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Abstract

In this paper, we recover the memory of a catastrophe: the Dos Bocas oil well fire in the Huasteca region of Mexico in 1908. The Dos Bocas event is described, contextually analyzed, and identified as discursive material of different groups of influence and/or power, in order to shed light on the situation thaThexisted in Mexico and the expectations held in relation to the role that science, technology and the exploitation of natural resources should play in the country's development. For this purpose, we first present what was the official philosophy of the regime in regards to a political agenda as well as an educational ideal. Subsequently, presenting a condensed picture of what were the beginnings of oil in Mexico, the role of foreign investment and the socioeconomic and ecological impacts. Once having established the context of the moment, we examine the Dos Bocas event and the ways in which it was handled politically, along with the ideological and scientific factors operating at that time. Finally, we address the various meanings and interpretations of the event, identifying collective forms of understanding and appropriation of the experience; found memories that will allow us to explore how the evocation of a singular event, in this case a catastrophic one, becomes part of the hegemonic discourse on the role of oil in Mexican modernity.
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UNIVERSUM • Vol. 31 • Nº 2 • 2016 • Universidad de Talca
e Dos Bocas oil well: Science, ideology, memory and discourse
Ricardo Guzmán – Aída Gándara
Pp. 75 a 97
THE DOS BOCAS OIL WELL:
SCIENCE, IDEOLOGY, MEMORY AND DISCOURSE1
El pozo petrolero Dos Bocas: entre ciencia, ideología, memoria y discurso
Ricardo Guzmán*
Aída Gándara**
ABSTRACT
In this paper, we recover the memory of a catastrophe: the Dos Bocas oil well re in
the Huasteca region of Mexico in 1908. e Dos Bocas event is described, contextually
analyzed, and identied as discursive material of dierent groups of inuence and/or
power, in order to shed light on the situation that existed in Mexico and the expectations
held in relation to the role that science, technology and the exploitation of natural resources
should play in the country’s development. For this purpose, we rst present what was the
1 Este artículo fue enviado a revisión inicialmente en español y ha sido traducido al inglés gracias
al Proyecto FP150008, Aumento y mejora del índice de impacto y de la internacionalización de
la revista Universum por medio de la publicación de un mayor número de artículos en inglés”.
Fondo de Publicación de Revistas Cientícas 2015, Programa de Información Cientíca, Comisión
Nacional de Investigación Cientíca y Tecnológica (Conicyt), Chile.
is paper was initially sent for review in Spanish, and it has been translated into English
with the support of the Project FP150008, “Aumento y mejora del índice de impacto y de la
internacionalización de la revista Universum por medio de la publicación de un mayor número
de artículos en inglés.” Fund for publication of Scientic Journals 2015, Scientic Information
Program, Scientic and Technological Research National Commission (Conicyt), Chile.
* Tecnológico de Monterrey. Monterrey, México. Correo electrónico: rguzman@itesm.mx
** Tecnológico de Monterrey. Monterrey, México. Correo electrónico: aidag62@prodigy.net.mx
Artículo recibido el 01 de julio de 2015. Aceptado el 20 de abril de 2016.
76
ocial philosophy of the regime in regards to a political agenda as well as an educational
ideal. Subsequently, presenting a condensed picture of what were the beginnings of oil in
Mexico, the role of foreign investment and the socioeconomic and ecological impacts.
Once having established the context of the moment, we examine the Dos Bocas event
and the ways in which it was handled politically, along with the ideological and scientic
factors operating at that time. Finally, we address the various meanings and interpretations
of the event, identifying collective forms of understanding and appropriation of the
experience; found memories that will allow us to explore how the evocation of a singular
event, in this case a catastrophic one, becomes part of the hegemonic discourse on the role
of oil in Mexican modernity.
Keywords: Oil, Mexico, science, ideology, memory, discourse.
RESUMEN
En el presente ensayo acudimos a la memoria de una catástrofe: el incendio del pozo petrolero
Dos Bocas en la Huasteca Mexicana en 1908. El evento de Dos Bocas se describe, se analiza
contextualmente y se le identica como materia discursiva de los grupos de inuencia y/o
poder, con objeto de dar luz sobre la situación que se vivía en México y las expectativas que se
tenían en relación al papel que deberían de jugar la ciencia, la tecnología y la explotación de
los recursos naturales en el desarrollo del país. Con este propósito presentamos primeramente
lo que era la losofía ocial del régimen tanto en su sentido de proyecto político, como
de ideal educativo. Posteriormente se presenta una imagen condensada de lo que fueron
los inicios del petróleo en México, el papel de la inversión extranjera y los impactos tanto
socioeconómicos como ecológicos. Una vez habiendo establecido el contexto del momento,
examinamos el evento de Dos Bocas y las formas en que fue atendido políticamente junto con
los factores ideológicos y cientícos que operaban en el momento. Finalmente, abordamos
los diversos signicados e interpretaciones del suceso, identicando las formas colectivas de
entender y de apropiarse la experiencia; memorias encontradas que nos permitirán explorar
cómo la evocación de un evento singular, en este caso catastróco, se convierte en parte del
discurso hegemónico sobre el papel del petróleo en la modernidad mexicana.
Palabras clave: Petróleo, México, ciencia, ideología, memoria, discurso.
INTRODUCTION
A traumatic and catastrophic event may operate as a breaking point that
denes new paths and ways of understanding oneself as a country, a society,
and a collectivity. Its contextual analysis allows a glimpse of the meanings in a
multidimensional space that can lead us beyond the event itself, and helps us
Ricardo Guzmán – Aída Gándara
77
e Dos Bocas oil well: Science, ideology, memory and discourse
discover an historic timeline, specify the role of diverse players related to the event
and identify their discourses, and distinguish dierent interpretations in them for
understanding and giving meanings to the events.
