Indigenous Autocracy
Power, Race, and Resources in Porfirian Tlaxcala, Mexico
Jaclyn Ann Sumner



On December 11, 1901, the Minister of Foreign Relations (Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores) in Mexico City received an angry plea from the Minister of France in Mexico. The French minister was writing on behalf of Clement Manuel, a French citizen who owned a hacienda (estate) in the small central province of Tlaxcala, among other properties in Mexico.1 Manuel had fled his hacienda in Tlaxcala after the governor there, Próspero Cahuantzi, ordered the district judge to charge Manuel with “kidnapping.” According to the arrest warrant, Manuel had detained a worker whom he caught stealing tools and sacks of wool from a storehouse on his property. The French minister pleaded with the Mexican Minister of Foreign Relations to “urgently intervene” in the matter and to “suspend” the warrant to arrest Manuel, which, the minister insisted, was the result of one worker’s “simple complaint.”2

Witness testimonies bely the French minister’s facile explanation of what transpired that December day. Witnesses, including workers and the governor, Cahuantzi, explained how Manuel had been using “degrading methods” on his workers, that he had “mistreated” them, and that his “behavior” was “irregular.”3 The worker whom Manuel accused of robbery, Juan González, was a shepherd from the nearby village of Tocatlán, one of numerous vecinos (residents) from Tocatlán who Manuel insisted had been stealing from his hacienda for years. This time, it appeared that Manuel was determined to hold González, “a resentful Indian,” and Tocatlán residents, “his clear enemies,” accountable.4 In González’s testimony, he described how Manuel pressed a “gun against his chest” while threatening to shoot if González did not “confess the truth.”5 After refusing to confess, the hacendado locked González in a storehouse. Sometime in the middle of the night, the purported thief escaped. Bypassing the district judge and the prefecto político (district boss), González went directly to the governor to tell him what happened. Manuel also fled, absconding to Mexico City, per his lawyer’s advice, until “the situation was sorted out.”6 It was good for Manuel that he left. The next morning, the prefecto político, members of the local constabulary (rurales), and some twenty Tocatlán residents, showed up on Manuel’s property to arrest him.7

Manuel believed he knew why Governor Cahuantzi took the worker’s word over his own. Cahuantzi accused Manuel of failing to pay off his peons’ debts to the estate owners who previously employed them, as was customary in Tlaxcala. Manuel denied these charges. He further insisted how Cahuantzi “favors the indigenous race and believes whatever they tell him, [and he] does not care when these persons violate the laws.”8 He continued, “all of the sensible people in the state [of Tlaxcala] are aware [of the] great fondness the governor has for indians [sic] and their bad inclinations.”9 In his letter to the Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs, the French minister alluded to previous “complaints” that had been “brought to his attention” about the “attitude of the Governor of Tlaxcala.”10 He suggested to “your excellency [the Minister of Foreign Affairs]” that he attend to these.11 In light of the preeminent social Darwinism of the era, the xenophobia the French hacendado exhibited toward Indigenous peoples was hardly shocking. And yet some of those who Manuel thought of as “Indians” with “bad inclinations” likely disagreed with the Frenchman’s assessment that the governor somehow preferred them. When small landowners in Tlaxcala, whom Manuel no doubt saw as Indians, protested the governor’s property tax hike in 1897, Cahuantzi threw them in jail. Later, as protests grew more vociferous, the governor had the leader of these protests assassinated. No further information about the incident between Manuel and his workers can be found in the historic record, though Manuel does not appear to have returned to Tlaxcala.

Against the backdrop of early twentieth-century Mexico, the outcome in this case is unusual. During Porfirio Díaz’s nearly continuous reign over Mexico from 1876 to 1911, Díaz and his gubernatorial appointees prioritized development over the rights of the agricultural working majority. Examining the different strategies that Cahuantzi used to endure in office—as this book does—helps to clarify why the governor stood up for local workers’ rights and held a foreign landowner accountable for mistreating his workers. He did so in this case, as well as in others. Some of the strategies Cahuantzi used to rule—patronage, electoral corruption, suppression of dissent—echo countless histories that have been told about the caudillos, caciques, and coronéis (political strongmen) who dominated the political landscape of postindependent Latin America.12 But while Cahuantzi was a strongman appointed by the national dictator, he also used the political tools that were available to him as one of the few governors who had recognizably Indigenous heritage and was native to the state he ruled. Because of his background, Cahuantzi realized that, for both he and Díaz to remain in power, he had to occasionally conciliate, rather than repress, dissent.

