How Everyday People Electrified Mexico City
Published on June 28, 2021
In this episode, Trish Kahle speaks with Diana Montaño, to discuss how a varied, diverse group of Mexicans made sense of a new technology—and sometimes made trouble with it. We also discuss sources and methods for conducting historical research at the level of everyday life.
Speaker: Diana J. Montaño is an Assistant Professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Her teaching and research interests broadly include the construction of modern Latin American societies focusing on technology and its relationship to nationalism, everyday life, and domesticity. Her book Electrifying Mexico: Technology and the Transformation of a Modern City (in press) looks at how “electrifying agents” (businessmen, salespersons, inventors, doctors, housewives, maids, and domestic advisors) used electricity, both symbolically and physically, in the construction of a modern city, self, and the other. Taking a user-based perspective, Dr. Montaño reconstructs how electricity was lived, consumed, rejected, and shaped in everyday life. Her work has appeared in History of Technology and Technology’s Stories. Her article “Ladrones de Luz: Policing Electricity in Mexico City, 1901-1918,” on power theft appeared last February in the Hispanic American Historical Review. She is co-editor of the University of Nebraska Press’ book series Confluencias on Mexican history and the author of Electrifying Mexico: Technology and the Transformation of a Modern City September, (University of Texas Press).
Moderator: Trish Kahle, Assistant Professor at Georgetown University- Qatar.
[BIRDS CHIRPING] [DRUMMING]
CIRS SPEAKER [00:00:04]: Welcome to the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar. This podcast series is part of the Energy Humanities Research Initiative. The project aims to generate new scholarly conversations on everyday lived experiences of energy. [DRUMMING ENDS]
TRISH KAHLE [00:00:24]: Welcome to another episode of Everyday Energy. I’m Trish Kahle, Assistant Professor of History at Georgetown University in Qatar. Today I will be speaking with Diana Montaño, Assistant Professor of History at Washington University in St. Louis, about her work on the history of electricity in Mexico. Professor Montaño is the author of the book Electrifying Mexico: Technology and the Transformation of a Modern City, which will be released in September from the University of Texas Press. It’s an incredibly important and very much needed contribution to the growing literature on the history of energy, showing how a very diverse group of Mexicans made sense and meaning of a new technology and sometimes made trouble with it. In the meantime, you can also read her article, Ladrones de Luz: Policing Electricity in Mexico City, 1901-1918, in the Hispanic American Historical Review. We’ll link to the article and the book on our website. Diana, thank you so much for joining me.
DIANA MONTAÑO [00:01:25]: Hello. Thanks, Trish for having me today and giving me the opportunity to talk about my forthcoming book. I’m delighted to be here to talk about the subject of electricity and the study of electricity in general.
KAHLE [00:01:38]: So I’d like to start by asking a bit more about your entry into the project. How did you get interested in the history of electricity in Mexico?
MONTAÑO [00:01:46]: Okay, well, I don’t have a great birth story of how I write the study of electricity, and maybe that’s good. So I had actually completed a master’s in Latin American studies. I was not a historian. I was transitioning into the field of history. And my advisor, Professor William Beezley, who had been my advisor for the master’s thesis then, would eventually become my dissertation advisor. He had mentioned a few topics that were in need of exploration, and among those topics was electricity. But what immediately came to my mind were, you know, the default images that we associate with electricity. The development of the national grid, the infrastructure, the financing that went into it, those were all subjects I had no interest in actually researching. They were very foreign to me since the bulk of my master’s thesis had been ethnographic research. So I believe that, however, that this background actually pushed me towards looking at and studying electricity that was somehow grounded in everyday life. So my entrance to the historiography also was centered on the social and cultural aspects of electricity. I began with David Nye’s Electrifying America which I take for the title of my book and Linda Simon’s Dark Light. And those two works instilled in me the curiosity to explore the process of electrification in Mexico, how people acted and reacted to electricity, but most importantly, the anxieties and dreams it inspire. And how, then there were tangible and intangible ways in which electricity was brought into people’s lives to transform spaces, but also to transform themselves and others.
KAHLE [00:03:49]: It’s so fascinating and you know when you started to dive into this history, was there sort of a moment that you know, you found a particular source or, you know, often we have that moment where in the archive where things begin to come together and really make sense. So was that there, even if it doesn’t have maybe the origin story in that sense, that this moment where the new idea of the project cohered.
MONTAÑO [00:04:14]: There was actually no ‘aha’ moment in a good sense, but it was what to do. And it has to do with the fact that I began looking at electricity really early on. So I mentioned before how in transitioning from a master to the field of history, I began, you know, looking at projects even before I began my studies, right? So I developed early on a really good relationship with the director of the archive of the company that had supplied, that had powered, Mexico City, for at that time over a 100 years. Right. The Luz y Fuerza del Centro company. So I actually did a little bit of preliminary research back in 2008, 2009. And they were at that time, they were actually the staff was going through the material. They were organizing it, digitizing some aspects of that archive. And so I had really high dreams of what I was going to find there. But then life happens, right? And we know as historians that we make plans and then life happens.