On July 4, 1908, one of the most important oil accidents in the history of Mexico
occurred. is took place in the Dos Bocas oil well in Veracruz, where a blowout of crude
oil and a re was generated that lasted for almost two months until the oil deposit was
burned out. e historian José López Portillo and Weber describe the event as follows:
e unexpected and thick clouds of unbreathable gases, and the huge pressure that
emerged from the Dos Bocas oil well, scaring and surprising all the well drillers that
had not extinguished the res in the nearby boiler storages, those which ignited the
vapors when the oil well was set on re, illuminating with its ames a surface as large
as a country. e well drillers did not know what to do. e oil well extinguished
itself, many days later, after the depletion of combustible material. And about the
deposit. It was formed by then, for the memory of the tragedy, a salty water lagoon,
boiling, with the bubbling of unbreathable, pungent smelly gases; a spherical lagoon,
almost circular, surrounded by the hems of burned forests, of which only stood
trunks and trunks of dead trees, stripped, bone colored. It is an end of the world
landscape (López Portillo & Weber, 1975: 28).
is event is considered a disaster, which, on one side meant a trauma,
especially for the inhabitants of the surrounding areas that lived a radical life
changing experience, but on the other side, it represented an opportunity to stoke
a discourse in favor of Mexico’s progress based on the exploitation of natural
resources. e Dos Bocas accident occurred in a critical moment of the last stage
of the porriato in Mexico, where a political group called the scientists”, seek to
attract enlightenment and progressive ideas from other countries.
e present paper is focused on the Dos Bocas event, which is described,
contextually analyzed, and identied as discursive material about the groups of
inuence and/or power, in order to shed light on the situation that existed in
Mexico and the expectations held in relation to the role that science, technology
and the exploitation of natural resources should play in the countrys development.
For this purpose, we rst present what was the ocial philosophy of the regime
in regards to a political agenda as well as an educational ideal. Subsequently,
presenting a condensed picture of what were the beginnings of oil in Mexico, the
role of foreign investment and the socioeconomic and ecological impacts. Once
having established the context of the moment, we examine the Dos Bocas event
and the ways in which it was handled politically, along with the ideological and
scientic factors operating at that time. Finally, we address the various meanings
and interpretations of the event, identifying collective forms of understanding and
appropriation of the experience; found memories that will allow us to explore how
78
Ricardo Guzmán – Aída Gándara
the evocation of a singular event, in this case a catastrophic one, becomes part of
the hegemonic discourse on the role of oil in Mexican modernity.
LIBERAL REFORM: POLITICS AND EDUCATION
is is not the place for a deep study of the ideologies that dened Mexico
in the late XIX century and beginning of the XX, but it is necessary for our goals
to establish some elements that allow us to demonstrate a context that helps us
understand the event, which the title of this paper makes reference to, as a breaking
point to strengthen the discourse, political on one side, scientic on the other side,
which were found to be in vogue. Fundamentally, we want to establish and put
in perspective the “scientic politics” that a group of people close to the political
power thought important to promote, and also show the ideologies that sought to
guide education on a particular course.
In this way, our starting point will be the liberal reform and we believe that for
our objectives it is appropriate to recover the vision presented to us by Hale (1991)
in his book e Transformation of Liberalism in Late Nineteenth-Century Mexico.
is author adopts the most contemporary concept of scientic politics” and applies
it to the Mexican context after the liberal reforms of 1867, identifying how Mexico
adopted European positivism and its inuence in education and social politics. e
pro-government visions of history tend to cancel the porriato, simply considering
it as a prelude to the Revolution, as a period in which liberal ideals were set aside
in favor of an authoritative government. On the contrary, Hale proposes the thesis
of a Liberal continuity1 and seeks to show the relationship between liberalism and
that “scientic politics” that he identies as key in a an intellectual atmosphere source
strongly inuenced by the positivist European tendencies, whose thinking consisted in
the application of methodological principles of natural sciences for studying society.
To strengthen the power reached by the liberals, a philosophical context
was also required, which was found in the thesis of the French author Auguste
Comte2. Gabino Barreda is usually presented as the main person responsible
1 Liberalism is sustained by the consideration of the individual as free and in the ideal of social and
economic progress. In Mexico, liberal ideals may have their origins in the 1820-1840 period, and
would see their fulllment in the Constitution of 1857 and in the Reform Laws, and convert into
a “unifying political myth” (Hale, 1991: 15).
2 is may correspond to an ad hoc adaptation of the cited philosophical system. In that regard,
Leopoldo Zea tells us that “Positivism will be a doctrine with universal pretense, but the way in which
it has been interpreted and used by Mexicans, it is Mexican. To be able to know what is Mexican in
this interpretation, it is necessary to go to our history, the history of the men that used positivism to
justify certain interests, which are not the same of the positivist creators of the system (Zea, 1968: 27).
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e Dos Bocas oil well: Science, ideology, memory and discourse
for the adoption of positivist ideas. In his famous “Civic Prayer, delivered on
September 16, 1867, he presented an analysis of Mexican society, adapting the
thesis of the three stages of knowledge by Comte: theological, metaphysical and
positive. For Barreda, the colonial past corresponds with the theological stage, the
ght between liberals and conservatives was the metaphysical stage, and nally, the
positive stage had been reached with the triumph of the Liberal Reform. e latter
would lead policies based on science, from where by using “liberty as a tool” and
“order as fundamental”, we could walk “through the owery path of progress and
civilization” (Barreda, 2003).
e fundamental tool for realizing the liberal program would be educational
reform. In the year 1868, under the direction of Barreda himself, “Escuela
Nacional Preparatoriaopens its doors on San Ildefonso Avenue in Mexico City,
where “the didactic proposal of Comte would be practiced” (Cardoso, 2005: 188).
It envisions a fundamental formation of a civic spirit, the foundation of which
would be a “common fund of shared truths” (Barreda, 2003), truths that identied
(themselves) with those oered by science. us, “scientic education, secularism,
constitutes the common base over which the essence of the liberal regime is held,
on a par with the guarantor of order and individual liberties” (Estrella, 2010: 149).
As part of this educational model, humanistic knowledge was marginalized and
logic was preferred as a discipline that could act as the focus and basis of the
particular sciences.
