France already had a strong influence in Mexico during the colonial period. This increased during the 19th century as a result of the French intervention, and it was during the administration of President Porfirio Díaz that French culture became an integral part of Mexican culture.
The Porfiriato was a 34-year period from 1876 to 1911, the year Porfirio Diaz resigned the presidency in face of the Revolution led by Francisco I. Madero, Francisco Villa, Emiliano Zapata and the Flores Magón brothers.
During this period the first department stores were established in Mexico, most of them founded by “barcelonettes” (people from the French arrondissement of the same name). It seems natural that these places bore a strong French influence reflected in their layout.
During the Porfiriato, Mexico would gradually become a “little Paris.” Even in 1910, Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México – Mexico’s state owned railway company from 1938 to 1998 – would run ads the weekly “Revista de Revistas” (Lit. Magazine of Magazines) like this:
“Let’s go to Mexico City. Lightings, parades, exhibitions, floats and historical parades combined with beautiful parks and boulevards, streets and buildings in the Paris of America. All form an ensemble that could hardly be repeated.”
During this period, Mexico’s capital city bore a clear trend towards modernization that was greatly influenced by Europe: public electricity replaced old naphtha lamps; silence was interrupted by the noise of automobiles; and even art seemed inspired by European trends such as Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Romanticism, among others.
“Formal” music became popular. Romanticism and music hall became widespread. Styles such as Mazurkas, Polkas, waltzes, operas, operettas, among others, were the most listened to during this period.
Paintings displayed religious and nationalist themes, with a strong romantic influence. Portraits and landscapes were the most important forms of expression of the time.
Important architects of different nationalities, including Boari Adamo, Emile Bernard , Maxime Roisin , Silvio Contri , Ernest Brunel, among others, also reached Mexico during this period.
There were also Mexican architects, although it is worth noting that most of them were disciples of foreigners. Among them one finds Manuel Ortiz Monasterio, Bernardo Calderon, Ignacio Marquina and Federico Mariscal.
Antonio Rivas Mercado and Emilio Dondé are among the best known names in Mexican architecture. The former made the Angel of Independence sculpture which still stands on a roundabout on Mexico City’s Reforma Avenue. Dondé would go on to build the Church of San Felipe de Jesús.
Important buildings like the Palace of Fine Arts, The Postal Palace, the Angel of Independence monument, the Palace of Communications and Public Works, Boker Building, the Juarez Theater, The Revolution Monument , Plaza Manuel Tolsá, The Expiatory Temple, The old Maritime Customs building of Tampico, among others, were built during this period.
The Palace of Fine Arts is one of the most representative examples. It was commissioned by Díaz to celebrate the Centennial of the Independence of Mexico. Its construction lasted 30 years since it began in 1904 and ended in 1934. It was trusted to architects Adamo Boari and Federico Mariscal; and the engineer William H. Birkmire.
The building would be declared an “Artistic Monument” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), due to its cultural significance.
Notably, French architect Emile Bernard (1844-1929) was invited by the Díaz administration to design the Federal Legislative Palace of Mexico, which was meant to be one of the greatest works of architecture in the world. However, Bernard’s involvement would be postponed indefinitely when President Díaz left power and went into exile.
The Porfiriato was a time marked by major changes in the country. Though significant technological progress was made, it was also an era marked by significant economic inequality. Unfortunately, while the bourgeoisie enjoyed the fruits of these advancements, the working classes suffered in squalor.
Mexico is a country that has much to offer, not least of which is its architecture. Secrets and stories awaits to be discover hidden at every corner of its streets. So if you ever visit the historic center of Mexico City, I recommend taking a tour which takes care to explain the story behind these buildings and the mysteries they conceal.