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date: 25 September 2017

Railroads and the Mexican Imagination during the Porfiriato and Revolution

Summary and Keywords

Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, the Mexican populace demonstrated a fascination with the nation’s railroads. Newspapers, literature, poetry, music, and art focused their attention on the symbolic power of the locomotive, revealing its capacity to reshape people’s social and cultural worlds. As the most potent symbol of progress and civilization, the arrival of the iron horse offered both powerholders and ordinary individuals the opportunity to imagine new possibilities for their nation and themselves, musings that could be highly optimistic or dreadfully distrustful. The locomotive emerged as a ubiquitous symbol throughout the restored republic (1867–1876), the Porfiriato (1876–1911), and the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) that inspired individuals to reflect on the meaning of an array of issues: modernization, cosmopolitanism, citizenship, sovereignty, and national identity. During the restored republic and Porfiriato, government officials and the press celebrated the railway as the dawning of new age of peace and prosperity, discourses that often sought to legitimize and justify sitting presidents and their policymaking. At the same time, popular and opposition groups used the symbolic power of the railway to question the decision-making of the elite that had resulted in extreme social inequality and foreign economic domination. These divisions were a portent of the conflicts that would spark the 1910 Revolution, a popular struggle where railroads and railway workers played principal protagonists. As such, the railroad emerged in a new context as a symbol to represent the heroism, violence, and disorder of those years.

Keywords: railroads, modernity, corridos, gender, travel literature, railroad accidents, railroad workers, Porfiriato, Mexican Revolution

The Early Years of Railroad Development

The construction and completion of a nationwide railroad system captured the Mexican imagination. Lagging behind its regional neighbors in railway development and, since its 1821 independence, suffering a turbulent half century of political turmoil and economic stagnation, Mexico seemed on the brink of a new era of promise and possibility with the arrival of the iron horse. Successive governments starting in 1837 promoted railroad development to varying degrees and with little success. Promoters sought to link Mexico City and Veracruz, an important colonial trading route, as well as to build a route that would connect both oceans, most often envisioned as a trans-Isthmus line. Yet war between liberals and conservatives, two foreign invasions, and perpetual bankruptcy undermined the government’s capacity to administer taxes or offer concessions and subsidies. Periodic attempts at concessions and construction took place under a number of different administrations, including Anastasio Bustamante, Antonio López de Santa Anna, Benito Juárez, and Emperor Maximilian I, finally culminating in the 1873 inauguration of the Ferrocarril Mexicano (during the presidency of Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada) that connected Mexico City to Veracruz.

Few, and only recent, studies have begun to consider how government railway policy and the arrival of the locomotive opened new worlds of possibility and experience for ordinary people. These studies in the social and cultural history of railroad development have demonstrated a divide between their findings and those of economic and political histories. Economic and political histories of Porfirian railroad development have generally characterized the government’s railway program as undermining national sovereignty and the development of local markets and industry.1 Benefiting foreign interests and the export sector, its expansion came at the expense of the indigenous, agrarian, and labor sectors. More recent revisionist studies have questioned these conclusions. New research has challenged dependency models that emphasized how the economic imperialism of foreign interests promoted a pattern of development that grew the industrial centers and markets of the United States and Great Britain, not those of Mexico. These studies have also argued that the need to modernize their economy and integrate their nation into the global market demanded that Mexican leaders, in the face of limited choices and limited capital, took advantage of the unique opportunity offered by foreign investment to revive the economy and promote material progress.2 Sandra Kuntz-Ficker’s research has demonstrated that foreign-owned railways nevertheless contributed to developing local markets and a dynamic internal economy.3 These revisionist studies have made compelling, well-evidenced arguments for the rethinking of Porfirian policymaking, national sovereignty, and the economic impact of the railroad. Yet their conclusions stand in sharp contrast to the popular perception of the regime’s railway program (i.e., how Mexicans imagined the railroad) as revealed across a wide variety of cultural venues that targeted male and female, religious and secular, and popular and elite audiences.

Railroads as Contentious Symbols of Progress

Even before the completion of Mexico’s first major railroad line, politicians and pundits had dreamed about the arrival of the iron horse as a cure-all for the country’s financial and political woes as well as a tool that would modernize the nation and its people, acting as a powerful civilizing agent. In 1867, Manuel Zamacona, the former minister of foreign relations under Benito Juárez, prophesized that the construction of railways would “resolve all the political, social, and economic questions that patriotism, self-sacrifice, and the blood of two generations had failed to do.”4 Zamacona was not alone in his enthusiasm. Many newspapers of the era agreed. Among them, El Diario Oficial, at the 1869 inauguration of a rail line between Apizaco and Puebla, boasted that the sound of the locomotive’s whistle “did not signify war and extermination as in the past but gave homage to peace and progress, two conditions befitting any civilized nations.”5 Indeed, the anticipation of railway development—and its transformative potential—inspired a generation of liberals to such a degree that the supporters of future president Porfirio Díaz named their porfirista newspaper El Ferrocarrilero (the Railroader), published between 1867 and 1872, to denote their candidate’s modernizing agenda.6

Yet for other politicians, railway concessions were more the stuff of nightmares. During the presidency of Lerdo de Tejada (1872–1876) and the first presidential term of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1880), a lively, contentious debate emerged in the Congress about the dangers of relying too heavily on U.S. investment and of building a north–south line that would connect Mexico and the United States. The presidency of Lerdo de Tejada was dogged by differences in how railway development should be accomplished. The Congress opposed too much U.S. investment, while at the same time, the lack of domestic private capital and an inability to access European investment until the nation’s debt problems had been resolved undermined the administration’s capacity to promote a successful railroad development program. The slow pace of railway concessions during the Lerdo de Tejada administration promoted a memory of the president as distrusting of U.S. investment. The Porfirian pundit and politician, Francisco Bulnes, used Lerdo de Tejada’s 1889 funeral to further promote that memory, delivering a eulogy claiming that his failures in securing railway development represented the primary justifications for his ouster by Díaz’s Revolution of Tuxtepec.7