Disciples of Barreda were a group of intellectuals, among them we would
nd Justo Sierra, Telésforo García and Fracisco Cosmes, who between 1878 and
1880 constructed and disclosed, in a newspaper called “La Libertad”, a political
agenda based on “scientic politics”, in which they would defend conservative
liberalism and argue for the reform of the Constitution of 1857, conducive to
strengthening the government and leading the country through economic progress
(Hale, 1991: 42-43), thus, giving the adoption of positivism a political twist that
would include doctrinal aspects that were not present in the vision of Barreda, and
that would function as an ideology of the porrist regime. Some of the writers of
“La Libertad” would later become part of the group the “scientists”, led by José
Yves Limantour, who created the Liberal Union Party in 1892, which served as an
legitimizing agent of the re-election of Porrio Díaz in that year. e intellectuals
that comprised this group would be very close to the political power, some of them
as heads of state in Díaz’s government, and to protect their own interests, would
adopt positions much closer to Herbert Spencer’s ideas about social Darwinism. In
this regard, they fueled the ideas that all of society is a combat eld where only the
most prepared” survive, those that have achieved high economic success and those
who are left to direct the rest of the people with lower capacities. e priority was
to transform the country from a material point of view, even though that wealth
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Ricardo Guzmán – Aída Gándara
was accumulated only by a few. ere would be time to reach civil liberties after
having led the nation to a stage of order and progress so that to trully achieve the
inalienable rights of the individuals who are referenced in the Constitution of
1857, rst, “it is necessary to make them strong biologically and materialistically
through free economic competition”. Only when this stage has been achieved will
there be advancement in the eld of political and individual liberty” (Estrella,
2010: 160-161). e “scientists” laid the foundation for the construction of a
productive and communicative infrastructure that would be able to attract foreign
capital. ey are usually described as technocrats and conservatives and they have
been accused of forming an oligarchy that sought their own benets and in the
attempt to modernize the country, the foreign companies that came attracted by
oil exploitation and other natural resources from the country mainly benetted at
the expense of exploiting the low income population.
It is possible to place the year 1982, with the creation of the Liberal
Union Party, as the moment in which positivist thinking in Mexico reaches its
peak among the Mexican intellectuality and begins its decline. Said group would
oppose the vision of a new generation that would consider the scientic vision
of positivism as biased, and which had become compulsory and part of the
educational routine. Later, this new generation founded in 1909, the “Ateneo de la
Juventud”, a civil organization that among its members were found Alfonso Reyes
and José Vasconcelos, who spoke out against positivism because they believed that
it had limited the freedom of thinking and that the problems of Mexico required
a broader educative vision that did not relegate arts and humanities (Zea, 1968:
438). In fact, it’s commonly believed that the Ateneo de la Juventud” and the
Mexican Revolution established the end of positivist philosophy in Mexico (Illades
& Rodríguez, 2001: 6). Justo Sierra himself, one of the most important characters
of that time and that “reected so well the long period in Mexico’s history from
liberalism to the Mexican Revolution, with porrism in the middle” (Zea, 1956:
173), shared these concerns in the rst decade of the XX century and was an author
of a new educational system that would highlight the creation of the Universidad
Nacional de México, today UNAM, in 1910.
Hence, we are located in the rst decade of the XX century, which would
represent the end of the porriato and the beginning of the Revolution that was
brewing, among other things, by the deterioration of the old regime, the outcry for
social justice that several popular groups lacked (farmers aggrieved by the expansion of
modern farms, workers exploited by foreign companies, etc.) and the necessity of a new
vision for education that would recover the ideals of liberalism. Not an undermined
liberalism like the one that occurred with the porriato that considered it necessary to
sacrice certain liberties in favor of material and economic progress, which at the end
would only satisfy a privileged group and foreign nations who opened their doors for
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e Dos Bocas oil well: Science, ideology, memory and discourse
the exploitation of the countrys natural resources. e new revolutionary ideals would
discuss the simultaneous pursuit of freedom and material wellness, although on the
other side, it would narrow some liberal ideas in favor of protectionism and socializing
elements (Zea, 1956: 17). Likewise, in the eld of education it was necessary to break
from the monopoly of positivist thinking that was used to justify the political agenda
and equip Mexicans with an education without discrimination, carrying
the instruction, according to the desired progress, to the classes that were able to
make it possible with their work. e instruction could not be any more prerogative
of certain classes if it aspired to incorporate all the citizens in a common task […]
It was necessary to oer to all the Mexicans the same opportunities of instruction,
of preparation, in a way that could multiply the active elements of the nation
(Zea, 1956: 26).
us, new ideas of educational and political character rose to the limelight
in the debate with all of its implications in all of the themes of national interest,
including those referring to the exploitation of natural resources and the role of
foreign powers. Later in this essay, by analyzing the Dos Bocas event that occurred
in 1908, and the reactions that it prompted, it will be interesting to distinguish
dierent voices in a moment of transition in the Mexicos history, a period in
which the porrian slogan of order and progress was still active, but in which
the social discomforts arose with force and responded to the enforcement of the
political agenda that marginalized them.
THE BEGINNINGS OF OIL IN MEXICO
With certain irony, we are reminded by Jesús Silva Herzog that “towards the
end of the XIX century and the rst months of the XX, national and international
geologists said in an adamant and emphatic way that there was no commercially
aordable oil in Mexico” (Silva Herzog, 1982: 27), which contrasts with the horror
story that would occur a little after when discovering Mexicos oil potential, which
on one side would give to birth to the “myth of oil emerging through millions
of cracks and crevices along the Caribbean shore [that] attracted hundreds of
adventurous seekers to Mexico(O’Brien, 1977: 108), but on the other side, gave
way to a stark struggle for the wealth that this natural resource represented, where:
the bribery, deception, kidnapping, plundering, weeds among family members,
robbery, the re to destroy legitimate scriptures, terror and crime all planted
sadness, misery, grief and desolation in many parts of the country in whose subsoil
had oil (Hermida, 1991: 51).
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Ricardo Guzmán – Aída Gándara
We would have to review, even if succinctly, the world origins of this voracity
for oil. e exploitation of it originated around 1870 for obtaining kerosene by
a distillation process, becoming the quintessential way to “enlighten the world”
until the early arrival of electricity, but it would take power and would grow
exponentially due to the birth of the internal combustion engine, which would
ultimately replace the steam engines as the means to move the world. Oil rapidly
became the strategic factor in the industrial process and in transportation systems.
e oil industry had its beginnings in the United States of America. In 1859,
the rst well in Pennsylvania was drilled, thus, proving the possibility of extracting
crude oil from the subsoil by means of drilling in the same way that it was done
with the search of water (Álvarez, 2005: 31-32). In 1870, John D. Rockefeller
created the Standard Oil Company of Ohio, which acted as the spearhead for the
USA to become the leader in oil production for a considerable amount of time.
