charge.”

Clearly, turn of the century Brownsville was in a position to outfit thousands of farmers arriving daily from the north.  A similar situation existed in Matamoros, and as the century wore on, mechanized agriculture became more and more dependent upon technological goods available only on the U.S. side of the river.  As early as 1893, Chatfield comments that the first developmental stage of Brownsville was complete.  With an infrastructure in place, and with the essential services provided, the stage was set for the first waves of Mexican immigration.  At the close of the century, Chatfield could not have known what the magnitude of Mexican immigration, legal and illegal, would be in the decades to come.  As mentioned earlier, poverty has always been a reality along the river and in its communities.  Early twentieth century Brownsville was described as a city having an unusually high incidence of poverty.

By the 1930’s, it was clear that the economic future of the Brownsville-Matamoros border community was in agriculture.  The large ranching enterprises had moved north and west, out of the river valley.  The years of commercial prosperity enjoyed, first by Matamoros and then by Brownsville, due to their strategic locations on a major trade route, were now over.  The silting of the port of Bagdad in the 1880’s, the completion of the railroad from Laredo to Monterrey, and the emergence of the age of mechanized highway transportation, all spelled economic doom for the merchants of Brownsville-Matamoros.

The second wave of American settlers to come to Brownsville after 1850, and the third wave to come after 1900, all came to work the land.  They were farmers.  From 1850 to the early 1920’s, farming existed on a relatively small scale in the area.  However, with the arrival of agricultural land development companies in the early 20th century, the stage was set for a new form economic prosperity for Brownsville-Matamoros.  This phase, which began in the 1930’s, was marked by massive irrigation and canal projects, as well as the opening of more and more acres of arable land, and most importantly, it was marked by the need for greater than ever numbers of Mexican laborers.  Fehrenbach recounts the fact that the railroad finally reached Brownsville in 1904 and opened the way for settlers and development.  “The old merchants who had made fortunes supplying the army and trading with Mexico were gone; new kinds of men arrived.”

However, the fact was that many of the merchants simply switched their focus from supplying Mexico to supplying the newly arrived American farmer and his family.  In addition:

“Baronial beef empires gave way to remarkably similar baronial cotton and vegetable empires.  Outside observers studying the economy and society of the Rio Grande delta, with its large, capitalistic landholdings, it is purely mercantile towns and cities, and its large and largely depressed ethnic Mexican underclass, frequently describe the region as “feudal.”

The first third of the 20 century was a time of tremendous development in the Valley.  For the first time in the history of the lower river, the economic emphasis had shifted away from Mexico and to the U.S., even though the area had only been in the U.S. less, than one hundred years.  During the first decades of the 20t century, the symbiosis, which was so firmly evident between Brownsville and Matamoros, had expanded their role as central places.  The agricultural industry, which was becoming technological, required services and supplies of every sort.  At the same time that the economic interdependence was solidified, the social and cultural web between the communities, continued to develop even faster than before.  Whole neighborhoods of recent arrivals from Mexico maintained familial ties in their mother country, while trying to make a go in the host country.  Fehrenbach indicates that:

The new development … brought the Southwest back firmly into the United States.  Tons of vegetables, fresh and canned, were shipped North by rail; towns and cities swelled.  New blood came in, because here was a lusty new frontier, where a man with capital could make his fortune out of crops and land… this entire development was based on Mexican labor.  In fact none of it would or could have taken place without a great mass of low-paid workers from south of the border”

These words of the historian Fehrenbach are, clearly an understatement.  Former Secretary of Labor, Ray Marshall, feels that the historical movement of Mexican laborers to the United States is, “quantitatively one of the most important international migrations in the world.”

A number of mitigating circumstances, which both aided and hindered the continued development of the Brownsville-Matamoros border community, marked the first thirty years of the 20th century.  The Mexican revolution of 1910 forced many upper-class Mexican families, from throughout the lower river region, to relocate on the north bank.  Since the majority of these families were landed and educated, they chose to settle in the cosmopolitan town of Brownsville.  This fact was seen as a positive boost to the local economy and society.  However, at this time immigration of the Mexican peasant class was also encouraged in order to supply the labor needed for agricultural and public works projects in the Valley.  The result was a dramatic increase in the lower-class Mexican population of Brownsville and the class system in Brownsville began a distinct polarization.[28]

The recent Mexican arrivals in Brownsville were not impervious to the bloody revolution-taking place to the south, and as the years passed, many Brownsville Mexicans sympathized with the popular revolutionary movement.  These Mexican sympathizers were seen as a very dangerous element along the border.  They were rapidly purchasing arms and Anglo-Mexican hostilities in the area mounted through the decade.  Retired International Boundary Commissioner Anson Mills reflected the sentiment in the statement, “there are some 300,000 of the Mexican race in the State of Texas and these are made up to a great extent-of the most dangerous and turbulent persons of both nations.”[29]

