Book Report

Jenkins of Mexico: How a Southern Farm Boy Became a Mexican Magnate. By Andrew Paxman. Published 2017. 509 pages. $34.95
BY: JEANNINE PEREZ

This massive and heavy biography (509 pages, plus 24 pages of photos), is a lengthy, detailed and, admittedly, sometimes boring biography of an American businessman who certainly did make his fortune in Mexico. The book's introduction begins like any classic fairytale, "In the Mexican city of Puebla, half a century ago, there lived an old man..." 

However, instead of a tale about a shabby, overworked country girl transformed into a princess by a fairy godmother, we read a different description of William Jenkins. He was said to have been the richest man in Mexico "always wearing a black fedora and seeming to also wear the same black tie and shabby dark suit.” And because he was so very rich, and so very American, he became Mexico's most hated capitalist.

Jenkins was someone who didn’t smoked or drink, and was very frugal. He was a man who worked his farm on weekends. He was also a man who needed to prove himself to his wife, to impress his wife's Southern family and, later in his career, needed to cleanse his image. Embodying the Mexican saying, "dishonor de trabajo” (the dishonor of working with one's hands"), he quickly learned how to get rich in a Revolution. Later, he was criticized, threatened, and he barely escaped execution by a Zapatista firing squad.

This experience hardened his heart. He seemed to lose all tolerance for the underclasses, and the void between the elites and the very poor. He actually doubled his fortune during the war. How could he do this? He became rich by the unceasing operation of his textile business (hiring mostly women because their wages were cheaper), by learning how to grease palms, by befriending powerful archbishops in the Mexican Catholic church, and by trading favors with the rich and powerful, thus becoming a "foreign capitalist" aka an exploiter. He also took advantage of fluctuations in the national currency, and by 1939 he was said to be worth 5.4 million dollars. He certainly did have a knack for finding countless opportunities for profit.

To his many critics, he was a "grasping U.S. capitalist." To others, he was the opposite; a businessman who, after the death of his wife, willed his entire fortune to charities and who donated money to help with the education of children and youth in Mexico. He was alternatively stereotyped as a benevolent hero and an imperialist meddler/latter-day robber baron.

Born in Frederick, Maryland, and raised in Tennessee, Jenkins was always reading and writing as a boy. He was self-disciplined, and believed that idleness is a sin. In school, he was impressed and influenced by the articles he read that praised Tennessee citizens traveling in Mexico (i.e. William Walker). He also read a census that showed one-third of the Mexican population at that time was shoeless, and that half were living in single room homes. A good scholar, he'd also read about Manifest Destiny and the might and power of the Anglo culture, and he believed the countless stereotypes of American superiority.

This biography describes the business and political practices during and after the Revolution, and also the formation of states and economic growth after the war. By 1900, half of all U.S. foreign investment could be found in Mexican enterprises. However, more U.S. enterprises actually failed than succeeded. Jenkins supported the Mexican economy after the Revolution as one of the business elite, and as an example of Mexican interdependence of government and big business. He did so by helping finance a monopoly in the film industry, and the national cinema.

He and his wife moved to Monterrey, embodying the idea of an American capitalist and philanthropist by resisting unions, evading taxes, and building monopolies. This followed the tradition of “gringophobia,” that followed 1848 when the U.S. took half of Mexican territory as our southwestern states.

A map in the front of the book shows where Jenkins lived and where he mainly invested. Jenkins found wealth in his farm, and in the cinema. Time magazine called him a "mysterious buccaneer-businessman who has built the biggest personal fortune in Mexico."

Jenkins did not like that publicity, and probably would not have been happy with this book. Ten years after his death, an earthquake struck Puebla, destroying the warehouses where most of his papers were stored. Scattered papers flew through the air. When they had been gathered up again, they were ordered burned. Jenkins would have been pleased at that. He once said, "My life doesn't matter to anyone. What's more, no one ought to know about us."

The author of this book, Andrew Paxman, researched this book by interviewing the descendants of William Jenkins, and by checking the remaining family papers in the archives of Puebla. He teaches journalism in Mexico City and also co-authored "El Tigre."

You may find this book at El Caballo Blanco, my bookstore in Loreto. Drop me a line at betojeannine@gmail.com.