Russia would follow, standing out as the second biggest producer of oil until the
First World War, and later, Romania, India, Japan, Germany, Mexico, etc. would
join as oil countries; thus, the exploitation of oil began to grow in an extraordinary
accelerated manner and would transform economic, social, and political life all
around the world.
In Mexico, oil was somehow a known substance in pre-Hispanic times,
and also later, throughout colonial times, through surface deposits of chapopotli,
which were used for dierent purposes such as “medicinal ointment, toothpaste,
adhesive, waterproong or a ceremonial element” (Álvarez 2005: 17). However,
the facts that interest us now are those associated with the modern history of oil,
whose beginnings can be found in the late XIX century. ere is a long list of
unfruitful attempts to make oil extraction a protable business in Mexico (Álvarez,
2005: 18-21). For this reason, it is very important to point out the legal changes
that, in the light of new liberal ideas, occurred in regards to the land ownership.
Until 1883, the legal principle from Spanish laws about underground property
designated the kings of Spain, and later the State, as the rightful owners, but with
the ability to grant concessions for the exploitation of that wealth. However, from
that point on, and following the new Miner Code of 1884 that followed the new
liberal principles, things would change and the result was the combining of the
property of the subsoil to the soil. More concretely, the “Miner Law of July 4,
1892 […] reserved the property of the subsoil for the Nation, but declared the
exploitation of mineral fuels that could be made by the owner of the land free”
(Silva Herzog, 2008: 11).
e rst foreigners to venture into the exploitation of oil in Mexico with
success were the businessmen Edward L. Doheny, who following the advice of the
Mexican geologist Ezequiel Ordóñez, discovered the Faja de Oro, and Weetman
Pearson, an English tradesman, also a pioneer in the oil industry. e Dos Bocas oil
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e Dos Bocas oil well: Science, ideology, memory and discourse
well, the central topic of this paper, belonged to the latter businessman and, as we
will see later, became a prime example of securing huge oil wealth in the Mexican
subsoil. But, wealth for who? e rst oil law, dating from 1901, stipulated that
the owner of the land was also the owner of the subsoil, that national territory
could be exploited and that only 10% of the prot would stay in the Mexican
government. e license to Pearson and Sons to extract oil was granted in 1906. It
was the biggest oil concession up until that point and Pearson won it because he
had “practiced a type of business diplomacy” and thanks to the “tight relationships
[…] with members of the Díaz regime” (Brown, 1998: 66-67)3. Although, it was
originally stipulated that the company would only drill on land belonging to the
country, later, this authorization was extended to drill on private property without
having to deliver the 10% of the prot, but only a minor tax. According to the
opinion of Silva Herzog, with the arrival of foreign oil industries we trade the
wealth of the subsoil for low salaries and petty taxes” (Silva Herzog, 1982: 35).
As we explained in the previous section, during Díaz’s regime, positivist
economics, i.e. the scientists”, considered that the future of Mexico depended on
good administration exerted by a rationalistic elite based on scientic principles
that would lead to economic growth. is vision led the porrist government to
cooperate with the foreign investors in an extraordinary way by extending special
privileges. According to Brown’s opinion (1998: 113), for historic and political
reasons, it was not convenient that it appeared that the Mexican economy moved
in accordance with North American interests, for that reason they showed certain
favoritism towards European businessmen, oering broad advantages, as was the case
of Weetman Pearson. e company founded by him, called “Compañía Mexicana
de Petróleo El Águila” survived and became the largest oil company in the country.
However, little by little, throughout the rst years of the XX century,
revolutionary trends would express the conict between economic development
and popular will, giving place to a rebellion against the authoritarian government
that had prevailed in Mexico for decades (O’Brien, 1977: 105) and that had as a
precedent new political ideas that went against the social exclusion that had reached
unbearable levels and the reductionist vision of scientism. us, the reputation of
Díaz was diminishing, although his economic politics had a lasting eect, and the
economic nationalism promoted by the Revolution would weaken the resistance
of the foreign oil companies. From that point on, British and American investors
would have to deal with new administration that would increase taxes and minimize
property rights for the foreign companies, on a par with the fact that the working
3 PearSons had served as the favorite contractor of Díaz’s through his engineering business, the S.
PearSons & Sons Limited, completing major works such as the National Railway of Tehuantepec
(Álvarez, 2005: 38).
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Ricardo Guzmán – Aída Gándara
class would little by little present their own demands against the harsh treatment
and lack of guarantees for the worker. e union of these two elements would
culminate to peak in a nationalization that would claim that by law the ownership
of the oil belongs to Mexicans (Brown, 1998:113). But for now, towards the end
of the porrist era, the oil boom was at its highest point and would be a topic
of political and social discourse that would confront several groups of interest, a
matter that will be discussed in the following sections.
However, before entering in this discussion it is suitable to establish, as
part of the background, that if it is about the history of oil, it is very important
to localize human actions inside a network of social, political, economic and
ecological relations, the latter being especially relevant in the event of the Veracruz
Huasteca, the geographic location of the oil well Dos Bocas, and where, under the
impact of capitalism and industrialization, the landscape, once a tropical forest,
was radically transformed (Santiago, 2011: 32). In this region, the extraction of
oil led to a sociocultural mutation and the creation of a completely new ecology,
a process that can be summarized in three categories: changes in land possession
patterns at a local level, a metamorphosis of the land use at a local level, and the
transformation in the local social structures.