Due to an assortment of historically described reasons, Mexican immigration came to be viewed as a serious problem in the 1920’s.  The “Mexican Problem,” as it was referred to in Washington, was never supported by the Brownsville business community.  During the decade of the 1920’s, social scientist debated the immigration question from the point-of-view of “racial purity.”  One early 20th century scholar, Kimball Young, summed up the universal sentiment this way:

“We may justly then…raise the implication of the possible effect of racial mixture in this country between various immigrant stocks as we actually find them in this country.  If the racial stocks that are flooding this country are of such inferiority, on the average, as to be contented with a lower standard of life, if they are incapable of taking on the best of modern culture, then the sociological significance of the entire matter is apparent.”

Young felt that the country needed an immigration law and that Mexican immigration, which had been unchecked for sixty years, was a national disgrace and had to be stopped.  In his examination of the subject, Ricardo Griswold Del Castillo, introduces evidence from the 1926 House Committee on Immigration, which describes the Mexican threat:

“The continuance of a desirable character of citizenship is the fundamental purpose of our immigration laws.  Incidental to this area the avoidance of social and racial problems, the upholding of the American standards of wages, and living and the maintenance of order.  All these purposes would be violated by increasing the Mexican population of this country.” [30]

Needless to say, the Brownsville business community, which supplied the lower Valley agricultural industry, felt very threatened by any discussion of controlled Mexican immigration.  The fragile economic stability of the area, which had survived the economic rollercoaster of the 19th century, depended heavily upon cheap Mexican labor for its survival.  Labor shortages during World War I aggravated the labor shortage problem, requiring a still further increase in Mexican immigration to the border during the era.  Between 1910 and 1930, it is estimated that 750,000 Mexicans immigrated to this country.  Even though the numbers were increasing every year, the Dillingham Commission viewed Mexican immigration to the U.S.-Mexico border as only a “temporary problem.”  Consider the following excerpt from that commission:

“The Mexican immigrants are providing a fairly acceptable supply of labor in a limited territory in which it is difficult to secure others, and their competitive ability is limited because of their more or less temporary residence and their personal qualities, so that their incoming does not involve the same detriment to labor conditions as is involved in the immigration of other races who also work at comparatively low wages.  While the Mexicans are not easily assimilated, this is not of very great importance as long as most of them ¬return to their native land after a short time.”

The immigration reform laws of the 1920’s attempted to limit Mexican immigration, and in 1924, with the creation of the Border Patrol, the question of legal status was introduced for the first time.  At first, the new immigration laws were only variously applied, but toward the end of the 1920’s and in the early 1930’s, a ruthless deportation campaign was exercised indiscriminately against Mexicans in the Valley.  The events of that time played a major role in our understanding of the socio-economic climate in Brownsville during the Great Depression.  For instance, McKay estimates that during the period from 1928-1931, approximately 500,000 Mexicans and their U.S. born children, were deported to Mexico from the U.S.  It is further estimated that at least one-half of those had been residents of Texas, the majority from the valley.  Indeed, the federal deportation campaign in Texas was begun in the Valley, principally in the Brownsville Border Patrol sector.  This unselective process of rounding up Mexicans for detainment and deportation caused not only indignation from the entire Brownsville population, but a terrible fear on the part of the Mexican population in Brownsville and the surrounding area.  As early as the summer of 1929, local farmers were predicting a major labor shortage and Brownsville merchants were feeling the pinch of depressed retail sales.[31]

As the economic threat to the Valley increased in the spring of 1929, the Valley cities organized to combat the potentially devastating effects of the deportation campaign.  Several Chambers of Commerce, including the one in Brownsville, and several newly organized groups, formed to aid the Mexican residents of the Valley.  The objective of these groups was to assist Mexicans in either proving their American citizenship or to help them in applying for legal resident alien status.  In some cases, identification cards were issued to Valley Mexicans, which were endorsed by prominent Anglo-American residents.

In 1930, the American economy continued its downward turn, and as jobs became scarce, the organized activities surrounding the opposition to Mexican deportation waned.  As the Great Depression went into full swing in 1931, deportation increased.  Whole neighborhoods or colonias of Mexicans were deported from Brownsville and others Valley towns.  McKay reports that, “in a one-month period in the spring of 1931 more than 450 Mexicans were deported from Brownsville.”

The mass deportation of Mexicans, in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, can be explained as a national movement to guard the integrity of “American racial purity,” to increase employment opportunities for Americans, and to relieve the pressure on welfare dependency during the depression years.

It should be noted that while mid-west farmers and communities supported the deportation campaign in order to reduce the number of unwanted Mexicans in their areas, it was never supported by Valley farmers or businessmen.

