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The production of maquiladora space in Motul, Mexico: from henequen municipality to industrial city

Claudia Fonseca Alfaro


At the intersection of commodity chains and urban research, this paper engages with Bair and Werner’s “disarticulations perspective” through a conversation with Lefebvre’s “production of space.” I argue that this mix can provide a stronger theoretical lens to explore social differentiation, accumulation by dispossession, and uneven development and with this, shed more light on how the uneven geographies of global capitalism are created and reproduced. I develop my argument fixed analytically in Motul, in the southeastern Mexican state of Yucatán, as I explore the changes that the city experienced in the midst of a maquiladora boom-to-bust cycle. Maquiladoras—a type of Export Processing Zone that were meant to replace the state’s dying agro-based economy—arrived to the region in the 1980s and grew exponentially between the 1990s-2000s. With a historical approach, I draw on discourse analysis and ethnography-inspired fieldwork to unpack how the production of maquiladora space—in the form of the New Frontier—came about at the intersection between discourse, materiality, and effects on everyday life. The creation of the New Frontier unfolded within the logic of a global maquiladora architecture but was carried out by local actors through a double movement of homogenization and differentiation.

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Introduction: How does a maquiladora shape a city?

1Expanding from Honduras, Montgomery Industries (all factory names have been changed) was inaugurated in 1995 in Motul, Yucatán, the south of Mexico. Motul had always been an important regional center but like most settlements beyond the metropolitan area of the capital, Mérida, lacked industrial activities. Montgomery Industries was a first. Taking up 25,000 square meters in the recently created Motul Industrial Park, the plant was constructed in a record time of twenty-four weeks (DY 1995a). Fourteen million dollars were invested in what was considered phase one of a “megaproject” which was forecasted would eventually cover fourteen hectares (ibid). Surrounded by politicians, government officials, and the Hong Kongese CEO of the company, the state governor presided over the inauguration ceremony. The establishment of the garment maquiladora, a type of Export Processing Zone (EPZ), generated pride and great expectations of economic opportunities. According to El Diario de Yucatán (ibid), a local politician emphasized the competitive advantages gained by investing in the state—while workers in other parts of the world earn six dollars per hour, workers in Motul earn four dollars per day. This meant, he explained, that a person’s wage elsewhere for a day’s labor, forty-eight dollars, would be enough for Montgomery to pay for the labor of twelve Yucatecan workers. A representative from the Secretariat of Commerce and Industrial Promotion (Secofi) added that the new factory would nevertheless be a “real” source of well-paid jobs (ibid). By the time of its inauguration, Montgomery Industries had already been in operation two months and had hired 400 people. A load of 20,000 jeans, some of them Old Nave (sic), was ready to be shipped from the seaport Progreso (DY 1995a). The forecast at the time was that Montgomery would provide between 1,400 and 2,000 jobs (ibid). By 1998, Montgomery had expanded by opening a maquiladora in Maxcanú, the west of the state, (Castilla Ramos and Torres Góngora 2009) and by 1999 there were reports the company was preparing to continue its western expansion by investing 25 million dollars in the construction of five new maquiladoras in Hunucmá that would employ 3,000 people (DY 1999c). In the meantime, a second maquiladora, Alexandra Originals secured 8,000 square meters in Motul Industrial Park and promised an investment of 1.8 million dollars and the creation of 4,000 jobs (DY 1995b). In 1997, Mayan Palace opened its doors with an investment of 60 million pesos (7.58 million USD, exchange rate from 1997) and taking up 2 hectares (DY 1997b). Reflecting on Mayan Palace’s inauguration ceremony, where this time the President of the Republic would preside, the local mayor expressed his view that Motul’s importance as a settlement was increasing because of the changes occurring—from being a “henequen municipality [it] is now transforming into an industrial city,” he added (DY 1997a). Henequen—a succulent plant endemic to the Yucatan peninsula cultivated for fiber production—had been the commodity that had sustained the state’s agro-economy through international trade since the late 19th century (Zarate-Hoyos and Albornoz Medina 1999) and Motul had been an important player, right in the “heart of the henequen region” (Barceló Quintal 2011). The new maquiladoras were part of a state-led project to replace the dying henequen economy and Motul was in the midst of it. Further evidence of the economic growth that Motul and the region were experiencing and their increased importance in the national landscape, a third inauguration ceremony took place in 1999. A few meters from Motul Industrial Park, the President of the Republic this time presided over the opening of a section of a new road, 6.4 kilometers to be exact (DY 1999c). The humble 6.4 kilometers would eventually become the four-lane federal highway #176 in the early 2000s which, replacing an old two-lane road that used to cross all the villages between Motul and Mérida, halved the travel time to the capital and thus eased the trip to Progreso in the coast. With the highway, came the need for a highway ramp. Before the construction of this new infrastructural addition, Motul’s mayor at the time described the project as “expensive, but feasible and necessary for the community” (DY 1999d). Furthermore, he added, the ramp would make the city look “modern, in line with the development achieved” (ibid). Eventually there was also a bypass constructed in the northern outskirts of the city, facilitating the flow of vehicles driving eastwardly, and thus connecting Mérida in the west to Tizimín in the east (DY 1999a). By the beginning of the 2000’s, it seemed that Motul, fueled by maquiladora growth, was definitely transforming into an industrial city.

Fig.1. Map of the Yucatan peninsula.

Fig.1. Map of the Yucatan peninsula.

Source: Zahra Hamidi, 2019.