In regards to land possession patterns, before the arrival of the oil companies
two systems co-existed, the communal land from aboriginal traditions and private
property inherited from colonization, also applying to privileged Spanish families,
a reality that was transformed in a little more than a decade as the oil companies
continued gaining control of signicant areas of the tropical forest, which was
marginalizing the indigenous population. e second change, in regards to
land use, consisted in the transformation from an indigenous agriculture and a
livestock economy to elds of oil extraction and processing plants that implied the
destruction of many ecosystems in the northern part of Veracruz. Finally, there was
a rearrangement of the social structures due to the importation of the workforce in
great amounts that displaced the native groups, creating a hierarchy in which the
executives, European and American professionals would be rst, followed by the
specialized working class and at last, the Mexican workers destined for the lowest
level and highest risk jobs (Santiago, 2006: 5-6).
is complex process of change was the result of deliberate and direct
human actions that responded to a social reality, to specic interests of empowered
groups and certain ideologies. British and American investors started the oil
industry in Mexico with the support of the men from the porriato that dreamed
of transforming Mexico into a capitalist country, under the shared idea of progress
based on the control of nature for the production of wealth. With this ideology,
the oil men transformed the Huasteca into a capitalist microcosm, feeling like they
were pioneers and deliverers of the civilization process.
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e Dos Bocas oil well: Science, ideology, memory and discourse
THE DOS BOCAS EVENT: IDEOLOGY AND SCIENCE
Under this ideology began the exploration for oil in Mexico, that even
though it would report huge earnings for some, it would mean tragedy and a
lifestyle transformation for others. Additionally, some key moments, like the one
discussed here, represented a breaking point in the perception about the country’s
natural resources and the role of science and technology. For that purpose, in this
section we will describe on one side, the accident-disaster of the Dos Bocas oil well,
focusing on its impact and consequences from a social and political point of view.
On the other side, we will show the importance of the creation of the Geological
Institute of Mexico as a prime example of the state of science and technology in
Mexico.
e San Diego del Mar number 3 oil well, remembered as “Dos Bocas”4,
that was exploited by the company Pearson and Sons, exploded and caught on re
when the drilling operations were in eect on July 4, 1908. e re remained active
until August 30 of the same year, until the oil deposit burned out completely. In
the course of almost two months, tens of thousands of oil barrels owed outward,
severely aecting the ecology of the place and turning this event into one of the
largest disasters in the history of the oil industry. Fearful results no doubt that
left an indelible mark on the landscape that lasts up to our present day, but that
on the other side, would function as a aming announcement to the world of
Mexicos presence as an oil country” (Santos, 1988: 24) and allowed to “arm
the huge oil wealth of the Mexican subsoil” (Silva Herzog, 1982: 29). Greatness
in the resources of a country that, considering the unfavorable internal political
circumstances to really take advantage of it, would allow the deposits of Faja de
Oro, discovered because of this event, to be a treasure for foreign powers.
San Diego del Mar is located in the canton or municipality of Ozuluama, a
little more than 100 kilometers south of Tampico and a few kilometers from Lake
Tamiahua. e accident was of enormous proportions. A combination of natural
factors, such as the presence of highly toxic and ammable gases and extremely
high temperatures, ensured that the oil in the insides of the Huasteca would be
found at a very high pressure and would possess an extraordinary destructive
capacity. When the drill broke the rock over the precious liquid, the oil literally
came out ercely expelling towards the exterior. It formed a crater that made the
structure placed there for the process of drilling and extracting disappear. e
workers escaped from there. One of them tried to turn o the heat boilers that
4 e “Dos Bocas” denomination, according to some version, it is due to the fact that in the
accident, additionally to the crater of the original oil-well, a second natural crater was naturally
opened due to the huge pressure generated.
86
Ricardo Guzmán – Aída Gándara
were used to provide energy to the machines, but the oil was able to fall on the coal
ashes, igniting the oil well and producing an explosion that shook the earth several
miles around (Santiago, 2006: 133-135).
e eorts to smother the re and the outbreak were unfruitful, revealing
the lack of technology to ght these types of accidents despite the half century of
experience that the oil industry world had at that moment. Since the locals refused
to participate in the work, Pearson and Sons was forced to ask for help from the
Mexican government to ght the re and try to contain the oil spill. ey sent
more than 400 soldiers from the zapadores to ght the forces of nature (Santiago,
2001: 86). e work done was diverse: by the use of a centrifuge pump, 3000
tons of gravel and sand were thrown in an eort to smother the re, a dam was
made from dirt and logs, gates and two large rectangular tanks were built to store
500,000 barrels, gaps in the forests were opened and pumps were installed, along
with other activities (García y Valdéz, 1995: 111).
During the months of conagration, the oil formed currents that eventually
reached the Carbajal River, owing towards the swamps that surrounded Lake
Tamiahua, encroaching on the lake itself from the south shore with an estimated of
ten thousand barrels (Santiago, 2001: 85). San Diego del Mar and the surrounding
areas would not be the same again. Six months after the event, the engineer Juan
Villarello reported that even though the oil was now not found in the Carbajal
River, it continued contaminating the lake (Villarello, 1909: 34). Later on, the
geologist Charles Hamilton reported that
e potent hydrogen sulphide [sic] gas had killed everything. What had been
lush monte was now a gaunt specter of dead trees. e air stunk with the smell
of rotten eggs. ere was no sign or sound of animal, bird or insect life. Nothing
stirred in the breeze. e silence was appalling. It was eerie and frightening. […]
rough this swamp poured the overow of hot salt water, forming an oily stream
without any vestige of either plant or sh life […] It was an awesome sight. It
smelled and looked like I imagined hell might look and smell (cited in Santiago
2006:139),
as a witness of the extreme danger that this event represented to life and
its permanence as an long term environmental threat. Moreover, years later the
journalist Santos Llorente, in the year 1988, reported about that the place
it still exudes the smell of gas […] and in all its space and surroundings there are
no birds or insects. e grass is just only beginning to appear and it’s been ve
years since the lake bubbled, and that is why the indigenous people went to heal
their diseases by submerging their feet in the hot water (Santos, 1988: 24).
87
e Dos Bocas oil well: Science, ideology, memory and discourse
Nightmarish scenes all of the above, that speak to us about a paradise”
converted into “hell”. But as we said since the beginning, we want to go beyond
the event itself and take a look and interpret it from the human, the social side,
understanding the event and its meanings in the ideological context and power
games involved, seeking elements that result illuminating in regards to the political
game in which it was framed.