The impact of the Immigration Act of 1924 on border economy and society is still being felt to this day.  In addition to the establishment of legal resident alien and illegal alien status, the important category of the commuter was created.  A commuter is defined as:

“An alien who has been lawfully accorded the privilege of residing permanently in the U.S., but who choose to reside in foreign contiguous territory and commute to their place of employment in the United States.”

Although the legal definition explicitly refers to commuting to work, one other important sub-category exists with reference to the U.S.-Mexico border that being the crossing cardholder, or shopper.  The crossing cardholder may enter the U.S. legally for up to 72 hours but may not work legally.  Both the legal commuter and the crosser shopper categories have greatly influenced the economic status of the Brownsville-Matamoros border community during the period from 1924 to the present.

The legal commuter is a recent arrival who works in Brownsville and very possibly lives in Brownsville, thus supporting the economy as any economically active person would.  There has always been an animosity between the Brownsville-born Mexican and the Mexican commuter, since the former sees the latter as competing with him for limited jobs, goods, and space in the Brownsville service economy.  Often the commuters are skilled or semi-skilled workers and are automatically in a socio-economic class above the native-born American of Mexican descent.  The commuter, who legally works in Brownsville but resides in Matamoros, has historically been the most controversial immigrant.  That is, they enjoy employment in Brownsville, a community with a historically high-employment rate for native-born Mexican Americans.  In addition, Commuters are often highly sought after by employers because they are willing to work for low-wages, but usually withdraw a major portion of their incomes from the Brownsville economy to be spent in the Matamoros economy.

This fact, in of itself, is not negative since a certain percentage of their income is spent in Brownsville to support sales tax revenues, promote commerce, and create employment in the service sector.  Secondly, a certain percentage of their Brownsville income, which is spent in Matamoros, is multiplied back into the Brownsville economy in the form of service sector purchases, (i.e., food, entertainment) Thus, the Brownsville-Matamoros business community has always been supportive of the legal commuter.  The only segment of the border community that suffers from the existence of this category is the native-born Mexican who resides at the lower socio-economic level of Brownsville’s society.  They are inevitably left out of the economic equation.

If the Great Depression was bad for the United States economy, it was worse for the Mexican.  The population of Brownsville increased by just 2,000 persons from 1930-1940.  Mexican deportations, coupled with Mexican northern migration from rural Mexico to the urban border, caused Matamoros’ population to double from 24,995 in 1930 to 54,136 in 1940.  Matamoros’ burgeoning population ushered in a new age, as Matamoros took her place along the border as a staging area for population movement to the north.

The deportation campaign of the early 1930’s was to be short-lived.  In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced his Good Neighbor Policy, which attempted to repair the damage and ill will created between the U.S. and Mexico during the stormy first-third of the 20th century.  While the economic community of Brownsville-Matamoros never sanctioned the federal deportation of Mexicans in the early 1930’s, they had to weather the maelstrom created because of the program.

The decade of the 1930’s witnessed a doubling of the total amount of arable land in the Brownsville-Matamoros areas.  This extensive and rapid agricultural development necessitated a corresponding increase in cheap Mexican labor for the area.  Brownsville businesspersons were now extending the provision of their services beyond the limits of Cameron County into Hidalgo on the west and Willacy on the north.

With the tension of the early 1930’s somewhat relaxed, the years before the Second World War were once again a prosperous time along the lower river.  As the United States entered the war in 1941, the country’s agricultural industry once again found itself in desperate need of farm labor, and Brownsville and Matamoros had regained their status as the Queen cities of the lower border.  However, the events of the next twenty-two years, called the Bracero Era (1942-1964), would dramatically alter the course of their population histories.

In 1942, Mexico entered into an executive agreement with the United States to provide the American agricultural industry with the contract labor they sorely needed.  The agreement guaranteed the Mexican braceros, as they were called, transportation to and from the United States.  The agreement specified working conditions and insured a minimum pay scale for the contract period.  Since the program also provided massive federal farm subsidies, it was a bonanza for the farmers and their local economies.  During the first decade of the program, Brownsville’s population grew to an unprecedented 36,000, nearly doubling in just 10 years.  Matamoros’ population increased an even greater amount, pushing well past the 100,000 (128,344) mark by 1950.

While the bracero was only needed during the war years, the program was extended into the post-war era at the insistence of the agricultural industry in America.  However, after the war years, growers found it increasingly convenient to hire illegal braceros or “wetbacks,” rather than formally contract Mexican labor.  The hiring of wetbacks in the 1950’s was very lucrative for Brownsville and the entire Lower Rio Grande Valley.  Growers could employ wetback labor for the specific period needed to harvest a crop and then terminate them.

In many cases, they would simply call the Border Patrol, “la migra, to round them up for deportation because their services were no longer needed.  As a result, during the, 1950’s the number of legal braceros decreased dramatically, while the number of wetbacks increased proportionately.  Interestingly, they were the same people, only their legal status had changed.  The number of wetbacks in the country was estimated to have peaked around one million in 1954.

