Skip to main content

Mexico in Modern Times

James A. Watkins is an entrepreneur, musician, and a writer with four non-fiction books and hundreds of magazine articles read by millions.

The Mexican Revolution

The Mexican Revolution was a marathon of a civil war from 1910 to 1929. Then the long history of violent coups that featured the routine assassination of political leaders finally ended. Stability enabled Mexico to become the second most successful economy in Latin America by 1950, when it passed Argentina and trailed only Brazil.

Capitalism fueled tremendous growth in the economy from 1870 to 1930. With this increased prosperity came industrialization and urbanization. Peasants left their rural villages to work and live in the big cities.

The Catholic Church was the guardian of the cultural identity of the common people. The social and cultural influences of the Church decreased markedly as the distractions of city life proved too tempting for many to obey rules about moral conduct.

Leftists despised the Catholic Church because they identified it with the colonial oppression of Spain. Leftists sought to forge a new cultural identity based on the failed cultures of Indians and Africans, which would require a mythological glorification of those cultures.

Leftists wanted a purely secular, socialist state free of the influence of religion. The Catholic Church responded by promoting Social Justice for the working classes and the peasantry.

Political tension was building between the forces of regionalism and centralization. Established elites in various regions were alienated from the central government, particularly in the northern states of Sonora, Chihuahua, and Coahuila. Progressive liberal technocrats challenged their authority in an attempt to centralize political power.

What the progressives needed was a crisis. In 1907, they got what they wanted. Due to a recession in the United States, compounded by a series of bad harvests, Mexico's economy tanked. Food supplies dwindled, prices of staple foods skyrocketed, and all social classes were affected. Following close behind were high unemployment rates, inflation, falling wages, higher taxes, and a constriction of credit.

The recession enabled progressives to radicalize the working classes and spark labor union strikes. The strikes were brutally put down by the government, which only strengthened the progressive cause in the minds of labor union members. The masses were stirred and social revolution had begun.

The Mexican Revolution would cost more than a million people their lives. It ruined the agricultural, ranching, and mining industries.

MEXICO FLAG

MEXICO FLAG

Francisco Madero

Francisco Madero (1873-1913) was the scion of a powerful family in Mexico, with huge interests in cereal, textiles, mining, and cattle ranches. Yet he was still able to present himself as the "apostle of democracy" to the lower classes.

Madero denounced the government and for his efforts was imprisoned for sedition. Farm laborers rose in rebellion, led by former bandit Pancho Villa, and plundered a few towns in northern Mexico. Villa promised redistribution of the wealth in Mexico.

Madero was released from prison and became the leader of an insurgency, based in the city of Juarez on the border of the United States. This alarmed the Americans who promptly stationed 20,000 troops along the Texas border, in case the impending violence should spill over onto its territory.

In 1911, the president of Mexico, Porfirio Diaz, under pressure from progressives, agreed to leave the country. Diaz, who had led the country for 34 years, fled to Paris, where he died in 1915. Free elections were held and Francisco Madero was elected by a huge majority. Madero was a fine revolutionary but incompetent to govern.

After assuming power, Madero severed ties with the progressives who had smoothed the path for his election. Understandably, the progressives were incensed and staged their own coup, which was put down; then another coup, which was put down; at a cost of much blood—shed by innocent civilian bystanders. The army would have to restore order.

FRANCISCO MADERO

FRANCISCO MADERO

Victoriano Huerta

Victoriano Huerta (1850-1916), a general in the Mexican Army, ousted Madero in the coup of 1913, and declared himself president. Madero and his brothers were promptly assassinated. Then followed full-fledged civil war among at least six groups of Mexicans.

Northern rebels were famous for their fierce stance against the Catholic Church, which resulted in numerous atrocities against priests, nuns, and ordinary people who were religious. The northern rebels attacked on three fronts, and captured Guadalajara, Monterrey, Torreon, and Tampico.

Victoriano Huerta resigned and went into exile. It became a race to see which of the rebel commanders would reach Mexico City first. The winner was Alvaro Obregon.

Scroll to Continue
VICTORIANO HUERTA

VICTORIANO HUERTA

Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa (1878-1923) seized a train and murdered 16 American mining engineers in 1915. Villa did this to provoke America, and make a name for himself among Mexican peasants as one brave enough to stand up to the "gringos."

In 1916, Pancho Villa raided the town of Columbus, New Mexico, inside the United States. He burned down the town and murdered 17 American civilians.

America mobilized 150,000 National Guardsmen along the Mexican border. American General John Pershing crossed into Mexico with 11,000 troops to hunt down Pancho Villa. For nine months Pershing made a fruitless chase after Villa. Pershing was called home when America decided to enter World War One.