This book uses Próspero Cahuantzi’s governorship as a window into the complex and diverse regional political practices that underpinned Díaz’s authoritarian rule. The so-called Porfiriato lasted from 1876 until the Mexican Revolution broke out in 1911. Following five decades of foreign invasions, civil wars, and presidential turnover, Porfirio Díaz ushered in Mexico’s first prolonged period of stability as a nation. Historians have thoroughly probed how Mexico was transformed under Díaz, paying particular attention to how Porfirian administrators facilitated liberal capitalist development. Under Díaz, the nation became more fiscally solvent, and its economy grew prodigiously. Railroad networks, dams, and irrigation systems were built to facilitate the domestic and especially the international sale of sugar, coffee, henequen (sisal), and other exports, and new regulations and laws were enacted to enable export-oriented growth. Although Mexico’s development was uneven, and its effects disparately experienced throughout the nation’s thirty-one states, Mexico’s growth during the Porfirian period was remarkable as compared to the decades that preceded it.13

To beget this growth, the political practices that Díaz and his regional representatives used were often decidedly undemocratic and became more so as the regime aged. Díaz remained outwardly committed to liberal democracy. National and state elections were nearly always staged, and the press was permitted to scrutinize certain aspects of the regime. But on the ground, throughout Mexico’s vast and diverse provincial landscape, practices such as controlling electoral outcomes, establishing new and co-opting old patronage networks, and stifling dissent through nondemocratic means frequently mirrored those used by Latin America’s authoritarian strongmen, past and present. Porfirian leaders’ overt coercion and corruption is encapsulated by historians through the old phrase “pan o palo”—bread or the stick. Essentially, conform, or else.14

Próspero Cahuantzi remained in office longer than any other gubernatorial appointee under Porfirio Díaz’s transformative, yet highly repressive and inequitable, dictatorship. Whereas Díaz’s other gubernatorial appointees either died, took on a new position, or were pushed out of office by Díaz, Cahuantzi persisted as Tlaxcala’s governor for twenty-six years, from 1885 until 1911. Cahuantzi was one of the dozens of General Díaz’s former military allies who had assisted Díaz with the coup he staged in 1876 (Plan de Tuxtepec) to overthrow the existing government, whom Díaz, now president, awarded with a state governorship.15 Like all governors, Cahuantzi came to power via Díaz’s appointment, rather than election. He was subsequently “reelected” six times, more than any other gubernatorial appointee under Díaz.16 Cahuantzi remained steadfastly devout to Díaz even after revolutionaries toppled the Porfirian regime and Díaz sailed off to Paris in exile.

Like Díaz, Cahuantzi engaged with practices that were typical of political bosses in Latin America and throughout the world. Cahuantzi’s politics were highly personalistic. The governor often suppressed dissent in person, riding out on horseback to put down strikes at factories and mills. He intervened in residents’ natural resource disputes even though it was not legal for him to do so. Like Díaz, Cahuantzi installed loyalists in key administrative posts and pushed them out when he feared their deference waned. He also used political patronage to conciliate those who opposed him. Though rare, Cahuantzi had people—including former allies—killed.17 Cahuantzi was a sycophant and a strongman, but he was also a pragmatist. The governor’s political practices reflected his extensive knowledge about local history, environmental conditions, and political culture. The governor’s familiarity with his region’s past was useful when it came to making Tlaxcala known to nation-builders and investors. This knowledge was similarly useful when it came to defending Tlaxcalan state sovereignty against its much larger and wealthier neighbor, Puebla. As with the imbroglio with the French landowner Clement Manuel, Cahuantzi sometimes defended small landowners’ and villagers’ demands over those of foreign landowners and developers. This was especially true when it came to residents’ access to water, which Cahuantzi knew to be a precious and limited local resource. The governor allowed some Tlaxcalans to continue to farm their lands communally as they had for centuries, despite national laws that prohibited communal property ownership. Contradictorily, he took advantage of the same national laws to attempt to usurp village lands and expand his personal estate.

Cahuantzi’s longevity in office, his acknowledged Indigenous heritage, and his nativeness to Tlaxcala set him apart from many other Porfirian governors. But the ways in which Cahuantzi exploited the schisms between national dictates, laws, and policies, on the one hand, and local practices and expectations, on the other, resonate well beyond Porfirian Mexico. In this book I build on the work of scholars who have shown how diverse, sometimes noncoercive measures at the regional levels buoyed authoritarian regimes in Latin America.18 More than a regional political history, I analyze different dimensions of politics and how they intersect, including the politics of race, nation-building, modernization, and the environment. National autocrats like Díaz and their regional representatives like Cahuantzi used political tools such as corruption and repression to maintain political control. However, focusing on these strategies by themselves obfuscates, first, the diversity of societal experiences under authoritarianism; second, the regional spaces where residents pressed their claims—even if their votes mattered little; and third, how authoritarian rulers’ political practices changed over time and according to local circumstances.

The argumentative premises of this book—that different regions experienced authoritarian rule differently, and that regional actors and circumstances shaped national projects—are informed by the historical canons on Indigenous and mixed race interlocutors in Latin America.19 Historians within these canons push against nationally centered narratives by showing how, in Mexico, Porfirian rule was an ongoing and constantly changing political dance among national, state, and local actors.20 Historians of popular liberalism in Mexico have reinforced these ideas by examining how regional interlocutors in the early national period appropriated liberal political discourse to make claims and assert their rights as national citizens.21 If popular liberalism’s legacy was that “Mexico’s subsequent leaders . . . realized that in Mexico even an authoritarian state had to be inclusive,” this book offers proof that this assertion, made by Peter Guardino, holds true in certain spaces during the Porfirian era.22 Moreover, within these spaces, political peace was not brokered through coercion alone. Scholars of popular liberalism emphasize how the influence of regional interlocutors waned under Díaz’s stable, yet dictatorial, rule.23 But Cahuantzi’s loyalty and ties to Díaz did not preclude him from influencing how Díaz’s laws and policies were implemented in his state.