[00:05:38]: So in 2009, the Mexican federal government took over the Luz y Fuerza del Centro. What this meant was that they left over 44’000 unionized workers unemployed from one day to the other. And then closer to me, they took over the archive. So the archive of the company was not only unavailable to myself and to others, but it was in jeopardy of being lost, right? For a number of years. Eventually, when I went back in 2012 to conduct the bulk of the research for the book, the archive had been transferred to the National Archives but remained inaccessible. So I had this great idea of looking at electricity through the lens of the company archives. And, you know, at that time it forced me to look elsewhere. And now I see it as a blessing in disguise, right? Because I was forced to look beyond the company. And I now have a really quite different book, I would say. And so the ‘aha’ moment was not so much of what a great topic I have, but it’s like the idea of what I have, how this was going to develop. It stopped being pretty much on my tracks to rethink the project. So it was in that moment as well that I began, well, let’s not concentrate on the company itself, but let’s look at how it was the process of electrification, how spaces were being electrified, how did that affect people on everyday life. So since I didn’t have access to the archive, then I began doing some newspaper research and I was struck by the number of incidents dealing with street car accidents at the turn of the century. So I was fascinated. And this is back right to 2000 – was it 2011? – when, you know, we were early on having iPads. Right. So you can research, and this is Mexico has developed a really good newspaper archive online that is accessible to us for those of us that do early 20th century. So I was fascinated by the fact you could do this type of data analysis, right, online. And I was just fascinated by the debate around around accidents and the way people were speaking about how people were coming into electricity to into in contact to to electrify spaces. Right. And at that moment, the most important aspect that had been electrified in the city had been the street cars. So it was fascinating. I think if there was an ‘aha’ moment, it was that it was like, how are people talking about the people that are being run down in those ways? How are they actually blaming the victims in this way? Right? And all of those class and racial connotations that were that were embedded in the language employed. So that I believe that’s one of the the ‘aha’ moments early on.
KAHLE [00:09:00]: What I think is so wonderful is it really comes through even in the final work, right, where you actually, I think is such a wonderful job, capturing the weirdness of electricity. Right. Which I think we always strive to do that as historians. But at the same time, because it’s so ubiquitous around us, really capturing sort of just the disruption and sort of weirdness of first encountering electric light or electricity can be really difficult. And I think it’s just if our listeners are going and reading your work, they’ll see that you’re able to do that really well.
[00:09:34]: And so I think, you know, you’ve just been talking about really highlights what I think is one of the really important contributions of your work, which is to think about the everyday energetic lives of people, not only as their own experiences, as their concerns and visions, needs and desires, but also showing how their everyday experiences and practices do a lot of work to sort of shape the evolution, the functioning and governance of these much larger socio-technical systems. And so in particular, I thought we might maybe shift to talking about the H.A.H.R article. This my sort of American decides that I’m sure that I always want to go right to H.R., but in your H….
MONTAÑO [00:10:22]: HAHR
KAHLE [00:10:24]: Oh, do they call HAHR?
MONTAÑO [00:10:25]: HAHR,
KAHLE [00:10:27]: OK, So maybe now we can shift then to talking about the HAHR article where you use this really fascinating set of court cases to show how the liminality of electricity and legal conceptions of property revealed these incredible contestations over the ideas of proper use of electricity, ideas about ownership and theft, as well as privacy and morality. And so I was wondering if just to sort of give our listeners an example of the courtroom drama you’ve been able to uncover, you can sort of share an example of one of these cases and how they unfolded.
MONTAÑO [00:10:25]: Yes. So that’s actually and it’s interesting the way in which I arrived to power theft because I was mentioning before the street car accidents and by default, I was quick to jump and say, well, there must be cases in which people are suing, you know, the company for injuries, right? So that’s how I arrived to the Tribunal Superior de Justicia del Distrito Federal, which is the highest court handling those those cases. But there were really few in between of those cases based on injury. Right. So what I did find then was the same company or electricity or electrika because you do a keyword search. So that’s how I arrived to the company, you know, which eventually they were owned by the same financial interest. I came to see all of those cases being brought up by the company to court against individuals and small businesses. So the stories are fascinating and they’re fascinating for a number of reasons.
[00:12:18] I mean, you can see the drama that that actually went into how how people were arrested, how how suspects, how what involved in in in terms of how the company was trying to make sure that there was one way which electricity was de-used, which I say it’s like scripted consumption writing, which, you know, you you have a contract and that pretty much tells you how much you’re going to be using for how many hours, what is going to be connected to to the power lines, etc. But that’s that type of a scripted consumption was not easily acceptable. Right. Not easily accepted by individuals in their everyday life. So there were a lot of those borders that you mentioned in which it was really easy to cross between being a legal user and being, “illegal user.” So the the judicial cases then give you this entire drama it a lot of information, some of those cases where over a 100 pages long. So they are really rich in the information about everyday life that goes that allows, allowed me to reconstruct the way in which electricity was being brought into private and semi-private spaces and how people were then explaining or rationalizing their use of electricity and their illegal use of electricity. Right. So all all of that was was quite interesting.