The Bracero-Wetback Era produced the first-glimpse of a population explosion in Matamoros thousands of Mexicans journeyed from the interior of Mexico to the border, hoping for an opportunity to “jump” into the flow of life north of the river.  Thousands accomplished this assimilation quite efficiently in some aspects, but completely failed in other aspects.  For Brownsville, the economic prosperity of the 1950’s would precipitate the prosperous growth years of the 1960’s and 1970’s.  The vast numbers of recent arrivals from Mexico would also lead to a heightening of the class polarization in Brownsville.  Between the years 1935 and 1965, thousands of illegal Mexican aliens entered Brownsville society.  Located in the poorest barrios, they were largely uneducated and unemployed.  A large percentage of these made up the migrant farm worker population, which was needed in the northern agricultural industry after the end of the Bracero Era in 1964. [32]

Poverty has existed in Brownsville from the beginning of her history, a poverty primarily of class deprivation for recent arrivals from Mexico and their first generation native-born Mexican American children.  At the end of the Bracero Era, the Federal Government had boasted that:

“Through operation Wetback, the United States kept part of the product of a man labor, but exported his unemployment to Mexico.”

However, the last laugh was not on Mexico or the wetback, it was on Brownsville and the other border cities.  Having experienced the improved quality of life afforded him on the U.S. side of the river, the illegal- alien kept coming back, no matter how many times he was deported.  When the wetback had assimilated to the point that he could permanently keep from being caught, he became a Tejano, and no longer A Mexicano.  With a social security card, a driver’s license, an address in the barrio, and a few words of English, plus his children in Brownsville schools, he was on his way to the American dream.

However, the Brownsville economy did not provide him with the one thing most essential for the accomplishment of the American dream, a job.  Therefore, the unemployment referred to earlier was not “exported.”  To Mexico with wetback deportation, it was imported to the bordertowns, where it became endemic to the Lower Rio Grande Valley and Brownsville.

As the Bracero Era ended in 1964, the era of labor-intensive agriculture was also winding down.  Cotton was no longer king, having been replaced by cheaper synthetic fibers.  The cotton gins, compresses, and warehouses so commonplace in Brownsville and Matamoros sat idly compared to earlier standards.  Agriculture in the area was shifting to other more productive crops and to capital-intensive technology.  The summer days, when thousands of Mexican braceros worked in the valley fields, were gone forever.

They were replaced by the hum of splendid green and red cotton harvesters.  The end of the Bracero Era was supplemented with the growth of other industries.  For over a hundred years, the economic prosperity of Brownsville and Matamoros had waxed and waned, only to wax and wane again.

The eminent Mexican demographer, Jorge Bustamante, described some of the critical factors existing on the Mexican side of the border in 1964 this way:

“At the end of the Bracero Program (December 1964), conditions of unemployment in Mexico were high.  The previous trend of expansion of arable land had reached a point of no progress.  By the end of the last decade, (1960-70) immigration to Mexican border cities was at lower rates than in previous decades when the Bracero Program was in operation.  These factors seem to indicate that conditions for immigration were drastically reduced in the United States with the termination of the Bracero Program, and out-migration in Mexico found other avenues, namely, urban centers within the country.  The point here is that the alternative to migration to the United States from Mexico is concomitant to conditions existing in the United States that should be studied by focusing on its economic and social structure as a whole.” [33]

The era of agricultural development and prosperity in Brownsville-Matamoros culminated at the end of the Bracero Program in 1964.  The border community now had to rapidly diversify its economy, changing and expanding to meet new challenges.  Whereas the previous thirty years had insured great wealth for one segment of the population, it sent another deeper into poverty.  Near the end of the Bracero Era in the early 1960’s, the population of Matamoros reached 150,000 people; while-Brownsville’s population was approximately 50,000.  Both the U.S. and Mexican census of population recognized the figures to be greatly undercounted.  B 1960 Matamoros was feeling the negative effects of over population.  Unemployment, housing shortages, health problems, and crime, had shot-up dramatically.  The population of Matamoros increased 500 percent in just thirty years.  The population gap between Brownsville and Matamoros that had been reduced to an insignificant number in the 1920’s and 30’s, now gaped.  However, the age of agricultural expansion and the Bracero Era induced huge flows of northward bound migration from the interior of Mexico to the border.  Border Patrol activity in Brownsville, coupled with a growing “shadow” population, hidden in areas of poverty, kept the problem in check until it became uncontrollable in the 1970’s.