2As the editors of this special issue argue, there has been little research that explores the interplay between the built environment and global systems of manufacturing. In other words, what are the spatial typologies that emerge shaped by the driving forces of commodity flows? What type of urban spaces do global commodity flows create? I take up the challenge of exploring these questions through the case of the city of Motul and Montgomery Industries, the most important maquiladora in Yucatán. The Yucatecan case is significant because the state experienced a dramatic maquiladora boom to bust cycle between the 1990s and early 2000s (Fonseca Alfaro 2018). Described as a case of a “remote” and “rural” area “incorporated into global markets” (Van Dooren and Zárate-Hoyos 2003), the arrival of maquiladoras to the state—considered poor and indigenous in addition to rural—occurred in a context of local state intervention and facilitated by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) (Canto Sáenz 2001). However, it was also a national project. Having existed in Mexico since the 1960s, maquiladoras were traditionally located in the region bordering the United States and did not expand into new interior locations until legal mechanisms were changed to allow it (Iglesias Prieto 1997; Plankey Videla 2008). Maquiladoras were promoted in Yucatán by the state as a promise of modernity and development—a new economic model that would remove or transform the remnants of the region’s peasant and agricultural past (Canto Sáenz 2001).

3With a historical perspective (almost forty years after the first maquiladora arrived), I draw on thirteen weeks of fieldwork spread across 2014 to 2016; forty-one semi-structured interviews with maquiladora workers and ex-workers, a maquiladora manager, residents in Motul, government officials and academics from Universidad Autonóma de Yucatán; participant observation in Mérida and Motul; and discourse analysis of government reports, brochures, websites, and newspaper articles to explore the production of maquiladora space (for more details, see Fonseca Alfaro 2018). At the intersection between critical studies of commodity chains and urban research, I rely on a conversation between Jennifer Bair and Marion Werner’s (2011a) “disarticulations perspective” and Henri Lefebvre's (1991) “production of space” to carry out this task. Both approaches share a Marxist genealogy and a theoretical commitment to question global inequality, and emphasize the role of local actors and histories (see, for example, McGrath 2018; Argent 2017; Werner 2019; Lefebvre 2003; Goonewardena et al. 2008). Their theoretical differences and tensions are also useful. While the disarticulations approach allows us to emphasize the processes of inclusion and exclusion intrinsic in global commodity chains, Lefebvre’s spatial theory lets us understand how commodity chains are linked to the production of capitalist space. Combining both approaches gives us a stronger lens to further explore the aspects of social differentiation, accumulation by dispossession, and uneven development intrinsic in a disarticulations analysis. Through this theoretical conversation, I answer Bair and Werner's (2011a: 990) call to connect “an analysis of global commodities to the politics of disinvestment, devaluation, place-making, and subject-making which make their production possible” and with this, contribute to shedding more light on how the uneven geographies of global capitalism are created and reproduced.

4I build my argument by fixing myself analytically to the city of Motul and carry out the unpacking of the production of maquiladora space by analyzing the discursive and material creation of Yucatán as a New maquiladora Frontier. I have structured my paper in the following way: after elaborating on the theoretical exchange between the disarticulations perspective and the production of space, I discuss the New Frontier—a label that appeared in advertising campaigns and that later on was embraced by investors—in three analytical sections. In these sections, I unpack the representations of space, the spatial practices, and spaces of representation of the New Frontier going back and forth to Motul. Through this, I am able to discuss the discursive portrayal of Yucatán as a suitable maquiladora location, the materiality of the large-scale infrastructural projects that were commissioned during the industry’s heyday, and give an indirect glimpse into the transformations that the people in the city of Motul experienced in their everyday lives. Through the lens of disarticulations, I bring in discussions of social/spatial differentiation, accumulation by dispossession, and uneven development. I conclude by reflecting how the conversation between disarticulations and Lefebvre can be taken forward even more in order to shed more light on the type of urban spaces that global commodity flows create.

Disarticulations in conversation with the production of space

5Questioning and building on global commodity chain (GCC) or global value chain (GVC) approaches that follow a commodity through the dynamics of its chain, the disarticulations perspective is a methodological approach that helps us to analytically fix ourselves to see the flow of commodity chains from one location. Defined by Bair and Werner (2011b: 998) as “an approach attentive to historical and spatial processes of accumulation, disinvestment and dispossession that produce the uneven geographies generative of transnational production networks,” the disarticulations perspective allows us to do four things: (1) study how places experience junctures of inclusion and exclusion from global commodity circuits, (2) explore how global systems of production unfold on the ground guided by local histories and actors (and not only by the forces of market dynamics), (3) understand how social and spatial forms of difference enable and shape commodity chains, and (4) highlight how global production networks are both an outcome of and a contributor to uneven development (Hough 2011; Bair 2014; Bair and Werner 2011b; Werner 2019). Building on Bair and Werner's (2011a) original intervention on disarticulations and a second special issue (see Bair et al. 2013), other authors that have recently revisited the disarticulations perspective are Gutelius (2015) who looks at a distribution hub in the periphery of Chicago to explore how workers negotiate and contest their interactions with global production networks (GPNs) and McGrath (2018) who operationalizes the concept to interrogate the GPN literature for its lack of critical reflections on uneven development. I, on the other hand, would like to explore the connection between disarticulations and space. There are already theoretical openings present in the collective work on disarticulations but the link to spatial theory needs to be developed further. McGrath (2018) argues that discourse and ideology play an essential role in a disarticulations approach. Hough (2011: 1017) explains how disarticulations are “attuned to the social and political conflicts underpinning capital accumulation.” Berndt and Boeckler (2011) make the case that global commodity chains produce places. In their analysis of maquiladoras in the north of Mexico, Bair and Werner (2011b: 1013) argue that local power and social structures in place are “remade as the contours of uneven geographies are iteratively reproduced, and global commodity networks shift to reflect them.” Aided by urban theory, the theoretical openings that are already there (e.g. importance given to place, discourse, ideology, and power) can provide a window to understand the type of spatial typologies that are created through the uneven geographies of global commodity chains. If a disarticulations perspective already implies the understanding that global commodity networks are shaped by the uneven geographies of global capitalism (and vice versa), the question is to further unpack how this process spatially occurs at the local level.