Indigeneity and Pragmatism

Cahuantzi’s early life, though unusual for a Porfirian governor, was typical of most Tlaxcalans. Próspero Cahuantzi (1834–1915) was from Santa María Ixtulco, a small town in the populous Nativitas or Zahuapan Valley of Tlaxcala.24 Like many Tlaxcalans, he spoke Nahuatl (the Aztec language) in addition to Spanish.25 Although he received only a rudimentary primary education, many sources attest to his skills as an autodidact.26 Cahuantzi hailed from a family of landless peasants. As such, his only opportunity for advancement was through the military, which he joined in 1856 at the age of twenty-two.27 Cahuantzi presented many of the physiognomic and cultural signifiers that marked Indigenous difference during this period.28 Cahuantzi’s surname, multilingualism, peasant background, and low level of education signaled to many Mexicans and non-Mexicans alike that he had Indigenous heritage.29

In Mexico, legally, all men were equal regardless of their race. This had been true ever since the nation wrote its first constitution in 1824. Yet few nation-builders anywhere in Latin America in the nineteenth century believed that Indigenous peoples were worthy of equal rights. The attitudes of Latin American elites toward Indigenous peoples ran from ambivalence to disdain, tending more toward the latter than the former. At best, politicians and statesmen disregarded their Indigenous populations. At worst, they displaced them, usurped their natural resources, and abused their labor.30 In Mexico, this was especially true for Indigenous peoples living in frontier areas away from Mexico City, in the north and in the Yucatán Peninsula, key export production sites.31 During the Porfiriato, nation-builders were strongly influenced by social Darwinism. Porfirian intellectuals and policy makers had diverse opinions about why Indigenous peoples were degraded, as well as what to do about them.32 But they rarely saw Indigenous peoples as modernizing actors. Practices that were traditionally ascribed to Indigenous peoples, communal landholding and Catholicism in particular, were viewed by Porfirian elites as hindrances to national progress.33 To be sure, Mexico’s Indigenous populations were highly diverse. Moreover, Mexico was a majority mestizo (mixed race) nation. Most Mexicans—including those who held prominent offices—had Indigenous lineage. This included President Díaz, and, more famously, President Benito Juárez (1806–1872, in office 1858–72), a Zapotec Indian from the southern, predominately Indigenous, state of Oaxaca. However, given extant racial hierarchies of the nineteenth century, few Mexicans who hoped to ascend to, or who held political power, outwardly claimed their Indigenous heritage. They were much more likely to try to hide it. What distinguished Cahuantzi from most other Mexican leaders was that he claimed his identity as an Indigenous Tlaxcalan and used it selectively and strategically over the course of his career.

FIGURE 1. Próspero Cahuantzi, 1885. Source: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Fototeca Nacional. Reprinted with permission.

Cahuantzi crafted an image of himself and his region as representing one of the great Indigenous groups of Mexico. He aligned himself clearly with his state. He also touted a specific historical narrative about Tlaxcala, one that appealed to Porfirian nation-builders who believed that, whereas contemporary Indigenous peoples stymied progress, Indians of the pre-Hispanic era were enthralling. Nation-building elites used ancient American civilizations—the Aztecs, Inca, and Maya, especially—to build patrimonies for their young countries and evince their deep and proud histories. They juxtaposed ancient American civilizations with foundational civilizations of the West such as the Greeks and Romans. As with racialization—defining who was an Indian and who was not—composing a uniform national history was fraught with incongruities. Nation-builders often made arbitrary decisions about what to include in Latin American nations’ official pasts, and what to omit. The great pyramids of the Aztecs and the Maya were a wonder, but the bellicose Apache, to name one example, were deemed unworthy of nation-builders’ reverence.34

Cahuantzi supported nation-builders’ efforts to create a national Mexican patrimony. Moreover, he marshaled a usable Tlaxcalan past, one that emphasized the region’s exceptionalism as compared to other Indigenous groups as well as Tlaxcala’s proximity and importance to the center of Mexican power. Pre-Hispanic Tlaxcalans had been enemies of the imperial Mexica (Aztecs), against whom the Tlaxcalans constantly warred to defend their sovereignty. When Hernán Cortés and his men arrived in the Valley of Mexico, Tlaxcalans provided the Spanish with manpower and information that were vital to invading and toppling the Aztec capital city-state of Tenochtitlán (1519–1521).35 Tlaxcalan elites were among the first to convert to Catholicism. They assisted the Spanish in colonial campaigns to pacify and Christianize more “rebellious” natives in the Mexican north and in modern-day Central America.36 Colonized Tlaxcalans were consequently exempt from encomienda—the institution that forced Indigenous peoples to give tribute and labor to the Spanish crown—and had direct parlay, or communication, with the monarchy.37 They also kept their pre-Conquest political system—four cabeceras (in Nahuatl, altepetl) and various barrios, towns or neighborhoods (in Nahuatl tlaxilacalli)—intact.38 Over the course of centuries, many Tlaxcalans had acculturated to “Hispanic” signifiers and adopted “Hispanic” practices.39 Many Tlaxcalans did indeed speak Indigenous languages. But many, including Cahuantzi, also spoke Spanish. By the 1870s, goods and people from all over the Atlantic world passed through Tlaxcala by rail line, Mexico’s first, to reach Mexico City. Emblems of modernity, textile factories, dams, paved roads, electric lights, followed. Even in the present day, as theatre scholar Patricia Ybarra explains, Tlaxcalans continue to celebrate their ancestors’ roles in the “Spanish Conquest” and in forging the eventual Mexican nation.40