In his book on border politics and economics, Raul Fernandez, described the population problems of the 1960’s and 1970 is this way:

“The origin of the growth has been such that these urban centers have never had the productive capacity needed to support such a large population.  The large concentrations of people in these towns perform the function of a large reserve labor at the disposal of U.S. industry and agriculture.  The net result of the laboring activity of the large mass of workers concentrated south of the border is a depressing effect upon the wage rates and the maintenance of a higher than average level of unemployment in the areas of the United State bordering Mexico.  Thus the fundamental aspect of the social economy of the border towns is the corporation of a large pool of Mexican workers into the orbit or the American monopoly-capitalistic economy and the formation of a large reserve of competitive, unskilled, and unorganized workers immediately south of the border.” [34]

As Fernandez points out, the superficial appearance of a glamorous border tourist economy, with its souvenir shops, peddlers, restaurants, and nightclubs was deceiving.  Behind the facade of tourism in Matamoros in the 1960’s and 1970’s, there was a population time bomb waiting to explode onto both sides of the border.


Border Industrialization: 1960-1995

The “new” international bridge into Mexico, made a loop, and headed back to the Port of Brownsville.  A convenient loophole in the law allowed Mexican crude to be brought to the port by ship but required that it be brought into the U.S. by land.  At the International Airport in Brownsville, millions of dollars’ worth of electronic components and other valuable commodities were summarily loaded into World War II vintage aircraft and flown as contraband into Mexico for sale.  While the loading and departure from Brownsville violated no U.S. law, as soon as the aircraft entered Mexican airspace, the craft and its goods were considered contraband and the pilot became a modern day smuggler.  The rationale behind smuggling across the border had not changed in a hundred years, only the technology of smuggling had improved.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s, wealthy Mexicans purchased real estate, homes, and automobiles in Brownsville, as an endless procession of dollars and pesos flowed out of Mexico and into the Brownsville economy.  Many homes and cars were purchased with cash.  The downtown retail area, near the bridge, was teeming with people eager to buy and sell.          Downtown Brownsville and Matamoros took on the appearance of a medieval bazaar.  “chiveras,” Mexican women who came to Brownsville to purchase items by lot, such as 600 pairs of pantyhose, or 250 blow-dryers, were catered to as if they were visiting dignitaries from foreign countries.  The American tourist came south for the winter and the Mexican tourist came north for the holidays.  Wealthy Mexican industrialists regularly purchased condominiums on South Padre Island, as the island experienced a companion boom.  The port flourished, two modern shopping malls were built to rival any Midwestern city, and everybody was making money.  In the years after the peak of the Bracero Program, the Mexican government recognized that it must act swiftly to bolster its northern frontier.  Especially vulnerable were the border boomtowns and their population problems created because of the Bracero Era.

In 1961, the Programa Nacional Fronterizo (PRONAF) was begun.  PRONAF was intended to develop the infrastructure in the north so as to, “facilitate and promote the appearance of import substitution and the increase of the tourist industry.”  After only modest success with PRONAF, the Mexican government instituted the Border Industrial Program (BIP) in 1965.  BIP was intended to attract American labor-intensive industrial interests to the border in order to take advantage of the overabundance of unemployed former Braceros and their descendants.  So that the products of the American multinationals in Mexico would not compete with the Mexican market, the components were produced for export only.  BIP was an instant and highly acclaimed success everywhere along the border.  The Mexican government has particularly favored the program because as Fernandez states:

“The clearest result of the BIP has been the intensification of the economic dependence of the border towns upon the American economy.  It has done so by means of a whole new program which purports to reintegrate the border economy into the national economy of Mexico.”

The effect of the BIP on the Brownsville-Matamoros border community has been dramatic.  Referring to Brownsville’s development during the 1960’s and 1970’s, Miller states that, “the key to Brownsville’s rapid growth has been the city’s economic interdependence with Matamoros; the direct catalyst was the BIP.”  The fact that Brownsville and Matamoros is “one economic unit,” [35]

All data are from either official census, or published documents, it should be noted, however, that census data are always estimations and never absolutes.  The data for Brownsville and Matamoros after 1920 are thought to be more reliable.  The population projections to the year 2000 are considered conservative low range figures.

Has been developed historically.  However, with the emergence of the BIP, this casual interdependence matured into a symbiotic dependency for mutual survival.  Between 1967 and 1980, forty-two U.S. corporations had active plants (maquiladoras) in Matamoros.  Whereas in 1980, between 11,000 and 15,000 Mexican nationals were employed in maquiladoras in Matamoros, by 1985, the number had exceeded 20,000.

In 1980, the population curve for Matamoros attained a vertical direction, indicating an unprecedented population of 238,000 persons.  Brownsville’s population, on the other hand, increased only 10 percent between 1960 and 1970, and it increased a dramatic 75 percent between 1970 and 1980.  A large percentage of the increase was due to “spill over from Matamoros.”  The higher wages paid to industrial workers in Matamoros relative to the interior of Mexico, attracted workers from the interior to the border.  In some border areas, such as Laredo and Nogales, BIP has increased employment opportunities faster than it has induced population growth.  In Matamoros, the opposite is true.  As described earlier, high unemployment has been endemic to Brownsville and Matamoros since the early part of the century.  In addition, while BIP was intended to increase male employment opportunities, in Matamoros, traditionally 80 percent of the employees have been young women.  Matamoros’ reversal of the border trend has aggravated the problem of illegal immigration of young adult males to Brownsville, thus “pushing” Matamoros’ unemployment problems to the Brownsville side of the river.

