Technology, History, and Place

Category: Mexico (Page 1 of 4)

History and geography of Tabasco video

Tabasco is a small, verdant, and very hot state in southern Mexico. Mexico’s first civilization, the Olmec civilization, was based in Tabasco and neighboring Veracruz. The Maya built pyramids and wrote glyphic inscriptions there as well.

Last summer, when I was visiting Tabasco, I shot a video about the geography and some of the early history of Tabasco, including the Olmecs and the Maya. I finally finished editing the video just this week. Here it is in its finished form (plus some pictures related to the video).

Your blogger with La Venta Head 1

Mexico’s first civilization, the Olmec civilization, was based in Tabasco and neighboring Veracruz. The Olmecs are best known for carving giant stone heads. This one is La Venta Head #1. It was discovered at La Venta archeological site in the western part of the state, and moved to the state capital Villahermosa, when the site was threatened with destruction by Pemex, the government petroleum company. The four heads from La Venta reside in Villahermosa to this day.

Your blogger with a statue of the Mayan king Tabscoob.

Mundo Maya, the realm of the Mayan civilization, extended into Tabasco. In fact, the name of the state is apparently derived from Tabscoob, the name of a Chontal Maya king who fought against Cortés in 1519. This is an impressive statue of him on the road to the airport in Villahermosa.

Comalcalco Templo I

The most impressive Mayan site in Tabasco is Comalcalco. Like Palenque in nearby Chiapas, Comalcalco has a pyramid and a palace building. Unlike Palenque, and every other Mayan city, Comalcalco is built of brick, because there is no stone in that part of Tabasco. This is Temple I at the site.

Carlos Pellicer museum facade

The Carlos Pellicer Cámara regional museum of anthropology in Villahermosa has a fine collection of artifacts, including one of the four La Venta heads. It is named for a famous Tabascan poet who was also an advocate for historic preservation.

Your blogger with Tortugeuro Stela

One of the artifacts in the Carlos Pellicer Cámara museum is the Tortugeuro Stela, which states that the Long Count, an ancient Mayan epoch, would terminate on a date equivalent to December 21, 2012. This was the source of fears that the world would end in 2012, although the stela doesn’t not make that claim. It just says that the Long Count would end then, and presumably a new one would begin.

Heroes and villains in northern Mexico

Chihuahua, a city of about a million people, is the capital of the state by the same name in northern Mexico. Chihuahua city is about four hours south of Ciudad Juárez and the border with the United States. Mexico City is a long way away from Chihuahua, but Chihuahua is nevertheless very much a part of Mexico.

Mexico is a country that loves its national heroes, and there are two heroes that loom particularly large in Chihuahua: Miguel Hidalgo and Francisco “Pancho” Villa. Both of them were real people who did real things, but like national heroes everywhere, they have been mythologized. This myth-making supports a particular image of what Mexico is or should be.

Mural of Miguel Hidalgo’s death, in Palacio Gobierno, Chihuahua.

Mural of Miguel Hidalgo’s death, in Palacio Gobierno, Chihuahua.

Miguel Hidalgo started the rebellion against Spanish rule that led eventually to Mexico’s independence. Hidalgo was a Catholic priest in the town of Dolores in central Mexico, and it was there that he declared his revolt on September 16, 1810 (111 years ago today). He led an irregular army to some early successes against the Spanish, but ultimately he was defeated and captured. The Spanish executed him in Chihuahua on July 30, 1811. It would take another ten years of bitter fighting before Mexico would finally win its independence from Spain.

Heroic equestrian statue of Pancho Villa in Ciudad Juárez.

Heroic equestrian statue of Pancho Villa in Ciudad Juárez.

Pancho Villa was an important figure in a later period of upheaval in Mexican history, the Mexican Revolution. He was a bandit working in the mountains of northern Mexico, reputed for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor like Robin Hood. In 1910, he threw in his lot with Francisco I. Madero and the Constitutionalists, who were fighting to overthrow the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. After Díaz was defeated and Madero became president, Madero’s general Victoriano Huerta turned against Villa, who barely escaped execution and fled to El Paso. Huerta ended up betraying Madero as well, overthrowing and assassinating him in a coup.

