Return to Prelude to the Mexican Revolution Previous Section: Independence from Spain to President Porfirio Díaz

Mexico under Porfirio Díaz like the United States and other countries in the Western Hemisphere modernized at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. The U.S. Library of Congress opened the Thomas Jefferson Building in 1897.This section focuses on growing dissatisfaction with Díaz’ constant reelections and his brutal suppression of dissent as troops enforced seizures of village land for private commercial agriculture. In 1908 Díaz stated in an interview with James Creelman that Mexico was ready for democracy and a new leader, an idea seconded by many throughout the country.

Porfirio Díaz in 1867 (age 37)

The future president of Mexico was born in Oaxaca City on Setpember 16, 1830. Following the death of his father when he was a small child, Porfirio had to work as a carpenter’s assistant, but learned basic skills as well. Although he was admitted to a seminary, he joined the national guard during the war with the United States, but did not participate in the actual fighting. He distinguished himself in the fighting during the War of the Reform (1858-1860), and by 1861 he was already a brigadier general. In 1862, he became known for his indispensable role in the victory against in French at the battle of Puebla on May 5, 1861. Although he was captured on several occasions, he always managed to escape. Then he devoted himself to fighting the French informally until he captured the city of Oaxaca on October 31, 1866. The next year he commanded the Army of the East to a victory at Puebla on April 2, 1867 and mounted guerrilla war against the French occupiers until Emperor Maximilian was executed that year.

Following the war, the state congress of Oaxaca gave him the hacienda of La Noria and backed him for president of Mexico. After Benito Juárez was reelected in 1871, Díaz launched the revolution of La Noria in protest over what he claimed was a fraudulent election and demanding that presidents only serve one term. After Juárez died in 1872, and Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada became president, Díaz began preparing for his next rebellion. In January 1876 Díaz revolted with his Plan of Tuxtepec, calling for no reelection and municipal freedom. This time his revolt succeeded and he became president on November 23,1876 and would stay in office until November 30, 1880.

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Railroads in Mexico (1884–1885)

In the nineteenth century, railroads were the symbol of economic progress and every country wanted to have them. Although the first contracts to build trains in Mexico were signed in the 1830’s, it wasn’t until the 1870’s that railroads finally ran from Mexico City to the major port of Veracruz. Political unrest and lack of capital were the preeminent reasons why railroad development went so slowly. Railroad building was one of the most important goals of the Díaz administration and by 1910, Mexico could boast 10,000 miles of track, uniting the country, providing secure ways to get goods to market, and enabling rural residents to leave the farm for city jobs.

Head-on view of train, Mexico. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-83018 (b&w film copy neg)

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Carpet Factory in Santa Gertrudis, Mexico (1908)

The textile industry began in Mexico as early as the 1830s. As Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lucas Alamán founded the Banco de Avío specifically to help found the textile industry. Thanks to the work of entrepreneur Estaban Antuñano in Puebla, Mexico began an effort to make its own textiles and reduce the importation of foreign goods. By 1843, there were 59 factories in Mexico housing over 125,000 spindles and more than 2,600 looms. Even though these numbers seem relatively small, Mexico had the largest cotton industry in Latin America until the 20th century.

By 1900 Mexico’s largest textile firm, the Compañía Industrial de Orizaba (CIDOSA), foreign-owned, had over 4,200 employees and, had it been in the United States, is would have been one of the largest cotton factory complexes.

Splendidly equipped carpet factory, Santa Gertrudes, near Orizaba, Mexico. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-74568 (b&w film copy neg.)

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Emilio Vázquez Gómez and “La Reelección Indefinida” (1890)

The growing material progress in Mexico came at a price. President Díaz and his administration promoted the serious economic development the nation needed, while consciously ignoring the equivalent development of the political system. Nowhere was this lack more evident than in the frequent re-elections of the President himself. By 1890, Díaz had served three terms as President– 1876-1880, 1880-1884, 1884-1888 –and was in the middle of the next four year cycle (the six year Presidential cycle didn’t begin until the late 1920’s). It is true that President Benito Juárez had served for 15 years consecutively, but most of that occurred when the nation was at war.