[00:13:58]: So one of the cases and this is the case that I actually open up with in the article is of a hotel owner in downtown Mexico City. This is this is a big hotel. It’s I believe it was about 3 stories high. It had over 35 rooms at that time, that was a large a large hotel. And so I began the article then with an inspection. So there was an inspection that brought together not only the local police, but also the employees from the company. And they were just asking. They came to the hotel and asked to be allowed to one of the rooms. Right. That the manager at the time said, you know, that’s impossible, that the room had been occupied. So we don’t have the key, you know, that the occupant actually went out of the city. So he took the key with him. Eventually they said, well, we need to actually check out that room because we have suspicions. Right. Eventually, they make it to the room. They they secure permission from the occupant of the adjacent room and they go through the balcony. And eventually when they’re all about to open the door, someone comes running out of that room. So there’s a chase involved and eventually it turned out that it was the owner of the hotel that was is running away. And so that room in particular, the importance of that room is that the there was a line that it was being fed from the power line to the hotel via that room. So that’s why there were suspicions about that room in particular. Eventually, you know, the the the electrical expert witnesses come into the room and they look at the evidence, the lines that have been cut, laying on the balcony and inside the room, they actually reconnect them. And all of the sudden you have the entire hotel that lights up. Right. So that’s then the proof that there had been illegal use of electricity since there was no contract with the with the company at that time. So this is the first case that I found and the earliest case found in the record that had been registered. It’s not at all the first case of electric, electrical theft, but is the one the first that arrived at the court. Now, the case itself takes over two years to get solved.
[00:16:58]: But in all of that, what would eventually, the richness of of that of that piece is that it became a legal battle and became an interpretation of what actually what entailed theft, at what moment you can say theft was occurring and it challenged, you know, whether or not the penal code was prepared to handle whether or not you can prosecute someone for this type of modern crime. Right. With the laws that were in the books. So there is this big debate among jurists that takes place in legal journals. So there’s another way in which I can then follow that debate. And it’s really, really interesting to see to see that taking place and, you know, how they are challenged themselves to come to terms on the nature of electricity. Right. How can you actually police something that is invisible? What accounts for evidence, at one moment, and evidence itself, it becomes a problem. Right. So I do talk in other cases about a special devices. So so the case with the hotel, it was an illegal hookup, right? There were feeding off the power lines without having actually a contract. But there were other ways actually to defraud the company.
[00:18:26]: In other ways in which individuals did have a contract. But then they want to save on consumption. Right. They wanted to make sure that the electric meter was not registering so much consumption. So there were small devices that were that were developed. And I talk about who was developing that. So the market, the black market that actually fed into this type of illegal use of electricity. So this type of devices are really interesting and they’re called, brincadores in Spanish, which are jumpers, and these are cables that are being connected to the meter to bypass the meter. So you can still use your appliance, you can still run, you know, an engine or light a couple of bulbs around the house, around your business without the consumption being registered by the electric meter. So this brincadores, this jumpers became the subject, right, of a lot of controversy because, it at one point individuals, and this is the supervisors and the police that were conducting inspections would take out those brincadores, they will take out and take the piece to the court and show the judge that this is what we found. But at the moment that they disconnected, that evidence become invalidated, it was no longer use, admissible by the court. So it’s really, really interesting to….. sticks, not only to then the nature of of electricity itself, the debate behind that, the legal debate behind it, but also in terms of evidence, what counted as evidence of a crime of a modern crime such as such as electricity theft.
KAHLE [00:20:25]: What’s so striking about the two, right, in the first case, you have a wire, that sort of entering a room and makes it more visible, right? And so the very thing that’s making it will be easier isn’t quite the right word, but makes it surveillable. Right. And you have the stories of all of these inspectors who are sort of running around the city trying to trace these illegal wires or wires that are by them determined to be not in compliance. But at the same time, the very thing that makes it surveillable then also becomes the point at which there sort of is no way that the legal system can cope with that sort of disjuncture between what they sort of think of as a thing versus the thing that it has become.
MONTAÑO [00:21:14]: Yeah, I mean, this is another thing and this is one way of, you know, another way in which electricity theft is very visible. And it is very talked about in Mexico and in Mexico City in particular. Right. I remember after 2012, riding the metro, riding the subway. And you have posters all over, you know, reminding you that electrical theft is theft. Right. That it is a crime, that you can actually jeopardize your life and you can actually damage your own electrical appliances when, you know, resorting to this type of of way of securing electricity for your home. So there’s a lot about images of theft. What entails theft? And the idea we have it about theft. So in the case of of of Mexico, there’s some association and this is by the mid 20th century, which unfortunately I don’t get to the mid 20th century. But is the idea that it is individuals in the shanty towns right in the outskirts of the city, in those cinturón de pobreza, the poverty belt around the city. That’s where that type of crime is and it’s associated as a lower class crime. People that are either not respectful of the law. Right. Or people that are unable to pay for this service and are just securing it through illegal means.
[00:22:42]: But what I find then by going back in time into the early 20th century is that that’s not the profile of cinturón de pobreza it’s pretty much middle class individuals. And the bulk of them are small businesses. Small businesses that are in need, are in competition. There’s heightened competition. So then they resort to electrical electricity theft as one way to survive that that financial landscape at the turn of the century. But what strikes me to this state at this I mean, I’ve been talking about power theft recently and I’ve been looking at the way in which we we still carry that image. Where does that happen? Right.