Meanwhile, Villa built up his own army, División del Norte, which helped defeat Huerta. Crucially, he retook the border town of Ciudad Juárez for the Constitutionalists. But before long, Villa had a falling-out with the new leader of the Constitutionalists, Venustiano Carranza. He was sidelined in Mexican politics as Carranza got official diplomatic recognition from the United States. In March 1916, he demonstrated that Carranza did not in fact control all of Mexico by raiding the border town of Columbus, New Mexico. Villa’s band killed about twenty people before escaping back across the border. The US Army followed in hot pursuit. This punitive expedition, led by General John J. Pershing, spent the better part of a year chasing Villa around northern Mexico, but they were never able to catch him. (It ended when the US Army was recalled from Mexico to fight in Europe in World War I.)

Ultimately, Villa surrendered to the Mexican government after Carranza’s death in 1920. He retired from the outlaw life and settled on a ranch, but his old enemies caught up with him and assassinated him in 1923.

Both Hidalgo and Villa are remembered as being heroes, but the reality, as usual, is a little more complicated. Hidalgo is the father of Mexican independence, but Mexico was not freed from Spanish rule until more than ten years after his death. The man who actually liberated Mexico was Agustín de Iturbide, but he isn’t well-remembered in Mexico anymore. The reason is that he briefly ruled Mexico as an emperor, but Mexico shortly afterward turned toward republicanism. Iturbide went into exile; when he returned to Mexico in an attempt to return to power, he was executed! Hidalgo was never an emperor of anything, and thus he is a much more palatable national hero for the republic of Mexico.


Monument to Hidalgo, across the street from Palacio Gobierno.

As for Villa, he was by trade a bandit, and he could be incredibly cruel. He and his followers were responsible for countless murders in northern Mexico. The Mexican Revolution is remembered as being a story of good guys and bad guys. The good guys were the Constitutionalists: Madero, Villa, Carranza, and others; while the bad guys were the counter-revolutionaries, notably Díaz and Huerta. But the Constitutionalists didn’t just fight the counter-revolutionaries; they also spent a lot of time fighting each other! In death, Carranza and Villa have been made into heroes of the revolution, but they were enemies of each other in life.

None of this is to say that Mexico shouldn’t remember Hidalgo or Villa, or not have national heroes at all. Every country needs its heroes. But when we remember our heroes—whatever country we are from—we shouldn’t be satisfied with the nationalistic myths. Instead, we should view these people with a more critical eye, to see the aspects of their story that the nationalistic myths might obscure.

Another equestrian statue of Pancho Villa, this one in Chihuahua city.

Another equestrian statue of Pancho Villa, this one in Chihuahua city.

Railroads between the Atlantic and the Pacific

“The commerce and general prosperity of both the Atlantic and Pacific shores of the American continent are so rapidly increasing as to call the attention of the civilized world to the great importance of Inter-Oceanic Railroads, extending without interruption from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

This is the opening line of “American Inter-Oceanic Railroads,” an article from the May 24, 1864 issue of the New York Daily Tribune. In 1864, during the American Civil War, the US government had recently commissioned the building of a transcontinental railroad to connect the Pacific coast states of California and Oregon to the states east of the Rocky Mountains.

The most immediate reason for building the US railroad was to connect the isolated, vulnerable, and valuable state of California, with its gold mines, to the rest of the country. But a longer-term reason, as the Tribune article appreciated, was to create a link between the Atlantic and the Pacific, thus enabling the United States to take part in the trade between the two great oceans. And the United States was not the only player in the game.

There was, in fact, one American interoceanic railroad already in operation by 1864: the Panama Railroad. When it opened in 1855, it crossed the Central American isthmus along a similar route to the future canal. The New York Daily Tribune article described four other railroad projects in some stage of planning that could compete with the United States’ transcontinental railroad; they were located in Nicaragua, the Andes Mountains between Chile and Argentina, Mexico, and British North America (Canada).

What became of these projects? Let’s take a look.


Construction of the first railway to link British Columbia with eastern Canada, the Canadian Pacific Railway, began in 1881 and concluded in 1885. The Tribune article, written two decades earlier, only mentions the prospect of a trans-Canada railway in passing. The author of the article was more concerned about the political implications of railway projects in the republics of Spanish-speaking America.

The Andes

The Transandine Railway, the first railway across the great Andes Mountains of South America opened in 1910, almost fifty years after the New York Daily Tribune article mentioned the possibility of such a project. The rail route, which connected Buenos Aires, Argentina with Valparaíso, Chile, was actually a series of five separate rail lines, three Argentinian and two Chilean. The lines at lower elevation were built in broad gauge (5 ft 6 in), the same standard used in India, while the shorter lines near the summit of the Andes were built in the narrower meter gauge. The Chilean meter-gauge line crossed under the crest of the Andes at 10,969 feet in a three-kilometer tunnel, a remarkable engineering achievement. Although less impressive than the summit tunnel, the approaches on either side were actually harder to construct, especially on the Chilean side.

