By the end of Díaz’s reign, Mexico had a population of fifteen million. The majority were mestizo—individuals of mixed blood—but one-third were of pure Indian stock. Chihuahua and Sonora, two of the northern states that lay along the U.S. border, were home to the Tarahumara and the Yaquis. The Cora, Huichol, and Tarascans lived along the Pacific coast and in the hills and valleys west of Mexico City. The Mazahua, Nahuatl, and Otomí had settled in the central highlands. The Gulf state of Veracruz was home to the Huastec and Totonac. The Zapotecs, Mixes, Zoque, Huave, and Mixtec, Tzeltal, Tojolabal, Chontal, and Tzotzil lived in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. And in the Yucatán peninsula, remnants of the ancient Maya had survived.
In 1521, Hernán Cortés conquered Tenochtitlán, the great center of the Aztec civilization and the site of what was to become Mexico City. For the next three centuries, Mexico lived under Spain’s rule, which could be harsh, benign, or indifferent, depending upon the financial needs of the mother country and the temperament of the monarch who happened to be in power at the time. When Mexico finally gained its independence, in 1821, political chaos, internal revolts, and repeated clashes with foreign powers ensued. Texas was lost in 1836 to English-speaking colonizers who had been encouraged by Spain to settle the far reaches of its empire. A decade later, following a war with the United States, Mexico lost another huge chunk of territory to its hungry neighbor—millions of acres that one day would become New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, as well as parts of Colorado and Wyoming.
Exhausted and humiliated, struggling under a huge debt load, Mexico found itself in 1863 once again under the yoke of a European power. This time it was France and Napoleon III, who installed Ferdinand Maximilian von Hapsburg and his wife, Carlota, as emperor and empress of Mexico. The monarchy survived less than five years, defeated by an army led by Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian. Afterward, Maximilian was executed, Carlota went insane, the republic was restored, and Juárez was elected president. Juárez died of a heart attack in 1872, after winning a new term in office, and was succeeded by Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada. Four years later, Porfirio Díaz toppled Lerdo from power and began a thirty-year authoritarian regime known as the Porfiriato.
In order to bring Mexico into the twentieth century, Díaz had opened the doors of his country to foreign investors and through them came the Guggenheims, Hearsts, and Rockefellers, Standard Oil and Phelps Dodge, and hundreds of other, smaller land speculators, wildcatters, miners, ranchers, and farmers. The Americans built railroads and sank mine shafts, the Spaniards opened small retail shops, and the French established factories and banks. Vast cattle ranches emerged along the northern tier of states, and huge farms devoted to single crops such as sugar, cacao, coffee, and rubber were carved from the tropical lowlands. For his efforts, Díaz garnered admiration from industrialists, politicians, and even great literary figures, such as Leo Tolstoy.
His popularity was greatest in Mexico City, where wealthy foreigners and daughters and wives of native hacendados lived in walled compounds fragrant with roses, bougainvillea, and hibiscus. The melancholy cries of tamale women and scissors grinders dropped like birdsong into the somnolent quiet of late afternoons, and in the distant recesses of the lovely old homes, legions of cooks and nannies and cleaning girls worked soundlessly, faceless and nameless to the lady of the house. With its colonial languor and lingering Victorian mannerisms, Mexico City seemed like a metropolis enclosed in a shining glass bubble, drifting in its own time. Wearing Paris gowns, London-made tuxedos, or hand-sewn lace, the wealthy shuttled to luncheons and teas and dinner parties in horse-drawn carriages and chauffeur-driven cars. They went horseback riding in Chapultepec Park, organized group outings to the floating gardens of Xochimilco, and in the evenings flocked to the opera.
Pouring through their salon windows was a golden sunlight that made everything seem like a dream. So dreaming, the wealthy foreigners and their Mexican friends failed to see the horrors in their midst: the women crouching behind the waiting carriages picking undigested corn kernels from horse manure; the press gangs who snatched husbands and sons and young girls off the street, the men destined for the army and the women for gunpowder factories; the tubercular Indians who clogged the charity wards and were fodder for medical experiments; the political victims of the firing squads, who spun on their heels in the liquid light, the bullets turning them round and round until they collapsed in front of adobe walls stained dark with old blood.
The modernization and prosperity that Díaz had presided over caused grave dislocation among the country’s peasants, factory workers, and even Mexico’s elite ruling class. By the time the Mexican Revolution erupted, foreigners controlled most of the country’s vast natural resources, its railroads and businesses.