The Mexico Podcast: History & Present











October 2020
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This episode is an intro, explaining the factors that led to the Revolution, and then ending just before the Revolution officially began.

The best way to explain the structure of this series is to compare it to TV shows that have seasons and episodes. Like TV shows, the individual episodes in a season will come out regularly, but the seasons will be spaced out a little more. In between the seasons, we’ll have shorter one-off episodes, some of which will be related to the Revolution but not part of the greater narrative, like an episode about an individual person in the Revolution, and there will be episodes completely unconnected to the Revolution, such as the execution of the last Aztec emperor, Cuauhtemoc, or about the Cathedral in Mexico City, or news and culture. I also want to feature more pieces by other people, like I did with the mezcal episodes.

Okay, that’s it. Let’s get to work.




The Mexican Revolution wasn’t one thing. It was a series of civil wars, betrayals, assassinations, and reforms that encompass 5-7 years in some senses, and about 20-30 years in a broader sense. Then there’s the romantic (and true) idea that the reverberations are still being felt today.

There weren’t two opposing forces fighting for clear objectives. It was more like Game of Thrones: multiple factions of idealists, opportunists, and freedom fighters making temporary alliances and then turning on each other. And almost every major figure gets assassinated. Spoiler alert.

It’s disorienting and convoluted, with several people taking the role of president, claiming the last guy was illegitimate for X reason, and then doing X.

The wars weren’t fought all over the country. They were more localized. The states of Morelos and Chihuahua were the most violent. Mexico City and the center of the country saw frequent fighting. But most of the country didn’t see much violence.

The most obvious way to explain the conditions that led to the Revolution is to talk briefly about a man called Porfirio Diaz.

He led a coup against a President who he said had served too many terms. He thought a leader should get one term and then step down. Diaz declared himself interim president. Elections were held. Diaz won.

Then he served just one term in 1876 and stepped down when his term was up in 1880. Then he served another just-one-term in 1884. Then another in 1888, 1892, 1896, 1900, and 1904.

Some sources call him a dictator, but it’s important to remember that in a few of those elections he did actually have to face an opponent. That opponent was an astrologer who lived in an expensive private mental institution. The bills were paid for by… Porfirio Diaz.

So the man who said presidents should serve one term ended up ruling for about 30 years.

What happened in those 30 years is described as both dictatorship and development. He stole vast amounts of land, violated property rights, granted monopolies to his supporters, and he made it so that the only way to remove him from power was the same way he had taken it: By force.

During his rule electricity, railroads, trolleys, and the telephone all arrived in Mexico. Gross National Product greatly increased. Life was very good for the coutnry’s elite, who were allowed and encouraged to take land and export natural resources to industrializing nations. Porfirio was stabilizing some aspects of the country, but the trade he made was modernization and increased wealth for the upper classes in exchange for returning Mexico to colonial status: The country almost literally belonged to foreign investors.

The people who worked on haciendas and ranches lived basically as slaves, even if that word wasn’t used. Whipping was a common punishment. Workers were forced to buy from the company store on the ranch or farm. Prices were much higher in those stores than in the nearby towns. Workers who didn’t purchase from those stores were whipped or docked pay.

High officials in Diaz’s government were mostly of European descent. The ideologies in vogue among them were French Positivism and social Darwinism. They called themselves cientificos – scientists.

Legal, paper-based land ownership was a new requirement that the cientificos had imposed on the country, and on people who had inhabited the same land for over 800 years. The people who lived there had never needed a piece of paper saying they lived there, and even if they would have had that custom, the Spanish conquistadors in the 15 and 1600s had been more than thorough in their destruction of indigenous books and documents.

In 1883 a law passed in Congress that allowed foreign companies to come in and take land they considered undeveloped. Now communities that had been living on the same land for generations were suddenly told by outsiders that their farms were actually haciendas belonging to some guy who had never even visited the place, and now the communities were basically forced into something so similar to slavery that we may as well just call it slavery.

They now had to work the lands while paying rent on their own homes and fields. The harvest of course went to the new owner.

A special division of police were given authority to deal with peasants trying to defend their land (or peasants who couldn’t pay the rent, or who protested).

Meanwhile Porfirio Diaz’s regime tried to paint a positive picture of Mexico to the outside world. They claimed Mexico was now safe, tamed, open for business.

The Cientificos sold land to telegraph companies and railroad companies, which allowed the transport of natural resources to port cities.

