- Felipe Angeles
- Plutarco Elias Calles
- Lazaro Cardenas
- Venustiano Carranza
- Porfirio Diaz
- Victoriano Huerta
- Francisco Madero
- Alvaro Obregon
- Pascual Orozco
- John Pershing
- Francisco Villa
- Henry Lane Wilson
- Emiliano Zapata
(1830 – 1915)
Porfirio Díaz, who ran Mexico for more years than any other president, was born in Oaxaca and was 18 years old when the Mexican-American War of 1848 started. He watched while the U.S. annexed about half of Mexico’s land as a result of winning that war. Mexico continued to fight foreign invasions and wars right up through the rest of the century, and Díaz became a hero fighting the war against the French occupation in the 1860s. In 1863, he was even a prisoner of war. But he escaped, and he became a commander in Benito Juárez’s Central Army.
He lead several victories against the French, including the very important Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862 – the event that is celebrated on Cinco de Mayo each year. In that battle, he became a war hero. He was much loved by many Mexicans. They named their streets and their babies after him.
Porfirio Díaz stayed loyal to Benito Juárez for a long time, until the French were repelled, order was restored, and Juárez became President of Mexico in 1868. But soon after Juárez’s election, Díaz decided that he himself was interested in parlaying his fame into power. He led a revolt against the Mexican president that failed. He served briefly in Congress as a delegate from Veracruz, but he continued to fight to gain control of the central government. And finally, in 1876, he was able to defeat the federal troops. He declared himself President of Mexico soon after.
Díaz’s original presidency lasted only one term (four years) from 1876 to 1880, and disappointed many who had considered him a hero. Almost immediately, people understood that his plan was to remain in power by the use of corruption and violence, especially against the poor. Instead of serving a second term, he made sure that the new president, elected in 1880, would be his puppet. Thus Manuel González continued the corruption and repression that was Díaz’s hallmark – so much so that Díaz was able to get re-elected in 1884 by a populace disgusted even more with González.
Díaz then served as president, uninterrupted, from 1884 to 1910, for a grand total of 30 years. The irony of the so-called Porfiriato, the time when Díaz was president, was that it represented 30 years of relative peace and stability in Mexico, including economic stability. But both the peace and the economic stability came at a price. Díaz wanted Mexico to emulate the sophistication of Europe – and to that end, he re-made Mexico City in the image of the great European cities, virtually eliminating the influence of indigenous culture. He surrounded himself with rich advisors, the científicos, who dominated Mexico as a privileged upper class. Díaz so dissociated himself from his own indigenous roots, and so admired Europeans, that he would sometimes paint his face to make it look whiter than it actually was.
Money flowed into the coffers of Díaz and the científicos as, one by one, they sold off rights to exploit Mexican natural resources and industry to foreign countries. These countries paid top dollar to buy the oil fields of Tampico, establish mines in the copper-rich lands of the north, and build the extensive railroad system that crisscrossed the country by the end of the 19th century. British and U.S. investors owned the railroads, as well as the oil resources, and the French created a string of textile mills in the mid-western part of the country, around Veracruz.
In the meantime, power was maintained by terrorizing the lower classes, the peones, and maintaining tight control over the local governments of all the states. The científicos felt that the only problem keeping Mexico from being as great as any European country was that it had so many poor people.
Díaz’s reign, although long, would not last forever. In 1908, he granted an interview to the North American journalist, James Creelman. The article, which appeared in Pearson’s Magazine, caused quite a stir. In it, Díaz said he would be ready to step down in 1910, based on his own assessment that Mexico was ready for true democracy. These comments were disingenuous, probably meant to impress the Americans, but the article circulated all over Mexico.
That same year, Francisco I. Madero, the son of a wealthy landowner, wrote a book, La succession presidenciál en 1910, which criticized Díaz’s reign and called for him to step down. The book was also widely read. It would start a revolution.
Despite these circumstances, Díaz once again named himself president in 1910 – and as the centennial of Mexican independence was celebrated, Madero languished in a Mexico City jail. But the Maderistas took up arms against Díaz in 1910 and 1911. His federal troops found themselves the targets of numerous uprisings, focused into a true revolution at the battle of Casas Grandes, and having its ultimate triumph in the fierce battle of Ciudad Juárez. In the city named for Díaz’s former general and president, he was finally defeated. Madero spared Díaz’s life, on the condition he would leave Mexico forever, and live in exile.
In 1911, Díaz left (to cheering crowds) to live out the remainder of his life in Paris, a perfect city for the man who so idolized Europe. Four years later, he would die there, and be buried there, in his adopted home.