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Hispanic American Historical Review 82.1 (2002) 196-197

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Book Review

Mexican Coal Mining Labor

Mexican Coal Mining Labor in Texas and Coahuila, 1880-1930. By ROBERTO R. CALDERON. Rio Grande/Río Bravo: Borderlands Culture and Tradition, no. 2 . College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2000 . Photographs. Maps. Tables. Figures. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliography. Index. xix, 294 pp. Cloth, $39 .95 .

Coal mining lasted a short time in Texas, while Coahuila's coal mines have endured far longer, stimulating the industrialization of northern Mexico. However, during the 1880-1930 period coal mining in the two states not only coexisted but was closely connected. The goal of this book is to unite histories usually rent asunder by the compartmentalization of scholarship into U.S. or Mexican, indeed North American or Latin American categories. Roberto Calderón succeeds convincingly in that endeavor.

The major consumer of coal was railroads coursing through Texas and northern Mexico. (Coahuila coal was also good metallurgical coal while some Texas lignite deposits were used as heating fuel.) Because U.S. investors with Mexican allies developed these railroads and smelters, business networks were heavily interwoven across the international boundary. The mining engineers and their techniques were likewise much the same. Calderón thus offers a unified binational business history in the early chapters of the work.

The bountifulness of cheap Mexican labor was one assumption shared by capitalists in both nations. Coahuila was completely staffed by Mexican workers, not surprisingly, but Texas presented a more complex stratification of social race, location, and labor markets. Border coal fields (in the Eagle Pass and Laredo areas) were overwhelmingly staffed by Mexicans and U.S. citizens of Mexican extraction, while the large northern coalfields around Thurber, Texas, combined Mexicans with a large pool of European immigrant and eastern U.S. coal laborers. The easterly lignite mines, being less lucrative and smaller in scale, employed Mexican migrant workers along with local white and black farm populations. Through careful marshalling of evidence from both nations, Calderón writes a unified labor and social history that spans the two sides of the border. This reinforces work by other scholars, including the present author, that suggests that prior to 1929 , we might best think of one single Mexican border working class facing the same arrangement of opportunities and racial-national discrimination in each society. After 1940 such a pattern does not disappear, but subsequent U.S. immigration and citizenship policies prevent it from being quite so cohesive and pervasive.

Calderón critiques the racial prejudices of observers of the 1880-1930 era. In doing so, he dispels that epoch's assumption that Mexicans were disorganized, passive, and grateful for their miserably paid work. He goes beyond the best-known [End Page 196] unions and strikes (in this case, the UMWA in the Thurber area) to tease out the hints of collective organization among laborers in the U.S.-side border coalfields, making good use of Spanish-language newspapers. A particularly intriguing topic along the lines of self-determination is the constant churning of migrant miners through the Texas lignite belt, though by its nature this individualistic or small group response leaves only tiny traces. Little is said about labor in Mexico, however.

The primary documentary work in Mexican Coal Mining Labor concerns the U.S.-side Rio Grande district coalfields. Unifying the Texas-Coahuila subject matter is an important accomplishment, but the reliance on secondary sources for northern Texas and especially for Coahuila was frustrating. One trusts that Calderón, who manifests evident capability, will continue to deepen and refine his historical labors. The writing is clear but rarely vivid. The book is both inherently limited in scope and packed with meticulous detail, and so is best suited for research and graduate-level work. In sum, the integrated Mexican-U.S. approach is admirable and will serve as an exemplar for future students of both nations' histories.


Josiah Mcc. Heyman
Michigan Technological University



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pp. 196-197
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Archived 2004
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