Map of the Transandine Railway between Buenos Aires and Valparaíso. (Source: Barclay, “The First Transandine Railway.”)

Map of the Transandine Railway between Buenos Aires and Valparaíso. (Source: Barclay, “The First Transandine Railway.”)

Diagram of the summit tunnel on the Transandine Railway. (Source: Barclay, “The First Transandine Railway.”)

Diagram of the summit tunnel on the Transandine Railway. (Source: Barclay, “The First Transandine Railway.”)

The original Chile-Argentina Transandine Railway closed in 1984.


The Tribune article describes in detail the Nicaragua Railroad, a transoceanic railway across the Central American republic. The article explains that the railway would pass alongside Lake Nicaragua and Lake Managua on its route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. A British company had contracted to build the railway. As stipulated by the contract, the company had to begin construction within two years of the signing of the contract, and complete construction before an additional seven years had elapsed. The company would receive large land concessions to aid in the construction, and the right to use forest resources from that land.

Although the Tribune characterized the Nicaragua Railroad as the “furthest advanced” among the projects in Spanish-speaking America, it is the only one that was never built. (A proposed canal across Nicaragua, cutting through Lake Nicaragua, also was never built.)

Nicaragua map with Nicaragua Railway

Map of the approximate route of the Nicaragua Railroad (purple), as described in the New York Daily Tribune article. (Source: CIA base map from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nicaragua_rel_97.jpg.)


In the eyes of the Tribune author, the most important interoceanic railroad project was a proposed line across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico. A foreign company had planned to make such a railway as early as 1842, but the Mexican government subsequently reneged on the agreement. According to an article in the Courrier des Etats Unis, Maximilian, the French puppet-emperor of Mexico, planned to recommence work on the railway. The Tribune saw this as a way for Maximilian to shore up support for his regime, thus threatening republicanism across the Americas:

“There is hardly any project by which Maximilian could better inaugurate the series of reforms which are to make the Mexicans forget the loss of their independence, and make a favorable impression, in behalf of the prospects of the Mexican Empire, upon the commercial classes of Europe, than the Tehuantepec Transit.”

The Mexican Liberals who opposed Emperor Maximilian found common cause with the Unionists of the United States, who were fighting to defeat the aristocratic, slaveholding Confederacy. American abolitionists celebrated the defeat of a French invasion force at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. (This is the origin of the Cinco de Mayo holiday.) After the defeat of the Confederacy, the Union gave military aid to the Mexican Liberals led by Benito Juárez.

Maximilian never did get to build his railway across Tehuantepec. Juárez defeated and executed him in 1867.

The Tehuantepec Railroad ended up being built a little later in Mexican history, during the Porfiriato (the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz). The railway was specifically built to serve as a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, not to carry local traffic. An early incarnation of the railway opened in 1894, but it consisted of different sections of track built at different times and to different standards, so it was not usable for interoceanic service. The Mexican government hired the contracting firm of S. Pearson and Son, Ltd. to overhaul the railway. From 1902 to 1906, Pearson replaced bridges, ties, and track; widened curves; and built new port facilities at Coatzalcoalcos, Veracruz (on the Gulf of Mexico) and Salina Cruz, Oaxaca (on the Pacific). The railway reopened in January 1907.

At first, interoceanic traffic boomed across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, but in 1914 the Panama Canal opened and ate the Mexican railway’s lunch. Between 1914 and 1919, interoceanic tonnage across the Tehuantepec Railway dropped 99.7%.

Tehuantepec Railroad map

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec is 125 miles across at its narrowest point. The highest point on the railway, Chivela Pass, is 735 feet above sea level, which is not very high. The total length of the railway is 192 miles. (Source: Wikimedia, PD-Self.)


Barclay, W.S. “The First Transandine Railway.” The Geographical Journal 36, no. 5 (1910): 553-62.

Glick, Edward B. “The Tehuantepec Railroad: Mexico’s White Elephant.” Pacific Historical Review 22, no. 4 (1953): 373-82.

Richardson, Heather Cox. The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies During the Civil War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

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