Imperial Metropolis. Los Angeles, Mexico, and the Borderlands of American Empire, 1865–1941

Kim, Jessica M.
304 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Sean Parulian Harvey, Phoenix, AZ

In 2008, historians Pikka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett challenged borderlands historians to tell larger stories about borderlands and their effects on the broader historical narratives of the United States. Kim successfully answers this call in her astute and compact history of Los Angeles. Imperial Metropolis tells the story of how the City of Angels built its fortune through the exploitation of Mexican workers and natural resources, and the book also shows how the resistance of Mexican peasants forced LA boosters to revise their vision for imperial dominance in their Mexican hinterlands.

In chapter 1, Kim demonstrated how city leaders in Los Angeles undertook a coordinated campaign to “transform Mexico, particularly the northern portion of the country, into Los Angeles’s ‘tributary territory (p. 23)’”. Los Angeles transformed from a small imperial outpost of the Spanish, into a city-empire with global aspirations. A coterie of capitalists that included William Rosecrans, Harrison Gray Otis, Lewis Bradbury, Griffith J. Griffith, Harry Chandler, and Edward Doheny undertook the project of making a town with few resources and no deep-water port into a nexus of global capitalism. Networks that consisted of Los Angeles boosters, American diplomats, Mexican politicians, consular officials, and businessmen allow Kim to scale between municipal plans for commercial growth and the larger realm of U.S. international policy. This rich chapter reveals how Los Angeles’s view of commercial dominance was inflected with ideas of an informal commercial empire in Mexico.

Chapter 2 amply demonstrates how the exploitation of Mexican resources and Mexican/Mexican American workers fueled Los Angeles’s fantastic growth at the end of the nineteenth century. Between 1880 and 1910 Los Angeles County became home to 150 businesses that explicitly operated in Mexico. This steady stream of capital from Los Angeles into Mexico meant that “Angelenos invested more money per capita in Mexico than any other region in the United States.” (p. 6) Commercial growth in Mexico proved to be so successful because it built upon a model of racial hierarchy and subordination first implemented in Los Angeles itself. Los Angeles’s drive for “industrial freedom” led the city to ban unions and strictly control the labor of a Mexican American/Mexican workforce in Southern California (p. 60). Anglo bosses and managers in LA-backed operations located in Mexico gave their nonwhite workers little freedom or leeway.

In chapter 3, we learn how Los Angeles had sown the seeds for the destruction – or transformation as we later learn – of its commercial empire south-of-the-border by building an inherently exploitative relationship between the core of Los Angeles and its periphery in the Mexican countryside. In the wake of the Mexican Revolution, Angelenos clung tightly to their investments in Mexico, but “Mexican revolutionaries identified American investment as one of the causal factors in their mounting economic misfortunes.” (p. 78) Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, which gave the Mexican government “the power to expropriate private property when deemed necessary for the public good,” (p. 115) threatened to permanently topple the Los Angeles’s control over their Mexican periphery.

Chapter 4 and 5 explains how Los Angeles’s vision for imperial control of Mexico shifted. The U.S. government did not heed the pleas of Los Angeles boosters to intervene in Mexico despite a well-organized publicity and lobbying campaign. Despite this, many in Los Angeles did not stop looking at Mexico as their city’s commercial hinterland and sought new ways to profit from their periphery south-of-the-border. Kim suggests that the Mexican Revolution radically altered the terms of the relationship between Los Angeles and its Mexican countryside.

The last chapter is a fascinating look at the International Pacific Highway (IPH). First envisioned in the 1920s by the Automobile Club of Southern California, the IPH would be a road that allowed tourists to “hunt down” the “Spanish fantasy past” as they road-tripped from Los Angeles to Mexico City. (p. 187) When the road was completed in 1957, however, air travel had superseded the automobile as the main vehicle for many Americans’ vacations in Mexico. But the IPH retained much usefulness because it served as an important route for truck drivers and trade goods.” (p. 202) This shift in the road’s primary function also served to reinforce the road’s initial purpose. The road, according to Kim, represented a “new type of American empire- building in Latin America, a set of policies and strategies that rhetorically renounced military intervention while embracing economic expansion.” (p. 178). The growth of similar networks of highways at the turn of the twenty-first century solidified this vision through the integration of the “Los Angeles and Mexican economies” in the post-NAFTA era. (p. 211)

Among Imperial Metropolis’s most important considerations are how the political border between the U.S. and Mexico facilitated and thwarted the imperial aspirations of LA’s boosters at different times. By placing the history of Los Angeles and its growth within this borderlands framework we see how both urban development and empire building go together. The obstacles that Los Angeles boosters faced in trying to subjugate their Mexican hinterlands allow us to see how American informal power developed and transformed. Readers see how the informal control a “global city” or “city-empire” has over its transnational countrysides in the twenty-first century replicates the exploitation and domination of the Gilded Age.

Kim’s use of imperial history also has much to tell us about the development of race in the borderlands. Early borderlands studies were apt to deploy imperial histories to discover “middle grounds” and “peoples-in-between,” but studies that take us into the twentieth century, like this one, allow us to see the way that international borders produce new inflections of imperial power. Los Angeles’s capitalist/imperialist class “believed that their urban core should be, and would be, dominated by whites” and “this racial and class hierarchy would extend, in the minds and practices of city builders, into the imperial relationship between the city and its periphery.” (p.13) This view of racial hierarchy allowed Los Angeles-based capitalists, like Griffith J. Griffith to imagine and build a borderlands economy that outlawed unions and empowered industrialists to exercise paternalistic control of their nonwhite workers. These same industrialists, though, courted and lauded Mexican officials and investors. This complicated system of inclusion/exclusion based upon shifting and malleable shibboleths of race and class would find wide resonance well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as many Anglo and Mexican investors continue to benefit from the exploitation of nonwhite workers that fuel trade between Los Angeles and Mexico.

For some readers, though, Kim’s work will raise inevitable questions. First among these would be what exactly did the Mexican state have to gain by cooperating or abetting the aspirations of Los Angeles’s industrialists? As a history of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, scholars will scrutinize the role of Mexican actors in shaping the history recounted in Imperial Metropolis. And while there certainly are Mexican politicians, boosters, and workers in play in Kim’s analysis, the Mexican state or a united Mexican interest does not quite congeal in the way it in Los Angeles. What priorities of the Mexican elite emerge as a result of this process? And how do they think of their own core and periphery in relation to Los Angeles and its hinterlands?

Another set of questions circulates around the role of labor activism and the circulation of radical revolutionary ideas across and between the U.S.-Mexico border. Kim does a capable job of demonstrating how Mexican workers altered the relationship between the core of Los Angeles and Mexican periphery. But how did Mexican American workers also react to this process of marginalizing labor and its interests? And did the circulation of workers and migrants between the U.S. and Mexico magnify or weaken the power of Los Angeles’s industrialists?

Kim has succeeded in moving past the “small-scale tales” that many people thought typified borderlands studies. The implications of Kim’s authoritative research in U.S. and Mexican archives will be useful for historians of empire, capitalism, race, the U.S.-Mexico border, and cities. Graduate seminars should be eager to use it as an exemplary model of a new type of borderlands history.

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