Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
''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.
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.
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.
Of course, most of these celebrations had something to do with Díaz as well. The Battle of Puebla (which most of us know as Cinco de Mayo) was relatively minor in the big scheme of things. But Díaz fought there, so Cinco de Mayo became a major national holiday. Díaz also moved the independence day celebrations from September 16 to September 15. Why? Díaz was baptized on September 15. To this day, the formal Mexican independence celebration occurs on the 15th.
Díaz the Dictator
For all of his efforts in stabilizing Mexico, we must never forget that Porfirio Díaz was a dictator in the truest sense of the word. When he first entered into politics, it was under the slogan of Sufragio Efectivo, No Reeleción (Effective Suffrage, No Reelection). By 1910, newspapers had changed this to Sufragio Efectivo No, Reeleción (No Effective Suffrage, Reelection). Díaz was elected promising a one-term presidency. He ended up amending the national constitution twice in order to give himself more terms.
By the end of the Porfiriato, the free press was being stifled, elections were clearly rigged, and Díaz's political opponents had a nasty habit of disappearing. In 1910, as Díaz hosted Mexico's centennial anniversary and invited the world to come witness the modernized state, his top political opponent (Francisco Madero) was sitting in jail. Following an election in which Díaz won by an impossible margin, Madero escaped prison, fled to the United States and orchestrated the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. In 1911, Díaz was forced to flee Mexico, offering one last observation about the surging rebellion as he went: ''Madero has unleashed a tiger; let's see if he can control it''. Diaz died on July 2, 1915, but left a mark on Mexico for decades to come.
Porfirio Díaz (1830-1915) was President of Mexico from 1876-1880, and 1884-1911. During this time, he oversaw broad modernization and nationalization reforms. Orchestrated by his elite caste of bureaucrats called the científicos, these reforms transformed Mexico and effectively stabilized its economy. The price, however, was Díaz's increasingly dictatorial policies. Oppressing free speech, press, and suffrage, Díaz was removed from office in 1911 by the Mexican Revolution. And that's what happened in Mexico.
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