García and Valdéz (1995) reveal to us, as a result of the research in the
General Files of the State of Veracruz, some of the communication between dierent
authorities in Pearson and Sons and government entities. Heladio Arellano, political
chief of the Ozuluama canton addressed the governor of Veracruz, Teodoro A.
Dehesa, as well as the Secretary of Economic Development, demanding a technical
committee to decide on the state of the oil well. e secretary left the company
Pearson and Sons in charge of the creation of the technical committee and urged
the governor to “dictate measures to prevent the recurrence of accidents and that
ensure the good state of public health in every sense possible(112-113). As it
is explained to us by García and Valdéz, to delegate the evaluation to the British
company itself, it highlighted
the sense that the porrist industrial development policy left industrial development
of the country in the hands of foreign interests, optimistically believing that in this
way a solid base would be created to sustain national economic development, (118).
which of course turned out to be false and only showed the ignorance and
prepotency of a political class in which the discourse revealed an adherence to
liberal principles, but in practice protected certain groups of power, among them
those associated with foreign investment, in disservice to the rights of local and
sometimes marginalized communities.
Weetman Pearson and Edward Doheny are the iconic gures of these elite in
the case of the oil industry in Mexico, which somehow speaks to us, at a local level,
about this inheritance of the nineteenth century world in which the industrial and
scientic culture merged as a social business, under the slogan of the transformation
of natural forces and with the objective of extracting the power and wealth that
was hidden there, a unique vision about the relationship between men and nature
(Santiago, 2006: 144-145). Ultimately, the ideological belief in progress and the
command to subjugate nature to the well-being and benet of humankind, under
the tools of capitalism and industrial technology, converted the oil industry, among
others, into a “powerful source for social change” (Brown, 1988: 83).
e above leads us to remember that the procedure of the government at
the time was largely justied on the basis of positivist ideology that prioritized the
benets of scientic and technological development, and in that way inuenced
88
on the one hand, educational politics as the attraction for foreign investment to
modernize” and lead Mexico along the road to progress. Although, on the other
hand, already starting to be heard were the contentious and revolutionary voices
that declared themselves against these doctrines and opened several opportunities
for political debate, in which there would be voices that would speak of the negative
eects, the environmental and social character of the dominant forms of political
leadership.
e truth is that the Dos Bocas event put us in a very interesting moment
that brought to the light several points of view on industrial development in
Mexico that were seeking to leverage scientic-technological knowledge and the
exploitation of the country’s natural resources. e report of Colonel Arnaldo
Casso López, in charge of the zapadores battalion reveals, as part of his discourse
to communicate and explain the event that occurred, included some aspects of the
state in which science and technology were found to be related to oil exploitation.
It states that “geology is a science completely modern [in which] the scholars […]
still ignore what is going on in the depth of the earths crust” (cited in García and
Valdez, 1995: 114-116), but speaks of the known theories up to that moment about
the origin of hydrocarbons and reveals some aspects of technological character of
the exploitation of subsoil, and according to that, the causes of the accident.
Consistent with porrist politics, several important scientic societies and
institutions5 were created in Mexico. To understand the dynamic of these organisms at
the turn of the century, as an example lets use two of them that are very important in
regards to the topic discussed here. We refer to the National Geological Institute and
the Mexican Geological Society. As a background, the agreement for the creation of
a Geological Commission was registered in 1888, under the Secretary of Promotion,
Colonization and Industry supervised by General Carlos Pacheco, with the mission
of studying the mineral resources that Mexico had, and that at the end gave birth
to the National Geological Institute6 in 1891, one of its objectives being to develop
geological maps of the country. In 1904, the idea came to some specialists of the area
to develop a society that allowed the creation of synergy between the diversity of
studies and geological observations that sometimes went missing in the informality.
us, in that year the Mexican Geological Society was founded, whose activities
would be in parallel to those of the Institute, and it would group professional and
technicians dedicated to earth science. e labor of both the Institute and the Society
5 Some of the most important ones are: the Mexican Society of Geography and Statistics, founded
in 1833; the Mexican Society of Natural History, founded in 1868; the Antonio Alzate Scientic
Society, established in 1884; and the Mexican Geological Society founded in 1904 (Gómez-
Caballero, 2005: 150-151).
6 In 1929, it would be converted to the Geological Institute of the UNAM.
Ricardo Guzmán – Aída Gándara
89
consisted mainly in “developing geological research necessary for the exploitation
of natural resources” (López, 1976: 91). e National Geological Institute Bulletin
began to be published in 1895 with the objective to serve as the broadcasting media
of the “geological study of Mexican territory, making it known through scientic
and industrial points of view (Gómez-Caballero, 2005: 153). In this bulletin, and in
others such as the one from the Mexican Society of Geography and Statistics, it was
usual to publish topics related to oil exploration and exploitation, including stories
related to the Dos Bocas event such as those discussed in the following section.
MEMORIES IN PLAY, DISCOURSES IN OPPOSITION
e entrepreneurs of the oil business started the industrialization process
in Huasteca. eir arrival determined the completion of the port in Tampico, that
telegraph lines were suspended overhead and roads were built, etc. e process,
which implied the construction of industrial workshops, pumping stations,
pipelines, small reneries and so on, would end up changing the landscape of
the northern part of the region from Veracruz to Tampico (Santiago, 2011: 45).
However, all this modernity would also mean deforestation and environmental
degradation, thus, giving place to two encountered discourses that can be even
seen today, but that become evident after the breaking point that we identify as
the Dos Bocas event.
e Dos Bocas event, as an example of the strength of nature when released
by the hand of the man, was a phenomenon that understandably aroused curiosity
and wonder nationally and internationally. e press coverage told stories about
the crusades of the men against nature, about the strengths of the modern industry
that went out of control and about the battle to extinguish the re. But the memory
of a transcendental event is built on time and through the expression of several
agents in the local and national scene. e many stories and/or memories can be so
diverse that may become hard to believe that they come from, or make reference,
to the same events (Cronon, 1992: 1348).
