Member of the Week: Diana J. Montaño

Diana J. Montaño

Assistant Professor in History at Washington University in St. Louis


Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

I am currently working on two projects, both of which interrogate the use of technology in Mexico. “Urban Palisades: Technology in the Making of Santa Fe, Mexico City” is a collaborative project developed along with historian David Pretel (Pompeu Fabra University) to examine the development of Santa Fe that interrogates the role of technologies in cementing socioeconomic segregation in contemporary Mexico City–one of the world’s most unequal megalopolises.

Nestled in the city’s western fringe, Santa Fe was mostly built in the last thirty years for the stern resolve of protecting housing and consumption habits of the nouveau riche. What drew us to this project was the rapid transformation of the area, physical and in the city’s imagination. That is, we are interested in how the new Santa Fe took inhabited land contaminated by decades of mining and garbage activities, rose over a mountain of trash, violence, and established new pillars of spatial segregation. On the shadows of the district’s skyscrapers lies the old Santa Fe, a working-class and peripheral neighborhood dating to the sixteenth century, which has long shared space with areas offering leisure activities for middle and upper classes and lodging for trips to the nearby city of Toluca. Contrasts between the two are palpable. Precarious residences on ravines, murals on walls, and pedestrians on the streets are left behind, as luxury condominiums, commercial billboards, and streets designed for cars and devoid of sidewalks and pedestrians signal our entrance to a new territory.

This interdisciplinary research project contends that any critical analysis of urban inequality in the Global South requires attention to the historical construction of a built environment that functions as barriers and boundaries between the rich and the poor. This project examines “technological palisades” to explain how infrastructural systems and technological artifacts simultaneously embody and work to draw new geographies of urban inequality and social fragmentation. Urban Palisades ( received a collaborative grant from The D/vided C/ty, an urban humanities initiative developed by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in partnership with the Center for the Humanities, and the Sam Fox School at Washington University in St. Louis. ( Historian Robert Jordan (Colorado State University) and Urban Designer Matthew Bernstine (Washington University in St. Louis), as invited research scholars, will amplify the project’s intervention in the areas of Digital Humanities and in reimagining sustainable urbanism[s] in research and practice. 

I am also currently a fellow at the Linda Hall Library, researching for my second book project (Dis)Placing Necaxa: Power Networks and Erased Histories in Mexico (1890s-1914), which will explore the transnational networks of capital, expertise, and machinery that contributed to the creation of the Necaxa hydroelectric complex in southern Mexico. This project seeks to rescue the histories of towns, indigenous workers, and water bodies that were displaced—both by force and voluntarily—during its construction. It will also trace how certain everyday native technologies were incorporated in the construction of the Necaxa complex but have remained uncredited.

This project follows on the foothills of my recently-released first book, Electrifying Mexico: Technology and the Transformation of a Modern City, which scrutinizes how capitalinos (Mexico City residents) used electricity, both symbolically and physically, in the construction of a modern nation. It weaves together how “electrifying agents,” that is ordinary citizens (businessmen, salespersons, inventors, doctors, housewives, maids, and domestic advisors), first crafted a discourse for an electrified future, and secondly, how they shaped its consumption. It shows how these agents of modernity promoted and created both imaginary and tangible notions of this technology. Taking a user-based perspective, it reconstructs how electricity was lived, consumed, rejected, and shaped in everyday life. 

What drew me to my second book project was the significance of pulling back the curtain to the generation of electric power. The making of the Necaxa hydroelectric complex, which supplied power to the country’s capital and surrounding states beginning in 1905 and throughout the twentieth century, entailed the reconfiguration of a vast watershed, the flooding of towns, and the cementation of transnational networks of engineers, finance, machinery, and power relations.   

What you are currently teaching? How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I am currently teaching two courses, a historical methods seminar entitled “Cooking Up History: Food, Race and Nation,” which introduces students to the historian’s craft through an in-depth deconstruction of cookbooks, as well as the first-year seminar “Angels, Prostitutes and Chicas Modernas: Women in Latin American History,” which explores the lives of women in the region from the Conquest to the Present. Both courses emphasize the importance of documenting and studying history by looking at everyday life. This echoes my own scholarship and its emphasis of looking at the minutiae—the subtle aspects of ordinary matters—to appreciate changes and continuities.  

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars? 

My recently-released book, Electrifying Mexico: Technology and the Transformation of a Modern City

What advice would you give to students, both undergraduate and graduate, who are interested in urban studies and just starting out their careers? 

I would suggest listening closely to city residents and how at once they encounter and build their cities, a construction that is always ongoing, tangible and intangible. I would also recommend students of the past to follow Chris Otter’s call to put aside reductive theoretical frameworks in favor of histories that remain “close to historical actors, their words, their eyes, and their physical environment” and render textured experience “in all its everyday richness and complexity.” 

Member of the Week series co-editor Alec Dawson continues the conversation with Diana Montaño in this audio interview, with a discussion of her new project on the transformation of the Mexico City neighborhood of Santa Fe, an ultra modern urban center recently built on what was previously a garbage dump.

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