My great-grandfather fought for Pancho Villa as a soldier of fortune.

PANCHO VILLA

PANCHO VILLA

Emiliano Zapata

Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919) led an insurgency of Catholic Indian peasants against the liberal central government. The peasants rose in rebellion in the southern Mexican state of Morelos to defend their traditions and their religion, and reclaim ancestral Indian lands. Many of them did not speak Spanish but native Indian languages. They sought to return to the ways of the Indian village.

Emiliano Zapata had a motto: 'Land and Liberty.' He wanted the sugar plantations of southern Mexico destroyed, to be replaced by peasant farmers. His followers seized some haciendas by force.

After Francisco Madero was elected, most Mexicans thought that the Zapata led insurgency would be over—but it continued. Zapata and his rebels took control of two states in 1914, and then invaded the central State of Mexico, drawing close to the capital city. Zapata was assassinated in 1919.

EMILIANO ZAPATA

EMILIANO ZAPATA

Venustiano Carranza

Venustiano Carranza (1859-1920) declared himself the President of Mexico in 1914. He announced his intention to exile rebel leaders Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, which didn't set well with them. Villa and Zapata made a secret deal with the victorious General Obregon, and together they ousted Carranza. Then came more civil war, during which Mexico City changed hands several times.

In 1914, Mexican officials arrested American sailors in the city of Tampico. The United States responded by capturing the city of Veracruz. 19 Americans and 200 Mexicans were killed in the fighting. The United States chose Veracruz because its port was the source of great revenue for the Mexican government. The United States withdrew from Mexico later that same year.

Zapata and Villa were eventually beaten back to their home bases, and Venustiano Carranza was recognized by the United States as the legitimate ruler of Mexico in 1915. Neither Villa nor Zapata had garnered support outside their home areas. Pancho Villa would be murdered in 1923.

In 1917, Mexico produced a new Constitution. It abolished Catholic schools and prohibited clerics from participation on politics. Workers were guaranteed eight-hour days, and the right to unionize and go on strike. The new Constitution authorized expropriation of land for its return to Indians.

President Carranza overstepped his bounds when he tried to arrest General Obregon, leading to a declaration of independence by Obregon's home state of Sonora. Another coup ensued and President Carranza was forced to flee Mexico City. He soon met a violent death.

VENUSTIANO CARRANZA

VENUSTIANO CARRANZA

Alvaro Obregon

Alvaro Obregon (1880-1928) was elected the President of Mexico by a landslide in 1920. Obregon and his supporters from Sonora would succeed in establishing the most stable and enduring state in all of Latin America.

The Sonorans were able to forge a coalition that could govern effectively, and create a new national identity for Mexico. The new order was radically anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic. Its stability was in a new one-party governance.

Alvaro Obregon made some smart moves. He created a national bureaucracy based on patronage. If you supported the government, you could get a government job; if you had a government job, you would be apt to support the government.

The official rhetoric of the new ruling party was socialist, but its economic policies were capitalist. The former placated the masses; the latter assured much needed foreign investment, and the export of raw materials.

Education and culture were extensively promoted. What was specifically promoted was the idea that the future of North America was the formation of a "cosmic race" created from the interbreeding of all Whites, Indians, and Africans.

To overcome racial divisions, the strategy was to glorify the Indian and African races, and denigrate the Spanish (or white) race, thereby artificially bringing the three races to par in the minds of the populace. This would forge a new national identity for all Mexicans.

A great drive for literacy was begun among the rural masses. The Mexican government financed the production of Indian arts and crafts, to promote a sense of pride among the Indian population. This outpouring of images and murals was meant to convince the illiterate Indian and Mestizo masses that the government represented them. The other focus of the government was to diminish the influence of the Catholic Church.

ALVARO OBREGON (seated on left)

ALVARO OBREGON (seated on left)

Plutarco Elias Calles

Plutarco Elias Calles (1877-1945) was named President of Mexico in 1924. In the 1928 election, his friend Alvaro Obregon was elected to succeed him but assassinated the next day. Calles took back the reins and founded the National Revolutionary Party (PRI). This party was to rule Mexico for 71 years—by rigging elections.

The PRI forged an alliance among farmers, unions, bureaucrats, and the military, while excluding business and the Church. Thus it was settled that Mexico would be left in the dust of America over the next eighty years, resulting in tens of millions of Mexicans moving north to the United States, which thrived because it was pro-business and pro-faith.