Cahuantzi’s actions in the Porfirian era presaged those of present-day Tlaxcalans who perform and honor their history. Cahuantzi exploited elements from Tlaxcala’s past and present to make himself into the kind of Indian that Porfirian elites could accept—one who was assimilable and whose region, insofar as Cahuantzi portrayed it, had a glorious past and welcomed modernization in the present. Cahuantzi drew attention to Tlaxcala’s history to enhance his region’s reputation, to attract investment, and to defend Tlaxcala’s political and economic sovereignty from its larger and more populated central Mexican neighbors. The governor used his region’s patrimony to make material political claims in the modern era. He argued, for example, that Tlaxcala’s territorial claims over a textile factory predated those of Puebla state, since Tlaxcala existed during the pre-Hispanic era, whereas Puebla did not. Cahuantzi used his identity as an Indigenous Tlaxcalan as a political instrument through which he ingratiated himself to Díaz and other Porfirian nation-builders, and to convince them that he was worthy of long-term rule and capable of modernizing his state. He spoke in Nahuatl at public events that commemorated the nation’s ancient Indigenous civilizations. Toward the end of his rule, as Cahuantzi’s and Díaz’s grips on power were slipping away, Cahuantzi and his supporters reminded Tlaxcalans that they were “lucky” that Cahuantzi was a “native son” and a “genuine representative of his intelligent race,” as if he had been elected democratically.41

By examining how Cahuantzi claimed his Indigenousness selectively, this book offers new insight into the racist milieu of turn-of-the-century Mexico and Latin America. During a period in which national actors’ policies and practices scuttled Indigenous peoples’ agency, Cahuantzi played an important role in the politics and modernization schemes of the national authoritarian regime in Mexico. At the same time, Cahuantzi only identified with Indigenous signifiers in specific spaces that elite nation-builders codified as acceptable for celebrating “civilized” indigeneity. The governor understood how indigeneity was a diverse, mutable, and contextually dependent category, one that could be engaged when politically useful and dropped when not.42

One of the main ways that Cahuantzi dissociated himself and his home state from Mexico’s indios bárbaros (barbarous Indians) was by advancing modernization projects. The latter chapters of the book examine Cahuantzi’s politics on the ground and how Tlaxcalans propelled and reacted to these politics. I focus on how the governor managed modernization in his state, especially the management of natural resources, infrastructure, and public works. Whereas Díaz wanted a loyal governor who advanced the national modernization project, the people of Tlaxcala wanted a leader who addressed their daily material concerns. These concerns included land and water access, dams, bridges, safe and passable roads, and fair taxes. The French landowner from the opening vignette, Clement Manuel, alleged that the governor “favor[ed] the Indigenous race.” Manuel’s claim irrefutably reflected his own racism toward Indigenous Mexicans. However, careful analysis of documentation in national, state, and local archives in Mexico make clear that the outcome in that case was not atypical in terms of how Cahuantzi implemented and managed modernization projects.

In contrast to other examinations of modernization under Díaz that focus primarily on how the regime’s development policies spurred dissent, I examine how Cahuantzi managed modernization to help Porfirian rule endure in Tlaxcala. Water, I argue, was key to Cahuantzi’s management strategies. Because of its hydrological geography and high population density, water, both accessing and controlling it, had been a problem that only grew worse over the centuries in Tlaxcala.43 As factories were built in the region during the Porfiriato, demand for water increased and water-related problems worsened. Governor Cahuantzi’s understanding of the local waterscape allowed him to mediate gaps between federal modernization demands and laws, on the one hand, and usufruct resource practices, on the other, to maintain a degree of resource equity in Tlaxcala.

By elucidating the connections between modernization, hydrology, and regional politics, this book brings the Porfirian era and the region of Tlaxcala into critical conversations taking place about water and environmental politics in Latin America.44 To rule Tlaxcala, even as an autocrat, Cahuantzi could not altogether ignore locals’ concerns about their often-unlivable environmental circumstances. In the absence of free and fair elections, petitions were valuable means through which residents pressed Cahuantzi to meet their material needs and make their voices heard.45 Tlaxcalans wrote to the governor and other officials to protest how a factory or large landowner nearby was building yet another dam or artificial water deviation. When Cahuantzi abided residents’ demands, even occasionally, he tempered regional power brokers’ economic ambitions and placated the small landowning and village majority. In other words, by selectively conciliating residents’ demands, he maintained local-level political order, a key charge Díaz bade of his governors. Through these arguments, I challenge the framework of paternalism that historians often use to explain how Porfirio Díaz and other caudillo figures held lasting power in Latin America.46 More than a benevolent patriarch, Cahuantzi was a pragmatist. He was someone who understood the historical, environmental, political, and economic circumstances of his state, and he used that knowledge to his advantage. Over time, Cahuantzi’s rule, like that of Díaz, became increasingly despotic and violent. The escalating demands Cahuantzi placed on residents—to fix water infrastructure and roads with their own funds, to pay higher property taxes—coupled with state encroachment on the political and economic autonomy of municipalities, undermined Cahuantzi’s and Díaz’s rule in Tlaxcala. But despotism alone does not explain how either Díaz, or Cahuantzi, maintained power for decades.

