- Historic Sites
The Emergence Of Modern Mexico
The period between Mexican independence and the constitution of 1917 was turbulent and painful
April 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 3
After independence, the dishevelled state of public order and public finance frightened most Mexican and foreign investors. They held back the money urgently needed for roads and railways, and the Mexican republic’s first fifty years were as stagnant economically as they were turbulent politically. All this was changed by one man, Porfirio Díaz, an ex-student of theology and an ex-lawyer; he supported Juárez and became his best general against the French, but thereafter turned out to be his strongest political opponent. After the death of Juárez, Díaz ascended rapidly in Mexican politics. He made himself the regularly re-elected president-dictator of Mexico from 1877 to 1911, despite the fact that in campaigning against Juárez his favorite slogan had been “No re-election.” Díaz’ iron rule brought domestic peace and made life easy and pleasant for the privileged few—landowners and a growing number of foreign and Mexican businessmen. Any disturbance among peasants, workers, or Indians was promptly suppressed. But his government was also, in its way, progressive. Public finance and the currency were finally put on a sound basis, the railway system was expanded from 400 to over 12,000 miles, and foreign trade increased ninefold. The country’s international reputation improved, and the number of foreign governments represented in Mexico rose from ten to forty-two. The economy, too, grew and began to change. Mining continued to be important. It had been the economic mainstay since the conquest, and had made mining centers such as Guanajuato places of tremendous wealth, outrivalling Mexico City in luxurious living. (For the first two hundred and fifty years after the conquest the country’s famous mines produced more silver than all other countries combined.) But the export of agricultural materials, made possible for the first time by the railways, grew rapidly during the Díaz regime and by 1910 was about as important as the production of precious metals. The haciendas , the rural estates which had dominated the countryside for three centuries and were the true seats of power in Mexico—every important person had his hacienda even if he was not primarily a farmer or rancher were finally being touched by modern life. Their great size, averaging 7,500 acres, was matched by the great power of the owners, the hacendados , who were the undisputed bosses of the landless Indian and mestizo peons. Juárez’ disestablishment of the Church had had the unintended effect of enabling the hacendados to enlarge their holdings by taking over former Church lands, and the unfair land laws of the Díaz regime enabled them to enlarge their holdings further, this time at the expense of Indian and mestizo villages.
For the privileged upper (lass, life in the Díaz era was pleasant—graced by French wines, Italian opera, and European furniture and clothing. The aristocrats tended to despise Mexican customs. Poverty, they decided, should be blamed on the weakness of character that was the blood heritage of the Indians and mestizos. Not only was foreign capital essential, but also European blood—to improve the stock. After all, the average life expectancy in Mexico City was less than one half that in London or Paris. But despite considerable immigration, misery increased. In a country where corn was the basic food of most of the people, its production per capita in 1910 was half what it had been in 1810. The discontent of the landless, sharpened by hunger, grew acute. Don Porfirio, meanwhile, basked complacently in the praise of his friends. Elihu Root, the American Secretary of State, paid him a glowing tribute in 1907: “If I were a Mexican, I should feel that the steadfast loyalty of a lifetime would not be too much to give in return for the blessings that he lias brought to the country.” What he meant, presumably, was, “If I were a rich Mexican …”