Book by Michael Matthews explores the early history of railroads in Mexico

In “The Civilizing Machine: A Cultural History of Mexican Railroads, 1876-1910,” Elon University Assistant Professor Michael Matthews shows how railroads shaped the way citizens of the young republic viewed industrialization, technology & modernization as they struggled to form their national identity.

Assistant Professor Michael Matthews

Mexico had a tough time finding its place in the modern world shortly after declaring its independence nearly two centuries ago. Social instability and political conflicts, the heavy influence of European superpowers, and the inability to stave off an American invasion in 1846 brought the republic to the brink of disintegration on multiple occasions.

That changed when Gen. Porfirio Díaz led army troops in a successful 1876 coup that would make him the president of Mexico for much of the next four decades. Díaz quelled the political infighting threatening his country’s stability and attracted investors to a nation that would soon build an economy largely on the development of its railroads.

The thousands of kilometers of track laid during Díaz’s reign opened the interior of his country to overseas markets that purchased agricultural goods and minerals mined from Mexico’s mountains. The railroads also permitted the movement of people. Migrant workers traveled by train across a terrain that until then limited mobility for citizens.

Railroads, however, weren’t without their critics. Most were foreign-owned and operated, and their reputation for poor safety soured their image among large numbers of the poor and working class. For Díaz’s opponents, and for those who bore the brunt of the railroads’ negative side effects, the locomotive came to symbolize something else entirely: death, destruction and disorder.

The tension between proponents and critics of railroads emerged in art, poetry, literature and music, but until now those cultural expressions have never been studied. Elon University Assistant Professor Michael Matthews explores such depictions in his first book, “The Civilizing Machine: A Cultural History of Mexican Railroads, 1876-1910,” published this fall by the University of Nebraska Press as part of its “The Mexican Experience” series.

“It’s a history of ideas, culture, how people interact, and what modernization and civilization meant to different social groups,” Matthews said of his book, based on his doctoral dissertation from the University of Arizona.

In addition to their economic benefits, railroads helped Mexico citizens develop a national identity in a place that was geographically diverse and where illiteracy was rampant. And, ironically, railroads came to represent the economic divide that led in part to another Mexican revolution in 1910 that swept Díaz from power.

“Matthews’s study is timely … with lively account and interesting analysis,” James Garza, an associate professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said in his cover endorsement of the book.

Matthews’s interest in Mexican railroads developed as he studied for his master’s degree at Simon Fraser University. While researching his thesis, Matthews observed how the social history of railroads had been largely ignored, though trains took a prominent place in the music, poetry, artwork and news of the time.

“The Civilizing Machine” is the end result of that observation. Matthews said he is especially proud of the book’s inclusion in a series that sparked his interest in history as an undergraduate. “I hope I can affect a young 18- or 19-year-old at a university the same way,” he said.

Since joining the Elon faculty in 2008, Matthews – who grew up in Canada, Spain and Peru – has taught courses in colonial and modern Latin America, Mexican history, and the world in the 20th century. He is the recipient of two Elon Faculty Research and Development grants and one of the university’s 2009 Hultquist Awards, which assist new faculty in their research development.

He today serves as the coordinator of the Latin American Studies program.

Prior to entering academia, Matthews worked as an editorial assistant at the International History Review Journal. He is currently working on an edited volume that explores the role of poetry and music in modern Mexico as he explores how marginalized groups used song, verses, poetry, and more to challenge and subvert the ideological assumptions expressed by elite groups.