[00:23:20]: So a really simple Google search of electricital theft will populate images and it will populate stories about India, Bangladesh, South America, Mexico. So there’s a really fixed idea that this happens only in places where, are underdeveloped. Right. In which the network, the networks are not as fixed, as secure as as, as policed in a sense. And that this is is it’s foreign to the North Atlantic part of the world. Right. So what is really interesting is that that’s not the case. This is an issue that’s worldwide. But it’s it’s the it’s still scary stigma. And there’s only an image that actually is is it’s promoted. I guess it’s we have become familiarized with. Right. That it is associated with poverty and it’s associated with lower class individuals and with the fringes of society. And in thinking about that, you know, I kept going back to why then we see this coverage of race, right, of of the whole teams of electric company employees going to certain areas. And actually the media following that right. So here and there, they become stories, they become big stories. And I kept thinking, well, why is that? Right. So so I think there’s a performance aspect to this. There’s this is where is the fear of policing something that it’s much harder to be policed. So in a sense, then you change the narrative and you say, well, electricity remains something that is, that we can detect right away when a theft is occurring that there are consequences, there are great consequences, and actually there’s the risk of death itself. So all of that is promoted and there are even ways in which, you know, certain pages online that ask the public to to go and report individuals that you suspect are actually feeding off the power lines illegally. So it has become it’s an interesting it’s an interesting a monster in itself. And I mean, I would love to see more being done in the global south in particular on on the way in which power theft carries a certain narrative. And it’s a narrative then that it’s bought and sold by the North Atlantic as well.
KAHLE [00:26:22]: Absolutely, I mean, I think the other sort of really interesting theme that comes out in the cases is you find two is this idea of fairness in the way that fairness is sort of giving this really strong class divide in particular, as well as gender divide. And when someone steals electricity and it’s but it’s considered sort of they see themselves as acting justly or or is ensuring fairness for themselves versus who would not be considered to be ensuring energy, fairness for themselves in their household.
MONTAÑO [00:26:50]: Yes, so so and this is actually something that remains to this date. So so electricity and what you pay for it has been very much politicized, right. In some of the actors are not are not only consumers, but in the case of Mexico and in the post 2009 scenario, we see, you know, the Electrical Workers Unions, actually also being defenders, the defenders of the pueblo, the defenders of the people. Right. Because they who have an intimate relationship with electricity then see themselves as not only knowing what is fair and what is not fair, but actually inculcating and educating the public that you shouldn’t be paying this much. Right. So they have remains. So even though the SME, the Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas, you know, they were the ones that were that found themselves without a job over night, one of their strategies was in order to demand restitution by the federal government was to ask people to go on a strike and actually not pay, not pay the government for for their electric bills. And there was literature that was distributed by the Electricistas that underlying you know, if you are disconnected because of nonpayment, we’ll go ahead and reconnect you. So don’t worry about it. You will be you will have access to to electricity because they have a really strong sense of what’s fair, what should be fair in terms of how much you pay for electricity and and when the government is actually crossing the line. And there should be, you know, a reaction, a very much disturbed reaction by the public.
KAHLE [00:28:49]: For me, I actually found coal miners doing something really similar in West Virginia, where they, during gasoline shortages, right, would actually go on strike to demand greater allocation for the coal producing areas, not for themselves. And they would use this language of energy fairness for all West Virginians. And it raised really interesting questions. Right. On the one hand, I think anyone looking at this can see particularly against really unpopular energy companies. Right. That workers and energy industries tend to very much be on the side of people who need more access to energy. Right. And are doing acting in ways that do ensure greater fairness. And yet it also raises some sort of really interesting questions about the nature of democratic government. Right. Government. Right. And sort of like what are the institutions by which people are held accountable like they do, particularly that these these unions tend to be really masculine. Who is making these decisions? What kinds of priorities are being made? That sort of an aside. But that was the connection that I found really strong with your particularly that chapter on the unions activism.
[00:29:55]: Maybe now we can shift back. You were talking before about the boundary between legality and illegality, between private and public. And I think this is an area where maybe we could even talk more about this for for listeners. Right. Was. The extent to which the idea of contesting and transgressing boundaries is really at the core of every day electrification, these electrifying agents sort of taking matters into their own hands. And I was wondering, to what extent does electrification transform these really important categories and boundaries, that we often see within societies between the home and the the public sphere, between men and women, between consumers and producers as well? And sort of how, to what extent did electrification rewrite or rearrange those boundaries?
MONTAÑO [00:30:49]: Yes, so there are a number of boundaries and ways in which, you know, electricity was used to define oneself. And so this is particularly what I do in the final section of the book. The book is, I broke down the book in three sections and the last section deals with the making of the modern Mexican housewife. And in the final chapter, I deal with the electrical unions, the Electrical Workers Union and their defense of or effort to nationalize the industry. So they are this really quite different groups that I take, but they have a lot in common. How they they, you know, they come across electricity. They handle electricity differently at different ends from different classes. Right. We have the middle class women in the home and then we have men, particularly in the public sphere, you know, not only working with with the infrastructure for the production delivery of of electricity, but also you have the class differences and middle class working class and you have the consumer being defined as gender female and then the the the workers being defined male gendered. But it’s quite interesting. But I think in the case of, there’s a lot of unknown and there’s a lot of gray areas of making of gender in and class in those spaces. I would say. In the case of electrical appliances, I have followed this strategy and this is an advertising strategy that had been used in the North Atlantic. It had been used to promote electrical appliances as an answer to the deficit of hire help, domestic hire, help. Right. Women were entering the factories, they were leaving housework behind, and thereby middle class women found themselves for the first time or or as it was advertised for the first time without help in homes. So then appliances are advertised as the answer to that problem.
