From the International column in the March 1999 Perspectives

The Political Economy of Preserving the Past: The Rio Blanco Mill in Mexico

Bert S. Kreitlow, March 1999

The sprawling, architecturally elegant Rio Blanco textile mill can tell us many things about Mexico's past, only one of which is the famous blood-stained events of January 1909 when dozens of workers were martyred by the guns of government soldiers, an act that stiffened opposition to dictator Porfirio Diaz and propelled the outbreak of revolution not quite two years later.

Despite its obvious historical value, Mexican historians along with the government's history agency find themselves in a fight, so far futile, to protect the factory from a new owner's modernization projects that have already destroyed more than 40 percent of the original site.

It is tempting to make the Rio Blanco controversy a metaphor, to say that it stands for a wider conflict between history and jobs, between nationalism and liberal economic "progress." In fact, Juan Mata Gonzalez, the entrepreneur who bought the factory in 1993, implies that preservation of the past and viable industry are mutually exclusive. "This is a factory. If (government agencies) think this is a historical monument, then the Mexican government should buy it and then we will put our factory someplace else," Gonzalez told reporter Patricia Vega of the newspaper La Jornada during her exhaustive coverage of the issue in 1997.

To historians, however, the jobs versus history conflict was a fallacious argument. Bernardo Garcia, a historian at the Universidad Veracruzana in Rio Blanco's home state of Veracruz, declared in an article, "countless examples could be cited, nationally and internationally, that demonstrate that the preservation of jobs is not opposed to the preservation of the original architectural traits of workplaces." Garcia is a member of the Mexican Committee for the Preservation of Industrial Heritage that promotes and supports industrial archaeology and has been in the vanguard of the struggle to preserve the Rio Blanco mill.

Garcia also dismisses the notion that the only historical value of the factory resides in the events of January 1909. The factory is also a treasure trove for historians of technology and economic and industrial architecture. Built by a French-owned textile company to be the largest and most modern of its day, the factory became symbolic of the Porfirio Diaz regime—it was Diaz who inaugurated the factory in a proud ceremony in October 1892. The Diaz regime, or the Porfiriato (1876–1911), saw intensive economic development and growing foreign investment as well as increasing oppression and poverty.

Historian Barry Carr told La Jornada that factories such as the Rio Blanco mill should get the same esteem as Mexico's baroque churches and pre-Columbian ruins. "The reasons for fighting to prevent the destruction of the [Rio Blanco] factory ought to come from a passion to conserve the universe of work created not only by capitalists but made and transformed by workers," Carr said.

Although the organization for industrial archaeology formed only recently and is not large, the group has exerted influence by holding a national meeting in Rio Blanco and passing a resolution condemning the removal and modification of buildings. While Garcia and the committee have to work hard to enlighten Mexicans about the archaeological and historical value of the buildings at Rio Blanco, the site itself is a well-known part of Mexico's modern history because of the massacre of January 1909.

Growing tensions between millworkers and owners throughout central Mexico had led to strikes and lockouts in December 1908. The intervention of Porfirio Diaz in these disputes further inflamed the workers and those in the Rio Blanco area defied his mandate to return to work. The first conflicts occurred in the much despised company stores (owned, like the factory itself, by French capitalists). Revolutionary lore includes accounts of local women Margarita Martinez and Isabel Diaz haranguing men to confront the store owners. The first deaths resulted from store owners firing upon the workers. The Rio Blanco store and others were burned by workers.

Soon, federal troops arrived, fired on strikers outside other factories near Rio Blanco, and took several hundred prisoners. The following day, six of the prisoners were taken to the burned down company store and shot by the troops in full view of other workers. Many of the workers who had fled into the hills were also hunted down and shot dead. Although historians still argue about the precise number of those killed—estimates hover between 50 and 70—what is more important is the public's perception of the events. In various accounts in the days and weeks following the conflict, the number killed was recounted as being more than 100, and the public blamed Diaz. The death of the workers is remembered every January 7 by Mexico's extensive labor union system.

Ironically, it was another labor problem that had idled the Rio Blanco factory for two years, enabling Gonzalez to purchase it in 1993 for a bargain price along with other nearby mills. Even more ironically, Mata, the new owner, removed most union representation since settling the strike and reopening the factory.

What Gonzalez calls improvements—and historians consider damage—include a tall reinforced concrete wall in front of the factory compound that blocks the view of the building's handsome front, the removal of several original walls, raised floor levels and the conversion of the ornate administration building into a hotel. Other elements of the mill that have been completely destroyed include a system of cotton stores, old workers' housing, rail access points and parts of the factory, to make way for an artificial lake and pool.

Historians argue that renovations and use of old factory buildings for hotels can be used to create jobs, but that this should be done in ways to preserve the architectural and economic validity of the factory. It appears, however, that the renovations were carried out by the new owner without consulting the concerned government agency, the National Historical and Anthropological Institute. The institute is fighting to stop further modifications and is trying to punish Gonzalezfor violating laws that protect historical sites. The damage already done is irreversible, according to the institute. But its complaints, handed on in 1994 to the Mexican equivalent of the U.S. justice department and to national enforcement agencies have languished without further action.

Mata, one of the richest men in Mexico, is regarded as being influential in the ruling party, the PRI, and he argues that he obtained the necessary permissions from the state authorities. The state governor , Patricio Chirinos, is reputedly a friend of Mata's and Mexico's then president (and member of the PRI), Carlos Salinas de Gortari attended the reinauguration of the plant in 1994. However, Gonzalez has denied charges of cronyism, calling them unsubstantiated rumors. The townspeople, most of whom are workers in the factory, also support Gonzalez and his actions. These actions have extended at times beyond the concrete wall at the property's border and even tread on commemorations of the famous strike. Gonzalez changed the name of a street honoring the martyrs of Rio Blanco to "Placido Mata," the name of one of his children who had died in an accident.

Patricia Vega, the journalist who has been closely following the developments said that she would not be surprised if even more modifications were carried out. The fate of the historic mill site is thus tangled up in the politics and economics of the region, unless the newly formed organization for industrial archaeology is able to exert greater influence and succeeds in preventing further renovations.

—Bert S. Kreitlow is a graduate student at the University of Iowa.