6I suggest that Lefebvre's (1991) production of space can help unpack how the actual production of space occurs. (For empirical examples that operationalize Lefebvre in the context of the global South, see the work of Japhy Wilson in Mexico, Elisa Bertuzzo in Bangladesh or Fraya Frehse in Brazil). With its emphasis on the interplay between built environment, discourse, and lived experience, Lefebvre’s take on space allows us to carry out what Werner (2019: 8) would describe as a “conjunctural analysis”—a type of research that “historicizes regional change and centers questions of social relations without presuming what these will look like.” Lefebvre (1991) spatial theory argues that a society with a capitalist mode of production will create capitalist space in a continuous self-reinforcing process. To analytically grasp the complexity of the production of space, Lefebvre (1991) proposed a two-fold dialectical triad, composed of moments, as a guiding principle. As it is well known, representations of space are the moments connected to the hegemonic production of knowledge (Lefebvre 1991). Examples of representations of space include definitions, descriptions, maps, plans, signs, and diagrams and reflect the fact that they are conceived—defined and demarcated before becoming concrete (Schmid, 2008). Spatial practices are the moments of material dimension—what society’s production and reproduction secretes—and have a close connection to the perceived which consists of what we can grasp with our senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting) (Schmid 2008; Merrifield 2006; Lefebvre 1991). Finally, in contrast to representations of space, the spaces of representation are, in the words of Merrifield (2006: 109), the “nonspecialist world of argot rather than jargon”—the world of the daily and not of specialized language. Lived space is the affective core of space and denotes the way the world is experienced and felt by people in their everyday life (Lefebvre 1991).

7The emphasis on production allows us to reflect that, while there is a dominant form of space (abstract space, the space of capitalism)—and there are groups in society that have more power to produce space—no single entity (e.g., world market or government) or individual can solely influence the production of space (ibid). This premise has two important implications: the fact that space is produced by social reality means that local histories play an important role and a specific analysis of the production of space depending on the context under study can be carried out. The production of space strengthens the commitments established by a disarticulations analysis to explore how local actors and histories promote or contest the local unfolding of global commodity chains. Through the conversation that I am proposing, it becomes possible to highlight that global production links and delinks people and places, and emphasize that these very global production networks create a particular type of space. In the case at hand, this allows us to understand how local uneven geographies shape and are shaped by the production of maquiladora space. There are tensions in mixing commodity chain theory and Marxist approaches. For example, Starosta (2010) criticizes global commodity chains fail to grasp the essence of value. However, this tension is not within the scope of this paper and has been addressed elsewhere in the literature (see McGrath (2018)). Following the theoretical bridges present between the production of space and the disarticulations perspective that I have explained, I use the following three sections to apply the spatial triad in a dialectical fashion to the object of the New Frontier.

The New Frontier: where unions are not as powerful

8Back in the 1990s, the mayor’s belief that Motul was leaving behind its henequen past and moving forward into becoming an industrial city was understandable taking into consideration what was happening in the rest of the state. Newspaper headlines reported what seemed to be an unstoppable future of more and more maquiladoras that would bring more and more jobs (see for example, DY 1999c, 1995c, 1995d, 1999e). What had been wishful thinking when the government launched in 1984 the Henequen Restructuring Program and Comprehensive Development of Yucatán—a plan that projected a diversification of the Yucatecan economy towards and industrialized future and that included, among other measures, prospects for the development of a maquiladora industry (Canto Sáenz 2001)—seemed an absolute reality by the early 2000s. The first maquiladora had arrived to the state in 1981, but, despite state support in the form of investment in infrastructure, by 1990, there were only 13 factories operating. The panorama then began to change dramatically and by the year 2001, the number of maquiladoras had expanded to 131, representing a surprising growth of 1007% (Fonseca Alfaro 2018). Paradoxically, globally connected for many decades through the henequen industry—meeting the demand for ropes generated by the growth of world shipping in the 19th century and, later on in the 20th century, by the Second World War and the Korean War (Moseley and Delpar 2008; Canto Sáenz 2001)—by the 1990s, Yucatán was considered a region that was “isolated” and “remote” from the rest of the Mexico (García de Fuentes and Pérez Medina 1996). The state was also perceived as exhibiting high levels of social backwardness (Gobierno del Estado 2000), suffering from poverty (Zarate-Hoyos and Albornoz Medina 1999), and lacking modernity (Baños Ramírez 2000). Behind were the days in the early 20th century when Yucatecan henequen was Mexico’s main agricultural export (Zuleta Miranda 2004) and considered “green gold” (Baños Ramírez 2010).

9However, in sharp contrast to this narrative of poverty and marginalization, by the mid-2000s, the state was being hailed as the New Frontier of the maquiladora industry in Mexico (Castilla Ramos and García Quintanilla 2006) and praised for being one of the fastest growing regions among the countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD 2007). Local economic indicators give an idea of the economic dynamism in the late 1990s. At its peak, Montgomery Industries came to employ between 5,000 and 6,000 employees in Motul, working across three different shifts (Castilla Ramos and Torres Góngora 2007; and conversation with manager, Montgomery Industries, Motul, November 2015). The demand for workers was so high, that the maquiladora had enough job openings for people from the municipality and surrounding villages as well (Morales, García, and Pérez 2000). This was not an isolated case. In the year 2000, a newspaper article reported that Valladolid, a city in the eastern part of the state, had to “import workers” from surrounding villages since the unemployment rate was 0% (DY 2000b). The same year the unemployment rate at the state level was reported as 1% (Gobierno del Estado 2000).