Organization and Overview

The book contains six chapters. In each chapter I examine a different dimension of the book’s central question—how did Cahuantzi’s governorship endure longer than any other state regime under Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz? Chapters are organized by theme rather than by chronology. As such, their timelines sometimes overlap. In the final chapter as well as the conclusion I engage most directly with Cahuantzi’s demise and the coming of the Mexican Revolution in Tlaxcala.

In chapter one I situate Cahuantzi within the panoply of Díaz’s governors. Cahuantzi’s background as an Indigenous Tlaxcalan differentiated him from most other gubernatorial appointees. There were seventy-one Porfirian governors in total, excluding dozens of interim governors. For most of these, reputational, economic, or sociocultural privilege shored up their claims to power. And yet Díaz chose Próspero Cahuantzi—a landless, undereducated, and recognizably Indigenous person—as his main ally in Tlaxcala and longest-serving state representative overall. Díaz chose Cahuantzi not despite but rather because of his distinct background. Thus, I argue that neither their privilege nor loyalty to Díaz were exclusive paths to Porfirian governors’ political longevity.

In chapter two I explain the role that Cahuantzi played in nation-builders’ efforts to create a national patrimony, and how and why the governor turned his identity as a Tlaxcalan into political power. Cahuantzi embraced his Indigenous ancestry and promoted Tlaxcala’s pre-Hispanic legacy to bolster his political station and to ingratiate himself to Díaz and other nation-builders. The governor fed nation-builders’ obsession with the pre-Hispanic past and consecrated himself as the modern forebearer of Tlaxcala’s ancient legacy. He donated local artifacts to World’s Fairs, presented in Nahuatl at nation-building forums, and endorsed chronicles that foregrounded Tlaxcala’s role in making the Mexican nation. Yet Cahuantzi also distanced himself and his region from Mexico’s “primitive” Indians. Thus, while the governor promoted Tlaxcala, he concurrently reinforced anti-Indigenous discrimination.

In chapter three I examine the different political strategies that Cahuantzi pursued to establish his regime in Tlaxcala. Some of these strategies—administrative centralization, patronage, electoral fraud—mirrored those used by Díaz and by caciques and caudillos throughout Latin America, as well as in any place where bosses subjugated democratic rule. Others, however, required Cahuantzi to have extensive local knowledge. Chapter three explains how Cahuantzi used his local acumen, especially about his region’s past, to create a cohesive, sovereign state, secure state borders, and forge a sense of what it meant to be Tlaxcalan in the modern era, even if not all Tlaxcalans agreed with these meanings.

In chapters four and five I explain why water management was important for Cahuantzi’s political longevity. Water—whether too little, or more often, too much—had been a problem for centuries in Tlaxcala. With the 1888 Federal Waters Law (Ley sobre vías generales de comunicación), the nation’s first law regulating water usage, the federal government hoped to overcome the nation’s modernization challenges by facilitating large landowners’ access to water. Where water had been the purview of municipalities since colonial times, the 1888 Waters Law federalized waterways that were navigable or made up state borders. By enacting the 1888 Waters Law, Porfirian administrators aimed to diminish local actors’ influence over waterways and expedite development. However, as I explain in chapter four, Cahuantzi found ways to keep water management in state, rather than in federal or municipal, hands, both before and after the 1888 Waters Law was passed.

In chapter five I examine the effects of land privatization and disentailment on water rights in Tlaxcala, and how Cahuantzi brokered between unclear federal resource laws and local customary resource practices to adjudicate residents’ water disputes. Federal resource laws—the Ley Lerdo of 1856 and the Federal Waters Law of 1888—aimed to increase developers’ access to land and water. Yet the laws failed to treat land and water as part of a symbiotic whole, and their terms contradicted significantly. Cahuantzi exploited these contradictions and fashioned water into a political tool through which he mediated between Tlaxcala’s socioeconomically diverse residents. Tlaxcala’s small landholding and village majority also used the ambiguities embedded in federal resource laws to press federal, state, and local officials to protect their customary water rights.

In chapter six I trace how Cahuantzi attempted to modernize his state through public works and infrastructural improvements. From bridges and roads to lighting and potable water to schools and administrative buildings, the governor leveraged public works and infrastructure as physical manifestations of his power and worthiness of enduring rule. Locals, too, saw value in these projects. Tlaxcalans of all stripes pressured the governor to consider how modernization could and should improve their daily lives. Through infrastructural improvements, Cahuantzi conciliated and negotiated between the diverse demands of the national dictator and his residents. The fiscal challenges the governor faced while trying to make these improvements happen, however, and the demands of time, money, and labor he imposed on municipalities and individuals to carry out his vision of modernity, were pivotal to the regime’s demise.