That debate further intensified when the Díaz administration courted U.S. investors to build what would become the nation’s two largest and most powerful railway companies: the Mexican Central Railroad (connecting Mexico City to El Paso, Texas) and the Mexican National Railroad (connecting Mexico City to Laredo, Texas). Nationalistic congressmen, with the memories of the U.S.–Mexico War (1846–1848) still fresh in their minds, opposed efforts to grant concessions to American railway promoters, arguing that they would put in peril the country’s territorial integrity and national autonomy. Congressmen such as Felipe Buenrostro and Alfredo Chavero feared the imperial ambitions of the United States would, at best, lead to an economic invasion of the country or, at worst, an outright military takeover. Chavero encapsulated the concerns of many politicians when he clamored to his fellow congressmen that he preferred “an improvised liberty over an opulent subjugation” (p. 39). Newspapers of the era shared similar anxieties. Among them, El Monitor Republicano and El Express Mercantil Mexicano both argued that the government should first construct an east-west line that connected both oceans to mitigate “filibustering ambitions of the ogre to the North.”8

Railroad Art and Literature

The railroad emerged as a ubiquitous symbol across a wide array of Porfirian cultural productions from high art and literature to the broadsheets, music, and penny presses of the popular classes. It offered elite artists, publicists, and writers who supported the Porfirian regime and its modernizing policies a powerful symbol to represent the progress their nation achieved to both domestic and international audiences. José María Velasco, the renowned 19th-century artist, began incorporating railroads into his landscape paintings in 1869. The government displayed works such Puente Curvo del Ferrocarril Mexicano en la Cañada de Metlac (1881) and two paintings titled Cañada de Metlac (1881 and 1897) at World’s Fairs in Paris in 1889 and 1900. The paintings celebrated the engineering feats accomplished to construct the Mexico–Veracruz Railroad across the nation’s rugged, mountainous terrain while simultaneously emphasizing how the steel tracks and locomotive had tamed a once-wild landscape, providing an unmatched symbol of progress.9

Poets used the railway to highlight similar themes in their writings, produced for readers of expensive periodicals, individuals invested in the government’s program of material and cosmopolitan progress. Especially during the early years of development when the nation frequently celebrated inaugural railway runs and its arrival to towns and cities across the country, scores of poets—both professional and amateur—took pen to paper inspired by the limitless possibilities rail seemed to offer, making it a ubiquitous subject of poetry found across the periodicals of the day. Poetry represented an especially popular medium of communication during the Porfiriato as both the era’s highest form of artistic expression but also as the barometer of individual and collective sensibilities.10 Rafael Reyes Spíndola’s El Mundo (Semanario Ilustrado) regularly published poems that served as paeans to government policymaking. One such sonnet, published in 1894, “La locomotora,” proclaimed that the “wings” of the iron horse “carried the fertile seeds/Of industry, of art, of progress . . ./ And made way for the breath of God that drove the world forward.”11 But it was not only the periodicals targeted at wealthy men that celebrated the arrival of the railroad. Women’s and working-class periodicals likewise found inspiration in the railway’s revitalizing and utopian potential.

Las Violetas del Anáhuac, a women’s weekly of the Porfiriato edited by Laureana Wright de Kleinhans, provided readers with content focused on the nation’s growing transportation system. Along with travel writings and discussions of the government’s success at railway policy, the periodical offered verses dedicated to the iron horse, including one poem about the arrival of the railroad in Guadalajara. In an 1888 issue, Rosa Navarro offered a highly emotional, intimate description of her encounter with the locomotive. She underscored the emotional impact of seeing a train in her city for the first time. She described her encounter in romantic terms, evoking an emotional connection between herself and the locomotive: “I longed to see you here/ So ardent was the desire,/ That today I see you in my home/I am dreaming again . . . !” The poet went on to hail the hope shared by the residents of the city who, as she claimed, were enthusiastic for the promise of “progress, welfare, and peace.”12 These kinds of emotional expression provided a counterpoint to the often cold, scientific discourses that most often characterized the discussions of railroad development, allowing women to participate by emphasizing a more subjective, sentimental side of modernization, an approach that allowed female writers to engage in discussions of technology, material progress, and civic engagement instead of only motherhood.13

Not all elite discussion regarding the railway’s capacity to remake society were so glowing. And not all appreciated the newfound opportunities that railway travel offered women. Periodicals targeted to middle- and upper-class audiences made known new anxieties about women traveling alone in railroad cars. Stories, cartoons, and comics published in these venues often repeated the theme that locomotive travel allowed men and women (especially men) the opportunity to undertake acts of sexual wantonness and fleeting romances. The darkness and discretion of the tunnel, in particular, offered writers a convenient trope with which to highlight such themes. Some were lighthearted. A fictional account published in 1896 in La Crónica Mexicana featured two men discussing the respective pleasures between stagecoach and locomotive travel. When one gentlemen told the other that he missed stagecoach travel because of the close quarters in which men and women were forced to travel and the “inevitable and regular contact” made possible by the coach’s “constant gyrations,” his companion responded that the train offered similar enjoyment and that “in the end, there are tunnels . . . and there can be acts of foolishness committed without risk, acts that in the stagecoach would have come at a cost.”14 Likewise, a cartoon published in an 1898 issue of El Mundo Cómico titled “In the Train” showed an upper-class male railway traveler making sexual advances to the well-dressed women sitting next to him (see Figure 1). To which she replied: “Hands to yourself friend, at least wait until we reach the next tunnel.”15

Railroads and the Mexican Imagination during the Porfiriato and RevolutionClick to view larger

Figure 1. In the train. “Hands to yourself, friend, at least wait until we reach the first tunnel.” El Mundo Cómico, May 29, 1898.