[00:33:10]: Now, in Mexico, I argue this is not this is a non-problem, right? This strategy is the fallacy. It has no basis in reality. I follow the census to document the number of individuals that remain performing domestic work for pay up until the 1950s, And even in cultural ways, you can you can see how having domestic help in Mexico City is part of a middle class identity. Even if you are not having an in-house an, a maid that lives with you throughout the week, but comes in perhaps once or twice a week that is considered to be part of a middle class identity. So that distance between a middle class individual and housework remains in Mexico to this date. So going back then, we see that there was no shortage of hire help up until the 1950s when when I stopped the, 1950s and 60s when I stop that chapter. So there’s no absence of help. But still individuals I mean, our publicists advertisers have to sell those electrical appliances in a way that it’s resounding with Mexican society. So one way of doing that is by rationalizing them, right. They become, you know, electrical appliances, become white by default, they become associated with whiteness, with middle class housewife, modern middle class women. And in a sense, it allows them to remain distant from housework. But at the same time, they are allowed to be individuals that are connected to to the modernity that the entire country is experiencing. Right. From the safety of the home. So so there are a number of ways in which there’s a reinforcement of those ideas.
[00:35:29]: Now, the challenge and this is part of the challenge for that chapter is that how can we enter private spaces as scholars? And this is something that it’s not only for for someone studying the home as a historian, but even those individuals doing communication and doing media studies, the idea or the aspect of reception, what people actually make of what they received or how people in the sense of technology, how did they use those items or who used those items? We’re able to document that I mean, there’s more obviously, literature on who was intended to or who was the imaginary user of those technologies, and thereby what are some of the cultural images, cultural associations of certain technological items. So that’s where I write that for that chapter. So in a sense, that that boundary of the private and and the public, it’s reinforced in that chapter as the housewives right. It in, pretty much the advertisers and publishers are not recognized. And that’s not which is really interesting and not catering to the needs of Mexican modern women. Right. Those that are actually joining the workforce, whether they are in a white middle class jobs. But the ideal user for those devices is a full time housewife. Right. That is white, that has enough enough income to pay for this type of of consumption patterns. Right. So. So in that sense, then. They. Are forced to rationalize the electrical devices by saying these are white items and then all of this in order to construct that to to construct whiteness, they need the racial other right. They need to contrast it. It has to be it has to be a conversation that takes something else as than not modern or the non-white or the non-technological. And that happens to be the maid, in the case of Mexico in particular. This is a female maid that is most of the time depicted as indigenous. And and then obviously at that time, you have certain aspects that that artists would use. Right. In depicting someone as indigenous.
[00:38:36]: So not only are then indigenous characters brought in to stand as the non-technological, the non-modern in the selling of modern white appliances, but also traditional devices, kitchen in particular, devices are racialized as well, right? Those are the non-modern, those are the non-white nets. And sometimes they are brought in into images, into the spaces of drawings without a reason to be there other than stand as the non-modern, the non-white, the useless, right, the backward. So that’s one way in which those those are those frontiers, and I would say race and class borders are brought into the home.
[00:39:35]: But then you also have then the construction in the final chapter, the construction of the electricistas, the electrical worker. And this is something and this is a reminder to everyone out there. And I’m sure I’m not the only one that comes across something in the archive. And there’s a moment you say this is interesting, but I don’t know whether I should note it down and then you don’t. And then for months and years, you come to regret that decision. And this happened to me when going through the the files, the books, the meeting notes for the Electricistas. Now, these were meetings that took place recurrently throughout the month. These were meetings that were really, really long. And so there were pages and pages and pages of people making speeches, right, people, you know, the what the syndicate people from all levels. They were speaking in each meeting. So it becomes really long to read one meeting. So in one of those meetings, I was I was I was reading and they were preparing to participate. Right. In a demonstration in favor of the president. And I don’t recall exactly what what the occasion was for this, but that there was a motion there that they were asking female workers within the company, within the syndicate not to show up, not to show up to actually march that day because they wanted to make sure that they had this image, that they were all men. They was a male centric. And obviously to to reinforce this type of of syndicate persona, let’s say that they had developed for decades. Right. They didn’t want to mess with that idea as a very revolutionary and very radical and very perhaps a masculine union. So that’s one way in which you construct this this this public image of a union as male or female. And I regret to this day that I don’t have one way of of citing that, because I said at that moment. Well, it’s interesting. But then I went on, you know, to to keep reading on those meeting notes. Yeah.
[00:42:20]: So in that sense, the Electricistas become then a very powerful group to study all of those borders. Right. Not only in terms of, class. Not all, but but also in terms of nation and and how what type of nationalism and working-class nationalism was promoted there. So another border that comes into into that chapter is the idea of whether Mexico was going to industrialize and it was going to do that led by the government. Right. By actually looking after the the the interest of the working class. vis-a-vis for a foreign company. And this has to do primarily for for Mexico City. It remained power by the Mexican Light and Power, which by that time was a corporation that the financial interests were all over the world where global. Right, even though the headquarters remain in Canada. But so there are a number of of those type of borders that that were brought in, into the discussion, into the internal debate of of of the Electricistas Union and in how they were going to defend the interests of the pueblo vis-a-vis , the the foreign company.
