Mexicos Porfirio Diaz has been punished by history, but the reality is very different.


Few figures in the history of Mexico, and even in Latin America, are as well known as Porfirio Diaz. Until very recently, few have been more misunderstood or defamed. The basic explanation for so many distortions is revealed when investigating the vigorous myths that have been created around the figure of Diaz. All the myths, created during and after the life of Don Porfirio, had an origin and a clear political purpose, but each one was strengthened based on powerful historiographic accounts, but lately distorted. Therefore, to begin to approach with more impartiality the life of such an important and controversial person, it is essential to understand how the image of Díaz has been created and denigrated and, above all, how it has been appropriated this the last century. In fact, The different representations of the Porfirista regime can be seen as a clear example of the changes both in historiographic fashion and in national politics throughout the 20th century. These contradictory interpretations have made it difficult, if not impossible, for a balanced analysis of both man and his regime. According to the French critic Roland Barthes, they have stripped them of their historical quality.

Porfirian historiography can be divided into three main categories, each with a chronology, a focus and, it can be said, a specific distortion. These are: Porfirismo, Antiporfirismo and Neoporfirismo. The favorable portrait of Díaz (Porfirismo) dominates the historiography of the period before the 1910 Revolution, although during and after it some important contributions were made. Porfirismo highlights, above all, the longevity of the regime, particularly in contrast to its predecessors in nineteenth-century Mexico, and its success in achieving political stability and peace for a period of almost 35 years:  inter alia , its patriotism, his heroism, his dedication, his personal sacrifice, his tenacity and his courage.

The typical cover of the numerous biographies of Diaz, published during the last years of the regime, was chosen with the specific intention of showing the image of the austere but benign patriarch of the military hero, the builder of the nation and the old statesman in full control of the destiny of the country; in short, the hero with the classic republican mold. The deliberate cult of personality was actively promoted throughout the regime, but especially after the third (and very controversial) re-election of Diaz in 1892, and saw its apotheosis in the lavish celebrations of the Centennial of Independence. With supreme irony, the celebrations of 1910 also represented the nemesis of the regime. Less than two months later, in November 1910, the revolution that would strip Diaz of power began.

One of the main consequences of the Mexican Revolution was the destruction of the Porfirian cult and its replacement by an equally powerful antiporfirismo. However, antiporfirismo was not the exclusive product of the Revolution, although it was expressed with greater force after 1911, in what would become the standard, orthodox and pro-revolutionary interpretation. According to antiporfirismo, the Diaz regime was the ultimate example of tyranny, dictatorship and oppression, Don Porfirio himself was condemned for his corruption, his authoritarianism and his betrayal of national interests.

The works of Valadés, of Reyes Heroles and, above all, of Cosío Villegas provided important perspectives and qualified some of the worst excesses of antiporfirismo, but did not challenge either their basic orientation or their fundamental conclusions. Therefore, there is an obvious parallel between the distortions of post-revolutionary antiporfirismo and those of strict porfiriodistas provided by the apologists of the regime at the end of the 19th century. In both cases, equally strong myths were created that were very difficult to touch, and less to contradict. There are examples of adulation and deference to Diaz, the patriarch, throughout the spectrum of Porfirian Mexico, from the inhabitants of the remote rural towns to the cabinet members and the president’s intimates. In Diaz’s private correspondence there are numerous examples of petitions for the goodness of the patriarch, expressed in a very emotional language. These ranged from requests for Díaz to be the godfather of numerous children, to petitions by the authorities of the towns for the patriarch to intervene in the search for a solution to a great variety of local problems.

As expected, the language of deference permeated the discourse of the political elite. For example, Finance Secretary José Yves Limantour (1854-1935), one of the most influential figures during the last two decades of the regime, was forced to respond to an unflattering obituary by Díaz published in the London Times in July. 1915. The original text had highlighted not only the mixture of ignorance and racial and cultural prejudice that was often demonstrated by British observers in Mexico, but also the fact that by 1915 antiporphism had already been firmly established: Porfirio Diaz shared the fate of several rulers of South America and Central America. He survived his greatness and died in exile. He ruled in Mexico with a practically despotic power from 1876 until his fall in 1911, and it is because of that power that his country lived its first and only prolonged period of a formally established government, since its obedience to Spain ended. Under republican forms, Diaz ruled with an iron hand, but only such a hand could have imposed respect for public order and fear of the constitutional authorities, in a nation where four-fifths were of indigenous or mixed blood and also demoralized by more than fifty years of anarchy, corruption and massacre.

The indignant response of Limantour clearly expressed the Porfirian discourse of the political elite, describing Diaz as an accomplished patriot who, by himself, had granted “peace, order, and material progress” to his country: General Diaz was undoubtedly , the creator of modern Mexico. After sixty years of turmoil that preceded his administration, he led the country to a state of progress that did not surpass any of the Latin American countries … Under his guidance, order was created from the chaos, prosperity developed consciously in all classes and a new country was formed. The greatness of General Diaz [revealed himself] as a statesman, as sovereign of men and as a patriot … General Diaz was an indefatigable worker who dedicated all his time, of his outstanding ability and his great strength to create the well-being of his people and the development of his country. No ascetic has cared less about his own interests, pleasures or comforts.