10As Yucatán had experienced a delinking from the henequen economy it was now linking itself to the global model of Export Processing Zones in the form of maquiladoras—particularly the garment sector. In the early 2000s, Mexico’s maquiladora model was known for not only providing a low-cost labor force, but also exhibiting high productivity standards, a transport and communications network of acceptable quality, and the geographical advantage of close proximity to the United States (Spener, Gereffi, and Bair 2002). However, maquiladoras—a tax regime that allows companies to manufacture or assemble products with duty-free materials within a delimited area (Plankey Videla 2008; “IMMEX - Manufacturing, Maquila and Export Services Industry” 2015)—were also known for its subsistence wages and economic insecurity (Wise and Cypher 2007), environmental degradation (Grineski and Collins 2008), and impacts on the built environment (Landau 2005). As Yucatán attempted to attract foreign investment, it needed to paint itself as a maquiladora space—along with the contours of uneven geographies that came implicitly and explicitly attached. However, in addition to sameness, it also needed to differentiate itself from other maquiladora or EPZ spaces. Spatial and social forms of difference were operationalized. An analysis of government reports (SEFOE 2010, 2011; Gobierno del Estado 2000; Cervera Pacheco 1987) and academic literature (cf. Castilla Ramos and García Quintanilla 2006; Castilla Ramos and Torres Góngora 2009; Rivas F. 1985; Mendoza Fernández 2008; García de Fuentes and Pérez Medina 1996) from the 1980s to the present, show that Yucatán was described as ready for business in terms of assets—e.g. geographical proximity via sea to the east coast of the United States and adequate infrastructure for the flow of products. This is a similar line of argument to the national maquiladora narrative that was present in the 2000s. However, the Yucatecan narrative also emphasized what was seen as the intrinsic qualities of the peninsula: an abundance of natural resources (e.g. water), good quality of life for investors and their families (e.g. spiced by a glorious Mayan legacy), and, what I refer to as, dutiful workers (Fonseca Alfaro 2018). These representations of space tapped at the structural devaluation of the place and workers that Mexico was already known for, but also re-packed and re-valued the narrative through the histories and characteristics of the local context. The narrative of dutiful workers is a good example to expand on the previous point since it displays a typical devalued description of maquiladora operators but infused with a Yucatecan twist. According to academic sources and official documents, Yucatecan maquiladora workers are cheap (García de Fuentes and Pérez Medina 1996; Gravel 2006), qualified despite their low cost (Zarate-Hoyos and Albornoz Medina 1999), and young (SEFOE 2011). The argument of cheapness was an argument repeated even at the scale of Motul as was seen at the beginning of the paper—the local politician who was eager to highlight the devaluation of local workers with the shameless comparison that a person’s wage in another part of the world for a day’s labor would be enough for a maquiladora to pay for the labor of twelve Yucatecan workers. These descriptions of maquiladora workers—cheap, young, and qualified—are a common description of Mexican and global EPZ operators, for example, reminiscent of the work of Norma Iglesias Prieto, Leslie Salzinger, and Melissa Wright. What is interesting is that, aware that the assets that Yucatán was offering in the form of workers were framed against a competitive background that included the traditional maquiladora frontier in the north of Mexico, the local elite (in the form of academics, the state, and the private sector) repacked what could be perceived as weakness in the eyes of capital, as advantages. Yucatecan maquiladora workers were also described as “stable” in the sense of exhibiting low turnover and absenteeism rates (SEFOE 2010; Mendoza Fernández 2008), docile (Canto Sáenz 2001), and “unspoiled” or “virgin” in the sense that they had no previous industrial experience (Castilla Ramos and García Quintanilla 2006; Castilla and Torres 1994 in García de Fuentes and Pérez Medina 1996). These descriptions were made vis-à-vis the north of Mexico where workers were perceived as unruly. With no other choice, the henequen past was brought in to frame the competitiveness of Yucatecan workers. What the New Frontier could offer was former henequen campesinos with no unionized experience and no striking tradition—unlike the Old Frontier (García de Fuentes and Pérez Medina 1996). This was not an isolated view, governmental reports and local companies made sure to highlight the lack of unions and strikes. For example, Yucatán Industrial Parks used to advertise on its website (at least until fall 2014), that investors would find that “unions are not as powerful as in Central America and the north of Mexico” (hard copy, website Yucatán Industrial Parks, accessed 2014). A second example is how the state’s Economic Promotion Secretariat reported in a brochure titled The Investor’s Guide that almost 90% of the companies in the state did “not operate with unions in their premises” (SEFOE, 2010: 8) and assured the reader that “the handful labor disputes [that appear] are solved before they become strikes” (ibid). To strengthen this point, the guide also reported that between the years 2000 and 2009, there had only been one strike in the state (ibid).

11Through a disarticulations lens we can see how Yucatán was a structurally devalued place that became re-valued through the history and local characteristics in place—it was essential for the local elite to paint Yucatán as a typical maquiladora space but at the same time differentiate itself from a common landscape through a Yucatecan twist reflecting the region’s history. The devalued assets of the old henequen period became re-valued and available in the new cycle of investment and accumulation, despite the fact, for example, that the labor pool lacked industrial experience. In other words, the devaluation/re-evaluation of Yucatecan maquiladora workers was carried out taking into consideration precisely what capital values (e.g. low salaries and no hurdles in the road in the form of unruly workers) and this was made possible because of the historical devaluation that already existed surrounding Yucatecan labor. This connects to Bair and Werner (2011b: 1013) emphasis on the process of “delinking”—the juncture when “the connections tying people and places to a particular chain are severed, thereby excluding them from circuits of capital accumulation in ways that may be important for their later incorporation into new chains and new circuits of accumulation.” The very delinking from the henequen economy facilitated the transition into the maquiladora model.

12The narratives presented here are important because representations of space are not random or innocent—they serve a purpose (Schmid 2014). In a dialectical fashion, space is produced at the interplay of not only knowledge, ideology and power, but also materiality (Schmid 2008). Which takes me to the next point.

