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The Emergence Of Modern Mexico

July 2024
17min read

The period between Mexican independence and the constitution of 1917 was turbulent and painful

The official commemorative coin of the 1968 Olympic Games (above) displays a pre-Columbian athletic figure. It is a proud symbol of Mexico’s ancient past. Mexicans do not debate the rival claims of Columbus and Leif Ericson. They know for a fact that their ancestors were here thousands of years before either of those latecomers, and had long since developed a civilization of dazzling sophistication. We cannot cover the glory of this ancient past in a limited picture portfolio. We have chosen instead to focus for the most part on the painful and turbulent period in Mexican history between independence (1821) and the constitution of 1917. Complicated, even for Mexicans, it is magnificently melodramatic—a history of almost saintly heroes and of superbly repugnant villains. Mexico’s artists, like her novelists, poets, and musicians, provide clues to the bewildering story. Moreover, perhaps in no other country have the artists of modern times been so self-consciously identified with the national ethos. What follows is in large part a selection from their work. Our researches into many of Mexico’s impressive museums and archives have put us in debt to more sources than we can fully acknowledge; but we must record our special appreciation to the handsome periodical Arles de México .

The conquistadors were profit seekers, excited at the prospect of owning estates populated by hard-working Indians. But the Spanish colonial government had loftier aims. Church and State viewed the Indians as “free vassals of the crown,” entrusted by God to Spain’s “protective tutelage.” The two institutions made elaborate if frequently impractical laws to favor the Indians and protect them from exploitation. Furthermore, there was no objection to marriage between Spaniards and Indians. In fact, since few Spanish women came to New Spain, Spanish men and Indian women were deliberately encouraged to marry. Their children were called mestizos . At first, mestizos found themselves strangers among both Indians and Spaniards, but their numbers increased and they eventually predominated. African Negroes, originally brought in as slaves, also contributed genetically to the population. In the seventeenth century they outnumbered the whites, but since then they have for the most part been absorbed. Despite wholesale miscegenation, Mexico was by no means a casual, classless society. There emerged early in the colonial period four distinct groups: I. peninsulares or gachupines (Spaniards born in Spain); 2. créoles (whites of Spanish ancestry born in the New World); 3. mestizos; 4. indios (full-blooded Indians). The interplay of the divergent interests of these four groups became the basis of Mexican politics for more than three centuries. There are still some 5.5 million Indians in Mexico, living in the manner of their ancestors and speaking little or no Spanish. Nowadays their way of life is receiving increased attention, and the word Indian has a cultural rather than a racial connotation. An Indian who moves to the city and takes up European habits may say, “When I was an Indian …” In September, 1964, the world’s largest and most magnificent anthropological museum devoted exclusively to a national culture opened in Mexico City. Skillfully arranged exhibits depict the rich diversity of the Indian cultures throughout the country from prehistoric times to the present day, and the blending with immigrant strains since the conquest. Octavio Paz, Mexican poet and former ambassador to India, has written, “The difference between colonial Mexico and the English colonies was immense. New Spain committed many horrors, but at least it did not commit the gravest of them all: that of denying a place, even at the foot of the social scale, to all the people who composed it. There were classes, castes and slaves, but there were no pariahs, no persons lacking a fixed social condition and legal, moral and religious status.”