As the targets of men’s sexual advances, women could see railway travel jeopardize their respectability, a fear that reinforced a belief that virtuous women did not travel alone. Similarly, these descriptions of the sexual freedom the railway seemed to make possible often took on dark tones when women and girls were those who experienced a sexual awakening. Stories published in elite journals often portrayed women traveling alone as dangerous and immoral.16 Young women and girls, at the same time, could be the victims of a premature sexual awaking from either traveling to new cities and meeting licentious young men or from the very speed of the locomotive that appeared to accelerate not only conventional time but also personal time.17

Railroad Inaugurations and Tourism

The inaugurations of new railroad lines across the nation were well-attended events that generated enormous enthusiasm among ordinary citizens. As such, government officials took advantage of these events to commemorate national icons, promote civic values, and legitimate the governing regimes that made such events possible. The 1869 inauguration of the line between Mexico City and Puebla allowed the Juárez government to undertake a striking revival of the nation’s independence holiday that occurred on September 16. National leaders and their guests departed from the capital’s Buenavista Station to throngs of crowds who lined the route, seeking a glimpse of the steam-powered locomotive—and its powerful passengers—reflecting the hierarchy of the governing regime. The event featured music, dancing, dinners, and patriotic speeches, in both Mexico City and Puebla, highlighting the values and successes of the restored republic in the years immediately after the expulsion of the French: political stability as demonstrated by onetime political opponents who now reveled together and material progress demonstrated by the technology of steam and steel. Officials also made known their political predilections by what was not included in the festivities. By excluding military representatives from the official delegation, Juárez illustrated his commitment to civilian rule.18 Three years later, a railway inauguration between Apizaco and Puebla had president Lerdo de Tejada riding in the same coach used as Juárez, a choice that offered his administration an opportunity to promote similarly didactic themes and that generated similar popular enthusiasm.19

The Porfirian government continued and expanded the practice of using railway inaugurations—and other celebrations that featured the locomotive—as moments for putting forward didactic messages about national progress, proper civic values, and government accomplishments, especially the securing of the regime’s mantra of “order and progress.” Throughout the Porfiriato, railway inauguration ceremonies shared several similarities: speeches that lauded Díaz’s leadership and accomplishments, gala dinners and dances that flaunted the cosmopolitan tastes and mores of the elite, and didactic cultural imagery depicting how transportation development linked the nation’s people into a happy, unified family with a singular national identity. These events also often featured civic processions that mimicked colonial religious processions to celebrate new values of work ethic, social order, and material progress.20 For example, at the 1888 inauguration of the Mexican National Railroad in San Luis Potosí, leaders organized a civic procession from the railway station to the town’s Alameda, drawing connections between the state and modernization. The choice of participants, for another procession a day later, revealed further the values aspired to by elite Porfirians. Representatives of foreign colonies and commercial, industrial, and scientific associations, the symbolic arrangement reflected an emphasis on the importance of foreign participation and leadership in the most essential sectors of national development.21 Yet not all sectors of society were so elated at the government’s pageantry. Opposition newspapers such as El Hijo del Ahuizote used the inauguration ceremonies to mock the elite’s aping of European culture, as well as their ostentation, pomp, and avarice.22

Despite the often heavy-handed attempts by the government to use inauguration ceremonies to drum up popular enthusiasm for modernizing projects and to encourage a sense of national unity, the arrival of railways did inspire people to travel and tourism. For example, in 1888, one newspaper wrote that Mexico City had not celebrated the Day of the Dead with its usual fervor as many residents had traveled to San Luis Potosí to celebrate the inauguration of the Mexican National Railroad.23 Moreover, as Sergio Ortiz Hernán demonstrates, during the 1870s and 1880s, a tourism boom took place as a result of railway construction and the affordable ticket prices offered by recreational trains (trenes de recreo) that shuttled people to religious festivities and national attractions. While passenger rates continued to fall during the Porfiriato, most Mexicans could not afford to travel; even third-class tickets remained prohibitively pricey.24 Nevertheless, third-class travelers made up the majority (between 66 and 76 percent) of passenger traffic.25

The newfound ease in travel that allowed people to crisscross their nation like never before was chronicled in the rise of locomotive travel literature. Journals and newspapers, especially those in Mexico City, reported the adventures of correspondents who traveled across the country, sharing with readers the diverse locales, customs, peoples, and natural wonders of Mexico. These reports helped to craft, for literate Mexicans, a growing sense of national identity as these narratives introduced readers to the remotest corners of their country and worked to promote a more tangible sense of the people and places that constituted Mexico. At the same time, people’s increased mobility allowed provincial tourists to visit their capital city. This development spurred a new genre of comic narratives found in the newspapers and magazines of Mexico City. Cartoons, poems, and stories provided fictional accounts of rural visitors to the city unprepared for the demands of modern city life. They often depicted rural travelers as provincial yokels incapable of understanding modern marvels like industrial travel and electric light or as gullible rubes made victims by unscrupulous city-dwellers eager to cheat them of their money. These kinds of narratives inspired by railway tourism revealed how urban writers identified themselves as the vanguards of progress in contrast to rural folk not yet in tune with the changes wrought by modernization. In this regard, Porfirian railway development accentuated the imagined divide between the capital city and the provinces, and their social and cultural differences, while it limited the spatial and temporal distance between them.26

Railroads and Society

As officials organized railway inaugurations in a manner that sought to shape Mexicans’ imaginings about their nation’s bright future and the government that made it possible, the early years of railroad development revealed that ordinary citizens viewed the locomotive’s arrival as offering both problems and possibilities. The initial surveying of routes and construction of tracks generated violent opposition among some rural people. John Coatsworth argues that the speculation, land-grabbing, and impact on local markets spurred by transportation development left peasant and indigenous populations vulnerable to property assaults by Mexican and foreign investors. He mapped fifty-five rural uprisings between 1877 and 1884 that took place within twenty kilometers of either side of laid tracks and projected routes.27 Like Coatsworth, scholars have tended to depict railway development in a manner that emphasized its negative impact on rural communities, serving as an agent of imperialism that benefited commercial interests while disrupting or displacing agrarian people and undermining the growth of local markets.28 Yet new, revisionist studies have tempered these assessments by demonstrating that the government’s transportation project opened up new worlds of possibility for ordinary citizens, especially in regards to work, residency, and movement.

