The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1988, Volume 34, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Across Boundaries: Transborder Interaction in Comparative Perspective

Edited by Oscar J. Martinez. El Paso: Texas Western Press and The Center for Inter-American and Border Studies, University of Texas at El Paso, 1986. 206 Pages. $15.00.

Maquila. Assembly Plants in Northern Mexico.

By Ellwyn R. Stoddard. El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1987. Bibliography. 91 Pages. $10.00.

Reviewed by Paul Ganster, Director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias, San Diego State University.

At first glance, one might wonder how books on the worldwide phenomena of border regions and production sharing manufacturing might bear directly on the historical development of San Diego. Just as the founding and development of San Diego grew out of global events and forces, the recent history of the city and the region has become inexorably linked to supra-regional and supra-national developments. Stoddard’s book explores key aspects of the maquiladora industry, located primarily along Mexico’s northern border, that has growing economic importance to the United States in general and to border cities and regions such as San Diego in particular. The study edited by Martinez brings together essays by leading scholars on European, American, African, and Eastern European borders to provide an important comparative analysis of the nature of border interaction and approaches to dealing with binational issues in the regional context. Thus, both works serve to place border and regional developments that are so important to San Diego within a more global and universal context.

Maquila begins with an historical overview of the development of the United States-Mexican border region. Stoddard discusses the development by Mexico of a border industrial program and the emergence in 1964 of the maquiladora industry. The maquiladora industry typically imports components from the United States, assembles them into finished products utilizing low-cost Mexican labor, and exports these items back to the U.S., paying import duties only on the value of the labor added to the product in Mexico. This industry is part of a world-wide restructuring of industry where research and development and capital-intensive aspects of manufacturing processes are carried out in developed countries where labor is expensive; the assembly of finished products or components is exported to regions in the developing world, such as Mexico, where labor is inexpensive. Although these assembly plants are located throughout Mexico, over 90 percent are located in the border zone. The Mexican maquiladora industry has grown rapidly to where there are now approximately one thousand plants in operation employing 300,000 workers and generating about $1.6 billion dollars in foreign exchange earnings. Ciudad Juarez in Chihuahua has been the most important location of maquiladoras, but recently the growth of the industry in Baja California has been remarkable. The spillover effects of this industry on U.S. border communities have been significant. For example, a study carried out at the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University indicated that in 1985 the Baja California maquiladora industry accounted for some 86 million dollars in direct expenditures in San Diego; for 1988 that figure will be about 150 million dollars.

During the past two decades, the maquiladora industry has come under close scrutiny and much criticism from the media, national and regional politicians, unions, the private sector, and scholars from both the United States and Mexico. United States unions and some politicians have charged that the industry was exporting U.S. jobs to Mexico; some U.S. and Mexican scholars and numerous Mexican politicians charged that the industry exploited Mexican workers and contributed very little to the economic well being of the country. The bulk of Stoddard’s study addresses these attacks on the maquila industry. In a lively, and at times combative, style, the author examines and responds to major issues raised by critics of the industry. These include the impact of the industry on the U.S. and Mexico; wages, treatment of labor, and working conditions; and gender issues in the maquiladora. Stoddard, a professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso and a pioneer in the establishment of the field of border studies in the United States, is to be congratulated on producing a fine work that serves as an introduction to and analysis of the extremely important maquiladora industry.

Across Boundaries consists of six parts in addition to an excellent introduction and conclusion by Martinez. In Part I, Ivo D. Duchacek examines the trend toward greater participation of local and provincial governments in international affairs. Part II includes essays by Niles Hansen and Hans Briner detailing European examples of successful transboundary cooperation and suggesting that European models have direct relevance to the United States-Mexican border. Part III focuses on problem solving along the United States-Mexican border with three essays. Ellwyn R. Stoddard points out the need for developing a realistic frame of reference if efforts to address border problems are to be successful, noting that currently federal authorities tend to view the boundary as a barrier whose supreme function is to protect national sovereignty. Gustavo del Castillo details the slow, complicated, frustrating, and ineffective approaches by government in dealing with border issues such as the impact of peso devaluations on border communities and environmental contamination in the San Diego-Tijuana region. Lawrence A. Herzog presents a conceptual model for understanding the transboundary urban ecosystems that have developed along the U.S.-Mexican border and demonstrates the symbiotic character of the San Diego-Tijuana urban ecosystem. Part IV consists of two essays on the U.S.-Canadian border by Donald K. Alper on the increasing interaction between the semi-autonomous Canadian provinces and their counterpart U.S. states and by Victor Konrad on transborder cultural transfers with an emphasis on Canada’s influences on the U.S. In Part V, Anthony I. Asiwaju discusses border problem solving along the Nigerian-Benin frontier where three ethnic groups were partitioned by an international boundary erected by the English and the French. Part VI, in an essay by Z.A. Kruszewski, examines how some Communist borders function, noting that in recent years transborder interactions among several Eastern European nations have significantly increased.

This volume eloquently documents the growth of interdependence across international boundaries around the world that to some extent is an outgrowth of large populations in border cities and regions. Many nations have found it necessary to establish frameworks for transborder cooperation and planning, particularly in Western Europe. By contrast, the United States and Mexico have been unable to tackle their border problems effectively. Great disparity in wealth and population pressures within Mexico are among the factors that have worked against border cooperation. Another important factor is that local border concerns are often at odds with federal priorities in Mexico City or Washington, D.C., and that federal leaders often link border problems with broader issues in diplomatic agendas with the other country. For example, the U.S. federal government at times increases inspections at the border to pressure Mexico on matters such as drug trafficking and people in the border regions resent being used as pawns in the game of international diplomacy. Martinez rightly points out that, following the example of Western Europe, border people themselves must play a more active role in resolving their own regional problems. Although border regions such as San Diego and Tijuana are not sovereign entities, they must carry on informal international relations essential to regional welfare.

Maquila and Across Boundaries are well written and useful works that serve to place the U.S.-Mexican border and its subregions within the broader context of recent global events. As such, they provide important perspectives on better understanding the recent past of the San Diego-Tijuana region and also the forces that are now shaping this region for the future.