After the conquistadors came priests, soldiers, and bureaucrats, and they established ineradicably the Spanish presence in Mexico. Towns were founded with Spanish names, Spanish plazas, and Spanish cathedrals. From these seats of power a small group of native Spaniards and a larger number of créoles governed the numerous Indian and mestizo peasantry. Most of the real power was in the hands of the native Spaniards, or peninsulares , who had nearly exclusive right to the top posts in government, the Church, and business. Of the sixty-one viceroys appointed over the years to act as chief representative of the Spanish crown, only three were créoles. This situation produced a growing tension between créoles and peninsulares, and eventually led to open warfare in the independence movement. The tension was heightened by the conflict between Spanish theory and local practice in the treatment of the Indians, whose welfare and conversion to Christianity were chief concerns of official policy. After the conquest there developed the encomienda system, a kind of de facto slavery by which Indian villages were “entrusted” to powerful créoles. According to laws introduced by the Spanish crown in the early sixteenth century—over the protests of the créoles—the encomiendas were to be gradually abolished; but they did not finally become illegal until the eighteenth century. Even then, they lingered on until after independence in the form of debt peonage. Peninsulares, créoles, and even mestizos shared in the administration of the Church, which had been made virtually a branch of the State shortly before the conquest by special papal concessions to the Spanish crown. Although it often came into conflict with créole landowners when playing its role of defender of the Indian, the Church grew vigorously. Some nine million baptisms were performed in the colony’s first fifteen years, and by the end of the colonial period it owned more than half the real property and capital of the country. Many of the lower clergy enjoyed the affection of the Indian and mestizo peasants, while bishops and archbishops were often feared and disliked as members of the privileged ruling classes. Everything considered, Spain compares not badly with other colonial powers of the day. Europeans visiting Mexico found the Indians no worse off, on the whole, than peasants in Europe. The system of government had certain virtues. The viceroyalty was one of the few posts never sold to the highest bidder, even in the dimmest days of the Spanish crown. Until the end of the eighteenth century viceroys were carefully selected and, with rare exceptions, were highly qualified. On the other hand, many of the lower officials were appointed according to patronage and were frequently incompetent.



“Long live Our Lady of Guadalupe, down with bad government, death to the Spaniards.” These words were shouted to his Indian and mestizo parishioners by the créole priest of the village of Dolores, near Guanajuato, early on a Sunday morning in 1810. Mexicans now celebrate the date, September 16, as their Independence Day. The priest was Father Hidalgo, whose liberal views had led him to join a group of conspiring créoles impatient with Spanish power and privilege. But what he unleashed was a wild popular outburst against all power and privilege. His followers grew into an unruly, untrained army that ravaged central Mexico. On September 28, Hidalgo stood helplessly by at Guanajuato as his mob invaded the Alh’f4ndiga (above), a massive granary, and massacred in hot blood the créoles and peninsulares—men, women, and children—who had hidden there. After ten months of disorderly warfare, Hidalgo was captured and executed, and his movement degenerated into skirmishing and banditry. In 1813 a mestizo parish priest, José Maria Morelos y Pav’f4n, started another independence movement. A better soldier and administrator than Hidalgo, and more systematic in his ideas about social and political reform, he soon gained precarious control of much of central Mexico. He initiated reforms reducing clerical and military privilege, but in 1815 he met the same fate as Hidalgo, and by 1817 the colonial government had suppressed the independence struggle except for sporadic insurrections in two states. After seven years of fighting, Mexico still lacked a Washington to take command.



By 1820 independence seemed a lost cause. In 1821, by an ironical twist of fate, it was an accomplished fact. A new colonial government with liberal, anticlerical ideas came to power in Spain in 1820 and frightened the Mexican conservatives. They plotted for independence, which they hoped to gain without making concessions to Guadalupe Victoria and Vicente Guerrero, the socialrevolutionary successors of Hidalgo and Morelos. Their tool in capturing power from the crown was Agustin de Iturbide, an officer in the royalist army. But the opportunistic Iturbide betrayed them, took matters into his own hands, and made peace with Victoria and Guerrero. With their help and with popular support, he expelled the viceroy and declared himself Augustin I, emperor of independent Mexico. But his talent for getting into power far outshone his talent for staying there. After a palace revolution, he was executed in 1824 and a federal republican constitution was adopted. In effect, the conservative créoles had won after all, for the independence that had been achieved was their kind of independence, not the kind for which Hidalgo and Morelos had fought. Although the first two Presidents of the Republic were the popular war heroes Victoria and Guerrero, they failed to bring much order out of the chaos into which the country had fallen. The federal constitution, on paper an imitation of the American, concealed a disorganized political situation in which powerful conservatives in Mexico City and local bosses in the states managed affairs to suit their private ends. Expulsion of the Spaniards, the créoles soon discovered, did not automatically solve the country’s problems, and so far as economic and social progress was concerned, the shift from colony to republic seemed only a change from one kind of stagnation to another.