FORMER AMERICAN PRESIDENT WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT; PRESIDENT OF MEXICO PLUTARCO ELIAS CALLES; PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES CALVIN COOLIDGE

FORMER AMERICAN PRESIDENT WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT; PRESIDENT OF MEXICO PLUTARCO ELIAS CALLES; PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES CALVIN COOLIDGE

Cristero Wars

The Cristero Wars were a massive insurrection by Catholic peasants from central and western Mexico, in response to the abolition of Catholic schools. The uprising soon spread to thirteen states. The government responded by gunning down unarmed campesinos (peasant farmers), burning their homes and farms, and taking their lands. This plan backfired. By 1929, 50,000 peasant farmers had joined the rebellion.

The United States, whose only interest lie in peace on its southern border, was asked to mediate the dispute, which it did. A compromise was reached that satisfied all sides. Anti-Catholic pistoleros continued to terrorize Catholics and burn down churches while the state looked the other way.

CRISTERO LEADERS

CRISTERO LEADERS

Lazaro Cardenas

Lazaro Cardenas (1895-1970) was elected president in 1934. He would serve for six years, during which he practiced the progressive idea of the redistribution of wealth by confiscating 108 million acres of land from wealthy landowners and giving it to poor peasants.

Cardenas favored the working class, and therefore the labor unions. Living standards for laborers rose during his administration, as did their sense of dignity. It was Cardenas who nationalized the oil industry, as well as the railroads. The American President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, refused to intervene. American oil companies then boycotted Mexican oil for thirty years, until the oil crisis of the 1970s forced their hand.

The Mexican Repatriation refers to a forced migration that took place between 1929 and 1939, when as many as one million people of Mexican descent were forced or pressured to leave the United States.

LAZARO CARDENAS

LAZARO CARDENAS

Nationalization

In the 1920s oil made Mexico temporarily rich, not for the last time. Mexico produced one-quarter of the world's oil, which made it third among the oil producing nations.

Mexico nationalized the oil industry in 1938. Nationalizing means you take the physical plants built by foreigners under certain agreements—such as those signed in 1924 with American oil companies to finance the Mexican Army in order to keep the domestic peace. It is in effect theft.

You invite foreigners to do what your people are incapable of doing—building infrastructure to get oil out of the ground. Once built and running smoothly, you boot them out of your country and take what they've built.

This means that you had a few hundred peasants and their mules taking a siesta on some hardscrabble piece of land, that you considered good for nothing. Some people from the United States figure out there is oil under there. You have little use for the oil—mules don't use it. You didn't know it was there, and didn't know how to extract it.

Some Americans offer you 20% of all the profit they can get from it; you agree; they spend billions of dollars to set up oil-drilling and transport; you start making billions on your 20%; you train some locals how to run the machinery; and one day you declare it's mine now. You justify this to your people and the history books as "The Americans were exploiting us."

INFRASTRUCTURE OF OIL INDUSTRY NATIONALIZED BY MEXICO IN 1938

INFRASTRUCTURE OF OIL INDUSTRY NATIONALIZED BY MEXICO IN 1938

Braceros

During World War Two, American farms suffered from a labor shortage. A deal was struck between the Mexican and American governments in 1942 to send 200,000 Mexican laborers to work on farms in America under a temporary work program. The workers, known as Braceros, were paid prevailing wages, and America provided transportation to their job sites from the Mexican border.

The Bracero Program continued until 1964. Over the twenty-two year period, the Bracero Program sponsored some 4.5 million border crossings of guest workers from Mexico.

Operation Wetback was a 1954 operation by the United States to remove about one million illegal aliens from Mexico from America. Many of these Mexicans had come to America under the Bracero Program, only to disappear when it was time go home.

BRACEROS

BRACEROS

Miguel Aleman

President Miguel Aleman (served 1946-1952) promoted business and tourism. He developed the Pacific port of Acapulco as a modern luxury resort for American visitors. The state supplied easy credit for entrepreneurs, and high tariffs protected Mexican business from foreign competition.

Elite technocrats (bureaucrats) were now effectively running Mexico, most of them educated at American universities. These bureaucrats were from well connected families. I suppose the theory was: If you can't beat your government join it.

One family well connected to the government—that of Emilio Azcarraga—monopolized the cinema, radio, television, and press of Mexico, giving the ruling party sway over mass opinion.

ACAPULCO HARBOR

ACAPULCO HARBOR

Adolfo Ruiz Cortines

Adolfo Ruiz Cortines served as President of Mexico from 1952 to 1958. He boosted exports and attracted foreign investment, while keeping inflation exceptionally low.

Mexico was hardly a democratic republic like the United States; but it was no dictatorship either. Mexico experienced tremendous economic growth from 1940 to 1980. By 1960, half the population lived in urban areas. By 1980, 70% did.