There were many reasons why the Porfirians in general and the científicos, administrators who believed in governing according to “scientific” principles, preferred to concentrate on economic advances. One of the biggest reasons for this was that the history of independent Mexico had consisted of numerous revolts among political factions hungry for money and power. By personalizing the regime in a central figure, for many years the científicos hoped to stave off the kinds of conflicts that had torn the country apart for decades.

But they could not hope that this strategy would go unchallenged. As early as 1890, the lawyer Emilio Vázquez Gómez wrote a small pamphlet La Relección Indefinida in which he confided his hopes that “an error in their calculations owing to the concerns of the moment not come to wound democracy, nor interrupt at some point national peace, or the consolidation of our institutions.” (p. 3) Looking back after 100 years, how prescient he seems.

Vázquez Gomez, Emilio, La Reelección Indefinida. JL1240 .V3 General Collections, Library of Congress

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The Anarchists

Generally when we think of Anarchists and Anarcho-Syndicalists in Mexico, we focus on Ricardo Flores Magón. However, there were others. Librado Rivera, pictured here, worked with the Flores Magón brothers. A brilliant student in his native San Luis Potosí, he quickly joined the Liberal clubs formed against President Díaz in 1901. Beginning in 1905, he worked on Regeneración in St. Louis, Missouri with the Oaxacan- born Flores Magón brothers, like Enrique shown here. Rivera and the Flores Magón brothers were all sentenced to the MacNeil prison and then to Leavenworth, Kansas. Ricardo died in jail, but both Enrique and Librado returned to Mexico in 1923.

Anarchism focused on the problems of workers in seeking control over the places where they labored. While the Flores Magón brothers and others were out of the country, workers formed institutions in Mexico like the Casa de Obrero Mundial (House of International Workers). They protested the lack of attention from Madero with regard to the workers and their needs. Following Madero’s death, they formed “Red Battalions” and fought alongside Carranza and Obregón.

Librado Rivera, Enrique Flores Magon. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ggbain-09275 (digital file from original neg.)

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Literacy and the Emergence of Literary Art in the Modern Age

As Omar Martínez Legorreta writes in his book, Modernization and Revolution in Mexico: A Comparative Approach, journalists, novelists, poets, playwrights, and “silver tongues” became more important during the Porfiriato as the written word dominated the spoken one. One quarter of Mexicans became literate in President Díaz’s Mexico, although he opened very few new schools. Legorreta writes that authors such as Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera (pen name “El Duque Job”), Manuel José Othón, Luis G. Urbina, Amado Nervo, Federico Gamboa, and Salvador Díaz Mirón were significant writers during the “Liberal epoch.” Yet, the increasingly literate populace still allied itself to the Catholic Church and its traditional values.

Legorreta likens the importance of novels and newspapers in revolutionary Mexico to television and cinema today, calling it “the major vehicle of culture.” Many small towns had their own publications. The ruling class funded and read the overwhelming majority of these publications. According to Legorreta, the cost of a newspaper was greater than the average worker’s daily wage.

YMCA Reading Room, Mexico City, Mexico, 1910. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-DIG-ggbain-12492

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President Porfirio Díaz at Age 80

Porfirio Díaz was president of Mexico longer than anyone else in its history. After his heroism in leading the troops against the French, he tried to gain the Presidency through a coup against President Benito Juárez in the abortive Revolt of La Noria in 1871. His Revolt of Tuxtepec in 1876 against President Sebastían Lerdo de Tejada prior to the 1876 elections was successful ultimately and he served as President from November 23, 1876 to November 30, 1880. During his term, he placated U.S. investors and reestablished relations with European powers.

Manuel González was elected President for the next four-year term, while Díaz served as Minister of Development and Governor of Oaxaca. In 1884, Díaz returned to the office, not to relinquish it until 1911. During his presidency, Díaz and his advisers transformed Mexico by building railroads, schools, and installing overall infrastructure. They developed the beginnings of an oil industry and coaxed foreign money into mines and factories. However, his government did this at the expense of basic political freedoms, and economic control. Many critics were imprisoned or assassinated by the regime. As the decades went on, Díaz increasingly relied on voter fraud and the military to preserve him in office.