People from that region had had, in a sporadic and apparently disconnected
manner, several encounters with this process of foreigners arriving to exploit
national territory. Some had had to make deals with the oil companies in regards
to the use of land, for others, their properties were aected by the construction of
some communication path, others were just simply witnesses of the construction of
a drilling tower, etc. (Kuecker, 2012: 69). is diversity of experiences represented
individual interactions with the new industry, but that had not given up to that
moment the opportunity to provide a collective meaning of the changes that
were happening. e Dos Bocas event, as a breaking point of this process, can
e Dos Bocas oil well: Science, ideology, memory and discourse
90
be considered as the rst encounter of the community with the oil that allowed
a threatening perception to emerge in regards to the oil industry, which meant a
lesson about the dangers of messing with nature.
is threat, as explained to us by Kuecker (2012) based on some press
reports, was expressed during the unfortunate events of the oil well in several ways.
As a start, simply as an alarm for the uncertainty about how the phenomenon that
could be observed from Tampico could be solved and the immediate concerns for
relatives working in the oil elds. In a second instance, it was manifested as fear
when they realized how unsuccessful the eorts were in ghting the conagration,
to such an extent that some foreshadowed the end of the world and that in fact,
provoked some to ee in panic. It also awoke rumors and complaints about
the possibility that the re had been intentional as a response to the breach of
treaties between the land owners and those that were exploiting the land, which is
indicative of the uncertainty that existed in the ways in which the oil industry was
being developed. In a fourth instance, there was also the threat perceived by the
traders, who feared that the event would provoke heavy losses due to the eects on
local transportation as well as the repairs of the docks, losses of livestock, crops and
sh poisoning. And lastly, the perception of facing an “enemy” against which they
had to ght, giving the feeling of a war zone (68-69). In summary, the Dos Bocas
oil event was acting as a breaking point to group those individual interactions into
the common perception that oil had radically altered their lives.
Against this perception, another was built that would be the ocial
one, that would work a dominant power and at the end would prevail. We are
talking about the interpretation of the facts, and with this the construction of
a national memory about their meanings of the same, that would come from
the regime’s ideology that was represented by the “scientists” group of Porrio
Díaz’s government, and to which several players were added: media, technical and
scientic community, teachers, etc. As an example of the emerging discourse, we
will make a brief reference to the report about the phenomenon that Juan Villarello
wrote in the National Geological Institute Bulletin and a brief analysis of what was
reported, examined and disclosed by Enrique Juan Palacios Mendoza, who formed
part of the porrist intellect of the time, in a text published in the bulletin of the
Mexican Society of Geography and Statistics (Palacios, 1908a) intended for the
professionals in the branch of earth science, and was also used as a foundation for
giving a conference in the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (Palacios, 1908b).
Juan Villarello was the leader of the commission sent by the president
of Mexico to study the Dos Bocas phenomenon. His report (Villarello, 1909),
published in the Mexican Geological Institute Bulletin, was divided into 4 parts.
In the rst part, he describes the geology of the region, and it only reports the
same that was previously reported by the same institute before the accident in a
Ricardo Guzmán – Aída Gándara
91
paper entitled Some Oil Regions of Mexico (Villarello, 1908). In the second part,
he describes the phenomena that occurred there. In this document Villarello
begins by characterizing the phenomena that happened there as “scientically very
interesting” (16) and proceeds to explain, with great description and technical
language, the measurements carried out there and what the commission found.
Beyond the objectivity and the scientic rigor of this part, it is interesting to observe
the inclusion in the discourse of an intention to minimize the catastrophic events,
by saying that “the re did not spread in a very notable way from the surroundings
of the oil well and the vegetation did not suer very much(18) and for giving
the event the principal importance of being “very interesting for scientic studies”
(19). He comments that for some unfortunate events, “it was believed justiable
to say that: this whole region is deadly” (22) and that consequences have been
mentioned in regards to shing, the trac in the lake, and the risk of a new re,
but he qualies them as very exaggerated and others completely false” (p. 22),
commenting on the basis of the measurements that the commission carried out
that “soon the name of the deadly region, exaggeratedly given to the entire zone,
will be forgotten”, that “the dangerous zone extends to a maximum (sic.) of up to
ve hundred meters around the well” (p. 49) and that “the capitalists and workers
(could) go to this region, exploring the oil underground without worrying about
the temporary phenomena produced by some gases, whose harmful action may
be easily avoided if necessary (24-25). In the third part, the author describes the
work carried out to avoid the conagration and describes the risks that the event
represents, which he again minimizes, referring to them in a positive tone at the
end of the document, to the “immediate consequence [...] to [...] the development
of the industry and commerce throughout this entire interesting oil region” (97).
Finally, he refers to the necessity in continuing the work in progress and the
importance of continuing with the oil exploration in the zone.
e previous description is valid for understanding the tone of an essentially
technical report about the Dos Bocas event. However, in our view, the text that
results to be more interesting is that of Juan Palacios, who, although imbued in the
scientist spirit of that time and being professor in the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria
where a didactic proposal of that kind was followed, we found ourselves closer to
the new generation that began to see strict positivism suspiciously, that it was
soaked in the ideology of the porrist government. Perhaps this is revealed in his
formation - not only was he a scientist, but also a writer and historian- and in his
subsequent aliation to the “Ateneo de la Juventud” that competed for a more
broad educational perspective. Because of this, it’s understandable the interesting
poetic-historic mixture and the emotional and motivational elements that this
dissertation is imbued. e text is entitled Memories about the Fire of the Dos Bocas
Oil Well and is based on his experience as a witness of the phenomena and as a
e Dos Bocas oil well: Science, ideology, memory and discourse
92
boss of the expedition sent to the location by the Public Instruction Ministry, in
which he was accompanied by “the distinguished alumni of the Engineer School,
Mr. Ignacio Medina and Mr. José Treviño, plus two alumni of Arts and Trades”
(Palacios, 1908a: 40).
In the rst part of the text called First News of the Phenomena - Background,
Palacios realizes that the phenomena that was lled “of stupor for those that
enjoyed the fortune of beholding such a marvelous spectacle” (Palacios, 1908a:
3). He provides a glimpse of previous reports of the conagration provided by
other witnesses and soon he goes ahead to characterize the phenomena in a similar
way to the Villarello report, as “interesting for science [and] to engineering” (5).