KAHLE: [00:43:59]: So fascinating, I think one question it raises, which maybe you can speak a little more about, right, is that when we think about the sort of marks that electrification as carried out by this really diverse group of agents left on modern Mexico is a state right. The marks from institutions like unions tend to be easier to see. But I think what I hear and what you’re saying right is that it’s happening in some ways in equal measure at these private households that are often quite difficult to observe and then at the same time, these very carefully crafted public personas. And so how did you go about sort of evaluating that sort of long term impact of electrification, sort of given the really sort of diverse group of people that you’re sort of looking at in different ways?
MONTAÑO [00:44:47]: Yes. So, I mean, I look back and this is one of the many things that I constantly had to go back to because I’m covering a long period. Right. So from the 1880s to the 1960s, you know, people that are doing longer histories, might say, well, that’s nothing. But, you know, when you are doing this type of transformation and everyday life, it becomes it becomes very, very, very long. And in the middle of this periodization that I mark in the book, there’s a revolution. Right? And so so that’s one of the aspects and one of the issues that was brought up constantly about, making sure that you you look and you answer to transformations brought in by the revolution, and I mean some scholars have said that in some ways 20th century Mexico has been hijacked by the revolution, that it has dominated scholarship for so long. So it doesn’t matter that you are not going to center your study in the revolution. You still have to acknowledge that it happened and you have to acknowledge why you’re not concentrating on it and why that, to rationalize your decision. Right. So for me, when I was following people on the ground in the first couple of chapters talking about the ways in which they had hopes and society’s dreams about an electrified future, what that would entail to to Mexico, Mexico City in particular, but to the nation at large, I kept concentrating on those type of discourses and then trying to, particularly in the second part of the book, ways in which that story of an electrified future that was perfect, that it was would deliver on industrialized Mexico was complicated on the ground.
[00:47:03]: So so the third and fourth chapter deals with a little bit with the darker side of electricity, with the electric street car accidents. And with electricity theft. In doing that, those two chapters breach, the the the Porfiriato, the porfirian period prior to a revolution and then the revolutionary period after 1920s right. The rebuilding of the nation. And what I see then in those two chapters is that, you know, as long as the legal framework and the the capitalist system was left untouched, then the stories on the ground did not change much. Right. What I do see eventually then in the 1900, beginning in the late 1920s is this how revolutionary rhetoric begins to change or begins to actually change ideas about what’s fair or what’s just? And it begin to complicate the fact that the power of the capital of the country was generated and distributed by a foreign company. So it is then that those type of of of ideas, revolutionary ideas began to be, to filter into people’s conception of what fair use of electricity is and who should have ownership over those sources and who should be, and to what extent the government had the responsibility of intervening in the industry and regulating it for in order to make sure there was fair distribution, that the consumer was actually having access to cheap electricity, but also that they were making sure to regulate the industry that was critical for the industrialization of the nation.
[00:49:20]: So so in all of that, then you get to see a larger and a more heterogeneous group of people, you know, shaping how electricity was. The development of electricity and electrification projects has has a wider set of actors than just primarily foreign capitalists and the federal government. If anything, you know, in the story, in the narrative of the book, we see the state coming really late into the game. Right. This is this is not a state centered narrative. It’s they do try to eventually rewrite the narrative and say the state was always behind, but that was not the case. Right. So so in doing that in in not reserving the central stage for the state, we’re able to see how how these individuals on the ground were actually shaping not only the industry at large, but the way in which electricity would enter their homes, in what ways they would it would enter and how much they were willing to pay in one extent.
KAHLE [00:50:40]: And I think you make a really good case in the intro to the book, right, that historians of energy, particularly those of us who are focusing on the North Atlantic region, really need to reconsider our models of technological diffusion and sort of think about sort of the back and forth movement and sort of shaping these systems. And I was wondering, you know, as we’re sort of beginning to wrap up, if you could sort of maybe offer some thoughts on what you think people working on other areas of the world, both in the global north and the global south, should take from your work and what how they might apply in different national or regional contexts.
MONTAÑO [00:51:17]: Well, that’s that’s [LAUGHS] that’s a tough question. I mean, I really hope, you know, that that my work would make a case for how grounded electricity, which is, you know, it’s a pun that I use constantly and I savor every time I do it, because there was since I was writing the dissertation, there was this my dissertation adviser could say, you know, you need to rail in some of those puns because they get annoying. I’m like, no, you know, it’s part of the way which electricity has filtered our language. Right. And the impact it has had.
[00:51:58]: But yes. So one of the ways, you know, grounded electricity and the difficulty of doing everyday life history, that there are way, many ways in which the relationship with electricity is documented. But we just have to look elsewhere like we we will find obviously through government records and company records will find the development of the national grid, will find, you know, the challenges, the legal challenges as well to protecting this private property and all of that. But that story only gets so far.
[00:52:41]: I mean, doing everyday history, it forces you to pay closer attention to very minute details. Right. And as a cultural historian, obviously, I follow language and I follow it closely to see the small ways in which things are being talked about, the way in which things become associated to each other, and the references, the reference points that emerge as important in discussing a particular technology. And in those discussions, that’s where we get into the way in which technologies are gender, are class, are racialized in particular. And those are the areas that we as historians of technology are still struggling to to come to terms, particularly in the case of race. Right. And this is something that David Anderson keeps saying, you know, in his work in India. It is how do you actually approach race? And so this is particularly important not only to south to to to the global south, but, you know, whiteness. What’s the associate, the construction of whiteness in it, in the construction of technologies and those devices and how far, you know that that it’s replicated throughout the world or how is that then turned upside down? Right. So so part of the of of what I plan to do with the book was put Mexico at the center like I didn’t want to say this is another case of or, you know, this is another example of electrification in the South and and just be another example of but actually take a look at the method itself of how we study energy in our everyday lives, how we can reconfigure, and rethink. Right, particularly, as you know, I I have been listening recently to many discussions about infrastructural violence. Right.
