Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Reflecting on Porfirio Díaz

Thursday is the 100th anniversary of the death of President Porfirio Díaz, who ruled Mexico for thirty years between 1876 and 1911. With only one exception, he was re-elected every four years during that time. However, he is not a president you see honored by many statues or street names.

For most of the 20th century Díaz was called a dictator or tyrant. He has been described as heavy-handed, iron-fisted or sometimes both. His long rule is the reason for Mexico’s fierce constitutional ban on re-election to public office. For this Díaz did get streets named for him. Nearly every town in Mexico has a street named “No Reelección.”

Faced with the armed insurgency of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Díaz presented his resignation to the Chamber of Deputies on May 25, 1911. In a four-paragraph, single-page typed letter, he even used the word “revolution” as the reason for his resignation.

Though there is little public adulation of Díaz, there is recognition of him in strange places.

General Porfirio Díaz is one of the officers listed as being taken prisoner by the French on an oval-shaped monument in Puebla’s Zócalo. The monument honors the “exemplary surrender of the Army of the East under the command of General Jesús Ortega,” to French General Élie Frédéric Forey on May 17, 1863. Díaz somehow escaped from the French army and continued fighting against the French Intervention under President Benito Juárez.

Though the Mexicans did not defeat the French, Díaz emerged a military war hero. He remained loyal to President Juárez through Maximilian’s reign but had developed presidential ambitions of his own.

In an 1876 coup, soon after death of Juárez, Díaz assumed the presidency and was president for 30 of the next 34 years the period known as the Porfiriato.

Despite having made his military fame fighting the French during Maximilian’s short-lived Mexican Empire, Díaz was a great admirer of everything French. Think Porfiriato when you see the French- style buildings in downtown Mexico City. 

Their steep metal roofing was a 19th century European design to assure snow would slide off easily — hardly necessary in tropical Mexico.

In fact, the most spectacular and beautiful buildings in Mexico City’s Centro Histórico were either built or started during the Porfiriato. The domed Monument to the Revolution was really meant to be the dome over the center of the legislative palace the opus magnus Díaz was constructing.

Porfirio Díaz is one of the most easily recognizable figures in Mexico’s 20th-century murals. I have no doubt Díaz would have been delighted with his portraits as immortalized by Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Both were members of the post-revolutionary mural art movement. They intentionally ridiculed Díaz’ vanity; the satire would have been lost on him.

Rivera portrayed Díaz prominently in the murals in the National Palace’s central staircase his chest covered with medals and wearing a white-plumed hat just as Díaz portrayed himself in his official presidential portrait.

Siqueiros’ mural in Chapultepec Castle would certainly have filled President Díaz with pride sitting in the presidential chair seemingly oblivious to the swooning crowd of top-hatted members of high society pressing in around him while swirling women dance in front of him.

The railroads became the signature trademark of the Porfiriato. Twenty thousand kilometers of track were laid during his tenure. Telegraph lines, paralleling the tracks, served as the long arm of the Díaz administration’s control over the rest of the country.

Reliable, scheduled long-distance transportation became the norm during the Porfiriato. The president himself traveled the length of the country in the presidential railroad coach. He personally inaugurated public works projects of French design, many of them railroad related. Any city on a railroad line has buildings dating back to the Porfiriato ― if only the train station.

Though there was very good material progress during his tenure, pressure built up in society. Díaz’s long term in office meant little turnover at all levels of government and left little opportunity for young lawyers to advance in government positions. A closed dictatorial system left middle-class professionals and business owners increasingly marginalized and in search of alternative forms of government.

Rapid capitalist transformation of the rural countryside meant increasing the size of the haciendas and mass dispossession of land, water and traditional rights of Mexico’s rural villages.

The ensuing Revolution was one of the first wars in which trains served as troop transports. In fact
a steam locomotive and a coal car are an outdoor display at the Museum of the Revolution.

And, it was aboard a train that Díaz would set off on his exile to Paris. Díaz rode the train from Mexico City to Veracruz where, after having coffee at one of my favorite restaurants, La Parroquia, he departed aboard the Ypiranga into exile to France. He died at 85 years of age on July 2, 1915, and is buried in Paris’ elegant Mountparnasse. General Gustave León Niox, who Díaz had fought against in Mexico, walked in Díaz’s funeral procession.