By way of conclusion, I discuss the different actors and interests that shaped the coming of the Mexican Revolution to Tlaxcala. The actors who participated in the Revolution were a diverse lot with diverse interests, making it difficult for Tlaxcalans to form a coherent revolutionary movement. But it was precisely their differences that had allowed Cahuantzi to selectively placate residents’ demands and to remain in power for twenty-six years. In the conclusion I emphasize the need to examine the Porfiriato on its own terms—not merely as a precursory period that preceded the Mexican Revolution—so as not to confound the local origins of Porfirian stability or the challenges that Tlaxcalans continued to face in its wake.47


1. A territory of the state of Mexico until 1857, Tlaxcala was the fifth smallest state by area in the Mexican Federation. Its population grew from 154,871 in 1886 to 184,171 in 1910. Censo y división territorial del Estado de Tlaxcala (Mexico, 1895 and 1910).

2. French Minister of Mexico to Minister of Foreign Relations of Mexico, Doc. #415 de la sección de Europa y Africa, 12 Dec. 1901, Archivo Histórico del Estado de Tlaxcala (AHET), Sin clasificar siglo diecinueve (SC), Caja (C. [Box]) 1, Expediente (Exp. [File]) 13, Ficha (f. [File number]) 40.

3. See files contained in AHET, SC, C. 1, Exp. 13, fs. 40–56.

4. Memorandum por C. Manuel, 20 Dec. 1901, AHET, SC, C. 1, Exp. 13, f. 52.

5. Testimonio de Juan González, 27 Dec. 1901, AHET, SC, C. 1, Exp. 13, f. 47.

6. Memorandum por C. Manuel, 20 Dec. 1901, AHET, SC, C. 1, Exp. 13, f. 53.

7. Memorandum por C. Manuel, 20 Dec. 1901, AHET, SC, C. 1, Exp. 13, f. 53.

8. Memorandum por C. Manuel, 20 Dec. 1901, AHET, SC, C. 1, Exp. 13, f. 52.

9. Memorandum por C. Manuel, 20 Dec. 1901, AHET, SC, C. 1, Exp. 13, f. 3.

10. French Minister to Minister of Foreign Relations, 12 Dec. 1901, AHET, SC, C. 1, Exp. 13, f. 40.

11. French Minister to Minister of Foreign Relations, 12 Dec. 1901, AHET, SC, C. 1, Exp. 13, f. 40.

12. Historian Enrique Krauze dubbed the nineteenth century in Mexico “the Century of Caudillos.” Krauze, Siglo de caudillos: Biografía política de México (1810–1910) (Barcelona: Tusquets Editores, 1994). Beginning with Domingo Sarmiento’s famous derision of the Argentine gaucho Juan Facundo Quiroga originally published in 1845, to a plethora of contemporary analyses, Latin America’s regional strongmen have long captured scholarly and popular imaginations. Classic accounts include Sarmiento, Facundo; or, Civilization and Barbarism (New York: Penguin Classics, 1998), and more contemporarily John Lynch, Caudillos in Spanish America, 1800–1850 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992) and Richard Graham, Patronage and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Brazil (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990). Edited volumes have done much to advance our knowledge about Latin America’s regional strongmen. These include D. A. Brading, ed., Caudillo and Peasant in the Mexican Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980); Fernando López-Alves, ed., State Formation and Democracy in Latin America, 1810–1900 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000); Friedrich Katz, ed., Riot, Rebellion, and Revolution: Rural Social Conflict in Mexico (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988); Alan Knight and W. G. Pansters, eds., Caciquismo in Twentieth-Century Mexico (London: Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2005); Benjamin Thomas and William McNellie, eds., Other Mexicos: Essays on Regional Mexican History, 1876–1911 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984); Luis Roniger and Tamar Herzog, eds., The Collective and the Public in Latin America: Cultural Identities and Political Order (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2000).

13. Summaries of Mexico’s economic growth under Díaz can be found in Edward Beatty’s work, including Institutions and Investment: The Political Basis of Industrialization in Mexico before 1911 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001) and Technology and the Search for Progress in Modern Mexico (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015). On infrastructural growth, see Priscilla Connolly, El contratista de don Porfirio: Obras públicas, deuda y desarrollo desigual (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Azcapotzalco, El Colegio de Michoacán, 1997). On the growth of the export economy, see Steven Topik and Allen Wells, eds., The Second Conquest of Latin America: Coffee, Henequen, and Oil during the Export Boom, 1850–1930 (Austin: Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Texas Press, 1998). A more regionally centered analysis on the export economy is Casey Lurtz, From the Grounds Up: Building an Export Economy in Southern Mexico (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019).

14. Historians often frame Díaz as the ultimate caudillo—his political practices have been well treated by historians. For a comprehensive historiography on the Porfiriato, see Mauricio Tenorio Trillo and Aurora Gómez Galvarriato, El Porfiriato (Mexico City: Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2006).

15. François-Xavier Guerra, México: Del antiguo régimen a la Revolución, vol. 1 (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1988), 64; Paul Garner, Porfirio Díaz (Harlow, England: Longman, 2001), 107.

16. National and state elections were always “held” during the Porfiriato, but candidates typically either ran unopposed or electoral outcomes were otherwise predetermined. A summary of gubernatorial elections under Díaz can be found in Carlos Bravo Regidor, “Elecciones de gobernadores durante el Porfiriato,” in Las elecciones y el gobierno representativo en México (1810–1910), ed. José Antonio Aguilar Rivera (Mexico City: Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económica, 2010), 257–81.

17. Ricardo Rendón Garcini, El Prosperato: El juego de equilibrios de un gobierno estatal (Mexico City: Siglo Veintiuno, 1993).