The Zócalo, the main square of Mexico City, is shown above as it appeared in the late eighteen twenties. The National Palace (right) and the cathedral (center) continued to be the seats of power in independent, as in colonial, Mexico. Despite the adoption of a federal system in 1824, Mexico City remained overwhelmingly dominant. About the only political actions that did not emanate from the capital were rebellions, and the immediate objective of each of these was control of the city. Its location, although in the most populated part of the country, had disadvantages. When chosen by the Aztecs in the thirteenth century as their new capital, the site was a small island in a lake. Later, in colonial times, the lake was gradually filled in as the city grew; but parts of the metropolis remained marshy, and even today some areas are sinking at the rate of a foot a year. Furthermore, while the altitude of 7,400 feet and the mountainous approaches to the city presented difficulties to invaders, they were likewise the despair of road makers. Until the first railroad was built in the mid-nineteenth century, access to the capital was expensive and often hazardous.



Antonio L’pez de Santa Anna became President of Mexico on eleven different occasions between 1830 and 1855, using the office as a flying trapeze to attract the attention and excite the patriotism of the populace. Restless and overconfident, he saw himself as the Napoleon of the New World. His fame began in 1829 when he crushed a Spanish attempt to reconquer Mexico. After that he walked grandly and gallantly into the open arms of American Manifest Destiny. Mexico lost Texas in 1836, but with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican War, it lost half of its remaining territory. Ulysses S. Grant, who first saw action in Mexico, de- scribed the war as “the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” There is no doubt that with cooler heads than Santa Anna’s the results might not have been so damaging to Mexico. Nevertheless, Santa Anna regained the Presidency in 1853 and proceeded to sell the Mesilla Valley to the United States for ten million dollars—the Gadsden Purchase—to buy another year’s loyalty from his military cronies. In 1855 he was sent packing for the last time. A bankrupt, shrunken Mexico awoke from her most painful episode since the conquest. The country has no monuments to Cortes, but chances are he will get one before Santa Anna.



Between 1821 and 1861, while fifty-six different governments came and went, daily life in Mexican towns preserved its unique blend of European and Indian ways. The handsome display of foods in the market stall at right is in the traditional Indian style that can still be seen and admired by visitors to Mexico. The three pictures at left were painted by Augustín Arrieta. In 1839 Fanny Calderón de la Barca, the Scottish wife of the first Spanish ambassador to Mexico, described a scene like the one in the bottom painting: “Street cries begin in Mexico at dawn and continue till night. At midday the beggars begin to be particularly importunate, and their cries, and prayers, and long recitations, form a running accompaniment to the other noises. Then above all rises the cry of ‘Honey cakes! Cheese and honey!’ Tortillas, which are the common food of the people and which are merely maize cakes mixed with a little lime, and of the form and size of what we call scones, I find rather good when very hot and fresh-baked, but insipid by themselves. They are considered particularly palatable with chile, to endure which in the quantities in which it is eaten here, it seems to me necessary to have a throat lined with tin.” In an upper-class store (left top) girls sell candy and horchata , a Spanish soft drink made from almonds and fruit juice. The common drink of the lower classes was and still is pulque, which is consumed in rowdy drinking houses called puiquerías (left center). The traditional alcoholic drink of the Aztecs, pulque is made by fermenting juice from the maguey cactus. Unlike its sophisticated stepdaughter, tequila, it has a heavy flavor resembling sour milk. Pulque does not keep well, and good puiquerías pride themselves on its freshness.



Colonial priests taught the Indians not only the rudiments of Christianity but also European architecture and decorative arts; Mexico in time came to rival Spain in the magnificence of its churches. Church festivals were enthusiastically absorbed into the popular culture, and if the people had only a superficial understanding of religious doctrine, they made up for it by the devotion and earnestness they displayed in the great religious celebrations. All was not peace within the Church, however. In stern opposition to priests like Hidalgo and Morelos, who fought for independence and reform, stood conservative prelates who supported the colonial government. Even after independence, the Church was still closely tied to the government —its tithes were collected by the State. In the economy it was the largest landowner, its revenues in the first decades of independence being five times those of the federal government. It was also, in a sense, a state within the State, since people connected with the Church enjoyed immunity from national law. Inevitably, the Church came under attack. It was responsible for education; but even in Mexico City ninety-five per cent of the people were illiterate. Many rural parishes were badly neglected in every respect. Working men were asked the equivalent of five months’ pay for a wedding or funeral. That such conditions prevailed despite the Church’s great wealth galled the liberals. Stimulated by similar attacks in Europe, they put the blame for all social ills on the clergy. By the middle of the nineteenth century the Church question was heating up, and the two extremes were moving further apart, hardening their positions and blotting out all possibility for compromise.



