Who Was Porfirio Diaz? - Biography, Quotes & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What made Mexico into the nation it is today? One person we can't ignore in answering this question is Porfirio Díaz, whose life and legacy we will explore in this lesson.

Porfirio Díaz

''Nothing ever happens in Mexico until it happens.''

Few quotes can sum up the attitude of Porfirio Díaz better than that. Díaz was the president of Mexico from 1876-1911, and in his long tenure in office he knew how to make things happen. Díaz came into power in an era when there were many dreams for Mexico's future but little action. He took action, but did so with such force that the only way to remove him from that position of power was through bloody revolution. Yeah, that happened.

Porfirio Diaz

The Rise of Díaz

Díaz was an incredibly complex character, and the time he was in office saw some of the greatest changes in Mexican history. So, let's start with a basic overview of his life and career. Born José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori in the Mexican state of Oaxaca in 1830, the future president grew up in a Mexico that was struggling to achieve any sort of stability with its new nationhood. Instability was also part of his personal history. Young Porfirio was the sixth of seven children. His father, an innkeeper, died when he was roughly three, but his mother still managed to ensure that he had an education. As the family was deeply religious, Porfirio chose to pursue a career as a priest and enrolled in seminary at age 15.

However, Mexico's instability would set him on another path. The 1840s were defined by the dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna, who had a bad habit of retiring from office and then seizing it back. Mexico was struggling, and then the United States invaded in 1846. Porfirio Díaz, like many seminary students, left school to fight. Díaz never saw battle in this war, but did decide that the priesthood was not for him.

Díaz quickly became active among Mexico's liberals (including fellow Oaxaqueño Benito Juárez) and began studying law. He finally got to see military action in the fight to remove Santa Anna from power in 1855. After Santa Anna was exiled, Díaz was awarded with his first formal post in Oaxaca.

Then, just as things were starting to settle down, France invaded Mexico in 1861. Porfirio Díaz, a young military officer by this point, fought in the famous Battle of Puebla that halted the French advance on May 5, 1862. We'll talk about that date later.

After France was finally repelled in 1867, Díaz worked his way higher in the military ranks and became active in politics by campaigning against the popular president Benito Juárez. Juárez was campaigning for yet another term in office, and Díaz launched an armed rebellion against him in 1871. Díaz lost and was retired from service. However, Juárez died soon after and Díaz reemerged to challenge the former president's successor. In 1877, promising to stabilize Mexico, Díaz became president. He served one term then stepped aside, controlling his handpicked successor from the shadows, and was re-elected in 1884. He wouldn't leave that office until forced out by the Mexican Revolution in 1911.

Díaz the Modernizer

Díaz grew up in an unstable Mexico. He had seen the USA invade and take Mexico's northern territories, and he had seen France briefly colonize the nation. Díaz wanted to see a stable Mexico, and for him that meant transforming Mexico into a modern, European-style industrial power.

The Porfiriato was full of infrastructural programs, completely transforming urban centers like Mexico City. Electricity was first widely used across Mexico under Díaz, trains and railways exploded, industrial production skyrocketed, and for the first time in the nation's history, Mexico had a balanced budget.

Prominent government buildings were brightly lit with electricity to show off the modernization of the Porfiriato

At the center of this was a group of highly educated elites called the científicos (literally: the scientific ones). These bureaucrats micromanaged every element of Díaz's modernization program, utilizing the most modern, scientific methods coming out of places like New York. Nothing escaped their visions, and Mexico was transformed.

Díaz the Nationalist

Díaz's other big focus was Mexican national identity. The Mexico that Díaz grew up in had no sense of a unified Mexican identity. Wielding his broad presidential powers, Díaz poured millions of dollars into national museums and state celebrations for national heroes.

Diaz put a lot of effort into supporting museums in Mexico City

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