Examining railroad development in Veracruz and Oaxaca during the Porfiriato, Teresa Van Hoy challenged the overwhelmingly negative characterization of the railway’s effect on rural communities. Her research found that railway promoters needed to foster cordial relations with local communities in order to avoid the sabotage of railway property and construction. She claimed that companies also needed to provide workers with decent wages and working conditions in order to maintain the labor force and cooperation of local residents who often provided key resources.29 Rather than represent a dark force of modernization thrust upon pre-industrial peoples, Van Hoy showed that local residents who occupied lands where the construction of the Veracruz-Perote, Córdoba-Huatusco, and Tehuantepec railroads took place negotiated fair prices for the their land; received fair compensation for their labor; and gained access to new, vital services such as water, sewer, electricity, and drainage, all of which improved their quality of life. For example, residents were able to negotiate inflated prices for their properties, especially when they could demonstrate proof that improvements—such as thatched roofs or cactus fences—had been made on their lands.30 Through their negotiations with both railway companies and the government, ordinary people transformed authoritarian policies into more democratic processes that allowed them autonomy and enabled them to articulate their rights to citizenship and political participation.31 People’s understanding of the railway as offering opportunity for material improvement and political incorporation reflected the promises often made by policymakers about the need for the railway as a modernizing and civilizing project. The railroad represented an important tool in nation-building and for developing networks of patronage to reinforce rule. Taking seriously the government’s belief that the locomotive forged a path to civilization, citizens gained leverage in their negotiations with state and business officials. Overt uses of state violence to promote development would have belied the lofty claims of politicians.32 As both the social histories of Coatsworth and Van Hoy indicate, the arrival of the iron horse forced individuals to imagine the future possibilities—both positive and negative—that the regime’s modernizing vision might bring. For some, this represented an unwanted intrusion onto their traditional system of landholding. For others, it offered novel prospects, allowing them to sell their lands, earn wages, and even use the newfound speed and scale of movement offered by the rails to seek out new prospects elsewhere.

In some regions of Mexico, as Alan Knight has pointed out, the railway offered new opportunities for economic revival for large landowners and rancheros. The arrival of the locomotive spurred the development of local economies that took advantage of modern transportation to connect to both national and foreign markets by producing cotton, wool, leather, fruit, sugar, and cattle.33 Likewise, the pulque producers of central Mexico hoped that railway expansion would create new opportunities and help ease the problem of overproduction as the Mexico City market was saturated and pulque prices had plummeted.34 And while railroad development in places such as Puebla and Veracruz increasingly tied urban centers to domestic and international markets, spurring new industries and commercial development, it more often increased people’s poverty rather than eliminated it.35

Other communities suffered as a result of government railway policies, especially the land laws of 1883 and 1894 that allowed surveying companies to receive one-third of the lands they surveyed, unleashing an unprecedented speculation that drastically raised property values and concentrated land ownership. Remote regions, historically isolated and holding less valuable lands, fared better in the face of encroachments by railway companies and the state.36 Communities in Central Mexico, where state power was more developed and where agriculture was more integrated to the export economy, experienced more of the railway’s negative impact and, not surprisingly, witnessed more incidents of violent confrontation.37 The social impact of the railway, then, was uneven. Transportation development represented new opportunities and dead ends depending on how individuals adapted to the locomotive’s arrival, outcomes determined by their location and financial resources. Especially in those regions where rail most negatively affected livelihoods, agrarian resentment and resistance would later be channeled into swelling the ranks of the Revolution’s rebel armies.38

Railroad Accidents

By the 1890s, cultural productions reflected a growing disillusionment and became increasingly negative in their portrayals of the railroad, both in terms of its utopian promises and those of the Porfirian government that had so often used it to legitimize their authority and policymaking. Popular art, poetry, music, and stories published in penny presses and journals targeted at middle-class audiences began to question the locomotive’s positive impact on daily life as well as the government’s policymaking decisions related to transportation development. Indeed, death became a prominent theme in representations of railway travel as the rapid changes spurred by modernization seemed to hurry people toward death.39 Railroad accidents during the Porfiriato, and Mexico’s seemingly high accident rate compared to other nations, emerged as a reoccurring topic in popular culture. Accounts of crashing trains, twisted iron, and mangled bodies never failed to find narrators eager to tell the story and audiences who would listen. A series of locomotive accidents revealed people’s apprehension about the technological changes offered by modernization as well as growing concerns about the foreign-owned and operated network.40

In the early years of railway development, most newspapers gave companies the benefit of the doubt, ascribing the accidents to provisional equipment, bad weather, or topographic challenges, if they discussed the accidents at all. Even the horrific 1881 Morelos railway wreck that claimed an estimated 260 lives received little coverage in the press. But as accidents in the 1880s and 1890s became more frequent and their coverage in the press and their discussion in popular culture venues more common, fueling an anti-foreign public sentiment that chastised both railway companies and the national government’s transportation policy. In particular, the issue of the indemnification of Mexican accident victims received considerable press coverage and public debate. The 1895 wreck near Temamatla, Mexico, that carried sightseers and religious pilgrims back to Mexico City from the Shrine of Sacromonte killed well over 100 people and gave rise to public clamoring for the financial compensation of victims and their families. The accident crystalized a number of issues because the foreign-owned Interoceanic railway company refused to compensate victims, the U.S. engineer was allegedly drunk, and the majority of the dead were third-class travelers. Aside from receiving a great deal of press coverage, the Temamatla wreck inspired corridos (popular ballads), tales, and artwork. Indeed, the wreck had become so ubiquitous a symbol that the word “Temamatla” became synonymous with accidents and “temamatlazo” was used as a noun meaning “train wreck” in the working-class and penny-presses for years after.41 In the wake of Temamatla, various sectors of the press pushed for greater government oversight in the operation and regulation of the railway and called for officials to institute new indemnification laws—as had been introduced in England, France, and the United States—that would hold railway companies accountable to their accident victims.42

Along with the issue of compensation, the railway network’s foreign (mainly American) operators enflamed public sentiment. Journalists and pundits most often accused them of drinking on the job, driving too fast, failing to learn Spanish, and treating Mexican travelers rudely. Images of inept or reckless railway employees filled the pages of anti-government newspapers and the penny press (see Figure 2).

