- Pesos and Dollars: Entrepreneurs in the Texas-Mexico Borderlands, 1880–1940 by Alicia M. Dewey
Alicia M. Dewey seeks understanding of the unique business conditions that transformed South Texas between 1880 and 1940. She asks why Anglo-American immigrants chose this region over more desirable urban centers and considers how ethnic Mexican residents responded to and shaped the changing economic and demographic tide. Although Dewey does not ignore the oppositional forces at play, she focuses instead on the opportunities that coalesced to create a diverse community. She finds that new and long-standing residents alike capitalized on the arrival of the railroad after 1880, favorable bankruptcy laws that loosened lines of credit, a sizeable pool of cheap labor, and advances in irrigation and refrigeration in order to create a new business culture that was urban, middle class, and willing to take risks. In other words, the American dream was alive and well in South Texas.
Dewey’s exploration of federal bankruptcy filings and the R. G. Dun and Company Reference Books, from which she extracts numerous portraits of individual entrepreneurs across South Texas, is likely the most innovative feature of Pesos and Dollars. She analyzes entrepreneurs along ethnic, national, and gender lines to find that the rapid expansion of capitalism was not solely driven by and beneficial to wealthy white American businessmen. Female entrepreneurs, middle-class ethnic Mexicans (who constituted upward of 40 percent of local business owners at the time), and foreigners from Europe and the Levant also pursued urban commercial opportunities. Success was never guaranteed, particularly in the wake of the Great Depression, but business owners of all backgrounds were more united by their capitalist outlook than divided by social or racial tensions.
If Dewey sheds light on the existence of an understudied community, questions remain with regard to how far this conceptual community actually extended. How and to what degree did the entrepreneurial identity of the business sphere intersect with or trump the segregated social sphere? In Deference and Defiance in Monterrey (2006), for example, Michael Snodgrass examines the lives of laborers during roughly the same time period in northern Mexico, and he finds that class harmony was largely built around company paternalism. If paternalism was anathema to the business community in South Texas, as Dewey contends, what then connected entrepreneurs to their wage laborers?
Pesos and Dollars is intricately documented and makes the case for a regional identity forged from the creative destruction of capitalism. It deserves to be read alongside other works that explore the tensions facing borderlands communities at the turn of the twentieth century. [End Page 148]
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