- The Civilizing Machine: A Cultural History of the Mexican Railroads, 1876–1910 by Michael Matthews
From title to topic to publisher, Michael Matthews’ cultural history of Mexican railroads reflects the influence of his mentor and series editor, Bill Beezley. Matthews is not concerned primarily with railroads as infrastructure but rather as a “civilizing machine”—the symbol of modernization. He puts a twist on the oft-told tale of the Porfirian regime’s use of American capital and expertise to construct Mexico’s national rail system. By focusing on the “discourse of development” as carried on in the press, Matthews seeks to “examine the changing dynamic between the Porfirian regime and its varied opposition … [by analyzing] the diverse and conflicting representations of the railway program in elite and popular culture” (p. 16). Matthews finds that all modernizers, be they supporters or opponents of Porfirio Díaz, agreed that railroad construction would promote progress and “revitalize the country after decades of social, political and economic backwardness” (p. 19). They merely disagreed as how best to accomplish that end. [End Page 352]
While the regime’s critics—liberal and conservative—may have supported railway construction, they resented the political advantages Porfirians gained in granting concessions to foreign capitalists. Most annoying, the regime turned railroad inaugurations into “festivals of progress”—civic ceremonies linking Díaz to the nation symbolically as the rails linked the nation physically (p. 130 and others). The opposition responded with broadly populist, counter-narratives that emphasized “the price of progress” (p. 143 and others). The first most consistent of these expressed “a deep hostility toward American control of the country’s transportation system” (p. 231). Additionally, critics pointed out that regulation was ineffective; wrecks were frequent, and gringo engineers and conductors were abusive and arrogant, and that these conditions had led railway employees to form Mexico’s first modern union, La Gran Liga. Finally, rail travel seemed to “compress time and space” and disrupt traditional society, something that many, particularly among the Catholic Church hierarchy, found disturbing (p. 216). Thus, observes Matthews, conflicting interpretative narratives made “the regime’s exploitation of the symbolic power of the railway as an icon of social order and material progress … a double-edged sword” (p. 22, 200).
Matthews deconstructs the regime’s “discourse of development” using materials from the Díaz archive, newspapers, popular illustrated journals, corridos, and broadsheets. These, he finds, describe a mechanized Mexico “[a]wakened from decades of lethargic progress by the whistle of the locomotive … where export-led economic development would generate wealth, and where foreigners would invest and not invade” (p. 53). From political discourse, Matthews turns his attention to “the cultural representation of the railway among elite circles” taken from “Mexico City’s leading literary publications” (p. 56). Indeed, he finds that railroad encounters between “city dwelling citizens” visiting “provincial towns” and “provincial yokels who undertook excursions to the city” inspired a surprising number of articles and poetic paeans extolling the virtues of material progress (p. 73). Writers and poets quickly saw and exploited the literary potential of railway compartment cars in which strangers sat in close proximity in a “private space where sexual desire could be acted upon without fear of public scrutiny” (p. 93). Significantly, while the Catholic paper El Tiempo expressed deep concerns about such railroad morality, it also vigorously criticized the unsafe nature of rail travel even as the anticlerical press used incidents such as the infamous Temamatla crash “to lampoon the well-known coziness between the government and the church” (p. 159).
Matthews’ work has a number of problems, including his redundant prose style and fondness for obscure hundred-dollar words (“panglossian” for overly optimistic, “quotidian” for everyday; pp. 13, 183, respectively). Also, he misses an opportunity to internationalize his cultural narrative of Mexico’s rail-building project. He ignores Díaz’s working honeymoon as Mexico’s representative at the 1884 New Orleans World Fair, from whence his private train took him and his English-speaking...