- Handmade Brick for Texas: A Mexican Border Industry, Its Workers, and Its Business
Scott Cook’s Handmade Brick for Texas is the sequel to his earlier work Mexican Brick Culture in the Building of Texas, 1800–1980s (Texas A&M University Press, 1998). In his latest book, Cook expands on his earlier work, specifically focusing on the handmade brick business in Reynosa, Tamaulipas. Aside from “cementing” his position as the foremost authority of border brick culture, Cook’s latest work contributes greatly to our understanding of the social history of the border. Relying heavily on interviews, Cook’s conversations with brick workers and managers fill the pages with life, while also illuminating the labor, business, and migratory history of border people. Cook’s tactful composition of the more technical aspects of brick-making, coupled with extensive photographs and maps, also makes his book a must for those interested in the subject.
Cook shows how brick-making on the border is more than a business, but a legacy and a craft handed down for generations. Although they may work barefooted in the heat and the clay, experienced workers are artisans “not peons” (7). Locals address them as “maestros or masters” out of respect (7). Making brick is physically taxing and takes skill. Workers do not gather mud from the banks of the Rio Grande at random, but choose for the quality of clay. Once selected, workers mold the bricks “in an almost choreographed sequence” of an “unbroken interactive process” (8). After molding, the brick are fired using either gas or wood-burning kilns.
Using inexpensive labor and materials while offering a sturdy and aesthetically pleasing product, the handmade brick business boomed in the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80s. A veritable “Brick Fever” took hold as Texas builders bought “mexico” stamped brick by the hundreds of thousands. This boom continued until peso devaluations in the early 1980s coupled with a negative advertising campaign led by Texas brick producers resulted in the collapse of all but the hardiest of Mexican brick producers. Despite these challenges, the earthy appeal of handmade brick continues in Texas, and Cook maintains that as long as it does so the brick culture of the border will endure.
In addition to informing readers about the mechanics of making brick by hand, Cook fills his pages with vignettes and asides from his interviewees that make his [End Page 306] book a pleasure to read. For instance, many laborers working so near the border used the opportunity to make their way clandestinely into the United States. Although Border Patrol officers frustrated many of these attempts, a number got through due to tip offs. Cook includes the story of how a number of undocumented immigrants eluded capture after a friend of their employer warned them “Keep to your toes boys, they are picking guys up” (97). Years of fieldwork provides Cook with stories that wonderfully capture the nuances of conducting business on the border. In speaking of their frustrations with corrupt Mexican Customs agents extorting bribes, or mordidas, to allow their bricks to be exported, one businessman summed it up saying he “conducted business in spite of the government” (109).
Altogether, Cook offers a fine book. Readers wishing to learn the details of making and selling Mexican handmade brick will happily revel in Cook’s descriptions, while readers interested in the labor and social history of the border will benefit from the wealth of information Cook presents. More than one hundred photographs illustrate the book and are included in an appendix. While the images are black and white and a bit small, these are minor blemishes in book well grounded in research and humanity.