The Mexican government spent massive amounts of the public treasury on welfare, health, and education. It depended on the United States for technical and financial assistance. The two countries had become very good friends from the 1940s onward.

GUADALAJARA PLAZA DE ARMAS

GUADALAJARA PLAZA DE ARMAS

Lopez Mateos

Lopez Mateos served as President of Mexico from 1958 to 1964. He was a leftist who took 70 million acres away from wealthy landowners and gave it to peasant farmers.

Mateos also kicked the American companies out of Mexico that had built the plants to produce electricity, and those that had built motion picture studios, while confiscating their assets.

TIJUANA

TIJUANA

Gustavo Diaz Ordaz

Gustavo Diaz Ordaz was President of Mexico from 1964 to 1970. He was a conservative who unfortunately was at the helm when Mexico hosted the 1968 Olympic Games.

The government was anxious to present Mexico on the world stage as a modern country, but radical leftist students saw the international television coverage as the perfect opportunity to denounce their own country to the world. A series of confrontations led to a bloodbath in Mexico City as government troops put down the student rebellion.

RADICAL LEFTIST STUDENTS PROTEST 1968 MEXICO CITY OLYMPICS

RADICAL LEFTIST STUDENTS PROTEST 1968 MEXICO CITY OLYMPICS

Mexico in the 1970s

The unfortunate side effect of the prosperity in Mexican cities was that it attracted hordes of nearly illiterate peasants from the countryside. The population of the urban poor grew as mortality rates fell dramatically while birth rates soared. Mexico City today has 21 million residents.

Cities swelled with poor people living in shantytowns. The poor could see up close the amenities and luxuries the skilled, talented, educated, intelligent upper class had that they didn't have. This led to social unrest, which Marxists leaped at the chance to exploit.

The 1970s were a period of rising anti-Americanism. There were many reports of American companies being poorly treated in Mexico. It was easy to arouse anti-American sentiments because of envy. It is hard to be the poor stepchild to the greatest nation in the history of the world.

Anti-Americanism was fueled by the American Academia, which poured forth a ceaseless torrent of material lambasting their own country that was read in Mexico and around the world. Also, America stands for individualism and the spirit of the 1970s was collectivism.

70% of Mexican exports were to the United States, as well as 60% of its imports.

By 1980, ten million Mexicans had snuck across the border and were living illegally in the United States.

MONTERREY

MONTERREY

Luis Echeverria

Luis Echeverria was President of Mexico from 1970 to 1976. He did his best to placate the poor with food subsidies, housing, free health clinics, and expanded educational opportunities. Unfortunately, the Mexican government didn't have the money to pay for it and had to resort to borrowing from other countries and international bankers. They also simply printed more money, which led to hyperinflation that reached 27% by 1976.

Echeverria was a leftist who wanted the state to own the means of production. Under his regime, the number of state owned corporations would rise from 86 to 740. The Peso dropped in value, Mexican exports became overpriced, imports poured into the country, foreign debt rose, and foreign investment ceased.

MERIDA, YUCATAN, MEXICO

MERIDA, YUCATAN, MEXICO

Jose Lopez Portillo

Jose Lopez Portillo was the President of Mexico from 1976 to 1982. He procured a financial bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which demanded an austerity program in return. Wages dropped and unemployment increased sharply.

Help was on its way: 70 million barrels of oil were discovered in 1977. Mexico was suddenly wealthy. It could have paid off all its debts. Instead it embarked on a massive public spending campaign. In 1980, Mexico spent 62% of its revenues on social spending. This quickly led to a dependence on social programs, and on revenues from oil.

Then the price of oil dropped worldwide, because of the increased supply from Mexico. In 1982, Mexico was borrowing money again—and inflation reached 100%. That year, Mexico became the first Latin American country to default on its foreign loans ($86 billion).

PUEBLA

PUEBLA

Miguel De La Madrid

Miguel de la Madrid served as President of Mexico from 1982 to 1988. His program was to save face for Mexico by accusing those who came before him of rampant corruption. Under his administration wages rose by 30%—but inflation rose by 93%. He also was forced to reduce welfare by 50%. Unemployment skyrocketed.

This austerity program further impoverished average Mexicans, and limited growth and development. At the same time, it did rehabilitate the credit rating of Mexico, and improve its standing in the international community.

JUAREZ

JUAREZ

Carlos Salinas De Gortari

Carlos Salinas de Gortari served as President of Mexico from 1988 to 1994. He took on the powerful and violent labor unions of Mexico, which led to shootouts in the streets.

Salinas called on the United States to help Mexico by relieving its debts. After all, it was always in the best interest of America to have peace south of the border, lest unrest spill over to its own country. The United States responded with a debt relief program for its southern neighbor in 1990.