Porfirio Díaz is not only one of the most hated figures in Mexican history. He’s likely to have been one of the most creative.
Dictatorships always leave a mixed history. The period of 1876 to 1911 — three and a half decades —is still known as the Porfirato, the longest single administration in the history of the country. Most international visitors will learn the word because remnants and reminders of his rule are everywhere in Mexico City, even down to this day.
Porfirio Díaz not only exerted complete control over the political, social, economic, military and the police of the country. He also reformed education, stabilized the peso against the dollar, and wildly improved trade both inside and outside Mexico. French merchant, Joseph Yves Limantour said of his rule,
“General Diaz was a tireless worker who devoted all of his time, his outstanding ability and his great strength to creating the welfare of his people and the development of their country. No ascetic has been less concerned for their own interests, pleasures or comforts. “
He’s been called a traitor (malinchista), a nepotist and corrupt with power. He was someone who prevented the freedom of expression and outraged even the most cherished traditions of indigenous communities. Later revolutionaries called him “a monster of evil, cruelty and hypocrisy” (Mata, 1885-1886), and “the most colossal of criminals of our time … a central pillar of the system of slavery and autocracy.” (Turner, 1909).
Yet an ambivalence between neo-porfirismo and anti-porfirismo has let the character morph into a myth of anarchy, corruption and slaughter. Though his remains are buried in Paris, Don Porfirio Díaz’s memory haunts Mexico as never before. Responsible for the introduction of electricity (see below), the founding of the national university (today’s UNAM), the magnificent Palacio de Bellas Artes, among other projects.
But the quotations below should leave no doubt that his was a very mixed rule.
– “The Mexicans are happy with messily eating snacks, getting up late, being public employees with influential sponsors, attend to their work with no punctuality, often sick and taking license with their pay; they want endless fun, to marry young and to have children; to spend more than they earn and to drug themselves at parties. “
– “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the US”
– “A dog with a bone in his mouth can neither bite nor bark.”
– “Kill them hot.” “Mátenlos en caliente.”
– “I can separate myself from the presidency of Mexico without regret or remorse; but I will not be able, while alive, to stop serving this country. “
– “Less policy and more administration.”
– “Madero has unleashed a tiger, let’s see if he can hold onto it.”
– “Bread and stick.”
The audio below was recorded in 1909 and returned, with thanks, to Thomas Alva Edison, for the work he’d done with electricity, and recording. It’s probably the first recording made in Mexico.
Though the internet makes lots more information available to lots more people, Mexico City libraries have simply not been supplanted. Charged with continually re-inventing themselves, and their places in the public imagination, one can still encounter eras gone by and great historical minds in a library as in few other places.
Knowledge, after all, belongs to everyone. Opening a book, reading it at a study, or just meeting in the silence of one these Mexico City libraries enhances concentration, and provides a welcome respite from everything going on out there in the world.
Of all Mexico City libraries, the oldest were part of the church and one or another of its offshoot organizations. Among these was the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, founded in the 1530s and surviving today as the Biblioteca José María Lafragua. Most of these ecclesiastical libraries were not truly open to the public, and Mexico had to wait for the National Library of Mexico, inaugurated by Benito Juárez in 1867 to enjoy the benefits of a truly public library system.
The list below is intended to let you enjoy some of that system, too.
Opened just ten years ago, in 2006, the Vasconcelos is visited by thousands for the sheer spectacle of its innovative design. Graced by the iconic whale from artist, Gabriel Orozco, it’s always a good library for art and visual spectacle. The facade retains something of a colonial appearance, but for sheer scale, and jaw-dropping space, the interior must be experienced.
We’ve written a lot about it in these pages, but the UNAM library with the Juan O’Gorman murals remains one of the most outstanding of all Mexico City libraries. As a UNESCO site with some 428,000 volumes in the collection, it’s the biggest in Mexico, but lots of folks visit just to see the facade and the surrounding grounds.
Opened by Benito Juárez in 1867, there’s still a good one million books inside, today administered by the folks from UNAM. Originally located in the San Agustín church in the city center, the current building was opened in 1979. Geometric, and massive, it’s an extraordinary place to visit.
Specializing in economic materials, this collection of some 86,350 books and 114,852 journals is administered by the Secretary of Finance and Public Credit. Founded in 1928, it’s one of the cities true public art spectacles. Inside the main nave of the old Oratory of San Felipe Neri “El Nuevo,” the baroque façade outside is just the beginning. Inside, the murals are futuristic, and not to be missed.
One of Centro’s truly outstanding historical buildings, for centuries it was the convent of the Clarisas from the 16th century. Today it’s something like a “Library of Congress” with a stunning collection of publications and artifacts, but also with a lush, deep, dark intellectual interior, that beckons from centuries past.
Address: Tacuba 29, Centro Histórico
Photographs this page: Flickr – Creative Commons
Mexico City’s Tepito neighborhood has for a millennia history offered resistance, rebellion, and hope. Tenochtitlan relegated dissidents to Tepito’s crooked alleys. The “brave neighborhood,” even hundreds of years later, is still marginalized and bent on survival. Somehow residents seem to bear that history in the very DNA.
With a reputation for violence, deprivation, and overcrowding, some of the great characters of Mexican history have come from Tepito. The cradle of Mexican boxing, in the 1970s an important literary movement emerged in Tepito, and the neighborhood has contributed as much to the culture of the city and country as have many, much wealthier places.
Among all the stories of people whose hard work is performed with an enviable dignity, there are thousands of women who carry out similar work for their families. Resident Mayra Valenzuela Rojas remarked, “In Tepito there’s a matriarchy (…) Every woman has her own story. Each of us is a spark, but together we are lighting a candle for Tepito.”
German photographer, Anja Jensen, is currently exhibiting her work in a show called “Ciudadanas-Caminamos a oscuras” (Citizens-We Walk in the Dark). Having spent months in Tepito, she’s documented the women challenging the stereotypes of the neighborhood.
Jensen was assaulted and threatened, but she was also clothed and cared for by the women who opened their stories and lives to her. The result is a series photographs, “Las Cabronas de Tepito,” (Bad Girls of Tepito) a collective portrait of the matriarchy whose fervor makes the neighborhood better and regularly improves the lives of the people living there.
The photographs will be exhibited through February 12, 2017, as part of the Mexico-Germany Dual Year, at the German Pavilion on the Plaza Rio de Janeiro, in Roma Norte.