Although BIP was intended to solve the severe unemployment problems on the border, in Brownsville-Matamoros, unemployment increased 1965-1985.  BIP was also designed to attract foreign capital investment to the border, thus providing the completely Mexican economy with a greatly needed economic infusion.  According to the Mexican government the BIP, “has generated foreign exchange second only to that generated by exports of petroleum.”  Importantly, the foreign capital investment in Matamoros is multiplied back into the economies of both sides of the river.  Border economists rate the sectoral multiplier from maquilas realized on the U.S. side to be as high as four that Mexican maquila workers spend anywhere from 30 to 70 percent of their Mexican earned income on the U.S. side.

Thus, as maquila activity increases in Matamoros, retail, and service sales in Brownsville must also increase proportionally.  BIP has been an economic windfall for both Brownsville and Matamoros.  In Matamoros, the BIP temporarily alleviates unemployment pressures in the community, while in Brownsville, the investment translates to jobs, increases in sales and cash flow, increases the tax base, and increased tourism rated to the industries.  One investigator calculated that as employment increases in Matamoros, a concomitant Increase in employment would be realized in Brownsville.

BIP has undoubtedly provided the Brownsville-Matamoros border with the Economic bolstering it needed to counteract the decline in the agricultural industry of the 1970’s, as well as offset the negative effects of the port-bracero era.  In his study of the economic growth of Brownsville, Miller states that,

“Brownsville underwent spectacular economic expansion over the 1970’s.  Industrial development has been the essential factor behind the community’s economic renaissance.”

The economic prosperity and the diversified economy of the 1970’s discussed by Miller, was he feels, “less subject to fluctuations caused by external by external events and trends.”  That is, as we have seen in our survey, Brownsville and Matamoros have historically been affected by external factors beyond their control.  In spite of the predictions of reduced vulnerability to external factors, few observers have been astute enough to envision what the 1980’s would bring, and even fewer have dared to acknowledge the economic warnings we ignored in the late 1970’s, that was, “The Brownsville Economy is too dependent upon the Mexican economy for its own good.”

At the beginning of 1980, the Brownsville-Matamoros border community was riding the crest of the economic windfall generated in the 1970’s.  However, the seemingly limitless growth and wealth of Brownsville-Matamoros was to have a rude awakening.

In February and August of 1982, the Mexican government drastically devalued the peso, its, “value plummeting by more than 150 percent in just six months—after six years of stability for the currency.”  The sudden devaluation marked an abrupt end to economic prosperity in the Brownsville business community.  Over the years, the Brownsville economy had invested heavily in “Mexican dependence,” with little attention being paid to the development of a solid economic base on the U.S. side of the river.

The successive devaluations were most seriously felt in the retail and service sectors of the economy, upon which Brownsville has historically relied.  The Mexican retail and service consumer simply stopped coming to Brownsville to shop.  The real estate industry was also hard hit, resulting in a glut of homes on the market, with very little sales activity-taking place.  Only tourism, as an industry, appeared to hang on and even increase slightly during the early 1980’s.

The Brownsville population had been averaging a 4 percent growth rate per year in the late 1970’s.  This growth rate dropped under 2 percent per year after 1982, for the first time since the 1930’s.  More than 500 businesses closed and unemployment for retail and service workers shot-up.  The Texas Employment Commission estimated that unemployment in Brownsville was above 15 percent in three, while the state average held steady around 5 percent.  The figure is undoubtedly conservative.  The “shadow” population of illegal aliens mentioned earlier as well as the lower income groups, in Brownsville, were the most severely devastated by the devaluations.  A new category of poverty emerged, the “new poor.”

While all valley cities felt the effects of the peso devaluation, none did so dramatically as Brownsville.  The fact that Brownsville is the only true bordertown in the valley explains this fact.  The peso devaluation decreased the “walk-over” retail trade and the commuter employment opportunities in Brownsville.  The cyclical effect meant that there were fewer dollars circulating in the Brownsville economy in the years between 1982 to 1985.  In spite of the economic hardship produced by the peso devaluation, the populations of Brownsville and Matamoros continue to grow at highly accelerated rates.

Perhaps population projections to the turn of the century (2000), will most dramatically predict the impending economic needs and problems on the horizon for the area.  While Brownsville is growing faster than most of the state of Texas, her percentage of poor is growing faster than the rest of her population.  One report estimates that by the turn of the century, Brownsville will have the third lowest per capita income in the state, behind Laredo and McAllen border areas.