Railroads and the Mexican Imagination during the Porfiriato and RevolutionClick to view larger

Figure 2. La mi non tende. El Hijo de Ahuizote, March 17, 1895.

These representations shaped people’s perceptions as local officials and police often arrested foreign railway operators, even in cases where no crime was committed. Engineer James Nuffer of the Temamatla wreck, for example, immediately fled the country after the accident. An international incident took place between the United States and Mexico when the U.S. secretary of state, Elihu Root, intervened on behalf of Americans working for the Sonora Railway Company. He complained that local Mexican officials, in three separate cases between 1904 and 1906, had arrested U.S. employees for accidents in which they were not at fault.43 These incidents exposed a growing hostility toward American railway men among public officials and the press, even if at times their wrongdoings were more imagined than real.

Railroad Music

Music represented an important medium in which the railroad featured prominently as a symbol, both positive and negative. Writers and musicians chose topics related to railway travel and railway development that they felt would resonate with paying audiences. While government officials and boosters used the railway symbolically in statecraft to celebrate the accomplishments and legitimize sitting presidents, popular groups likewise found opportunities to express their views on transportation development and how it affected their lives. Corridos about railroads published in broadsheets or in the penny presses focused on a variety of topics that highlighted how ordinary individuals experienced railroad development: the awe at its arrival, the new opportunities for travel, the high cost of tickets, the dangers of wrecks, and the foreigners who often manned the machines. These songs performed at social gatherings allowed people the chance to engage as active participants or engaged listeners. In contrast to elite publications that celebrated the utopian potential of the locomotive, popular music revealed a greater sense of skepticism while nevertheless expressing a feeling of excitement.44

A strong sense of nationalism permeated the popular ballads known as “canciones ferrocarrileros,” especially during the waning years of the Porfiriato and the early revolutionary era. Songs often depicted the sacrifice and heroism of Mexicans, images that stood in stark contrast to the characterization of U.S. engineers, conductors, and companies who seemed unconcerned with people’s safety and who treated passengers rudely. For instance, two ballads written about the tragedy of the 1895 Temamatla wreck placed the blame on negligent U.S. operators while commending the doctors and soldiers who responded to the accident and tended to the victims.45 Likewise, the songs “Corrido de Jesús García” and “Máquina 501” retold the tale of the Sonoran brakeman, García, who in 1907 sacrificed his own life to prevent a train carrying dynamite from exploding near the town of Nacozari, Sonora.46 These ballads served as a corrective to what many Mexicans felt had been the betrayal of their country to foreign interests by Porfirian policymakers. Indeed, the selfless, patriotic actions of García were commemorated in “El Dia del Ferrocarrilero,” a celebration first organized by railway workers in the 1930s and then officially recognized by the revolutionary government in 1944.

No ballad made this sentiment more obvious than the “Corrido de Ultratumba” published in the penny press newspaper El Diablito Rojo in 1908. The song made sharp criticism of both the national government and the “gringos” who owned and operated the line. The anonymous account narrated the fatal run of train carrying religious pilgrims returning to Veracruz after a two-day celebration at Mexico City’s Virgin of Guadalupe shrine. The train experienced a minor collision with an oncoming locomotive that caused a valve to leak fatal steam into a third-class compartment, killing thirty-six passengers. The song blamed the American company that “washed its hands when it killed” and that screamed “no way!” when victims sought compensation, contending that the government applauded their negligence. The seething nationalism articulated in the song is all the more striking considering that its lyrics did not match the actual tragic events that day. The accident occurred, for example, not on a U.S.-owned train but the Mexican railway, owned by the wealthy Veracruz financier, Antonio Escandón. The song’s accompanying image, by José Guadalupe Posada, showed religious pilgrims violently tossed from the train during a derailment, not the minor collision that set the disastrous event in motion (see Figure 3).

Railroads and the Mexican Imagination during the Porfiriato and RevolutionClick to view larger

Figure 3. José Guadalupe Posada’s “Camino de Ultratumba” (The track from beyond the grave). El Diablito Rojo, May 11, 1908.

The song racialized the railway as “gringo,” revealing the common belief that national transportation development had become a symbol of US-economic control.47

Railroads, Workers, and the Mexican Revolution

The growing anti-government sentiment and percolating nationalism found in the columns and images of the penny press, as well as in the lyrics of popular ballads and poetry, reflected the growing radicalization of the populace more generally. Among those groups, railway workers grew increasingly political and vociferous, undertaking a number of major strikes after 1900, a development that signaled their growing organization. Beyond that, the Mexican railway system was mainly U.S. owned. Rodney Anderson estimates that foreigners comprised 68 percent of the engineers and 86 percent of the conductors, while Mexicans provided the majority of the labor for lesser-paying jobs such as brakemen, firemen, boilermakers, and mechanics.48 Railway workers demonstrated their growing political awakening by their union organization. By 1907, nearly half of all Mexican railway workers belonged to unions, more than in any other industry in the final years of the regime.49 As Robert Alegre notes: “By the early twentieth century, a distinct railway subjectivity had been formed through the everyday actions at work and in neighborhoods.”50 Strikes undertaken by railway men represented a significant factor in the government’s decision to nationalize the Mexican railway system, a project led by Finance Minister José Limantour. Targeting the nation’s U.S.-owned lines, the Díaz administration began purchasing a controlling share of railroad stock, forming the National Railways of Mexico (FNM) in 1908. The FMN curbed the practice of favoring foreign workers and replaced the railway’s English operating language with Spanish. The government’s modest economic nationalism responded to the growing concerns among workers and citizens, albeit too late for the Porfirian regime that would be overthrown just two years later.

