UA Author: Understanding Mexico Requires Context

Regents' Professor Oscar Martínez, who grew up in Ciudad Juárez, examines his native country's economic challenges in his new book, "Mexico's Uneven Development."

As a boy growing up in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, Oscar Martínez always wondered why life there was so different from the sister city of El Paso, Texas, on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande.

For Martínez, the stark contrast between Juárez and El Paso symbolizes the differences on a larger scale between Mexico and the U.S. — complex differences that can't be explained without their history, according to Martínez's new book, "Mexico's Uneven Development: The Geographical and Historical Context of Inequality." 

"People need to have a better understanding of the kind of country Mexico is," says Martínez, a Regents' Professor of History at the University of Arizona, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the history of Juárez.

"This book shows that Mexico has been through a number of transformations," he says. "Governments have come and gone, but underdevelopment is a constant. More than half the population is poor. It's a mystery I've sought to answer."

Martínez will participate in a panel discussion on the UA's longtime collaboration with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, or UNAM, at 9:45 a.m. Monday in the Special Collections Room of the UA Library. It's part of "UNAM at UA," four days of academic and cultural activities related to the launch of UNAM's Center for Mexican Studies in Tucson.

The main objectives of the center are to strengthen academic collaboration with the UA and to deepen and expand the development of joint research projects in social and natural sciences, engineering, and the humanities, among other fields. The center also aims to develop student mobility programs, conduct activities related to teaching Spanish and Spanish certification, disseminate Mexican cultural activities and participate in a UNAM initiative to assist migrants.

Martínez, who has been at the UA since 1988, has focused his research over the years on the political, economic and social history of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. The new book is his third, after "Troublesome Border" (2006) and "Mexican-Origin People in the United States: A Topical History" (2001).

Explanations often advanced for Mexico's problems include government incompetence, corruption and cultural deficiencies, but Martínez says those don't go nearly deep enough. He says Mexico has been hindered in its development by five "foundational factors," which he identifies as natural environment, natural resources, population dynamics, relations with other countries, and the structure of production and governance.

Simple geography, he says, is central to explaining how Mexico and the U.S. evolved differently. Lacking the waterways of the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes, and with smaller coastal cities than those in the U.S., Mexico was limited in its economic development and also its political and social integration.

"Mexico is one-fifth the size of the United States, its location is less favorable, its shape is more contorted, its topography is much more mountainous, its resource endowment is significantly smaller, its coastlines have far fewer good harbors, and its rivers and lakes have almost no navigation possibilities," Martínez writes. "These basic physical differences provide a logical starting point for understanding the divergent economic trajectories of each country."

Agricultural production, he says, has suffered in Mexico because of climatic conditions, uneven rainfall patterns and the fact that little more than 10 percent of the land is suitable for cultivation.

It's also unfair, Martínez says, to compare Mexico's development to the swift economic rise of China, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and South Korea — countries that have benefited from far more favorable geographic and international circumstances, including easy access to global shipping lanes and to U.S. markets, while receiving significant U.S. aid.

Martínez says steps that might improve living conditions in Mexico could include mandated wage increases, expansion of social programs, state support for domestic research and development, subsidization of homegrown manufacturing companies, aid to farmers hurt by trade policies, and legalization of drugs in order to lessen corruption and lawlessness.


September 23, 2015


Published Date: 

09/30/2015 - 9:40am