Mexico City was having a sewage problem at this time. The city is surrounded by mountains and there’s no natural drainage, and population growth was causing problems. When it rained, the sewers overflowed and streets flooded.

In 1886 they began what Richard Grabman calls one of the greatest engineering projects of the 19th century, or any century. It took 14 years, but in the end they had built a 36-mile canal and six-mile tunnel that carried the sewage to the other side of the mountains and dumped it into the Lerma River.

Mexico’s new industrialization came through use of death camps in the Yucatan peninsula and the valley of Oaxaca.

Porfirio Diaz, who was from Oaxaca, has often been called Mexico’s first modern leader, which leads me to a point of speculation. If you’re listening to this, it’s very likely that you know of Dan Carlin’s podcast called Hardcore History. In the first episode of his series on the Mongols, he compares Genghis Khan to Hitler.

He starts the episode by saying he has an idea for a book. It’s a book he wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole, but it’s a book that he’s certain will be written eventually, maybe in a couple hundred years, when the European Holocaust is no longer so close at hand.

What will people say about Hitler in a few hundred years? Dan thinks it might be similar to what people now say about Genghis Khan. They’ll say Hitler was a force for modernization, development, industrialization, etc.

I think the historians who talk about Porfirio Diaz as Mexico’s first modern leader are putting on the Genghis Khan Goggles, which are similar to beer goggles, but for historical events. Today some people wear Genghis Khan Goggles when they think about Hernan Cortes and Porfirio Diaz. Someday people might put on Genghis Khan Goggles when they think of Hitler.

The comparison to Hitler works and is not just a meaningless invocation of Godwin’s Law because Diaz in some cases pioneered the techniques that would be used by the Nazis and by Stalin. Specifically, concentration camps.

In Mexico, these concentration camps are referred to today by the lovely word hacienda. If you travel in Mexico you’ll probably see tempting offers to stay at a bed and breakfast that was an old hacienda, or eat at a restaurant that was a hacienda.

The meal after my wedding was at a restaurant on a hacienda. The neighborhood I live in used to be a hacienda as well.

The haciendas in the Yucatan and Oaxaca were ways to industrialize a place quickly while eliminating unwanted ethnic groups.

One ethnic group that put up resistance was called the Yaquis. About 30,000 of them were deported to the Yucatan peninsula, which was thousands of miles away from their land and was a much different type of climate. The Yucatan is a humid jungle. The Yaquis came from the north of Mexico, the southern US, an arid desert climate. If you’ve never been to the Yucatan jungles, the heat and humidity there is unbearable in December, on vacation.

Like the Jews in the Holocaust, the Yaquis were transported on overcrowded cattle cars. Many of them died along the way. Most of the people who arrived didn’t live long. They slept in overcrowded barracks, were underfed, and were literally worked to death.

All of this was justified to Europe and the United States as the way of civilizing an inferior people.

A reporter called John Kenneth Turner visited these death camps and his publications became very popular in the US. People were outraged, and American citizens began smuggling weapons into Mexico.

Diaz became very disliked by middle class voters in the US. The US government and American business interests thought change was coming to Mexico, and they wanted to control the outcome.

Historian Earl Shorris says there are several probable causes of the Mexican Revolution. The causes, or maybe precipitating factors, worked together. No single cause could have sparked the Revolution on its own, but several of them working all at once could.

First, Porfirio Diaz was old. In his 80s. The average age of his Cabinet was 68. And Mexico was a young country. In 1910 a third of the population was under 10. More than half were under 20, and fewer than 10% were over 50. Dictator or no, he would soon die, as would many of his Cabinet members. Change was inevitable.

Second, economics. The final two years of his rule saw contractions in the economy. These contractions hit the poor harder than anyone else, and made their lives even more difficult.

Third, haciendas. The governance system in most of the country was basically feudalism, at least outside the major cities. There were no limits on how much land someone could own. Anything considered “unused” land could be settled. Any land owned by people who lacked the recently-imposed legal documentation could be taken. An enormous amount of land was stolen.

Fourth, the decline of Positivism. Young Mexicans rebelled against the philosophy of the older generation. The Positivism of Pofrifio’s cientificos was losing its appeal. A new philosophy, sparked by Henri Bergson’s book The Creative Mind, connected with them deeply. Shorris says the impact of the new philosophy on the Revolutionaries is undeniable.