The maquiladora topography of the New Frontier

13Motul Industrial Park stands unremarkably in the edge of Motul. Set up in 1995 on 100 hectares of land that had been expropriated by presidential decree only two years earlier (Diario Oficial de la Federación 1993), the park does not have a fence surrounding its perimeter—its open confines allows it to merge itself into the surrounding houses and wild vegetation. Even though it is officially delimitated, only 3 buildings—Montgomery Industries, the former Mayan Palace factory, and a third unrelated plant—take up 6 hectares (SEFOE 2010). The remaining 94 hectares are unoccupied and as such the “industrial park” only exists in its legal demarcation. As explained before, maquiladoras are after all a legal space, a tax regime, not a specific type of factory or architecture. Part of the Export Processing Zone landscape, maquiladoras are what Bach (2011) would describe as “the Zone”—a delimited, frictionless, and business-friendly space that allows commodities to flow fast without hurdles in the form of taxes, high wages or strict labor standards. A perimeter of fences becomes irrelevant as soon as a factory is categorized as a maquiladora—the legal category automatically creates an inside/outside and gives form to a chunk of the homogenous, global space of the Zone. In the case of Montgomery Industries, there came to be, nevertheless, a perimeter of fences and a security booth to protect the brands being produced.

14Wise and Cypher (2007) argue that the “precarization and disaccumulation” that goes within maquiladoras is not only in terms of labor—as mentioned before, subsistence wages, job–related injuries, and economic insecurity for the workers—but also in the form of land dispossession. (For other examples that explore the relationship between land dispossession and maquiladoras see González Jiménez (2017) or Levien (2011) for an analysis that connects to Special Economic Zones). In the case of Motul Industrial Park, a dispossession was carried out by the state when the land, an ejido“small plots of land communally owned by peasants and indigenous communities” (Berndt and Boeckler 2011)—was expropriated. Regardless of the fact that most of the 100 hectares actually stand empty, the land now known as Motul Industrial Park has already been put aside for a purpose in the form of potential abstract space. It is important to point out that Motul Industrial Park was only 1 out of 9 parks that were developed throughout the state during the decades leading to the maquiladora boom. Even though the background of how the land for the rest of the parks was obtained is unknown, a similar state of emptiness is prevalent. According to the state’s Economic Promotion Secretariat, at least 4 out of the 9 industrial parks have an “urbanization rate”—urbanized in the sense that there is pavement, electricity or a building of some sort—below 24%. Additionally, 7 out of 9 have an occupancy rate below 44% (SEFOE 2010). This situation is what Arboleda (2016) would refer to as “territorial fragmentation” in the sense that it is a “state-led spatial segregation” carried out to meet the needs of capital. This is a form of accumulation by dispossession. Following Lefebvre (2003), the process of land dispossession that took place in Motul responds to the process of urbanization as the realm that is created for capital. Being able to differentiate between the thing-outcome (e.g. a settlement) from the process of urbanization itself (Harvey 2014) is essential to understand urban spaces beyond materiality. Spatial practices can appear in the form of nothingness when the material dimension—in the form of land in this case—nevertheless, connect to the circuits of capital. We can see that the uneven geographies of global commodity chains take form at the intersection between accumulation by dispossession and the creation of capitalist space.

Fig.2. Motul Industrial Park (on the left side of the road) merges into the surroundings (houses).

Fig.2. Motul Industrial Park (on the left side of the road) merges into the surroundings (houses).

Source: The author, 2016.

15As important as the legal and physical integrity of the Zone itself is, the accompanying infrastructure is also key for the commodity to flow. Motul’s new road, bypass, and proud rampway were small blocks in a decades-long plan to move Yucatán away from its henequen dependency into an industrialized future. Later on, as the presence of maquiladoras rapidly expanded, the state invested heavily in making sure there was adequate infrastructure for the flow of products. The state had hopefully but unsuccessfully intervened in the henequen economy already in the 1960s and 1970s (Yoder 2008) and by the 1980s it had become obvious that a “monocrop economy” could no longer sustain the region (Baklanoff 2008). Responding to this, Ciudad Industrial—Industrial City—the first park in the state, was constructed in Mérida in 1972 (Canto Sáenz 2001). A second, the Park for Non-Polluting Industries, was also built in the capital but in 1985 (SEFOE 2010, 2015). During the same decade, attempting to foresee the needs of an unknown industry that had not arrived yet, the state invested 118 million pesos (51.9 million USD, exchange rate from 1988) in upgrading Industrial City and 273 million pesos (120 million USD, exchange rate from 1988) in the installation of a radio system via satellite in the Park for Non-Polluting Industries (Cervera Pacheco 1987). The generation of electricity was also prioritized—6 billion pesos (2.6 billion USD, exchange rate from 1988) were invested in the power plants Mérida II and Nachi Cocom, and a new thermoelectric plant, Valladolid (ibid).

16By the mid-1990s, when maquiladoras were becoming a reality, the state began investing in a long list of infrastructure projects labeled as “essential” despite their high costs. Forecasting more industrial and maquiladora growth, the state’s capacity to generate electricity was increased. A 800-km gas pipeline was built to feed a new power station, Planta Mérida III (Gobierno del Estado 2000). The network of roads in the state was expanded and modernized at locations that were perceived as strategic (such in the city of Motul). The airport in Mérida was upgraded so that it could accommodate larger airplanes, and a new one, Chichén Itzá International Airport, was built in the municipality of Kaua in the eastern part of the state. In total, almost 1.4 billion pesos (147 million USD, exchange rate from 2000) were spent between 1995 and 2001 in road, airport, and telecommunications infrastructure (ibid).

