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  • Modesto C. Rolland and the Development of Baja California
  • J. Justin Castro (bio)

It is a proud thing to have been born in La Paz, and a cloud of delight hangs over the distant city from the time when it was the great pearl center of the world.

—John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1941)

The famous American writer John Steinbeck thought highly of La Paz. During Steinbeck’s fabled expedition with biologist Edward F. Ricketts along the coasts of the Baja California Peninsula, the author waxed poetically about the long and inviting history of the port during its glory days as a global pearl provider. The locals, Steinbeck recalled, considered the city “a huge place—not of course as monstrous as Guaymas or Mazatlán, but beautiful beyond comparison.” Size and beauty are relative, perhaps. But in a desert peninsula “unfriendly to colonization,” La Paz certainly drew the adventurous from around the world.1

The same year that Steinbeck scoured the coasts for marine (and human) life—1940—a fifty-nine-year-old engineer by the name of Modesto C. Rolland pressed desperately the need to develop the land of his birth, to “conquer” it. Rolland promoted dams, irrigation, roads, and free trade. “All Mexicans,” he said, “are obligated to think of the problem of Baja California and aid with affection and love in its development, since a chain is no stronger than its weakest link.”2 To Rolland, the peninsula remained a beautiful but feeble appendage.

Rolland dedicated most of his adult life to advancing Mexico, giving considerable attention to the Baja California Peninsula. He had left the region as a teenager, but he never forgot where he came from. He returned to the peninsula often and he included it in his plans for decades. Much of his attention to the territory was in the form of essays that pleaded for national action on a number of developmental needs, though [End Page 261] he also acted in a more direct capacity as a government representative, including as a congressman, Undersecretary in the Secretariat of Communications and Public Works (SCOP), and as the Undersecretary of National Development.3 His last political action in the region was as a companion of presidential candidate Adolfo López Mateos in 1958. By then, Rolland, somewhat worn, had retired to a ranch near Córdoba, Veracruz. Rolland looked back upon the great changes that had occurred during his lifetime with some ambiguity. The once-youthful idealist had become more cynical about Mexican politics and meaningful change, but he had achieved more than most during a lifetime.

In this article, I make the case that Rolland’s work was critical in bringing the Baja California Peninsula, for better or worse, into the nation-state during Mexico’s revolutionary era. Influenced by his provincial upbringing, his education in Mexico City, and his love of engineering, Rolland became an ardent nationalist who believed in greater municipal autonomy but also a strong central government. I provide key examples of his work and discuss its legacy, including his initiatives in Baja California but also his work in Mexico’s Tehuantepec Isthmus, which was tied in important ways to his goals for the peninsula. In the process, I hope to show that despite the fact that many of his aspirations for Baja California were not realized to the extent he had hoped during his lifetime, some of them were, and that many of the plans he helped popularize came to fruition in the decades following his death in 1965. His continual promotion of the Baja California Peninsula brought it to the attention of revolutionary leaders and businessmen, affecting subsequent developers and historians of the region. All the while, Rolland became one of the most influential bajacalifornianos in the national government, a fact not well recognized.

Rolland’s Family and Formative Years

As early as the 1910s, Rolland was working in prominent political circles, but he was born the youngest son of a carpenter in La Paz in 1881. La Paz was a small and vibrant town of a couple thousand people in the late nineteenth century. Despite its small size, it was...


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