To contextualize the interest of the “scientic world and the educated public
from everywhere” (6) he does a bit of a narrative by warning about how progress
has already been coming to the region by the modern media (railway, telegraph,
etc.), thanks to which “the trade arises then and it is developed together with the
industry” and behind that forefront “education [goes] rehearsing the national unit,
and art and science planting their rst seeds” (8), according to the porrian vision
of that time.
Palacios chooses a poetic tone to talk about How was the Dos Bocas Fire
in the second part of his report. e narrative, lled with parables, takes notice of
a majestic disaster that in that time left those who had to go to the furious call of
the re undaunted. Not even the senses or reason could have realized what was
happening because nothing like it had ever been seen before:
e smoke slowly grew in sight, fringed in moments by ames, like a monster of
dark hair crowned by a wide and glowing re. As one progresses over the steel waves,
the clouds more threatening and more important appear. Such would be if the angry
cyclops who shakes it would want to stop it, scaring the brave Argonauts coming
to his assault [...] such it looks like a tremendous struggle develops in that chaos,
sustained by mutant monsters, born within the Horror and the Night! [...] lling
with fear to the same horror, of admiration to the exalted mood (10, 13 and 14).
In the last part of this section, and in those that follow, entitled Data and
Calculations, Future of National Industrialism and e Oil of Huaxteca gives a spin
on his speech, it moves away from the initial emotion of the event and proceeds
“with a serene heart [...] contemplating this re, determined to measure it [even
though] the stupor invades the reasoning, as reason seizes the phenomenon” (15).
It is time to deploy scientic reason around the phenomenon, so that it tells us
“Does this belong to reality or are we in an imaginary world?” (16) and science and
technology will answer us: “Truth were the stories transmitted in the beginning by
the travelers and that then seemed fabulous!” (17). us, Palacios prepares himself
Ricardo Guzmán – Aída Gándara
93
to oer objective data in regards to the phenomenon and to describe some of the
proposed and/or performed work done to attack the re, highlighting that
the oil well of the Huaxteca has cast during the period that lasted its combustion [...]
a stream that bubbled in the center of the crater, all of it seized by liquid and ames
having reached a diameter of 280 meters; this stream overows in a cascade over the
immediate swamp, producing, according to the more moderate calculations, no less
than 100,000 barrels per day [thus turning the oil well into the] richest in the world,
and the re [into] the most terrible ever produced in nature (22, 23),
and afterwards, giving way to extrapolate, speculate and evaluete. What we can
learn from the Dos Bocas event and that is revealed to the world, Palacios tells us, is
the existence of huge deposits of oil in the Huaxteca, that open brighter horizons
to our industries, were subsequently fed by a torrent of cheap fuel [sic] and gases,
which set in motion the motors, the machines, the railways, the ships (30).
and thus, alluding to a process of industrialization of the country, in relation
to what makes a plea to national character so that the Mexican landlords would
be those that exploited their lands, pointing out the role that several agents would
play: “the press will perform the patriotic work of telling the owners how valuable
what they own is, and the government, with wise laws, will stop the pernicious
inuence of the monopolies” (33).
He ends these sections talking, among other things, about the diverse
applications of the oil industry, of its dominance against other fuels, of the theories
in vogue about the origin of the hydrocarbons and he prepares himself to close his
account by appealing to an Awakening of the Nationality; that is the title of the last
part of the text. In this he makes an exaltation about industrialism, considering it
as the way to enhance the country, calling for an awakening of the private initiative
and seeking to tie this goal with the program of the current government, that of
General Porrio Díaz, who
has led with unparalleled clairvoyance, slowly, but with imperturbable
eort, the uniform action of its admirable policy [through] the promotion of
communication, an essential auxiliary in this movement; the implementation of
order; the arrangement of the Treasury [and] the contribution of capital, without
whose help our aspirations would be powerless (39).
In the end, Palacio tells us, “we began to be suitable for the modern life” (39),
for which, he warns us, “we need education [...] the eort, persistent and ingenious
exercise, whose compelling action has never been an insurmountable obstacle” (40).
e Dos Bocas oil well: Science, ideology, memory and discourse
94
In summary, we thus found two ways of adaptation and signicance of this
catastrophic event, one aligned with the hegemonic spheres, in which we found
several players that saw the event as a conrmation and justication of their ideas
for national progress, nevertheless, at the end there will always be elements of
exclusion of some sectors that will never be beneciaries of this development, and
another that will speak to us precisely about the eect of the present and future
of these disadvantaged groups. In any case, the disaster constitutes a milestone,
on one side, for those that saw the transformation of their lives conrmed by the
virtue of the arrival of the oil industry to their regions and for their descendants,
for whom the place is a permanent memory of the past, and on the other side, of
those that visualized a breaking point for industrial development and economic
progress that would mean the modernization of the country.
FINAL THOUGHTS
e stories that are told and that are constructed around the facts, provides
them with value and meaning. is is particularly true when we talk about
traumatic, catastrophic events such as the central topic of this paper. However,
stories have a discursive function and according to Foucault (2007), talking about
discourse is referring to patterns of institutionalized knowledge that are manifested
in disciplinary structures that operate for the relation of this knowledge with power,
a way of interaction contextually located. is is how we can interpret the type of
discursive practices analyzed in the latter section, showing a dominant ideology
that “controls the preferential content of the knowledge and the attitudes [and
that] establishes the coherence (cognitive and social) among the dierent attitudes
and goals” (Van Dijk, 2005: 184). Goals labeled in this case by an elite, conducive
to a heroic vision of modernization that suppressed the part of reality associated
with environmental degradation, poverty and health damage.
On the other side, Gray and Oliver (2012) explain to us what some
academics have theorized about the opposition between “memory” and “history”.
History would be understood here as the ocial recap, that is built with the
cooperation of several agents connected with the elite in power, whereas memory
is the fragile, vulnerable resource of the oppressed, of the excluded. Perhaps, in this
way we could understand the versions reected in this work about the Dos Bocas
event. e problem may be that a traumatic event like this does not have, by its
own character, the ability to be completely understood and adapted for historical
understanding, but what cannot be denied are the lessons being raised from it.
More than a century after the Dos Bocas event, we have to remember that true
development must combine economic growth and social justice.
Ricardo Guzmán – Aída Gándara
95
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e Dos Bocas oil well: Science, ideology, memory and discourse
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