17The crowning infrastructural achievement that was meant to aid the industrialization of the state, was the expansion of the seaport in Progreso. The settlement of Progreso was created from scratch in the 19th century when the henequen oligarchy decided to replace the old seaport (in Sisal) in order to more efficiently export its commodity to their main market, the United States of America (Barceló Quintal 2011). Surveyors chose a spot that was the shortest route between Mérida and the coast (33,480 meters, to be exact) and the creation of the port was approved in 1856. The place was named El Progreso—progress. By 1881, a railroad track had been built to connect the new port to Mérida (ibid). Faced with shifting sands that made it impossible to dredge the shallow bed next to the coast, the first expansion of the port came in the 1930s when a 2-kilometer pier was constructed so that the depth of the port could reach 6 meters (Moreno, Torres Acosta, and Castro Borges 2004). Still trying to deal with the shallow sea, in the 1980s, the pier was extended to 6.5 kilometers (PuertosYucatán n.d.). In 1990s, came a big investment of 119 million USD covered by the federal government (ibid). Powerful machines were used to dredge the ocean floor around the seaport to 12 meters deep so that bigger passenger and cargo ships could moor (PuertosYucatán n.d.; Gobierno del Estado 2000). Additionally, the port’s surface was extended from 4 to 40 hectares so that more containers could be processed and new terminals, warehouses, and docks were built (Gobierno del Estado 2000). By the end of the expansion, the pier at Progreso had become “one of the longest such structures in the world” according to NASA EarthObservatory (2014).

Fig.3. “The pier that extends from Progreso into the Gulf of Mexico is among the longest structures in the world.”

Fig.3. “The pier that extends from Progreso into the Gulf of Mexico is among the longest structures in the world.”

Source: NASA Earth Observatory, image by J. Allen, 2014.

18In addition to its impressive materiality, the expansion of Progreso had a strong discursive component that reflected how the state was attempting to leave behind its henequen legacy and moving into what was perceived as a modern and industrial future. The renovated port was described as a “moral triumph” for the state (Cervera Pacheco 1987), a symbol of the 21st century (DY 1999b) and a sign of confidence that the Yucatec people can construct great infrastructure projects (DY 2000a). It was also described as a gate to “the seas of the world” and thus a link between the region and the global economy (DY 1999b). The description that reflected the most the discursive reality of the New Frontier was perceiving the port as a “door to the east coast of the United States” (DY 1995b). Once again, as Yucatán attempted to differentiate itself within the maquiladora landscape in the north of the country and elsewhere, it needed to re-value the devaluation of being considered a “remote” and “isolated” place. The lack of geographical proximity to the actual border with the United States (one of the main destinations of the products that maquiladoras were producing) needed to be addressed. The idea of the New Frontier was also a re-conceptualization and form of spatial differentiation that asked us to think that if we only ignored the Gulf of Mexico, coastal cities in the United States like New Orleans, Houston and Miami were actually border cities to Yucatán. The discursive narrative of the geographical proximity of Yucatán via sea to the United States can also be found in representations of space in the literature (see for example Morales, García, and Pérez 2001: 313; “Yucatán Industrial Parks” 2015; SEFOE 2011: 4). In short, the textual and visual discursive narrative of the New Frontier was given strength through the materiality of the seaport. Through this, Yucatán was not only able to differentiate itself, but also to assert itself as a worthy maquiladora location. The expansion of Progreso also converted a devalued asset from the henequen period into a re-valued and vital object in the new cycle of capital accumulation. In addition to spatial differentiation, the creation of the New Frontier relied on the construction of infrastructural projects (e.g. power plants, gas pipelines, the expansion of roads, and investment on airports) that provided the veins to the circuits of capital. The New Frontier also consolidated in the form of capitalist space through the industrial parks that were created or demarcated, and accumulation by dispossession in the form of land expropriation (such in the case of Motul Industrial Parks). While some spatial practices were concretized in materiality, others were given forms in legal mechanisms. However, all were informed by the discursive reality of the New Frontier and made real through local actors. If indeed the maquiladora expansion in Yucatán was in part possible by the legal framework established by NAFTA, it was enabled by the local elite (in the form of strong politicians) and facilitated by the infrastructure that already existed from the time of the henequen era (Fonseca Alfaro 2018; Canto Sáenz 2001).

19If narratives become materiality in the form of capitalist space, this is not due to some sort of misapprehension—spatial practices have a discursive reality (in the form of representations of space) at their foundation. Spatial practices, as explained before, are what society secretes, mediating between discourse and lived experience (Lefebvre 1991). This serves as a bridge to the next point.

Expensive but necessary: the development detonators of the New Frontier

20The expectations that existed around maquiladoras in the mid-1990s evaporated in the 2000s. Despite the fact that by the year 2000 Montgomery Industries had become the most important maquiladora in the state—offering an almost full-package in its manufacturing process: cutting, garment assembly, laundry, finishing, inspection, and packaging (Castilla Ramos and Torres Góngora 2007)—the factory’s ambitious plans for expansion across different municipalities in Yucatán came to exist in a much smaller form. The plant in Maxcanú did come to employ between 1,000 and 1,300 people but closed down in 2009 (Castilla Ramos and Torres Góngora 2009). The dream of five maquiladoras in Hunucmá materialized in the shape of a warehouse that by 2009, was only employing 7 people (ibid). Alexandra Originals—the plant that had been forecasted to start operations in Motul Industrial Park in 1996 (DY 1995b)—never materialized and instead simply faded from the newspaper headlines. Mayan Palace left the industrial park in the early 2000s. The panorama was similar at the state level. After the peak experienced in 2001 when there were 131 factories in the state, the maquiladora boom went bust and a steady, general contraction in the subsequent 5 years saw the number of maquiladoras shrink to 76. The year 2008 saw a slight improvement when the number of factories jumped to 94, but the dwindling of maquiladora presence continued after that. According to Castilla Ramos and Torres Góngora (2010: 51), the maquiladora “collapse” can be traced to the years between 2001 and 2003 when more than 10,000 jobs were lost in the state as a result of changes in international markets, a slowing down of the economy in the US and the region, and hurricane Isidoro which hit the peninsula in 2002 causing great damage. As of April 2019, there are 55 maquiladoras operating in Yucatán (INEGI 2019).