Railway workers, known as rieleros, played a central role in the outbreak and process that transformed the political revolution led by Francisco Madero into a social revolution after his assassination. Rieleros, who espoused the most vociferous revolutionary nationalism during the Porfiriato, leveraged their strategic role in the national economy, as well as the railway’s vital importance to revolutionary warfare, into a powerful voice for the working classes. Moreover, rieleros channeled their revolutionary energies into the Red Battalions, military divisions made up of working-class troops who threw their support behind Carranza and then, more influentially, Álvaro Obregón. While most of the revolutionary rank and file was swelled by peasant fighters, the participation of railway men went beyond the battlefield. Their repeated labor union mobilization through work stoppages and strikes that demanded better wages, safer conditions, and fewer work hours placed them “at the center of the revolutionary narrative.”51 Both railway executives and state officials acknowledged rielero contributions to the nation’s revolutionary struggle in public monuments and presidential public addresses. This practice simultaneously romanticized their contributions in popular memory, often to gain their political support for the ruling revolutionary government (Partido Revolucionario Institucional [PRI]), while also promoting a national lore that emphasized their masculine identity, one based on their distinct values of strength, valiance, and independence.52

The 1910 Revolution was fought on the railroads.53 The locomotive thus emerged as a prevalent symbol of that event in people’s memories and imaginings. Especially after the fall of the short-lived president Francisco Madero (1911–1913), when the nation descended into a civil and then guerilla war between the Constitutionalist and Conventionist factions (1915–1920), railroads played a vital role as the arteries of warfare. Moving troops and war materials, photographs and corridos captured the locomotive’s centrality during these years recording the soldiers and soldaderas who rode the rails, who assaulted trains to muster resources and weapons, and who blew up tracks to undermine the supply lines of their enemies. As early as 1911, Zapatista militants in Puebla, for example, targeted the Interoceanic Railroad for repeated attacks because of its strategic and tactical importance to the governments of Victoriano Huerta (1913) and Venustiano Carranza (1914–1920).54 The nation’s railway system suffered from banditry, neglect, train bombings, and track explosions throughout the Revolution, and by 1918, most of the nation’s railways ran slowly and with limited scope.55

No studies have yet been undertaken that examine the cultural history of railways during the Revolution. This represents a lacuna in the field, as a plethora of corridos connected the railroad to revolutionary leaders from the ouster of Porfirio Díaz to the revolutionary presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940). Moreover, artwork, photographs, and postcards make known the ubiquity of the railway in the everyday events of the Revolution and its memory. These songs celebrated the exploits of leaders, bemoaned the tragedies of war, and offered a cathartic release for the troubles faced by ordinary people in a tumultuous time. One early revolutionary corrido, “Corrido del Ataque a la Estación Pedernales, Chihuahua,” recounted a military defeat of Maderista forces led by Pascual Orozco against the federal troops of Díaz. The song branded Díaz as a tyrant seeking to become a king while glorifying Francisco Madero’s hope for liberty.56 Another corrido, “El Descarrilamiento de Rellano,” told about the heroism of Pancho Villa and his loyalty to his troops.57 “Vicam Pueblo” celebrated the cunning of Álvaro Obregón who, after one thousand Yaqui Indians detained his locomotive with the purpose of robbing it, used his silver tongue to stall them until another train with military reinforcements arrived, sending that Yaquis fleeing.58 Other corridos provided less favorable takes on revolutionary leaders. In “Caída de Carranza por el Plan de Agua Prieta,” the songwriter related the downfall of Carranza ousted by Obregón and the Sonoran faction. It recounted how Carranza and one hundred loyal men fled Mexico City by locomotive, absconding with vast sums of gold and silver from the national treasury before being killed by troops loyal to Obregón.59 Songs about revolutionary heroes and villains allowed ordinary Mexicans to participate in mythmaking, forging a common national history that connected people across class and regional divides.

Yet revolutionary railroad corridos did not cover only major battles and political leaders. Most, as during the Porfiriato, retold violent episodes such as bandit attacks and locomotive derailments. The many songs about train wrecks make known the popularity of the topic among singers and audiences. Song such as “El Carpintero,” “Hay que Asaltar un Tren,” “Pillaje,” “La Máquina Loca,” and “La Catástrofe de Oblatos” all emphasized the lawlessness and danger of the revolutionary era. Rather than focus their ire regarding derailments on the American companies and engineers as was common during the Porfiriato, these songs characterized railway banditry and derailments as the difficult realities of a society racked by warfare. Like songs about political leaders and important events, these verses allowed individuals who sang these lyrics or listened to them at public gatherings to share their common history, one that often emphasized the struggles and tragedies that tested people’s fortitude and allowed them to take pride in their capacity to overcome. In short, it allowed Mexicans to imagine multiple meanings of their nation and its history.

Discussion of the Literature

A small number of studies have explored the social and cultural history of Mexican railroads, the two branches of historiography that most commonly seek to understand how the locomotive, and technological progress more generally, shaped people’s worldviews and imaginings. For the social history, Francisco Calderón’s work on railway development during the restored republic and the Porfiriato, published in Daniel Cosío Villegas’s ten-volume magnum opus Historia modern de México continues to offer one of the best examinations of Porfirian railway development. Besides its lengthy political and economic examination, it explores the debates that surrounded the early years of transportation development and its press coverage. Sergio Ortiz Hernán’s two-volume Los ferrocarriles de México: Una vision social y económica offers valuable information on several topics of interest for those studying social and cultural history, including how the railroad spurred tourism, urbanization, corruption, and utopianism during the Porfiriato, as well as its central role in the Revolution.

John Coatsworth’s “Railroads, Landholding, and Agrarian Protest in the Early Porfiriato” offers an early pioneering study that explores rural opposition to railway development between 1877 and 1884. Another valuable work is Arthur Schmidt’s The Social and Economic Effect of the Railroad in Puebla and Veracruz, 1867–1911. It examines the civilizing discourse that surrounded early railway development and how its expansion reshaped the communities and economies of Puebla and Veracruz. More recently, the work of Teresa Van Hoy has presented a revisionist study that challenges the conclusions of scholars such as Coatsworth and Schmidt, especially the often negative discussions about how railway development and government land policy during the Porfiriato affected the lives of ordinary residents of Oaxaca and Veracruz.

