Peter Rees’ interesting monograph is not a study in economics as its title might imply. Rather, it is a well-researched work of historical geography whose sources include notarial, municipal, and national archives in Mexico, the Archivo General de Indias, and a wide variety of published materials. Rees traces the origin of today’s road system between central highland Mexico and coastal Veracruz to the sixteenth century when the Spanish established two rival routes through the Sierra Madre Oriental at Jalapa and Orizaba. The European conquerors ignored prehispanic transport patterns in order to create highways for close economic and political ties with Spain.
The location of mountain passes, good pasture lands, and Indian communities influenced the Spanish establishment of the first highway through Jalapa and the Llanos de Apan. While this remained the leading route between Mexico and Veracruz, the foundation of Puebla in 1531 helped to stimulate the emergence of a second road through Orizaba. As settlements spread along the highways, a notable competition between the routes developed. Rees skillfully describes the combinations of economic and geographic factors that reinforced the maintenance of both roads from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries.
In the second half of the book, the author analyzes the interrelationships of the established forms of settlement and trade with the new transport technology of the railroad. He finds accommodation to old patterns rather than the creation of new ones. The Mexican and inter-oceanic railways, completed in 1873 and 1891 respectively, reaffirmed the two historic trade routes; freight traffic continued to emphasize the terminals of Mexico City and Veracruz more than intermediate areas. Rees’ work supports the general historical view that modern economics and technology in Latin America often serve to reestablish the roots of the past.