18. In the field of history, critical examinations of Rafael Trujillo’s regime in the Dominican Republic inspire the book’s central questions. See Richard Lee Turits, Foundations of Despotism: Peasants, the Trujillo Regime, and Modernity in Dominican History (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003); Lauren Hutchinson Derby, The Dictator’s Seduction: Politics and the Popular Imagination in the Era of Trujillo (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009). Research in political science, especially among scholars who examine the politics of Mexico’s official revolutionary party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional or PRI), are also influential. The Porfiriato has been framed by some scholars as a precursor to the PRI, which ruled Mexico for most of the twentieth century. Relevant works include Armando Razo, Social Foundations of Limited Dictatorship: Networks and Private Protection during Mexico’s Early Industrialization (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008); Beatriz Magaloni, Voting for Autocracy: Hegemonic Party Survival and Its Demise in Mexico (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Kenneth F. Greene, Why Dominant Parties Lose: Mexico’s Democratization in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Guillermo Trejo, Popular Movements in Autocracies: Religion, Repression, and Indigenous Collective Action in Mexico (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Joy Langston Hawkes and Scott Morgenstern, “Campaigning in an Electoral Authoritarian Regime: The Case of Mexico,” Comparative Politics 41, no. 2 (2009): 165–82.

19. Relevant examples within this genre include Yanna Yannakakis, The Art of Being In-Between: Native Intermediaries, Indian Identity, and Local Rule in Colonial Oaxaca (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Jeffrey L. Gould, To Die in This Way: Nicaraguan Indians and the Myth of Mestizaje, 1880–1965 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998); Greg Grandin, The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000); Charles Walker, Smoldering Ashes: Cuzco and the Creation of Republican Peru, 1780–1840 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999); Lesley Byrd Simpson, Many Mexicos (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966). The literature on popular liberalism in Mexico, explained further on, also includes relevant discussions about these intermediary actors.

20. The massive body of work on provincial Mexican politics has upended decades-old notions that the Porfiriato was hegemonic, or that Díaz himself was a leviathan figure who controlled regional political operations throughout Mexico. In some part, the Porfiriato as leviathan metaphor reflected postrevolutionary leaders’ efforts to demonize Díaz’s rule as a means of legitimating the power of the official party of the Revolution.

21. See Peter F. Guardino, Peasants, Politics, and the Formation of Mexico’s National State: Guerrero, 1800–1857 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996); Guardino, The Time of Liberty: Popular Political Culture in Oaxaca, 1750–1850 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005); Karen Deborah Caplan, Indigenous Citizens: Local Liberalism in Early National Oaxaca and Yucatán (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009); Florencia E. Mallon, Peasant and Nation: The Making of Postcolonial Mexico and Peru (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Guy P. C. Thomson, “Popular Aspects of Liberalism in Mexico, 1848–1888,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 10, no. 3 (1991): 265–92; Michael Ducey, “Liberal Theory and Peasant Practice: Land and Power in Northern Veracruz, Mexico, 1826–1900,” in Liberals, the Church, and Indian Peasants: Corporate Lands and the Challenge of Reform in Nineteenth-Century Spanish America, ed. Robert H. Jackson (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997), 65–85.

22. Guardino, Peasants, Politics, and the Formation of Mexico’s National State, 219.

23. Mallon, Peasant and Nation, 286, 317.

24. Joaquín Díaz Calderón, “Biografía del Señor Coronel Don Próspero Cahuantzi,” in La Antigua República (Tlaxcala), 15 Jan. 1905.

25. According to the state census, 60 percent of Tlaxcalans spoke Nahuatl and/or Otomí (and were thus classified as “Indígena”), but only 20 percent of Tlaxcalans spoke exclusively in an Indigenous language. Censo y división territorial del Estado de Tlaxcala (México, 1902).

26. Rendón Garcini, El Prosperato, 41.

27. Rendón Garcini, El Prosperato, 42. The national guard was a common career path for many men during the nineteenth century. See Patrick J. McNamara, Sons of the Sierra: Juárez, Díaz, and the People of Ixtlán, Oaxaca, 1855–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 2.

28. Throughout Latin America, Indigenous difference was tied to the historical, geographic, and political contexts in which it was being produced. Generally speaking, “Indian” and “Indigenous” were ambiguous terms that referred to markers of dress, diet, language, and occupation as well as heredity and appearance. These ideas are interrogated more thoroughly in chapter one. See Alan Knight, “Racism, Revolution, and Indigenismo: Mexico, 1910–1940,” in The Idea of Race in Latin America, 1870–1940, ed. Richard Graham (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), 72–74; Paula López Caballero with Ariadna Acevedo-Rodrigo, “Introduction: Why beyond Alterity?” in Beyond Alterity: Destabilizing the Indigenous Other in Mexico, ed. Paula López Caballero and Ariadna Acevedo-Rodrigo (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2018), 6.

28. Rendón Garcini, El Prosperato, 41.

30. See exemplary discussions in Nicolas Shumway, The Invention of Argentina (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Rebecca Earle, Return of the Native: Indians and Myth-Making in Spanish America, 1810–1930 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); Brooke Larson, Trials of Nation Making: Liberalism, Race, and Ethnicity in the Andes, 1810–1910 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Michel Gobat, “The Invention of Latin America: A Transnational History of Anti-Imperialism, Democracy, and Race,” American Historical Review 118, no. 5 (2013): 1345–75.