So far, two authors have provided the only studies focusing solely on the cultural history of railroads during the Porfiriato. They are Michael Matthews’s The Civilizing Machine: A Cultural History of Mexican Railroads, 1876–1910 and “The Track from Beyond the Grave: Challenges to Porfirian Policymaking in Popular Verse,” published in Mexico in Verse: A History of Music, Rhyme, and Power. These works explore how politicians, pundits, writers, artists, and ordinary people harnessed the symbolic power of the railway in a wide range of cultural productions to either support or challenge the Porfirian regime and its policymaking. Also, Luis Edgardo Coronado Guel’s La alameda potosina ante la llegada del ferrocarril. Espacio, poder e institucionalización de la ciudadanía moderna en San Luis Potosí, 1878–1890 examines the symbolic power of railway inaugurations to inculcate new values that Porfirian officials in San Luis Potosí believed befitted a modern, liberal, and cosmopolitan nation.

No historical literature on the social and cultural history of railroads yet exists for the years of the Revolution. Robert Alegre’s Railroad Radicals: Gender, Class, and Memory in Cold War Mexico explores a number of related issues, although not the central focus of the book. He examines how railway men constructed their work environment as a masculine space and shows that women played a vital role in labor protest. Moreover, he shows how popular memory of the Revolution has placed railway workers as central to that narrative as a result of how politicians, executives, and the railway workers promoted a national lore that tied their values to those of the Revolution.

Primary Sources

Newspapers, penny presses, magazines, broadsheets, and cartoons offer some of the most valuable sources for the social and cultural history of Mexican railroads. The most comprehensive collections of these materials can be found at Hemeroteca Nacional, Universidad Autónoma de México, Mexico City; Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, Mexico City; Centro de Estudios de Historia de México, Condumex, Mexico City; and the Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas, Austin, Texas. The Centro de Documentación e Investigación Ferroviarias in Puebla houses a vast and diverse range of documents related to railway history. Antonio Villegas Arroyo, who often worked with famed print master José Guadalupe Posada, published a number of song books, broadsheets, and comic images that featured or focused solely on the Porfirian railroad. For those interested in oral and visual histories of railway workers after the Revolution, John Mraz’s 1987 documentary film Hecho sobre los rieles: una historia de los ferrocarriles mexicanos represents a valuable resource.

While the documentation that exists on railroad companies’ land acquisitions, worker payrolls, and passenger travel statistics is spotty and uneven, some may be found at the Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico City, especially Gobernacion, Secretaría de Fomento, Secretaría de Communicaiones y Obras Públicas, and Secretaría de Justicia. Moreover, regional archives across Mexico, many of which are yet to be investigated in relation to this topic, offer similar materials.

Popular ballads about railroads in Mexico have been complied by Antonio Avitia Hernández in Canciones and corridos ferrocarrileros as well as Corrido histórico Mexicano: Voy a cantarles la historia. Likewise, Vicente Mendoza’s El corrido Mexicano offers several songs about railways and railway development.

Further Reading

Alegre, Robert F.Railroad Radicals: Gender Class, and Memory in Cold War Mexico. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Calderón, Francisco. “El Ferrocarril Mexicano.” In Historia moderna de México: El República Restaurada, La vida económica. Edited by Daniel Cosío Villegas. México: Editorial Hermes, 1955–1972.Find this resource:

Calderón, Francisco. “Los Ferrocarriles.” In Historia moderna de México: El Porfiriato, La vida económica. Edited by Daniel Cosío Villegas. México: Editorial Hermes, 1955–1972.Find this resource:

Coatsworth, John. “Railroads, Landholding, and Agrarian Protest in the Early Porfiriato.” Hispanic American Historical Review 54.1 (1974): 48–71.Find this resource:

Coronado Guel, Luis Edgardo. La alameda potosina ante la llegada del ferrocarril. Espacio, poder e institucionalización de la ciudadanía moderna en San Luis Potosí, 1878–1890. San Luis Potosí: Editorial Ponciano Arriaga, 2009.Find this resource:

Matthews, Michael. The Civilizing Machine: A Cultural History of Mexican Railroads, 1976–1910. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Matthews, Michael. “The Track from Beyond the Grave: Challenges to Porfirian Policymaking in Popular Verse.” In Mexico in Verse: A History of Music, Rhyme, and Power. Edited by Stephen Neufeld and Michael Matthews. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Ortiz Hernán, Sergio. Los Ferrocarriles de México: una vision social y económica. 2 vols. México: Secretaría de Communicaciones y Transportes, 1970.Find this resource:

Schmidt, Arthur. The Social and Economic Effect of the Railroad in Puebla and Veracruz, Mexico, 1867–1911. New York: Garland, 1987.Find this resource:

Van Hoy, Teresa, The Social History of Mexico’s Railroads: Peons, Prisoners, and Priests. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.Find this resource:


(1.) John Coatsworth, “Railroads, Landholding, and Agrarian Protest in the Early Porfiriato,” Hispanic American Historical Review 54.1 (1974): 48–71; Growth against Development: The Economic Impact of Railroads in Porfirian Mexico (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1981); Stephen Haber, Industry and Underdevelopment: The Industrialization of Mexico, 1890–1940 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989); Rodney Anderson, Outcasts in Their Own Land: Mexican Industrial Workers (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1976), 88–89, 91–92, 215, 236; Ramon Ruíz, The Great Rebellion: Mexico 1905–1923 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1980), 64–66, 88, 95; Mark Wasserman, Capitalists, Caciques, and Revolution: The Native Elite and Foreign Enterprise in Chihuahua, 1854–1911 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 76–77, 98, 108–112, 155; John M. Hart, Revolutionary Mexico: The Coming and Process of the Mexican Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 41–44, 165, 188; Arthur Schmidt, The Social and Economic Effect of the Railroad in Puebla and Veracruz, Mexico, 1867–1911 (New York: Garland, 1987); and Paul Vanderwood, Disorder and Progress (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981), 89.

(2.) Arturo Grunstein, “Railroads and Sovereignty: Policymaking in Porfirian Mexico” (PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1994); Kuntz Ficker, Empresa extrangera y mercado interno: El Ferrocarril Central Mexicano (México: El Colegio de México, 1995); and Sandra Kuntz-Ficker and Paolo Riguzzi, eds., Ferrocarriles y vida económica en México, 1850–1950 (El Colegio de México: Universidad Metropolitana Xochimilco: Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México, 1996).