[00:55:09]: As I move into my second project and I’m dealing with hydroelectric complexes and the construction of those, you know, looking at the violences or the violence, which in English you cannot speak in the plural. But I think we need to speak in the plural, as many types of violence that that happen in those transitions. And I was listening to a lecture recently about energy transition and the way in which we we get caught up, you know, in thinking in the positive. Right. And it’s really hard to actually talk about in a negative or criticize, you know, in in the context of of climate change to to criticize new new sources of energy. And I think this has been particularly brought up in the case of Mexico as the government moves and criticizes, you know, dirty, clean energy. Right. So in that way, you know, bringing it down to examples on the ground that that escape, you know, this this great idea of the need to transition to cleaner sources of energy, what’s happening on the ground? How are people actually discussing this type of transition? How is that affecting in the case of Mexico? How is it affecting the south of Mexico? How how are land issues structuring? Right. Their participation in a new energy future? Who is left out of those future? And something in particular that has been very, very present for me lately is the way in which energy futures, you know, you begin to register things and be things that become invisible. I mean, they are there, but we’re just not turn the camera to those. So what what is being unseen? Right. And I think this this this recent debate about dirty, clean energy in southern Mexico has this, forces us to rethink what we’re doing and what we’re advocating for. And to do that, we have to ground that in analysis.
[00:57:43]: So I think hopefully one of the ideas of the book is to, one, get people to talk about energy and energy regimes, electrification, and to do that from a very local perspective. Right. To to set aside the national grid in the construction. You know, there’s plenty, I think, of of of literature that does that and does so in a really great way. And perhaps we’ll be hearing more about doing local histories of energy as anthropology is coming into, it’s coming really strong, you know, looking at electrification and through the ordinary, through the everyday life. Hopefully we can also think about that. This is not impossible for the historian that, you know, we don’t have the subjects to access to the subjects as anthropologists do, but we have a strong record. And I think it just takes time to diversify and actually think really broadly about your sources and and and and you’ll find them, right? You’ll find traces. You’ll find, I won’t say the light at the end of the tunnel because then that’s the easy way out. But yes. So you do have to keep striking to diversify sources in order to document how things are. How electricity is discussed, is lived, is suffered, right, on the ground, on the streets. How is that imagined by by intellectuals? How is it registered and recorded by novelist, how are people, are associating a new technology with a certain race or a certain class, and what are the limitations that are being placed for its consumption, how its consumption is being scripted, and then how then people on the ground are actually challenging those parameters of consumption as well.
KAHLE: [01:00:01]: Thank you so much and I I mean, I think we’re at times I think I know you you’re just beginning your day. And I think, you know, maybe just if this has a place to go in somewhere earlier, perhaps in the podcast as well, I mean, I guess there are a couple of last sort of wrap up questions for me that get raised. So one is about, you know, it’s implied sort of in our discussion as well. As I know the book is about Mexico City. But like you raised this question about, like, how do the people in the surrounding states in the south of Mexico view what’s happening in Mexico? Because there’s people moving in between the countryside and the city. You have even the inspectors, right, are coming from around the country. And so what is the relationship between sort of the rural areas and particularly in the south and Mexico City?
[01:00:52]: And I think that gets to this question about the temporalities and the spatialities of energy. Right, because it forces you have to think across multiple timescales, multiple spatial scales at once just to see what you’re actually looking at. Right. Because you have the sort of the everyday experience of switching on a light for the most sort of commonly thought of one, and that that’s connected simultaneously to, you know, either coal extraction or wind farm production or something like that. But those are both happening simultaneously. They’re of a piece together. Electricity helps us to see that. And so I think it really would force us to rethink about sort of the modern Mexican nation and the tensions and regional divisions and racial divisions that come with it.
MONTAÑO [01:01:35]: It also speaks to and this is something that obviously I I touch a little bit on the book, but I also did a piece for technology stories for the Society of History of Technology. And I look at the construction of Imprudentes. Imprudentes was the label use imprudent, reckless individuals. Right. Who were eventually run down by the streetcar strikes. So blaming the victim there and that uses these these rural urban, that is really prominent and stays with us in Mexico as Mexico is a very originalist country and it is a very centralist country. Mexico City has about a fifth of the country, of the population in the country residing within its borders. The federal government and most of the federal agencies are located in Mexico City. Most of the major unions are also found, you know, their headquarters in Mexico City. So there’s this centralization that it’s very powerful and it comes from the colonial period. Right. It’s not something recent. And there were efforts by by AMLO, the Mexican president to decentralize a little bit the Mexican state. But going back to the early 20th century, though, Mexico City and the way in which, ideas of legal use or proper use of or proper behavior in electrified spaces use this idea that it was the non-urban citizens, the the provincianos, the ones that come from the provinces, from the provincias in Mexico that were ill-adapted to an electrify city, to electrified spaces. Right. So there there’s there’s this prominent and and and very visual way.
