Matthews, Michael. The Civilizing Machine: A Cultural History of Mexican Railroads, 1876-1910. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014. 340 pp. Paperback. $40
Michael Matthews examines the cultural representations of railroads in the Mexican press, articulating their significance to popular society and state formation during the Porfiriato. The Civilizing Machine: A Cultural History of Mexican Railroads, 1876-1910 delves into the writings and imagery of newspapers and magazines loyal and opposed to the regime of Porfirio Díaz. Matthews argues that rival political factions often shared much common ground discursively when characterizing railroads and locomotive travel as harbingers of modernity. Few disagreed that the iron horse embodied notions of “order and progress” poised to deliver Mexico to the club of “modern” nations. Notable differences arose, however, in the ways print outlets portrayed the railroad as an aspect of government policy during this period. For example, Díaz’s supporters used public commemorations when opening new railway stations to stage the national government’s political power and technical prowess. In contrast, opponents cited locomotive accidents and labor abuses committed by foreign-owned railroad companies as manifestations of government ineptitude and preferential treatment given to Americans and Europeans. Although rarely rejecting the technology in toto as bad for the nation, critics instead used the railroad as a foil to appraise the regime without running afoul of state censors.