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Postcards from the Río Bravo Border

Postcards from the Río Bravo Border: Picturing the Place, Placing the Picture, 1900s–1950s

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  • Book Info
    Postcards from the Río Bravo Border
    Book Description:

    Between 1900 and the late 1950s, Mexican border towns came of age both as tourist destinations and as emerging cities. Commercial photographers produced thousands of images of their streets, plazas, historic architecture, and tourist attractions, which were reproduced as photo postcards. Daniel Arreola has amassed one of the largest collections of these border town postcards, and in this book, he uses this amazing visual archive to offer a new way of understanding how the border towns grew and transformed themselves in the first half of the twentieth century, as well as how they were pictured to attract American tourists.

    Postcards from the Río Bravo Borderpresents nearly two hundred images of five significant towns on the lower Río Bravo-Matamoros, Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, Piedras Negras, and Villa Acuña. Using multiple images of sites within each city, Arreola tracks changes both within the cities as places and in the ways in which the cities have been pictured for tourist consumption. He makes a strong case that visual imagery has a shaping influence on how we negotiate and think about places, creating a serial scripting or narrating of the place. Arreola also shows how postcard images, when systematically and chronologically arranged, can tell us a great deal about how Mexican border towns have been viewed over time. This innovative visual approach demonstrates that historical imagery, no less than text or maps, can be assembled to tell a compelling geographical story about place and time.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-75281-8
    Subjects: Population Studies, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
    (pp. viii-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xxii)
    (pp. 1-11)

    POSTCARDS FROM THE RÍO BRAVO BORDERengages the relationship among photographic image, past place, and landscape. Photographs are part of what is called “visual culture,” a term that emerged first in the art world of the 1970s and that is now understood as an umbrella expression for imagery in general and its relationship to cultures.¹ Visual culture through photographs is central to the particular goals of this story. Visual culture is examined in its association with travel and tourism as cultural processes because the tourist was the primary audience for the picture postcard, the principal visual medium explored in this...


      (pp. 15-40)

      BORDER TOWNS OF THE RÍO BRAVO are part of the larger system of border places along the 2000-mile boundary that separates the United States from Mexico.¹ This project explores five towns that line the opposite bank of the Rio Grande facing Texas (Fig. 1.1). These towns are located in the north Mexican states of Tamaulipas (Matamoros, Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo) and Coahuila (Piedras Negras, Villa Acuña). I refer to these towns as situated along the Río Bravo (del Norte), as the river is called in Mexico. The towns are positioned on the easternmost segment of the Río Bravo–Rio Grande drainage...

      (pp. 41-63)

      ON FEBRUARY 3, 2009, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City launched an exhibit of the distinguished American photographer Walker Evans (1903–1975). Evans earned his reputation as the poet laureate of American photography because much of his work captured the people and places of the Great Depression and townscapes across America. His camera was chiefly focused on the commonplace, and it rendered a powerful humanity to his images of everyday life and lived spaces. The exhibition, however, did not feature any of Evans’s tens of thousands of photographic images that are part of the Metropolitan’s permanent collection;...


    • 3 GATEWAYS
      (pp. 67-93)

      RÍO BRAVO BORDER TOWNS were distinctive river settlements, and that condition made necessary a means to access the Mexican town from American soil. From the earliest town founding simple watercraft ferried residents, and later visitors, between Mexican and American banks of the river. At some locations, cables were strung across the river, and shallow draft flat-bottom watercraft would be pulled along the cables to steady and secure passage across swift currents, as seen in 1887 when the Texas & Coahuila Ferry Company operated between Eagle Pass, Texas, and Ciudad Porfirio Díaz.¹

      By the late nineteenth century, bridge construction began to...

    • 4 STREETS
      (pp. 95-115)

      PAST THE GATEWAY THE ANATOMY of the Río Bravo border town transitions to a main street, often identified in Spanish as the town’scalle principal. For some towns like Matamoros, the transition is greatly extended because the main street is not immediately encountered once the gateway has been navigated; in fact, it is miles away. At Piedras Negras, a visitor must negotiate the town’s plaza before engaging the main street. Reynosa’s main street is a string that meanders lazily from the gateway toward the town center. Still other towns like Villa Acuña and Nuevo Laredo have main streets that are...

    • 5 PLAZAS
      (pp. 117-137)

      PERHAPS THE MOST ICONIC LANDSCAPE of any Mexican town is its plaza. Plazas defined the initial organization of a settlement, with streets and blocks surveyed from the plaza, the most central location of a place. When one enters a Mexican town, the principal roads run to the plaza, where the seat of municipal authority, a town’spresidencia municipal, and, typically, its spiritual center,la parroquia, or main church, are positioned. Small towns might have but a single plaza, yet even modest settlements could have two or more plazas. Nevertheless, plazas are varied by their position within a town and the...

      (pp. 139-158)

      ATTRACTIONS ARE GATHERING PLACES that accommodate large numbers of visitors and residents alike. While plazas, discussed in Chapter 5, are a type of open-air social space that accommodates relaxation and celebration, attractions are more specific in their use, typically accommodate larger crowds, and can be private as well as public areas. In the Río Bravo border towns, attractions can be markets, transportation stations, and sporting arenas like bullrings. This chapter introduces examples of these spaces for the river towns and draws upon themercado(market) of Matamoros and theplaza de toros(bullring) in Villa Acuña as vignettes to elaborate...

      (pp. 159-185)

      MANY KINDS OF LOCATIONS were visited by tourists and therefore by postcard photographers. Unlike attractions, businesses and landmarks were more frequent in the border townscape and were typically smaller gathering places. For the border town tourist, however, these places were part of the bread and butter of visitor experience. For example, bars—a popular type of gathering place—gained notoriety during the American Prohibition era (1919–1933) when legal alcohol production and consumption were suppressed in the United States but promoted in Mexico. Exterior and especially interior views of these spaces were a favorite of postcard photographers. The near universal...

      (pp. 187-211)

      IN THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY, Río Bravo border settlements were small towns, and visitors recognized aspects of life both familiar and exotic, as one account related.

      Across from the Texas side of the Rio Grande, lies Mexican Laredo. It has a population of about 5,000 people and appears to be a lively, bustling little city. It is a typical Mexican town in every respect. The streets are narrow and lined with low stone buildings. Many of the houses are made of mud, and there is a general effect that is at once amusing and interesting to the visitor.¹

      By midcentury,...


      (pp. 215-222)

      THE CAPACITY TO PICTURE PLACES has been called the “geographical imagination,” and it is one of the most basic ways we transform space into place. In 1502, Leonardo Da Vinci painted what may have been the first accurate aerial view of an Italian city, showing with precision streets, squares, houses, and fortifications. Almost three centuries later, in 1796, German Aloys Senefelder invented lithography, enabling generations of printmaking that depicted, among other things, town views from a bird’s-eye perspective, a practice that became a popular way to represent places in the nineteenth century. In 1856, Nadir (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) opened a Paris...

    (pp. 223-228)
  10. NOTES
    (pp. 229-237)
    (pp. 238-251)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 252-258)