21Montgomery Industries continues operating in Motul, albeit in a smaller form. The multiple brands being produced in 2009—American Eagle, Levi Strauss, Eddie Bauer, Polo Ralph Lauren, LLBean’s, Outfitters, GAP and Ann Taylor (Castilla Ramos and Torres Góngora 2009)—had shrunk to a few—L.L. Bean and Polo Ralph Lauren—by 2015 (Fonseca Alfaro 2018). According to the company’s website, Montgomery employs 2,000 people and produces over 3,6 million units per year (MI 2016). Its brands include (in addition to L.L. Bean and Polo Ralph Lauren), Fashionable Moxie and Moss, Chubbies, R13, and Karen Kane. A sister company is located in Huizhou, China and employs more than 1,500 people and produces up to 3 million units per year (ibid). Montgomery Industries and its Chinese counterpart belong to a corporation based in Hong Kong made up of four subsidiaries. One of the subsidiaries is listed as running the two garment factories while the rest deal with the produce sector (with farms in Honduras and China), real estate (with assets in the United States, China, Hong Kong, Mexico, and Honduras), and investments in “healthcare, food chain, energy, household goods, banking, entertainment, and many others” (MG 2017).

22Motul failed to become the industrial city that was forecasted in the mid-1990s, but the steady presence of Montgomery Industries for more than 20 years has brought dramatic changes to the city at the level of the everyday. With new job opportunities, the inhabitants substituted their bicycles for motorcycles—a lucky few from motorcycles to cars. New neighborhoods were developed as people were able to access loans to buy houses, regional and national-wide retail chains arrived in the city, and the travel time to Mérida decreased as a result of the new highway. However, the bust of the maquiladora boom caused a decrease in production levels at Montgomery which in turn led to lay-offs and a shrinking in wages. In a context where wages are based on productivity levels, this created an increase in precarious employment conditions. Research participants report facing lay-offs only to have been re-hired months later—causing them to lose seniority benefits. Faced with lower incomes, some Montgomery workers have been pressured to get second jobs, extending their working time to fifteen hours per day or forcing them to work on the days they are free from the maquiladora, consequently eliminating or restricting their leisure and resting time (Fonseca Alfaro 2018).

23It is also important to emphasize that the positive changes that the residents of Motul experienced in connection to the investment in infrastructure (e.g. the new highway that decreased the travel time to Mérida) came as a secondary effect in a context where the raison d'être became the maquiladora project itself. Even though the infrastructure projects that the state heavily invested on were referred to as “development detonators” because they were supposed to “smash” the hindrances to development (Gobierno del Estado, 2000), their logic and purpose at the end was to facilitate the flow of capital and accomplish a capitalist dream of development and modernity. For example, Progreso—progress—was an infrastructural project that was meant to link Yucatán to the global network of EPZs just like it had integrated the state to the commodity chain of henequen in the 19th century. The expansion of Progreso was regarded as the biggest development detonator and as such the project was carried out despite the huge monetary cost. This is reminiscent of the ramp project in Motul mentioned in the introduction where the mayor described it as “expensive but necessary” to make the city look “modern, in line with the development achieved” (DY 1999d). In the New Frontier, the idea of expensive but necessary came to define and inform infrastructure. In this sense, the state’s development detonators are what Wainwright (2008) would refer as “capitalism qua development”—the promotion and unfolding of capitalism in the name of development. This is an example, as argued by Escobar (1995: 39), of the belief that industrialization (in addition to urbanization) are “inevitable and necessarily progressive routes to modernization.” This created a context where seeing infrastructure through the eyes of expensive but necessary established the other side of the coin—seeing other type of infrastructure as basic but not essential. Because of this, the state prioritized infrastructure that was perceived could help the flow of commodities and marginalized investment in infrastructure such as piped water, sanitation or access to healthcare (Fonseca Alfaro 2018).

Fig.4. Federal highway #176, in the back Motul’s highway ramp.

Fig.4. Federal highway #176, in the back Motul’s highway ramp.

Source: The author, 2016.

24The detonators failed to bring the expected development if we judge by poverty and income levels and access to services. Yucatán continues to be described today by both state and federal governments as a place that has high poverty levels and that lacks full coverage of basic services (COESPY 2013; SEDATU 2014). It is also a place that has high levels of income inequality—Yucatán’s Gini coefficient is 0.511, making it the fourth most unequal state in the country (INEGI 2014). In contrast, the capitalist topography of the New Frontier stands in disuse. For example, according to the 2012-2018 state administration, only 21% of Progreso’s capacity was used in 2012, down from 25% in 2007 (COESPY 2013). Based on the actual consumption of electricity in the state, Yucatán only uses 39% of the capacity of 1,532 MW installed (Fonseca Alfaro 2018). The state of affairs of the industrial parks is another powerful example of the over-dimension and the current futility of what was supposed to detonate development. As explained before, most of the industrial parks have an occupancy rate below 44%. Representations of space of Yucatán as a New Frontier combined with capital-oriented ideas of modernity and development, informed the spatial practices that took shape in the form of development detonators, greatly shaping the spaces of representation. As argued by Lefebvre, this is the space of capitalism at its purest—abstract space taking precedence over the realm of lived experience. From a disarticulations perspective we can see that the maquiladora boom responded to forces of market dynamics but was also enabled and promoted by local histories and actors. Before the boom, if Yucatán was to effectively become the New Frontier of the maquiladora industry in the country, it needed infrastructure. Maquiladoras did not light the fire of big investment in infrastructure in the state, but it fueled it—and thus contributed to uneven development. At the same time, maquiladoras were not only a contributor to uneven development but also an outcome. Maquiladoras were attracted to Yucatán precisely because of the uneven condition that already existed in the state: its devalued workers that were expected to earn four dollars per day, weak unions, and a devalued economy (see for example Metcalfe 1995) that was fertile for the next round of capital accumulation.