The praises to Diaz on the part of his contemporaries did not come exclusively from those who supported him politically. Perhaps the most unlikely is that of Francisco I. Madero, the first leader of revolutionary Mexico after Díaz’s exile in 1911. In his remarkable book The Presidential Succession in 1910 (1909), which would unleash not only the anti-reelectionist movement and his own candidacy for the presidency, but the Revolution itself, Madero wrote: In particular, I esteem General Diaz and I can not but regard with respect the man who was one of those who distinguished themselves in the defense of the homeland and who, after to enjoy for more than thirty years the most absolute of powers, has used him so moderately.


Appointment granted by General Porfirio Díaz to Alférez Eduardo Angeles

Among the most effusive and extravagant prose in tribute to Diaz, much of it occurred in the Anglo-Saxon world. As Robert Skidelsky commented: “The Victorian era was a time of worship of heroism.” In a period of religious uncertainty, morality needed more and more the support of exemplary lives-lives that, in particular, accentuate the strong connection between Proven virtue and public success. ” However, it is also clear that many of the narratives were based on a combination of ignorance and mechanical repetition of the self-projection, self-promotion and propaganda of the regime in the international arena. 

Mrs. Alex Tweedie, one of those multiple and indefatigable travelers from the British Isles in Victorian times, described Diaz, in his 1906 biography, simply as “the most important character in modern history,” and compared it to the Russian czar and the pope: “however,” he affirmed on the same page with a not-so-sure understanding of political science or the Mexican political reality? that he was “a democratic leader”. Her description of Diaz as an “attractive, thin and strong man … with dark, deep and penetrating eyes” also suggests that she may have been one of the many victims of what José Valadés would later describe as the sexual foliage of Don Porfirio American contemporaries were equally exaggerated in their praises.

 José Godoy, the Mexican charge of business in Washington in 1909, requested the opinion of important congressmen, senators, officers of the armed forces, public servants and presidents of American universities for a biography that was published in 1910. In the text that resulted from it, an amazing mixture of ornate prose, free fantasy and pure ignorance, Díaz emerges as a mythical, almost divine, character that created by Yes, only the Mexican nation. 

His American contemporaries compared him, in a varied and simultaneous way, with Moses, Joshua, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Cromwell, Napoleon, Bismarck, Lincoln, Washington, General Grant, Gladstone, Disraeli and even the Mikado. 

The descriptions and references that Diaz’s admirers most frequently used in Godoy’s biography followed a predictable pattern. The most frequent reference was to the marked development of Mexico under the wise administration of Diaz. Others emphasized the qualities of patriotism, personal morality, abnegation and humility, highlighting, above all, the humble origin of Porfirio, and citing his career as an example of the passage from poverty to wealth (“rags to riches” ). 

The California congressman Charles Landis provided what is perhaps the most evocative expression of the apotheosis in Porfirian mythology of the late nineteenth century: “We refer to Mexico and we think of Diaz […] Diaz in Mexico and Mexico in Diaz.” Certainly, concerted and orchestrated efforts to promote both Diaz and the regime in a positive light at national and international levels collapsed in the face of the results of the 1910 Revolution.

The hagiography was quickly replaced by the debasement and murder of the character, at the same time that antiporfirismo became the norm. However, it is important to emphasize that antiporfirismo, in itself, was not an exclusive product of the postrevolutionary period, and that its roots sank clearly in the time that preceded it. 

The most impressive example of the challenge to the cult of Porfirismo, prior to the revolution, was the controversy caused by the decision to commemorate, in 1906, the centenary of the birth of Benito Juárez. It is highly illustrative to compare the historiographical and mythological fate of the two Oaxacans who dominated Mexican nineteenth-century politics for more than half a century. 

If one considers the strong political tensions that surrounded the sixth re-election of Diaz in 1906, the regime’s attempt to foment and exploit the Juarez myth, presenting it as the precursor of the Diaz era, it was destined to cause controversy. The historiographic balance of the controversy was extremely unfavorable for Díaz, and it has remained so ever since. 

While Juarez was firmly identified with nationalism and self-determination, with political democracy and civil liberty, with the law and the secular State (and, later, in the 20th century, with the rights of indigenous people and resistance to colonialism), Diaz was associated, with the same firmness, with its antithesis: dictatorship and repression, the abuse of constitutional authority, clericalism and the violation of Mexican sovereignty, and in the role of traitor. 

Outside of Mexico, Diaz’s contemporary praise also came from unexpected sources. In 1894, José Martí, a radical intellectual and leader of the Cuban Revolutionary Party in his long struggle to become independent from Spain, wrote to request an interview with Díaz during a visit to Mexico to raise funds. Regardless of whether Martí sought financial aid and moral and political support for the Cuban cause, and that, therefore, it was difficult for him to insult a potential benefactor, Martí openly flattered Diaz as a wise patriot who had consistently fought for the independence of the American continent. A prudent Cuban […] has come to Mexico, confident in the profound and constructive sagacity of General Diaz, and in his own absolute discretion, to explain in person to the American thinker […]


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