(3.) Kuntz Ficker, Empresa extrangera.

(4.) Francisco Calderón, “Los Ferrocarriles,” in Historia moderna de México: El Porfiriato, La vida económica, ed. Daniel Cosío Villegas (México: Editorial Hermes, 1955–1972), 7:610.

(5.) Sergio Ortiz Hernán, Los Ferrocarriles de México: una vision social y económica, 2 vols. (México: Secretaría de Communicaciones y Transportes, 1970), 1:114.

(6.) Francisco Calderón, “El Ferrocarril Mexicano,” in Historia moderna de México: El Porfiriato, La vida económica, ed. Daniel Cosío Villegas (México: Editorial Hermes, 1955–1972), 2:612.

(7.) Michael Matthews, The Civilizing Machine: A Cultural History of Mexican Railroads, 1976–1910 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013), 27–28.

(8.) Matthews, The Civilizing Machine, 39.

(9.) Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo, Mexico at the World’s Fairs: Crafting a Modern Nation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 115–116.

(10.) Carlos Monsiváis, Escenas de puder y liviandad, 7th ed. (México: Editorial Grijalbo, 1988), 176.

(11.) Matthews, The Civilizing Machine, 66.

(12.) Matthews, The Civilizing Machine, 63.

(13.) Gabriel Cano, “The Porfiriato and the Mexican Revolution: Constructions of Feminism and Nationalism,” in Nation, Empire, Colony: Historicizing Gender and Race, eds. Ruth Roach Pierson and Nupur Chaudhuri (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 112–113.

(14.) Matthews, The Civilizing Machine, 94.

(15.) Matthews, The Civilizing Machine, 96.

(16.) Matthews, The Civilizing Machine, 90–92.

(17.) Matthews, The Civilizing Machine, 75, 97–98.

(18.) William H. Beezley, Mexican National Identity: Memory, Innuendo, and Popular Culture (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2008), 61–63.

(19.) Ortiz Hernán, Los Ferrocarriles de México, 1:113–114.

(20.) Matthews, The Civilizing Machine, ch. 3.

(21.) Luis Edgardo Coronado Guel., La alameda potosina ante la llegada del ferrocarril. Espacio, poder e institucionalización de la ciudadanía moderna en San Luis Potosí, 1878–1890 (San Luis Potosí: Editorial Ponciano Arriaga, 2009), 231–237.

(22.) Matthews, The Civilizing Machine, 134.

(23.) Matthews, The Civilizing Machine, 121.

(24.) Hernán, Los Ferrocarriles de México, 1:154–157.

(25.) Matthews, The Civilizing Machine, 121.

(26.) Matthews, The Civilizing Machine, 73–78.

(27.) Coatsworth, “Railroads, Landholding, and Agrarian Protest.”

(28.) Gil Joseph, “Caciquismo and the Revolution,” in Caudillo and Peasant in the Mexican Revolution, ed. D. A. Brading (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1980); Schmidt, The Social and Economic Effect of the Railroad in Puebla and Veracruz; Lewis, Iron Horse Imperialism: The Southern Pacific of Mexico, 1880–1951; Leticia Reina, ed., Economía contra sociedad: El Istmo de Tehuantepec, 1907–1986 (México: Nueva Imagen, 1994); Hart, Revolutionary Mexico; and Anderson, Outcasts in Their Own Land.

(29.) Teresa Van Hoy, The Social History of Mexico’s Railroads: Peons, Prisoners, and Priests (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), xx–xxi.

(30.) Van Hoy, The Social History of Mexico’s Railroads, 23–25.

(31.) Van Hoy, The Social History of Mexico’s Railroads.

(32.) Van Hoy, The Social History of Mexico’s Railroads, xxi.

(33.) Alan Knight, The Mexican Revolution, 2 vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 1:81.

(34.) Schmidt, The Social and Economic Effect of the Railroad in Puebla and Veracruz, 15–17.

(35.) Schmidt, The Social and Economic Effect of the Railroad in Puebla and Veracruz, 77.

(36.) Knight, The Mexican Revolution, 1:94–95.

(37.) Coatsworth, “Landholding and Agrarian Protest.”

(38.) Knight, The Mexican Revolution, 1:108, 128.

(39.) Claudio Lomnitz, Death and the Idea of Mexico (New York: Zone Books, 2005), 381.

(40.) Matthews, The Civilizing Machine, ch. 4.

(41.) Matthews, The Civilizing Machine, 152.

(42.) Matthews, The Civilizing Machine, 163.

(43.) Matthews, The Civilizing Machine, 175–176.

(44.) Michael Matthews, “The Track from Beyond the Grave: Challenges to Porfirian Policymaking in Popular Verse,” in Mexico in Verse: A History of Music, Rhyme, and Power, eds. Stephen Neufeld and Michael Matthews (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2015), 110–111.

(45.) Matthews, “The Track from Beyond the Grave,” 120.

(46.) Antonio Avitia Hernández, ed., Canciones and corridos ferrocarrileros (Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México, 1987), 23–25; and Robert F. Alegre, Railroad Radicals: Gender Class, and Memory in Cold War Mexico (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013), 35.

(47.) Matthews, “The Track from Beyond the Grave,” 132–134.

(48.) Anderson, Outcasts in Their Own Land, 89–90.

(49.) Anderson, Outcasts in Their Own Land, 92.

(50.) Alegre, Railroad Radicals, 27.

(51.) Alegre, Railroad Radicals, 30.

(52.) Alegre, Railroad Radicals, 30–31.

(53.) Ortiz Hernán, Los Ferrocarriles de México, 2:66–78.

(54.) Hernán, Los Ferrocarriles de México, 68–69; and John Womack Jr., Zapata and the Mexican Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1968), 76.

(55.) Knight, The Mexican Revolution, 2:407.

(56.) Hernández, Canciones and corridos ferrocarrileros, 27–28.

(57.) Hernández, Canciones and corridos ferrocarrileros, 35–36.

(58.) Hernández, Canciones and corridos ferrocarrileros, 46–47.

(59.) Hernández, Canciones and corridos ferrocarrileros, 39–40.