31. See, for example, Gilbert Joseph and Allen Wells, Summer of Discontent, Seasons of Upheaval: Elite Politics and Rural Insurgency in Yucatán, 1876–1915 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996); Evelyn Hu-DeHart, Yaqui Resistance and Survival: The Struggle for Land and Autonomy, 1821–1910 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984); Ricardo León García and Carlos González Herrera, Civilizar o exterminar: Tarahumaras y apaches en Chihuahua, siglo XIX (Mexico City: CIESAS, 2000).

32. Earle, Return of the Native.

33. For a summary of the attitudes of Mexican nation-builders toward Indigenous peoples, see Earle, Return of the Native. This literature is treated in depth in chapter two.

34. See Earle, Return of the Native; Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo, Mexico at the World’s Fairs: Crafting a Modern Nation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); Christina Bueno, The Pursuit of Ruins: Archeology, History, and the Making of Modern Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2016).

35. Matthew Restall’s work exemplifies contemporary arguments that maintain that the “Spanish Conquest” misrepresents events in which Indigenous peoples greatly outnumbered the Europeans who participated. See Matthew Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). Primary accounts that discuss Tlaxcalans’ role in the “Spanish conquest” include Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Historia verdadera de la conquista de la nueva España (Mexico City: Oficina de la Secretaría de fomento, 1904, 1905; [1632]); Miguel León-Portilla, The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992). See also Charles Gibson, Tlaxcala in the Sixteenth Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1952); Stephanie Wood, Transcending Conquest: Nahua Views of the Spanish Colonial Mexico (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003); Jeanne Gillespie, Saints and Warriors: Tlaxcalan Perspectives on the Conquest of Tenochtitlán (New Orleans: University Press of the South, 2004). Many theses, dissertations, and articles on Tlaxcala during the colonial era are housed in the library of the Archivo Histórico del Estado de Tlaxcala.

36. On Tlaxcalans in the north, see L. S. Offutt, “Defending Corporate Identity on Spain’s Northeastern Frontier: San Esteban de Nueva Tlaxcala, 1780–1810,” The Americas 64, no. 3 (2007): 351–75; Patricia Martínez, “‘Noble Tlaxcalans’: Race and Ethnicity in Northeastern New Spain, 1770–1810” (PhD diss., University of Texas at Austin, 2004). In Central America, see Laura E. Matthews, “Whose Conquest? Nahua, Zapoteca, and Mixteca Allies in the Conquest of Central America,” in Indian Conquistadors: Indigenous Allies in the Conquest of Mesoamerica, ed. Laura E. Matthews and Michel R. Oudijk (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), 102–26.

37. These privileges, which were hard-fought and granted only to some, usually elite, Tlaxcalans, are described in Gibson, Tlaxcala in the Sixteenth Century; Andrea Martínez Baracs, Un gobierno de indios: Tlaxcala, 1519–1750 (Mexico City: Fondo Cultural Económica, Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social; Tlaxcala: Fideicomiso Colegio de Historia de Tlaxcala, 2008), 76–102.

38. Bradley Skopyk, Colonial Cataclysms: Climate, Landscape, and Memory in Mexico’s Little Ice Age (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2020), 67.

39. These ideas are addressed in detail in chapter one.

40. Patricia Ybarra, Performing Conquest: Five Centuries of Theatre, History, and Identity in Tlaxcala, Mexico (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009).

41. El Popular (Mexico City), 8 Aug. 1906.

42. As Paula López Caballero and Ariadna Acevedo-Rodrigo assert, “The category indigenous is a permanent field of negotiation and dispute whose meanings are always volatile and elusive,” López Caballero with Acevedo-Rodrigo, “Introduction: Why beyond Alterity?” 6.

43. Skopyk, Colonial Cataclysms.

44. See chapters contained in Christopher Boyer, ed., A Land between Waters (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012); Mikael Wolfe, Watering the Revolution: An Environmental and Technological History of Agrarian Reform in Mexico (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017); Matthew Vitz, A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018). Beyond Mexico, see Sarah T. Hines, Water for All: Community, Property, and Revolution in Modern Bolivia (Oakland: University of California Press, 2022); Jacob Blanc, Before the Flood: The Itaipu Dam and the Visibility of Rural Brazil (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019).

45. Christina M. Jiménez, Making an Urban Public: Popular Claims to the City in Mexico, 1879–1932 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019).

46. On Díaz as national patriarch, see Garner, Porfirio Díaz; Jason Ruiz, Americans in the Treasure House: Travel to Porfirian Mexico and the Cultural Politics of Empire (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014), 65–101.

47. John Womack, “Mexican Political Historiography,” in Investigaciones contemporáneas sobre historia de México: Memorias de la tercera reunión de historiadores Mexicanos y Norteamericanos, Oaxtepec, Morelos, 4–7 de noviembre de 1969 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), 478–92. This analytical framework is also shaped by David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley, historians who use the phrase “tyranny of hindsight” to criticize perspectives that are determined to uncover continuities between nineteenth-century imperial Germany and the rise of Third Reich in the post–World War I era. Blackbourn and Eley, introduction to The Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 33.