The handsomest, best-known avenue in Mexico City is the Paseo de la Reforma, which commemorates the reform constitution of 1857. The best-known, most respected leader in Mexican history is Benito Juárez, whose views inspired the reform and whose leadership made the new constitution stick. He was typical of the wave of liberal revolutionary reformers who swept out Santa Anna in 1855. A Zapotec Indian from Oaxaca, Juárez became Minister of Justice, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and finally, in 1858, President of the Republic. The reforms forced the Church to give up most of its lands, secularized education, and legalized civil marriages. The jurisdiction of religious and military courts was restricted, giving all citizens equality before the law. The conservatives counterattacked with civil war, 1858–60; but they were defeated by Juárez’ forces. Desperate, the conservatives sought the intervention of Napoleon III, who was only too glad to oblige. After an eighteen-month fight, his troops entered Mexico City in 1863 and installed Maximilian of Austria as emperor, forcing Juárez into exile. In 1866, however, needing his troops in Europe and facing American hostility, Napoleon withdrew. The following year, Juárez returned, Maximilian was executed, and the constitution was restored. Juárez was reelected President in 1867 and 1871, but he died suddenly in 1872. Although he did not live to see the Mexico he dreamed of, his fame and influence, like Lincoln’s, grew after his death. Many of his sayings have become household expressions. One of the most typical and frequently quoted is: “Respect for the rights of others is peace.”



After independence, the dishevelled state of public order and public finance frightened most Mexican and foreign investors. They held back the money urgently needed for roads and railways, and the Mexican republic’s first fifty years were as stagnant economically as they were turbulent politically. All this was changed by one man, Porfirio Díaz, an ex-student of theology and an ex-lawyer; he supported Juárez and became his best general against the French, but thereafter turned out to be his strongest political opponent. After the death of Juárez, Díaz ascended rapidly in Mexican politics. He made himself the regularly re-elected president-dictator of Mexico from 1877 to 1911, despite the fact that in campaigning against Juárez his favorite slogan had been “No re-election.” Díaz’ iron rule brought domestic peace and made life easy and pleasant for the privileged few—landowners and a growing number of foreign and Mexican businessmen. Any disturbance among peasants, workers, or Indians was promptly suppressed. But his government was also, in its way, progressive. Public finance and the currency were finally put on a sound basis, the railway system was expanded from 400 to over 12,000 miles, and foreign trade increased ninefold. The country’s international reputation improved, and the number of foreign governments represented in Mexico rose from ten to forty-two. The economy, too, grew and began to change. Mining continued to be important. It had been the economic mainstay since the conquest, and had made mining centers such as Guanajuato places of tremendous wealth, outrivalling Mexico City in luxurious living. (For the first two hundred and fifty years after the conquest the country’s famous mines produced more silver than all other countries combined.) But the export of agricultural materials, made possible for the first time by the railways, grew rapidly during the Díaz regime and by 1910 was about as important as the production of precious metals. The haciendas , the rural estates which had dominated the countryside for three centuries and were the true seats of power in Mexico—every important person had his hacienda even if he was not primarily a farmer or rancher were finally being touched by modern life. Their great size, averaging 7,500 acres, was matched by the great power of the owners, the hacendados , who were the undisputed bosses of the landless Indian and mestizo peons. Juárez’ disestablishment of the Church had had the unintended effect of enabling the hacendados to enlarge their holdings by taking over former Church lands, and the unfair land laws of the Díaz regime enabled them to enlarge their holdings further, this time at the expense of Indian and mestizo villages.




