Don Porfirio is often remembered wistfully, as old Italians remember Mussolini: “He was a bit rough, but, dammit, at least he made the trains run on time.”
Although Porfirio Díaz’s humble Oaxaca mestizo origins were not unlike Juárez’s, Díaz was not a democrat: When he was a general, his officers often took no captives; when he was president, his country police, the rurales, shot prisoners in the act of “trying to escape.”
Order and progress, in that sequence, ruled Mexico for 34 years. Foreign investment flowed into the country; new railroads brought the products of shiny factories, mines, and farms to modernized Gulf and Pacific ports. Mexico balanced its budget, repaid foreign debt, and became a respected member of the family of nations.
Oaxaca also gained material benefits from the Porfiriato, the label Mexican historians attach to Díaz’s long rule. The Mexico City rail link, which arrived in 1892, was the high point of three decades of public works improvement: bridges, roads, ports, electricity, sewage, an elegant theater, an Isthmus rail line, a state museum, and an enlarged Institute of Arts and Sciences. Rich foreign and Mexican investors dug dozens of new mines and built scores of factories, producing shoes, soap, hats, matches, glassware, cigarettes, and beer. In the southern mountains, coffee farms proliferated after the government offered a rebate for planting 2,000 coffee trees or more. Oaxaca City ’s population doubled, to nearly 40,000, during Díaz’s rule.
The human price, nevertheless, was high. The rich, who included hundreds of resident foreigners, soaked up most of the profits while Oaxaca’s poor, who lacked the money to benefit directly from the new civic improvements, struggled along as best they could. And although in Oaxaca most natives were able to hold on to their land, nationally Díaz’s government did not intervene to prevent more than a hundred million acres—one-fifth of Mexico’s land area (including most of the arable land)—being turned over to rich Mexicans and foreigners. Poor Mexicans suffered the most. By 1910, 90 percent of Mexico’s indígenas had lost their traditional communal land. In the spring of 1910, a smug, now- cultured, and elderly Don Porfirio anticipated with relish the centennial of Hidalgo’s Grito de Dolores.