“Technology” is the practical expression of accumulated knowledge and expertise focused on how to mediate and manipulate the world. Scholars and contemporary observers of Mexico have long characterized production methods there as unchanging and lagging well behind the standard in the Atlantic world, but there are few systematic studies of technology in Mexican history, and especially for the critical 19th-century era of early modernization.
Mexico’s first half century of independence (c. 1820–1870) saw relatively little technological change. In spite of a number of sustained efforts to introduce the technologies—such as railroads, steam power, and iron manufacturing—that were transforming economic life and production in Great Britain and the United States, production methods in Mexico remained small scale and artisanal. Textile manufactures were a partial exception, as there were several dozen large-scale factories, powered by water turbines and occasionally by steam, that spun and wove thread. But the substantial obstacles to innovation discouraged or undermined most attempts.
The next forty or so years, however, could not have been more different (c. 1870s–1920). As political stability slowly settled over most of the country, investment in economic activities picked up, slowly at first, then more rapidly into the 1880s and beyond. Initially focused on railroad transport and mining, new investments from both Mexican and foreign entrepreneurs diversified into a wide range of manufacturing enterprises, commercial agriculture, and urban infrastructure and commerce. Tightly linked to the concurrent dramatic expansion of the Atlantic economy—the so-called second industrial revolution—this expansion pushed demand for new technologies of production and swept across the country, transforming production, productivity, and the working and consuming lives of Mexicans at nearly all levels of society. The result was substantial modernization, manifest as economic growth as well as social dislocation.
Individuals and firms proved able to adopt and commercialize a wide range of new production technologies during this period. This success was not matched, however, by substantial local assimilation of new technological knowledge and expertise, that is, by a process of technological learning. Until the 1870s, Mexican engineers, mechanics, and workers had scant opportunities to work with and learn from production technologies appearing in the Atlantic world. When new machines, tools, and processes swept across Mexico thereafter, adopting firms typically hired technical experts and skilled workers from abroad, given the scarcity of expertise at home. This became a self-reinforcing cycle, perpetuating dependence on imported machines and imported know-how well into the 20th century.
Chad M. Gasta
Opera was performed in the Spanish-speaking New World colonies almost a century before what later would become the United States. The first operas staged in the Spanish colonies were wildly elaborate projects funded by the viceroys—Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco’s La púrpura de la rosa, in Lima, Peru, in 1701, and Manuel Zumaya’s Parténope, in Mexico City in 1711. These were followed by two operas written to convey religious didactic messages in the remote Jesuit Missions of South America: Domenico Zipoli’s San Ignacio (ca. 1720) and the anonymous San Xavier (ca. 1730), the latter of which was composed in the indigenous Bolivian Chiquitano language with a parallel Spanish libretto. All derived from the Italian opera tradition but were decisively shaped by Spanish musical theater, and they were indebted to the first operas in Madrid, which predated them: Félix Lope de Vega y Carpio’s fully sung La selva sin amor, from 1627, performed by the Florentine delegation, and a pair of operas from 1659 and 1660 by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, La púrpura de la rosa (whose libretto served as the basis for Torrejón’s 1701 version) and Celos aun del aire matan. These early Spanish operas were part of a process of political and ideological posturing since they were funded and produced either by nobility intent on displaying their wealth, prestige, and power, or by leaders of the Church who were seeking to impart a particular religious message to embolden its influence. These grand spectacles did not usher in a stunning opera tradition in Spain, any more than their progeny in the New World would. For a variety of financial, political, and cultural reasons, a sustained or successful opera tradition would not occur until the second half of the 19th century in Spain or the New World. Perhaps importantly, these productions reflected the movement of goods and people from the Old World to the New, and opera played an exceptional role in shaping political and social events in the metropolitan centers and in minority peripheries in both Spain and the New World.
Urbanization and environmental change have worked in tandem over the course of Mexican history. Hinterland production, the establishment of market economies, and the intensive transformation of nature have fueled urban growth. The concentration of capital and expertise in cities has, in turn, enabled urban elites to rework the urban environment by creating industrial centers, executing technical-heavy infrastructure, building new subdivisions, and regulating hygiene. From the beaches of Cancún and the air and water pollution of Tijuana’s industrial parks to the prolific silver mines of Zacatecas and the henequen monoculture surrounding Mérida, Yucatán, rapid urban growth and profound changes to the environment within and outside cities have depended on and intersected with each other.