After 1900, the arrangement started to deteriorate due to the president’s advanced age, and the lack of an agreed-upon successor, increasing nationalism both political and economic, and simply bad luck in part generated by economic depression in the United States. Finally, guerrilla wars in the south and combat victories in the north unseated Díaz, and on May 21, 1911 his advocates signed the Treaty of Ciudad Juárez with Francisco Madero. Díaz resigned the presidency on May 25 and left for Paris soon after where he died in 1915 and is buried in the famous Père Lachaise cemetery.

Porfirio Diaz. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-100275 (b&w film copy neg.)

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The Creelman Interview

In some ways, this interview became the spark that ignited the Mexican Revolution. In March 1908, Pearson’s magazine published a lengthy interview in English in which well-known James Creelman asked Mexican president Porfirio Díaz some tough questions. In that interview, Díaz said many things relevant to the vision of Mexico he was promoting, including that Mexico was now ready for democracy and that he would consider not running for the presidency in 1910. These words were designed for a foreign audience, and Díaz never thought they would be translated and published in Mexico in El Imparcial a few days later.

The illustration shows the cover title, however Creelman's article is entitled: "President Diaz, Hero of the Americas," pp, 232-277. The article has been digitized by Google Books.

Pearson’s Magazine, March 1908. Call Number: AP4 .P35 General Collections, Library of Congress

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The Consequences of Progress

During his regime, President Porfirio Díaz and his administration (1876-1880, 1884-1911) modernized Mexico’s economy and industry. International businesses invested in mines in northern Mexico. In the central and southern regions other companies restructured agricultural lands and made them much more productive using new agribusiness techniques and equipment. Foreign investment built railroads which heightened Mexico’s export economy. As the country bloomed, its banking system took off. Mexico repaid its international debt and rebuilt its infrastructure.

Mexico developed economically for some, but many more fell behind. Elites gained wealth and influence, but the majority of the population had to accept the new order of things and found itself working to stay alive. The arrival of new haciendas and international corporations into local areas meant that mestizo farmers and miners became laborers and some indigenous people came to be indentured. Hacendados and European and U.S. companies hired foremen to oversee work on their facilities. The Díaz government formed a rural police force (Rurales) and deployed federal troops to maintain order throughout the country. The conversion to modernization led to growing social injustice and inequality.

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Emiliano Zapata (1879–1919)

Zapata grew up in a village in Morelos, a state to the south of Mexico City. He learned how to read and write, but had little formal schooling. During his early years, haciendas producing for the internal and external market began to gobble up land that had belonged to villages for centuries. By 1906, Zapata had already begun his struggle to return land to those who farmed it and in 1909 local people elected him president of the village council.

After Madero began his revolt against President Díaz, Zapata recruited a group of men, which by May had captured the city of Cuautla. Zapata soon discovered that Madero, a hacendado, was much more interested in reinstating democratic processes than in land reform. Given what he had learned, Zapata refused to disarm his men and fled to the hills instead, starting a rebellion against Madero.

In November 1911, Zapata and a school teacher Otilio Montaño wrote the Plan of Ayala. It was the most radical document of the revolution, calling for the return of lands stolen by haciendas and the confiscation and reassignment of other haciendas to villages without land titles. After Huerta had Madero assassinated, Zapata continued his struggle as men from a wider range enlisted in the fight. By summer 1914, his forces commanded Morelos, wide swaths of other nearby states, and looked to overrun Mexico City.

In November 1914, Zapata chose to ally with Pancho Villa, more a man of the people than the hacendado and senator of the Old Regime, Venustiano Carranza. On December 4, the two met in Mexico City, and twelve days later, Zapata took Puebla. Instead of continuing, however, Zapata returned home to Morelos to begin his promised land reform. While 1915 was an utopian period in Morelos, it was a disaster for the Villa-Zapata alliance. Villa lost a major battle to Obregon (Carranza’s general) and Zapata was thrown out of Mexico City. The following year was even worse as Carranza’s troops even invaded Morelos.

The movement went into an irreversible decline, and several major leaders defected to the enemy. On April 10, 1919 Zapata rode to meet a supposed Carrancista turn-coat, when he was assassinated.