Fifth, Diaz had been quoted as saying that this would truly be his final term and that he would welcome an opposition party in the next elections. He said Mexico should be prepared to change their government at every election and not have to face armed revolution. That interview was read by some of the most influential Revolutionaries, and nobody would forget what he had said.

Sixth, freedom of the press. Diaz allowed the popular socialist polemicists, the Flores Magon brothers, to get out of jail and go to the U.S. and continue publishing articles against him. Many of their ideas made it into the 1917 Constitution, which has been called the first socialist constitution, coming even before the Soviet one.

Seventh, the federal army proved that they were not invincible. An early battle before the Revolution resulted in the massacre of an entire village called Tomochi. But the people in that town of about 200 killed several soldiers in the fighting. One of the federal soldiers who survived wrote a book about it, and he said “every rebel was worth 10 federal soldiers.” The news of the battle spread quickly.

The eighth cause or factor in the Revolution was strikes. A third of the land was owned by foreigners. Foreign investors owned about 90% of the value of industries in Mexico. The French owned the textile industry. The Americans owned mining. Various other countries owned the railroads. The British and Americans owned the oil. In all those industries the owners put their own countrymen in the best positions. In return for all this, foreign governments rewarded Diaz. He got rewards from Switzerland, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Venezuela, France, Japan, Italy, Belgium, Prussia, Hungary, Austria, Persia, Great Britain, the Netherlands, China, and Russia. There were at least 250 strikes or demonstrations during his dictatorship. The strikers mostly demanded better working conditions.

In one of those strikes dozens were killed. Local police were helpless to stop the strikers, and the Mexican military was nowhere nearby. So the governor of Sonora actually requested US military, since the strike was at an American-owned copper mine. Eventually the Mexican military arrived and demanded the American soldiers leave.

The presence of foreign soldiers protecting American interests against Mexican workers was….unpopular.

That was 1906. Things did not improve after those strikes. The pressure kept building.

In 1908 a man called Francisco Madero published a book called The Presidential Succession of 1910. He met with Diaz and suggested that he himself be nominated Vice President, rather than the man Diaz was considering. Diaz refused him. Madero later recalled that meeting, saying he was not impressed by the dictator. He must have felt what Christopher Hitchens famously described: The moment you begin interacting with statesmen and realize, to your horror, that they are even less intelligent than you are.

After Diaz refused Madero, Madero continued his own presidential campaign, calling his party the Antireelectionists. He began touring Mexico and founding Antireelectionist clubs all over the north. And he was getting more popular all the time. He was gathering the support of cowboys, railway workers, miners, small town businessmen, cattle rustlers, and indigenous leaders. For the first time, Diaz faced serious competition.

Another contender for the presidency was Bernardo Reyes. Reyes was part of the Diaz government, but he was setting up his own opposition party. Diaz sent him to Europe, ostensibly to study military recruitment systems, but the effect was exile for Reyes. Now without their candidate, his followers joined Madero’s Antireelectionists.

In April 1910 the Antireelectionists held a convention. Madero was voted in as their candidate.

Diaz had pro-Madero newspapers closed, his people attacked Antireelectionist rallies, and he jailed their leaders in several cities. Some were able to flee to safety in the US, but Madero was arrested and imprisoned in San Luis Potosi in June 1910.

In the June 26th elections, Diaz’s people blocked suspected Antireelectionists from voting, so they called Diaz out for committing voter fraud and petitioned Congress to annul the vote. Congress basically ignored them.

While in prison Madero was visited by prominent members of his anti-reelectionist campaign. He said that now was the time to take up arms. They made plans to buy weapons and recruit men willing to die for the cause. The call to arms would go out in October, after the country was done celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Mexican War of Independence.

Madero came from a wealthy family, and his father bailed him out and used his influence with the governor to allow Madero to get around the city during the day.

On October 7, 1910 he escaped his guards on horseback and fled to the US, helped by sympathetic railway workers. He went to San Antonio, TX, where his family owned a house.

The railroads were perhaps Diaz’s biggest accomplishment, and they were the key to controlling Mexico. If you control the railroads you can send soldiers quickly to any part of the country. And the key to the railroads were the workers.

Francisco Madero had the support of those workers. With their help he smuggled guns and propaganda into Mexico. From San Antonio, Texas, he wrote that the revolution would begin on November 20, 1910.

Direct download: Revolution_1.1_2018.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 9:10am EDT

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