Furthermore, conservative estimates place Brownsville’s population at 200,000 by the year 2000, which Matamoros is expected to reach 500,000 in the same year.  The combined populations of Brownsville-Matamoros at the turn of the century, 700,000, will be more than the entire population of the valley today.

Clearly, the economic problems experienced by Brownsville at mid-decade (1985) can be expected to worsen and then cycle back as the century winds down.

While the Brownsvi1le-Matamoros economy was hard hit by the peso devaluation, the maquila industry continues to flourish, indicating too many that the future economic growth and stability of Brownsville lies in its ability to industrialize.  Through the establishment of a solid and permanent source of employment, the economic industrialization of Mexico’s northern frontier will play major role in Brownsville’s future.  However, “off-shore” industries are a gamble at best, since they are themselves dependent upon world market fluctuations and the continued availability of cheap labor.[36]

It should be pointed out that the same forces which institutionalized poverty in Brownsville in the early part of the 20th century, now call for its industrialization in order to off-set the growing poverty problem.  In the first half of the 20th century, Brownsville’s leadership was characterized by a no-growth mentality.       .

The support of no-growth in Brownsville was intended to keep “out-siders” away from the economic prosperity of the day.  Fortunes were made by a select few, who overlooked the need to develop a permanent economic base in Brownsville.  As a result, Brownsville’s retail and service economy must now support full employment activities in order to guarantee their own economic survival.



This examination has not intended to reveal any heretofore-unknown facts about Brownsville-Matamoros history, nor has it attempted to revise the prevalent historical thought on the communities.  It has, on the other hand, undertaken the task of examining the developmental histories of the border community from the perspective of their interdependence.

The U.S.-Mexico border is unique in many ways, but its irredent nature is certainly its most outstanding feature.  That is, over the centuries and through wars and economic windfall and disaster, the border region and its people have developed a commonality, which does not recognize political boundaries and is not divided by one.  The Brownsville-Matamoros community developed along a river, which did not serve as a dividing line, but rather as a life-giving artery flowing through both communities.

In many ways, the U.S.-Mexico border is a paradox, an enigma, which makes little sense to the casual observer.

However, it yields up its deep-rooted complexities to the serious student.  Symbiosis, although a biological concept, is the one term, which most completely explains the riddle of the border.

History is a tool with which the social scientist may explain the present and predict the future.  The history of Brownsville and Matamoros clearly reveals their subtle evolution as central service centers, located at the crossroads between North and Latin America.  Over a hundred years of intermittent warfare, of frontier status, of entrepreneurial spirit, and a cosmopolitan society, have all made Brownsville and Matamoros the Queen Sister cities of the lower river they are today.

When their economies and societies are examined through time, a definite pattern is revealed.  Brownsville-Matamoros has survived from one speculating or gamble to the next.  Amazingly, after endless booms and busts, Brownsville and Matamoros have always seemed to attract one more speculative boom, when it was needed to sustain and bolster their, economy.  However, as their population history shows, the accumulative effect of the last several booms has produced a very serious population problem.  While the Border Industrialization Program (BIP) promises to alleviate the unemployment problems, the population growth rates in Brownsville and Matamoros far outstrip their ability to develop their economies at the same rate.  The result is a very highly polarized society that is characterized by the accumulation of wealth by a very small percentage of the population at the top, and the heightened growth of poverty at the bottom. Indeed, demographers and economists alike predict economic prosperity for Brownsville in the future.  They also predict an increase in poverty.

“A border is not only a line which separates, it is also a line which unities.”

In the case of the U.S.-Mexico border and her sister communities, Mexican populations and their cultures came before the line was formed, while Anglo-American populations with their cultures came after.  Time and history have united them.

Both Americans and Mexicans have apparently gained something by moving to the border area, where both sides live together in a symbiotic relationship not always appreciated or even understood in the halls of government in Mexico City or Washington. [37]

[1] This original article was published by Dr. Antonio Zavaleta in Volume 1 in Studies in Brownsville History published by Pan American University, Edinburg in 1986.

[2] Weaver, Thomas, 1983 The Social Effects of the Ecology and Development of the United States-Mexico Border, In: Ecology and Development of the Border Region, Stanley R. Ross, Editor, Asociation Nacional de Universidades e Institutos de Ensenañza Superior, Mexico D.F., p.241

[3] Miller, Tom, 1981, On The Border, Ace Books, New York, p.xii

[4] Ibid., p. xii

[5] Hansen, Niles,1981,The Border Economy, University of Texas Press, Austin, p.22

[6] Ibid. p. 22

[7] Ibid. p.23

[8] Ibid. p.25-26

[9] Ibid. p.25

[10] Ibid. p.25

[11] Weaver, p.237

[12] Ibid. p.254

[13] Morrill, Richard, 1974, The Spatial Organization of Society, Duxbury Press, North Scituate, Mass. P. 69-92