For the privileged upper (lass, life in the Díaz era was pleasant—graced by French wines, Italian opera, and European furniture and clothing. The aristocrats tended to despise Mexican customs. Poverty, they decided, should be blamed on the weakness of character that was the blood heritage of the Indians and mestizos. Not only was foreign capital essential, but also European blood—to improve the stock. After all, the average life expectancy in Mexico City was less than one half that in London or Paris. But despite considerable immigration, misery increased. In a country where corn was the basic food of most of the people, its production per capita in 1910 was half what it had been in 1810. The discontent of the landless, sharpened by hunger, grew acute. Don Porfirio, meanwhile, basked complacently in the praise of his friends. Elihu Root, the American Secretary of State, paid him a glowing tribute in 1907: “If I were a Mexican, I should feel that the steadfast loyalty of a lifetime would not be too much to give in return for the blessings that he lias brought to the country.” What he meant, presumably, was, “If I were a rich Mexican …”



The challenge to Di’az came in 1910 from a gentle aristocrat named Francisco Maclero, whose chances of success looked about as good as David’s against Goliath. But the octogenarian Díaz, no longer the strong man of his youth, went with more of a whimper than a bang. Entering Mexico City on June 7, 1911, Madero was greeted as a messiah. If anything, he fitted the role too well. He saw good in everyone. Instead of firing the decrepit lackies of the Díaz court, he assumed that they would be reborn under his enlightened leadership. Like all mild, idealistic moderates, he infuriated extremists on both sides. He did not move fast enough on land reform to satisfy Emiliano Zapata, who was among the first to break with him. When he did move faster, the conservatives set out to get him. In February, 1913, Madero was assassinated. His own army chief, Victoriano Hucrta, made no attempt to conceal his hand in the plot. Succeeding Madero, Huerta had the backing of the American ambassador as well as the support of every reactionary group in the country. What lie did not have was the support of the masses of Mexican people, or of Woodrow Wilson, the new President of the United States. Alvaro Obreg’n in Sonora, Panciio Villa in Chihuahua, and Venustiano Carranza in Coahuila all led separate rebellions against Hiicrta, and Zapata stepped up his terrorism in Morelos. American marines landed in Tampico. Huerta clearly had to go. But his resignation in July, 1914, solved nothing, lor by this time the rebel groups were fighting each other and total anarchy reigned. Villa, Zapata, and Obregon met in October to resolve differences. They agreed that the hatred between Villa and Carranza was the chief obstacle to peace. Villa, never at a loss for ideas, proposed a double suicide. Carranza, who had refused to attend the conference, declined. The fighting went on, more flitter and more costly than ever. Carranza, however, soon gained the upper hand when Obregon, weary with the shenanigans of both Villa and Zapata, decided to join forces with him. Zapata retreated to his home ground of Morelos, and alter several stunning defeats Villa limped back to his base in Chihuahua. Botli continued as nuisances, but as local rather than national ones. Carranza emerged the victor and architect of the constitution of 1917, even though he scarcely bothered to read it. It was not until the administration of Lázaro Cárdenas, from 1934 to 1940, that many of the aims of the revolution were finally realized. The constitution of 1917, even today, remains the most significant and controversial document in the continuing struggle of modern Mexico.



The mural became the art form most identified with the artists of the revolution. They deliberately went back to Aztec styles and forms, and they put their works in public buildings and factories—out of reach of art galleries and private collectors. There is scarcely an important public building in Mexico today whose entry walls are not splashed with the harsh polemic of these intensely felt works. Many are as brutal and dramatic as the history of Mexico itself, and most identify with the Indian as the enduring spirit and redeemer of the new, proud, nation-conscious Mexico. This one, Diego Rivera’s Impassioned Documentary , which boldly sumniames the issues and figures of the revolution, is in the National Palace. Zapata stands at upper right; at his left a white-garbed follower is holding the Plan of Ayala, Zapata’s manifesto of November 27, 1911. At his left shoulder, Villa hovers benignly above the bearded Carranza, whose right hand grasps the constitution of 1917, emphasixing Article 27 (land redistribution) and Article 123 (rights of labor). Madero, center of the right panel, is the only person in white tie. In the left panel, the arch-villains Díaz and Huerta stand side by side brandishing swords in contempt of the newspapers (below) celebrating social reform. A bishop (far left) looks appropriately sinister. Foreign-owned oil wells and factories as well as grand haciendas loom menacingly in the background—enemies of the people. This nuirai and many others like it have dramatized and familiarized Mexico’s epic struggle lor social justice. The best-known artists of the revolution—Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros—all had successful careers as experimentalists in a variety of art forms. Their murals, although artistically quite conservative, reveal a fiery political conviction for which they will undoubtedly belong remembered.