Emiliano Zapata, three-quarter length portrait, facing front, seated at table between two standing men. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-97787 (b&w film copy neg.) Call Number: BIOG FILE <item> [P&P]

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Zapata’s Early Life and Pre-Revolutionary Struggle

Emiliano Zapata, born in 1879, grew up in Anenecuilco, Morelos, south of Mexico City. He could read and write, but had little formal schooling. Hacendados who sold to markets began to sieze land that had belonged to villagers for centuries. Zapata became known as a self-sufficient farmer and horseman. One of his secretaries, Serafín Robales, noted Zapata always dressed like a horseman or charro with tight black cashmere pants, silver buttons, a broad hat, a shirt or jacket made of fine linen, a scarf, boots, spurs, and a gun holstered in his belt. By 1906, Zapata had begun his struggle to return land to those who farmed it and in 1909, his neighbors elected him president of the village council.

Album Histórico Gráfico (Mexico, 1920). General Collections, Library of Congress. F1231.5 G666 1920

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Zapata's Platform Rallies Indigenous Support

These changes had radical consequences. Leaders such as Emiliano Zapata refused to let such transformations force his villagers into starvation and began seizing land in Morelos. He demanded reform through his Plan de Ayala, built on the premise that indigenous and mestizo agricultural people wanted their land back to farm as they wished. This common platform rallied Nahuas, Mayas and Zapotec Indians in Central and Southern Mexico. When Francisco Madero challenged Díaz, his defiance led Yaqui, Mayo, and Tarahumara indigenous tribes to fight in Villa’s and Obregón’s army. The Porfirian outlook not only delivered progress to Mexico; it led to its social revolution in 1910.

Zapata & his men. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-DIG-ggbain-15839

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Francisco “Pancho” Villa Before the Revolution

José Doroteo Arango Arambula, better known as Francisco “Pancho” Villa, was born on 5 June 1878 in the state of Durango. There is little information about his early life, it is widely accepted that his birth parents Agustín and Micaela Arango raised him and his four siblings, Hipólito, Antonio, Mariana, and Martinita. Villa grew up during the repressive dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, which led him to join the Revolution. The Porfiriato benefitted the wealthy and increased urban middle class, it provided little to the poor, and most had very few economic opportunities. For many, banditry provided important income. Villa played a significant role in the Revolution, and his decision to serve the movement must be seen in the context of Porfirian injustice.

In 1894, while Villa was a sharecropper in the Hacienda de Gogojito, Durango, a superior attempted to kidnap his fifteen-year-old sister Martinita. Villa shot the man in the leg, and escaped. He was later captured and imprisoned. His life as an outlaw began when he escaped jail in San Juan del Río, narrowly avoiding the firing squad. Soon Villa became too well known to stay in Durango. He fled to Chihuahua in 1902, built a new life, and took the name Francisco “Pancho” Villa to disguise his true identity. He worked for several years for U.S. ranchers and miners in Chihuahua. Then he faced Don Luis Terrazas, the most powerful man in the state. Although Villa could recreate himself in Chihuahua, he could not avoid the corruption fostered by the Porfiriato.

In Chihuahua, Villa had his own meat business, but Terrazas passed new laws that blocked meat sale by independent distributors. He also outlawed cattle rustling by claiming that the animals belonged to the owners of their land. Villa had his livelihood imperilled and joined the Revolution.

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José Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913)

José Guadalupe Posada was an engraver and Mexican cartoonist active in the later years of the Porfiriato and the first part of the Revolution. He is considered one of the best chroniclers of Mexico’s history, having produced an estimated fifteen thousand prints.

Not unlike the muralists, he opposed the social and economic consequences of the Porfiriato and concentrated on those who were dominated by the wealthy, upper-class. Posada, often drawing from pre-conquest imagery and traditions, defied the norm of revering Spanish art. Muralist José Clemente Orozco wrote that Posada set the gears of his imagination in motion, igniting the spark of creativity. Apart from his atypical imagery, Posada also made prints for a large public. Using low-cost prints and broadsheets, he would produce art for an illiterate working class. Posada is still considered Mexico’s greatest printmaker.

Calaveras de caudillos de silla presidencial (1909–1913). Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-DIG-ppmsc-04791

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