The Americas 61.2 (2004) 304-305
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In one of two Forwards to Federico Ronstadt's edited memoir, Ernesto Portillo explains, "The Arizona-Sonora border region has long been a contiguous slice of the Americas. . . . Long before [NAFTA] opened the border region for easier trade of goods, Sonora and Southern Arizona were exchanging people and products across the artificially drawn line in the desert" (p. xiv). Ronstadt's memoirs, edited by his son, Edward, provide a fascinating first-hand account of such exchanges, revealing how one family adapted to rapidly evolving conditions through cultural, financial, and kinship ties that transcended the U.S.-Mexican border.
Ronstadt was born in 1868 to a German immigrant father and a Mexican mother from a well-established, landholding Sonoran family. As a child, Federico traveled with his mother, his siblings, and his father—a mining engineer and occasional government official—throughout Sonora and Baja California. Due to his parents' high social status, he became acquainted with some of Sonora's most important political and economic elites and received a formal education in mostly private schools. He learned to speak English and read music, while informally he learned skills in mining and agriculture. In 1882, Ronstadt's parents sent him across the border to [End Page 304] Tucson to live among relatives and learn the wagon and carriage trade. The second half of Ronstadt's memoirs details the next ten years of his life. From Tucson, he continued to help support his family in Mexico by sending money across the border, while establishing his own family through two marriages and the birth of eight children. In 1887, with his father's health failing and his mother's landholdings under siege by government surveyors, he brought his parents to live with him in Tucson. That same year, he raised enough capital to start his own carriage shop, and over the next two decades, he successfully adapted to Tucson's changing economy by diversifying into a general hardware store. He also played an important role in Tucson's Mexican American cultural and social life, founding the Club Filarmónico Tucsonenseandjoining the Alianza Hispano-Americana, which would become the largest mutualista in the Southwest.
Ronstadt's memoirs will be of interest to a variety of historians in Mexican and border studies. The early portion of the book provides rich details of Sonora's agricultural and mining industries, including both the role played by the interdependent economic and political elite, and glimpses of a racialized class system in which Indians provided much of the manual labor. Most importantly, his memoirs show how one family negotiated the rapid changes of the Porfiriato as industrialization, railroad construction, and land surveys forced many to move to larger cities, mining towns, and into the United States. In the second of two Forwards, Bernard Fontana suggests that Ronstadt's story illustrates the "sense of independence and self-reliance" (p. xx) that Sonorans and Arizonans developed as they struggled to survive the region's changing frontier conditions. While Ronstadt's story evinces a high degree of personal perseverance, ultimately, the themes of inter-dependency and patronage—provided by what Ronstadt himself calls an "army of blood relatives" (p. 55) and friends—resonate more. Without them, he would not have had the emotional, material, and financial support that carried him through times of hardship and need. Beyond this observation, my only disappointment is the editor's decision not to include Ronstadt's memoirs from the twentieth century, when his carriage shop evolved into a general hardware store and he became an increasingly important public figure. This part of the story would have been of interest to historians of merchant capitalism in the Southwest, since it reveals how one family creatively avoided the fate of much of Tucson's Mexican American merchant class, which lost its political and economic influence as an increasingly sharp racial divide separated the local "Anglo"...