Left (reading from bottom to top):

General Porfirio Díaz

(1877-80, 1884 to May 25, 1911). Proud of his medals from Britain, France, Russia, China, Japan, etc. Died in Paris in 1915 at the age of eighty-four.

Francisco León de la Barra

(May 25 to November 5, 1911). A lawyer, former ambassador to Washington, and dean of the Díaz cabinet.

Francisco Madero

holding flag (November 6, 1911, to February 19, 1913). Tiny hero of the revolution, a gentle person unfit for the rough and tumble of Mexican politics; assassinated.

Pedro Lascuráin

in formal dress holding a watch (7:01 P.M. to 7:46 P.M. , February 19, 1913—his total time in office; he resigned). Died peacefully in 1952 at the age of ninety-six.

General Victoriano Huerta

with bottle (February 19, 1913, to July 15, 1914). Sinister and treacherous; conducted government business from saloons.

The next four presidents held office at the whim of the Zapatistas and Villistas:

Francisco Carbajal

only head and legs visible (July 15 to August 13, 1914).

Eulalio Gutiérrez

holding lasso (November 6, 1914, to January if), 1915). Loved dynamiting trains, hated politics.

Roque González Garza

on all fours (January 16 to June 10, 1915). Became President at twenty-nine.

Francisco Lagos Cházaro

legs around Gutiérrez (June 10 to July 9, 1915).

Venustiano Carranza

on top with wings (May 1, 1917, to May 21, 1920). More or less in control from 1915; ignored the radical elements in the constitution of 1917. Assassinated.

Adolfo de la Huerta

dove in hand (June 1 to November 30, 1920). A man of the arts; no relation to Victoriano.

General Alvaro Obregón

left of Carranza (December i, 1920, to November 30, 1924). Alert; known as Mr. One Arm. Assassinated in 1928 while celebrating his renomination to the Presidency.

Right (reading from bottom to top):

Plutarco Elias Galles

(1924-28). Stern, efficient, began as a leftist enthusiastic for land redistribution, but later swung to the right. Never tired of harassing the Church. Chief architect of the ruling political revolutionary party (now the P.R.I.). Calles picked and dominated the country’s next three presidents.

Emilio Portes Gil

(1928-29). Made peace with the Church, and therefore not the ideal Calles stooge.

Pascual Ortiz Rubio

(1929-32). Calles’ timid puppet with little talent.

Abelardo Rodriguez

(1932-34). Became wealthy from Calles’ gambling casinos; more dynamic but still a yes man.

Lázaro Cárdenas

(1934-40). The most dedicated and popular President since Juárez. Sober, soft-spoken, indifferent to wealth, privilege, and power. He prided himself on direct contact with the common people. Banned the display of presidential portraits in public buildings, lived modestly and without fanfare. Was often branded a Communist. Interpreted the constitution of 1917 literally. In 1936, sent his mentor Calles into exile. At 10 P.M. , March 18, 1938, announced the take-over of foreign oil companies. Ambassador Josephus Daniels defended him against rising U.S. hostility. Left office quietly and never interfered with subsequent administrations.

Avila Camacho

(1940-46). Abandoned Cardenas’ land programs, concentrated on industrialization and World War II.

Miguel Alemán

(1946-52). Dynamic and colorful, promoted vast developments in dams, bridges, etc. Corruption flourished.

Adolfo Ruíz Cortines

(1952-58). Colorless, cautious, thrifty, and honest.

Adolfo Lopez Mateos

(1958-64). Return to an aggressive leadership with corresponding boom in public works.

Gustavo Díaz Ordaz

(1964—). As the magic of the P.R.I, begins to fade, he finds New Left unrest an increasing threat.


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