[01:03:55]: And this is what I do in the article. In the text, it’s talk about the way in which those users, illed-users are or non-users become imagined. Right. By the Mexican press in particular. And it takes then the othering, it takes the other as a reference point in order to try to discipline users and non-users in electrical spaces.
[01:04:35]: It is quite important and I think this is where I’m moving for the second project for my second book project is talk about not only the idea that Mexico City is going through this process of electrification, but what does that entail? Right. What what’s the hinterland of that electrified space? Right. And that has to do with this major hydroelectric complex of Necaxa in the southern state of Puebla. Right. I, there was a major intervention, right, that was made in the first decade of the century in order to secure enough water to be channeled to those dams into the hydroelectric complex in order to generate enough electricity for Mexico City. How do we actually, I mean, we’re forced to think about those linkages that that work, in a sense, instead of just doing the the the local patterns of consumption or the local process for electrification, then it’s pushing me to think about obviously going back to the generation of electricity and then all then that entails. Right. Not only the topographical changes that the area of Puebla experience, but then what else did it entail?
[01:06:01]: There are other types of networks that I want to follow, international networks in terms of financing, but also of technical expertize. Right. So it’s it’s one it’s really interesting that I’m going back from a really local case study, the case study, very local way of studying electricity. And going backwards to the generation of that electricity and what that entails. Right, so there’s a broader obviously and I’m moving a little bit into environmental history or in envirotech in particular, by the transformation of those spaces and but also trying to center it on or around it again in the everyday life and what that that entails. But definitely looking looking at those linkages, as you mentioned, between urban areas. And that’s another problem that we, those that study electrification, the bulk of this of the historiography has been dedicated to urban centers like how cities have transformed, in the case of Chicago, Berlin, Phoenix, here close by. And now I do Mexico City. But those so those that urban experience of electricity that has dominated the scholarship with rural areas pretty much left, I don’t want to say untouched, but it almost feels like it. Right. So so definitely doing more rural electrification projects following those, it would be fascinating. Third project, I would say, for myself. But, you know, people out there also, as we engage and histories of the global south and electrification become more prominent, I think we’ll see more of those linkages being made and being underlined.
KAHLE [01:08:13]: Thank you so much and also thank you just that was a very off the fly question. I think I rolled ten things into one and you went through really well, So I think that’s sort of all as we are quite over time. But I also want to give you a chance if there’s anything sort of final you’d like to add.
MONTAÑO [01:08:29]: I think one of the things that it’s it’s it has been more prominent recently is how do we to think about energy futures. Right. And what that entails and how do you sell this is this is another way of putting it. How do you sell an energy future? And I think going back to my own study, how do you sell electricity? How do you sell electrified spaces? It is through a lot of it has to do with images and not only images that you texturally put together, but images themselves. Right. And this is another area that I think needs to be addressed. Literature obviously does a fantastic job. And there are many people working with the ways in which literature capture anxieties, but also promises of new energy futures. But what about the images themselves? Right. How do you how how do you picture how do you imagined new future through images? And this is this is something that I try to do with some images in the book. But I think that would be another way of of looking at electricity. And as you mentioned, when we think about it, it’s you know, this is the source that it’s invisible, that, you know, the materiality or of of electricity and this this connection between what it is, the nature of it. How do we see electricity? How do we sense electricity? So there I mean, obviously, you’re going to get from from for me that I am really excited about electricity, but thinking about it beyond the physicality. Right. The materiality. And I do a little bit of that in one of the chapters we talking about the senses. How do you sense a new energy regime? Right. How do you sense how how this would alter your your senses? How do you then experience the world different, given that you have a new, in the case of electricity, a new light, right, a new way of seeing the world? So I would say that’s an area that we can actually expand on. And I think it’s really rich and the sources are just there. We just need to turn our cameras and look at them.
KAHLE [01:11:09]: And I think especially with regard to futurity, right, your concept of electrifying agents is really useful because it forces us to think we are the electrifying agents of our own future. And so trying to sort of take more sense of what that means and the gravity of it. But thank you again so much for for joining us. And we were really grateful to have you on.
MONTAÑO [01:11:31]: Thank you very much. I was delighted to to be here and to talk about the book as a whole, which is the first time I’m doing it. So so it was a great experience. Thank you very much for for inviting me. And I look forward to to what you’ll do with with the initiative of everyday energy. I’m really excited, to, to learn more about it and to collaborate and eventually try to to answer and address some of the questions that that initiative is bringing out for us.
[DRUMMING AND BIRDS CHIRPING]
- Electrifying Mexico: Technology and the Transformation of a Modern City, by Diana J. Montaño
- Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940, by David E. Nye
- Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-ray, by Linda Simon
- Montaño, Diana J. “Machucados and salvavidas: Patented humour in the technified spaces of everyday life in Mexico City, 1900‐1910.” History of Technology 34 (2019): 43-64.
- Montaño, Diana J. “Ladrones de Luz: Policing Electricity in Mexico City, 1901–1918.” Hispanic American Historical Review 101, no. 1 (2021): 35-72.
- Montaño, Diana J. “Visualizing Imprudentes: Technology and Consumption in Turn-Of-The-Century Mexico.” Technology’s Stories v. 8, no. 2.
- Energy History – Yale University
- The Rebirth of Mexico’s Electrical Workers, nacla, published on February 7, 2019
- LUX la revista de los trabajadores