Nestled between Texas and Tamaulipas, Laredo was once a quaint border town, nurturing cultural ties across the border, attracting occasional tourists, and serving as the home of people living there for generations. In a span of mere decades, Laredo has become the largest inland port in the United States and a major hub of global trade. Listening to Laredo: A Border City in a Globalized Age by Mehnaaz Momen is an exploration of how the dizzying forces of change have defined this locale, how they continue to be inscribed and celebrated, and how their effects on the physical landscape have shaped the identity of the city and its people.
Bringing together issues of growth, globalization, and identity, Momen traces Laredo’s trajectory through the voices of its people. In contrast to the many studies of border cities defined by the outside—and seldom by the people who live at the border—this volume collects oral histories from seventy-five in-depth interviews that collectively illuminate the evolution of the city’s cultural and economic infrastructure, its interdependence with its sister city across the national boundary, and, above all, the strength of its community as it adapts to and even challenges the national narrative regarding the border. The resonant and lively voices of Laredo’s people convey proud ownership of an archetypal border city that has time and again resurrected itself. Read an excerpt from the book below.
The largest inland port of the United States along the U.S.-Mexico boundary is Laredo, which before the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) used to be a dusty little border town with a quaint history. Nestled between the U.S.-Mexico territory along the Rio Grande in Texas, the city is older than the United States. Fueled by a dizzying spell of growth that occurred in the short span of three decades, Laredo surpassed Los Angeles to become the largest port of any kind—sea, land, or air—in the United States in 2019. The aura of the bygone age surrounding its charming downtown is now overshadowed by negative ordeals associated with trade and migration. The flocks of tourists and traders to the twin cities on both sides of the Rio Grande—Laredo and Nuevo Laredo—are now memories of a departed era. The same features of proximity to Mexico and ease of passage currently spell disorder and chaos in the political discourse. The border of Laredo has become synonymous with international trade to a greater extent than in the past. Under this new iteration, the remarkable history of the rich culture, economic success, and spatial evolution of Laredo is being buried. This book attempts to excavate the story of the city from the viewpoints and experiences of the people who actually live there to make sense of the concurrent drifts of being a historic city, a border city, and a global trade center.
Historic cities emphasize their glorious pasts; border cities are perceived as intermediate sites between nation-states, allowing clandestine activities; and global cities are centers of unmitigated growth. Historic cities are formed by the annals of antiquity, border cities are characterized by peripheral conflicts around boundaries, and global cities attempt to navigate national boundaries with the promise of economic boons. Laredo boasts of the distinct record of having been under seven flags (one as the capital of a short-lived republic), and its intricate history has served as a matter of pride for the people. The overwhelmingly Hispanic town relished its interdependent relationship with the people of Nuevo Laredo, which included family and business bonds going back several generations. Even though borders are contested sites for nation-states—and Laredo had been disputed terrain between Mexicans, Texans, and Americans—the umbilical cord between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo remained robust until Laredo evolved into a global port. Geography situated the coupled cities along a navigable river but detached from other metropolises, which strengthened their mutual dependence. Laredo has a long history of benign neglect by all the nation-states to which it belonged. The city flourished organically by taking advantage of its location and cultivating a socioeconomic hierarchy nuzzled in ethnic and cultural homogeneity.
An economic windfall came to Laredo during the Civil War when Laredo became a center for smuggling the cotton that funded the Confederate army. The city blossomed into a trade center by the turn of the twentieth century. Local folklore goes so far as to claim that by the 1950s, downtown Laredo was more prosperous than New York. The 1980s devaluation of the peso brought disaster to the retail economy heavily dependent on Mexican customers. Globalization ushered in a new meaning for border territories in the 1990s, as Laredo found itself perfectly situated to be a key locale in the postindustrial economy in the thriving Sunbelt, with an existing transportation network and abundant cheap labor on its periphery. The neoliberal growth rationale for border zones is based on transportation, consumption, and enhancement of the state apparatus with incessant surveillance, a notable deviation from the established pattern of the gradual progress of a city.
As the busiest land port, Laredo functions as a major link in the expansive global trade web, which requires simultaneous speedy transit and strict policing of the nation-state’s boundary. With its newfound international trade link, the codependency between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo has evaporated. Nuevo Laredo, the largest transportation nerve center in Mexico, fell under the power of the drug cartels as its location in the global network abetted narcotics transactions. In this new reality, the river, roads, and bridges are all under constant supervision, impairing the previous openness of the border. Only large freight trucks enjoy swift entrance from the south. The ceaseless flow of people across the border is a not-so-distant memory and is mourned by residents. Local concerns about preserving water quality and the riverbank or even investing in homegrown businesses have to compete with national or international trade and growth imperatives. The evolution of Laredo reveals both internal and external elements in the process of economic advancement and the formation of cultural identity in the border city.