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A New Factor in American Destiny: Visions of Porfirio Díaz and the Politics of “Logical Paternalism”

Abstract

This essay interprets American representations of dictator Porfirio Díaz in relation to the “economic conquest” of Mexico that took place during his long rule (1876–1911, a period known as the “Porfiriato,” in which Americans invested more than $1 billion). No single person inspired as much attention from travelers, reporters, and photographers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as Díaz, and their visions of the President helped to shape perceptions of Mexico as a desirable field in which to expand US capitalism and influence. Travelers clamored to meet him and his sophisticated young wife, and their travelogues were rich with descriptions of such encounters. Reporters, dazzled by the rapid transformation of Mexico during his 35-year rule, described Díaz in such terms as “the Mexican Wizard” and “the maker of modern Mexico” until the very end of his regime. Photographers, working in a relatively new medium, amassed a huge body of works devoted to the dictator; even at an advanced age late in his rule, the President’s image adorned postcards and commemorative cartes-de-visite that posited him in heroic and hypermasculine terms (not unlike those of his US counterpart, Theodore Roosevelt). Ultimately, this essay argues that representations like these reflected American desires for a Mexican body politic that was amenable to economic and social transformation under the inextricable banners of “progress” and US capitalism. Prevailing images of Díaz and his family suggested that Mexico was as friendly to foreign investors as it was to foreign visitors.

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