[14] Horgan, Paul, 1984, Great River: Rio Grande in North American History, Texas Monthly Press, Austin, Texas, p.89

[15] Ibid., p.91

[16] Ibid., p.89-95

[17] Fehrenbach, T. R. 1983, A History of Texas and the Texans, American Legacy Press, New York, p.77

[18] Ibid. p.75-78

[19] Ibid., p.76

[20] Canseco, Jose Raul, 1981 Historia de Matamoros, Published by the Author H.  Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico p.17

[21] Ibid., p.18

[22] Ibid. p.21

[23] Fehrenbach, p. 132-151

[24] The author is thankful to Ing.  Luis Enrique Montes de Oca Gomez, who provided many of the early census figures for Matamoros.

[25] Bay, Betty, 1980, Historic Brownsville: Original Townsite Guide, The Brownsville Historical Association, Brownsville, Texas, p.20

[26] Thompson, James Heaven, A Nineteenth Century History of Cameron County, Texas, Master’s Thesis, The University of Texas, Austin, Texas, p.19

[27] Chatfield, W.H., 1893, The Twin Cities of the Border: Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico, Reprinted by the Brownsville Historical Association 1959, p.1-5

[28] Marshall, Ray, 1978, Economic Factors Influencing the International Migration of Workers, In: Views Across the Border, Stanley R. Ross, Editor, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, p.163-182

[29] Salmon, Roberto Mario, 1981, Mexican American Simpatia and the Mexican Revolution of 1910, The Borderlands Journal, Vol. 4, No. 2, Spring, p.215-240

[30] Del Castillo, Ricardo Griswold, 1981, The Mexican Problem: A Critical View of the Alliance of Academics and Politicians During the Debate over Mexican Immigration in the 1920s, The Borderland Journal, Vol. 4, No. 2, Spring 1981, p.251-274

[31] McKay, R. Reynolds, 1981, The Federal Deportation Campaign in Texas: Mexican Deportation from the Lower Rio Grande Valley During the Threat of Depression, The Borderlands Journal, Vol. 5, No.1, p.95-120.

[32]Ehrlich, Paul R., Loy Bilderback and Anne H. Ehrlich, 1979, The Golden Door: International Migration, Mexico and the United States, Wideview Books, New York, p.211-216

[33] Bustamante, Jorge, A., 1978, Commodity Migrants: structural Analysis of Mexican Immigration to the United States, In: Views Across the Border, Stanley R. Ross, Editor, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico, p.183-203

[34] Fernandez, Raul A. 1977, The United States-Mexico Border: A Politico-Economic Profile, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame University Press, p.118

[35] Miller, Michael V. 1981, Economic Growth and Change Along the U.S.-Mexico Border: The Case of Brownsville, Texas, Human Resources Management and Development Program, The University of Texas San Antonio.

[36] George, Edward Y., and Robert Tollen, 1985, The Economic Impact of the Mexican Border Industrialization Program, Center for Inter-American and Border Studies, The University of Texas El Paso, No. 20.

[37] Richards, Hoy, 1978, Infraestructura Requerida para el desarrollo industrial y la generacion de empleos en la microregion de Matamoros , Tamaulipas, Texas A&M University.

Dr. Tony Zavaleta grew up in Brownsville and is a member of one of the 13 founding families of northern Mexico. He is the nephew of Dr. Joe Zavaleta and Prax Orive, each of whom served on the TSC Board.

Dr. Zavaleta graduated from Saint Joseph Academy in 1964 and entered Texas Southmost College, graduating and transferring to The University of Texas at Austin in 1966, where he completed a Ph.D. in Anthropology in 1976. Moving back to Brownsville in 1976, Dr. Zavaleta began teaching sociology and anthropology at Texas Southmost College and at Pan American University at Brownsville. Dr. Zavaleta became the first Dean of the College of Liberal Arts for UTB/TSC, and also served as the Dean of the College of Mathematics and Science and Technology. He next served as Vice President for Partnership Affairs, where he coordinated all of the work between the TSC Board and UTB, and then became the Vice President for External Affairs, which included governmental relations and all external programs such as Workforce Training and Continuing Education. Dr. Zavaleta served as Interim Provost, the chief operating officer of UTB/TSC, and then as the Associate Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. In 2011 he retired from the administration to return to full-time teaching. Dr. Zavaleta retired in May 2016 after 40 years of service.

Dr. Zavaleta is regarded as one of the top experts on the US-Mexico Border, and frequently speaks throughout Mexico and the U.S. Dr. Zavaleta was appointed to two Federal commissions by Presidents Reagan and Obama, and he served two terms on the Brownsville City Commission, followed by a term on the City of Brownsville Civil Service Commission.

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