President Porfirio Diaz and the Mexican Revolution

Readers familiar with my unpublished novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, know it is the story about a young Border Patrol agent (Billy Maddox) in southern Arizona. Billy’s father Hector was a rancher in Cochise County, Arizona before his son, Billy’s brother Matthew, was shot dead in a shootout with drug mules, and the Maddox family fled to Tucson. Throughout his life, Hector has revered his grandfather (and Billy’s great-grandfather) William Maddox who, in the early 20th century, was an Arizona Ranger.

Porfirio Diaz

Porfirio Diaz en 1867 (Public domain image, PD-US)

Wichita Snake is the story-in-progress of how William ended up in Arizona after starting life as a miner in Monongah, West Virginia. Following a tragic mining accident, which killed hundreds of miners, he leaves Monongah with his wife, Abby, and heads west. Their destination is California and they have little idea about what they will do when they get there. The couple is young and have nothing greater in mind than to get away from the economically and socially oppressive conditions of their mining community.

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Unfortunately, they become mixed up with a crime syndicate as soon as they enter Kansas. Abby is killed just east of Topeka and Glen Marshall (which is William’s real name–you’ll have to read the upcoming story to find out how and why his name changed) ends up in Wichita, trying to escape from but ultimately facing the men who killed his wife.

I won’t tell the story about how Glen Marshall ends up facing those ringleaders of the syndicate, Old Smokey Jones and Jacob Bartlett. But I will say it is a chance conversation about the emerging Mexican Revolution that plants the idea in Glen’s head to go south instead of west when he finally does have a chance to leave Wichita….and in a hurry.

The conversation Glen hears concerns the Mexican President back in 1907, Porfirio Diaz, who was a controversial figure in the late 19th and early 20th century, and remains so to this day. While generally considered a strongman in Mexican during the long years of his rule, (1877-1880, and 1884-1911), he also oversaw an era of prosperity that had been lacking in Mexico for some time following decades of international battle and internal strife.

Porfirio Diaz: Blazing a Trail to the Presidency

Diaz made a name for himself as a war hero fighting the French in the middle of the 19th century, including most famously at the Battle of Puebla, which occurred on May 5, 1862 (and from which the well-known Cinco de Mayo celebrations derived). He impressed General Ignacio Zaragoza and President Benito Juarez sufficiently to generate his own kind of national reputation. Throughout years of battle against the French and, subsequently, during the years of internal strife when Emperor Maximilian of Austria opposed the president, Diaz remained loyal to Juarez and led successful battles on his behalf.

When opposition finally disappeared in the late 1860s and Porfirio Diaz finally could stop fighting, he instead began to criticize the Juarez presidency. He had gained nationwide fame and benefited from enough ambition to demonstrate interest in his own political rise.

His first efforts at revolt  failed even if he managed to secure the position as a delegate to Congress representing the city of Veracruz. Finally, in 1876, Diaz did defeat federal troops, providing his first opportunity to serve as national president. His first tenure, which was to last four years, created a great deal of disillusionment among regular Mexicans who had until now celebrated him as a national war hero. The early years of his presidency were marked by corruption and violence, which were in some ways to become routine in his more than three long three decades as president.

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The presidency of Mexico turned briefly in 1880 to Manuel Gonzalez, who was generally considered a Diaz loyalist and his puppet figure, and who managed to outrage a good part of the Mexican population even more so than Diaz.  Diaz returned to the presidency then in 1884, following Mexicans’ general disgust with Gonzalez. From that time on, Diaz would serve as president until forced out in the face of revolutionary revolt in 1911.

The Porfiriato

The period of Diaz’s presidency is often referred to as the Porfiriato and is marked, on the one hand, by a period of economic stability, security and growing prosperity following years of devastating war. But it was clear even during these times, on the other hand, that it came at a cost to millions of poor and indigenous Mexicans.

Diaz, despite his own indigenous roots, aspired to the kind of progressive outlook he believed typified European culture and society in the 19th century. He and the upper class Mexicans who became his chief supporters benefited financially from the investments made by foreign powers during these years (including the recently despised French) — copper mines, textiles, plantations, factories and railroads.

Such investments had the effect of modernizing the nation but only along strict socioeconomic lines. As the economy began thrumming, labor poured into the country, including from such countries as Spain, competing against local workers and adding to the sense of disenfranchisement among those who lacked economic and political power.

For those who could not benefit from the advancing economy, Diaz cared little. In fact, his response to those on the lower end of the economic spectrum was violence and repression. In the early 1900s, the impact of decades of repression began to come to a boil. Wealthy writer and landowner Francisco Madero authored a book called La Succesion Presidencial en 1910, that criticized Diaz’s reign and called for him to step down in 1910, something the long-serving president had already recently (and somewhat flippantly) told an American journalist he would do.

Economy Turns South: Porfirio Diaz In Trouble

The thriving economy, in some ways, held the worst of resistance against Diaz at bay. But when mine workers began to strike, protests grew more voluble. Diaz’s iron first kept most internal resistance at bay but a movement in the southern United States among those whose lives and interests touched those of Mexico began to criticize in the press.

The writer, Madero, who had already left an impression in his critical book on Diaz, chose to oppose Diaz in the 1910 presidential elections. Diaz had already contradicted himself and announced, including to U.S. President William Howard Taft in an historic meeting between the two presidents in 1909, that he would run again, despite earlier promises. Madero lacked political prowess or the kind of vision one would expect to accompany the resume of any candidate for a national presidency. But his ideas about Diaz were powerfully cogent and well-received, and the fact that he was NOT Diaz earned him significant support. Astonished, and growing concerned that he might lose the election, Diaz had him jailed.

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The election proceeded nevertheless and when Madero received nowhere near the number of votes anticipated, and after he was freed from prison, he alleged electoral fraud and called for open revolt against the president.

Mexican warlords and peasant bandits with followings of their own and who opposed Diaz took up the call to arms including such individuals as Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco. Pay was low in Diaz’s army, which also meant low morale. In the face of growing resistance and encroaching masses of revolutionaries, Diaz formally ceded control and went into exile in 1911.

****

Although the Mexican Revolution, as it is commonly recorded, lasted the greater part of a decade and ultimately descended into a civil war of varying interests, it was largely precipitated by a revolt against the long-standing president and autocrat Porfirio Diaz.

Glen Marshall, who becomes William Maddox by the end of Wichita Snake and makes his way down to Arizona soon after overhearing a conversation in 1907 about the rising challenges to Porfirio Diaz, ultimately becomes an Arizona Ranger and participates in a battle against Pancho Villa in Nogales, Arizona.

That bit of history is recounted by Billy Maddox, William Maddox’s great-grandson, in my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. For a coal miner from Monongah, West Virginia, William ends up traveling to some interesting places and leading a pretty interesting life.

About Joe Kovacs

I write literary fiction and am currently pursuing literary representation for my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, which is about a young Border Patrol agent in southern Arizona. Subscribe to The Write Place Blog by submitting your email address in the box in the right column of this page.
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