- Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community
The U.S.-Mexico border is primarily understood as a place of crossings, and the fortification of that boundary—in both practice and discourse—is associated with notions of American sovereignty. Monica Perales presents a different story: the borderlands as a place of dwelling, where Mexicans and Mexican Americans constructed individual and community identities amid heightened economic and demographic flux.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, El Paso became the largest port of entry on the southern border of the United States. At that time, American companies owned more than 80 percent of the mining capital in Mexico and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad met the Southern Pacific in El Paso, facilitating the transportation of precious metals throughout the United States. El Paso was not on the border of the United States, Perales contends, but rather at the center of a mining empire that spanned the Americas. It is within this context of industrial expansion that Perales focuses on the daily practices and spatial hierarchies established by both Mexican laborers and the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO), one of the largest copper and lead smelting operations on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande.
Perales's central argument is that Mexicans and Mexican Americans living in a small company town at the edge of El Paso at the turn of the century defined themselves against and in relation to the border amid the hardening racial geographies of El Paso. She points to the centrality of place in the construction of borderlands identities and multiple social worlds. Researching the life and death of Smeltertown, the company town that serviced ASARCO's smelting operations, Perales focuses on the social spaces of the community to demonstrate how working-class ethnic Mexicans influenced the development of the region. Census data, newspapers, and company records outline the labor history of ASARCO and El Paso more generally, while extensive life histories (including those of Perales's immediate family, who trace their roots to Smeltertown) elucidate what it meant to be Mexican in a border community.
"Making Places," the first of the book's three parts, outlines the political economy of El Paso and examines the spatial and racial geographies established by ASARCO. In Smeltertown, residents were racially divided: Upper Smelter housed Anglo managers and service workers in free-standing homes, while El Alto housed Mexican laborers in tenements lacking running water and electricity. There was also an informal settlement in Smeltertown, Lower Smelter or El Bajo, where families built their own homes out of adobe brick on [End Page 128] rented property. Perales identifies ASARCO as a quintessential company town, similar to the citrus communities of Corona and Pomona in California and the mining towns of Butte, Anaconda, and Clifton-Morenci. Like the companies associated with these other towns, ASARCO influenced almost every aspect of their workers' private and public lives. ASARCO, however, was shaped by its unique location. The continuous movement of migrants seeking work in El Paso or at ASARCO supplied the company with a steady stream of labor but complicated the formation of a permanent community. O ver time, company men and religious actors established the YMCA and Catholic parish, and public schools, social spaces that enabled and extended the formation of community for smelter workers. Residents established preschools for religious education known as escuelas particulares. Residents, Perales notes, never imagined themselves as victims of the smelter, in part because of their investment in and influence over Smeltertown's social institutions and their deep emotional bonds to place.
Part 2, "Making Identities," focuses on the daily practices and social worlds of the workplace, the church, and the Smelter Vocational School to illustrate how working-class Mexican families crafted identities in relation to the social and political milieu of the borderlands. Political and business elites, Anglo El Pasoans, and foremen at the smelter developed stereotypes of Mexican laborers...