Conclusion: How does a maquiladora shape the urban?

25Even if it did not become the industrial city foreseen in the mid-1990s as it attempted to leave its agricultural past behind, Motul continues to be an important regional center and a symbol of Yucatecan urbanity and modernity with its bypass, ramp, industrial park, and link to a federal highway. Montgomery Industries, a garment factory and an outcome of the maquiladora boom that the state experienced between the 1990s and the early 2000s, brought great changes to the city. As the boom contracted and maquiladoras left, the factories in general left a big impact on the state. In this article, I have used Lefebvre's (1991) production of space in conversation with a disarticulations perspective (Bair and Werner 2011a) to analyze how maquiladora space was produced at the interplay between discourse, materiality, and changes at the level of the everyday (addressed indirectly since it is not within the scope of this paper to explore the Lefebvrean conception of everyday life fully). Focusing on the discursive and material object of the New Frontier and analytically fixed in Motul, I have explored the dialectical interplay of representations of space, spatial practices, and spaces of representations. Through the disarticulations toolkit—e.g. focus on social/spatial differentiation, accumulation by dispossession, and uneven development—I have been able to point out how the state’s henequen past was used to differentiate Yucatán in the maquiladora landscape, emphasize the role that local actors had in implementing the maquiladora project, and highlight the uneven development that unfolded. The creation of the maquiladora topography of the New Frontier relied on discourse, land, and infrastructure through a double movement of homogenization and differentiation. While the state invested heavily to make Yucatán into a maquiladora space that could support and facilitate the flow of commodities, it also used discourse to set itself apart. For example, the narrative of dutiful workers was a form of social differentiation used to paint a typical devalued description of maquiladora operators but reframed through the state’s henequen past to revalue Yucatecan workers as stable, docile, and not prone to conflict because of their lack of industrial experience. Complementing this social differentiation, there was also spatial differentiation. The narrative of Progreso, the state’s main seaport, as a geographical location in close proximity to the east coast of the United States was used to convert Yucatán from a devalued place (e.g. remote and isolated) into a re-valued and strategic place—a frontier location vis-à-vis the United States. The investment in the expansion of Progreso was used to strengthen this frontier narrative and give it materiality. The social and spatial—both discursive and material—differentiations that the local elite (e.g. academics, politicians, and the private sector) produced were made through a reflection of the old, traditional maquiladora frontier in Mexico (the northern, border states) and a wider acknowledgement of the global maquiladora topography. In the process of creation of the New Frontier, infrastructure for the commodity came to be seen through the eyes of expensive but necessary in sharp contrast to infrastructure that came to be considered basic but not essential (e.g. piped water, sanitation or access to healthcare). This is exemplified through the state’s investment in development detonators—huge infrastructural projects that were meant to bring development but instead became a Trojan horse for the expansion of capitalism in the form of abstract space. Most of the over-dimensioned development detonators now stand empty and unused—a symbol of the uneven development that the state is responsible for in its chase for an industrialized, maquiladora dream that did not last. An uneven geography unfolded in Yucatán within the logic of a global maquiladora topography. However, the local elite played an important role in unfolding and recreating uneven development through global production. In order to understand how commodity chains produce capitalist space at the local level, it is important to historicize as argued by the disarticulations approach. Following Lefebvre’s understanding of space, it is also important to emphasize the material reality of discourse and fetishized space. This helps us to understand the role of discourse in connection to material effects and changes to lived experience. In this case, spatial practices were constructed as an outcome of discourse and hegemonic production of knowledge in the form of representations of space. These representations of space allowed the materiality that was constructed to appear common sense—even if this meant imagining Yucatán as a New Frontier—greatly shaping the spaces of representation. While maquiladoras had a role in recreating uneven development in Yucatán, their arrival was also an effect of the uneven geographies that already existed in the state. In other words, just like commodity chains configured the uneven geographies of Yucatán, Yucatán’s uneven geographies also configured global commodity chains in return. These uneven geographies unfolded through infrastructure and forced us to reflect how commodity chains—in the form of maquiladoras in this case—shaped a region that would normally not be studied through an urban lens. There is more potential to continue developing a disarticulations approach informed by critical urban theory in order to shed more light on the connection between commodity flows and urbanization. Re-thinking what the production of capitalist space fueled by commodity chains means for the urban-rural dichotomy can be theoretically fruitful. The next step in a disarticulations perspective is to understand the urban differently and see urbanization as a process (Lefebvre 2003) to further reflect: what type of urban spaces do global commodity flows create?

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List of illustrations

Title Fig.1. Map of the Yucatan peninsula.
Credits Source: Zahra Hamidi, 2019.
File image/jpeg, 696k
Title Fig.2. Motul Industrial Park (on the left side of the road) merges into the surroundings (houses).
Credits Source: The author, 2016.
File image/jpeg, 1.3M
Title Fig.3. “The pier that extends from Progreso into the Gulf of Mexico is among the longest structures in the world.”
Credits Source: NASA Earth Observatory, image by J. Allen, 2014.
File image/jpeg, 5.1M
Title Fig.4. Federal highway #176, in the back Motul’s highway ramp.
Credits Source: The author, 2016.
File image/jpeg, 1.3M
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Electronic reference

Claudia Fonseca Alfaro, The production of maquiladora space in Motul, Mexico: from henequen municipality to industrial cityArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 21 | 2020, Online since 15 December 2020, connection on 14 April 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Claudia Fonseca Alfaro

Claudia Fonseca Alfaro holds a PhD in Urban Studies and is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Urban Research (IUR), Malmö University, Sweden. A postcolonial and critical urban scholar, her research focuses on exploring how global capitalism unfolds at the local level in the inconspicuous places of the global South. Contact:

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Creative Commons 3.0 – by-nc-nd, except for those images whose rights are reserved.

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