The Mata Ortiz Pottery

the japanese art of Kentsugi
Mexico Map


Once upon a time and a very good time it wasn’t, there was a young boy coming down along the road…

He was not alone, he was with his burrito, a small donkey named Minuto, whose ribs you could easily count. They crossed a dusty road and passed through sunny, arid places and isolated lawns full of dried weeds. At the foot of the sierra, the skinny-legged, 14 years-old boy dismounted his donkey, inhaled, and gazed across the valley.

He glanced at the glittering waters of the Palanganas river with its scattered riparian trees. His poverty-stricken house, built with the typical local adobe bricks, like all of the other sparse houses of Mata Ortiz, was hidden in the distance. The Mormon orchards of Colonia Suárez were a faded green dot in the north.

No sound came, no birds were flying. There was no wind and no smell: everything seemed motionless, but Juan-the-boy was a turmoil inside, a mess of thoughts and emotions and repressed physical energy that urged to pop out. As for the school, he had dropped out of it with no regrets. He was too restless and too poor to sit quietly at a school desk.

He stared all around. Slowly he began to walk, holding Minuto by the halter and looking well where to put his feet: he was barefoot. His family could not buy him proper shoes, and he knew it. But it wasn’t his feet that suffered.

He took a deep breath and let the sun warm his face. He knew that area. Two things he had to search for and collect: firewood and shards. The first to be sold, the second to be kept. Secretly, of course. And secret was the cave he had found some time before, full of old ceramic pieces. Some were blackened by a cooking fire, but some others were large pieces of white clay ollas – so large that you could still get a clear idea of the pot they made up once – painted in bright red and vivid black.

He did not know what to do with those shards that also some of his homeys had found and sold in the nearby ciudad (to tell the truth, Nuevo Casas Grandes was a village, but seemed a real city compared to that smidgen of a place to live in that was Mata Ortiz). He did not know what to do with those pieces, full of zigzagged lines, dots, triangles, spirals, beaks of birds, and mysterious eyes. He just felt he had to collect them for, when he kept them in his hands, all the anger and the turmoil locked inside – that in a few years he would vent in a boxing ring – weirdly calmed down.

And he needed to calm down. He had always been a restless kid, a sort of a fidget, but his inquietude was not a simple physical issue. He had an uninvited fire locked inside he could not tame nor understand. When he was a little boy, he used to draw anything he could get his hands on. Even on his house walls. His mamá gave him a rag soaked in kerosene to wipe them clean and start again and again and again. She realized how much he quietened down while drawing (as for the walls, she didn’t give a damn about them).

And whenever that weird calmness submerged him like the Palanganas waters he loved to dive into, well, in that timeless moment, he could forget the sour taste of his family’s pobreza and break the invisible chains tightened by misery.

BELOW: The landscape between Casas Grandes and Mata Ortiz, in the state of Chihuahua, Northern Mexico.

Thus begins the true story of Juan Quezada Celado and Mata Ortiz pottery.


The territory of the Juan-the-boy roaming, the hamlet of Mata Ortiz, and the village of Nuevo Casas Grandes extend over a plateau of 1500 m above sea level, enclosed to the west by the Sierra Madre Occidental and to the east by a smaller and lower range whose main peak is known as El Indio. The landscape is dominated by the coniferous forests that stretch over the mountain slopes and, further down, by vast semiarid prairies of short yellow grass, dotted with shrubs and many spiny cactus-like plants. Despite appearances, the soil is fertile and the plateau is rich in streams, such as the Río Palanganas.

This area lies in the northern tip of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, bordered by the state of Sonora to the west; the southwestern US states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona are a very short distance away.

Northern Mexico Map
The village of Nuevo Casas Grandes is 90 km south of Ascensión, Mata Ortiz is 35 km south of Nuevo Casas Grandes in the state of Chihuahua, and less than 100 miles from the US-Mexico border.

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived here in 1562, there were no stable settlements, no pueblos. The great majority of the local Indian tribes – Apaches, Comanches, Suma, Concho, Manso, Jovas – had nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyles. The Suma tribes in this area were nomadic hunter-gatherers who practiced little or no agriculture. They were often in war, together with some Apache bands, against the neighboring villages of the Ópatas and the Pima Indians (both settled to the southwest), especially in times of famine. On the slopes and canyons of the Sierra Madre Occidental, the Rarámuri indigenous people, called Tarahumara by the Spanish, lived in small pueblos fiercely hostile to the Spanish penetration and Catholic evangelization.

Native American flute by Daniela Riojas, an interdisciplinary artist from the US – Mexico border, now working and living in San Antonio, TX.
Casas Grandes landscape 2

Since the mid-17th century, the conquistadors founded una alcaldía mayor, the region’s first center of Spanish authority, and una misión named San Antonio de Casas Grandes. The colonization of the plateau was very slow due to the combative resistance of some tribes, the Apaches above all.

The Spanish foundation of the city of Chihuahua, the state capital, began with the discovery of the nearby mines in 1652; the village of Nuevo Casas Grandes was founded in 1778 but acquired the status of a Municipio only in 1820.

Between the late 18th and the early 19th centuries, large areas of Northern Mexico, including the territory of Nuevo Casas Grandes, saw the development of many haciendas ganaderas y ranchos, cattle ranches, and the resulting blossoming of the Cultura ranchera y vaquera, the cowboy culture still alive today.

Western films taught us that the cowboy figure is a pure US “branded product”, but it’s not true.

«Cattle were not native to North or South America. They were first brought to the New World from Spain in the 16th century. (….). Some of the cattle wandered off and began to run together in wild herds. The descendants of these Spanish Longhorn cattle would become the foundation of the beef industry in Texas and the American Southwest in the last third of the 19th century. Cattle ranching in the New World first developed in Mexico. The Mexican cowboys were called vaqueros. Vaquero is a Spanish word meaning cow-keeper or cow-herder. Many of the Spanish and Mexican ways of working and dressings were taken over by the American cowboy of the 19th century. He called the wooden enclosure in which cattle or horses were kept by the Spanish name corral. The ripes he used to capture animals that were running free he called lazos. The Spanish word rancho became ‘ranch’» (John Williams Malone, An Album of the American Cowboy, see Bibliography).

The roots of the cowboy culture are entirely Hispanic in origin. Consider that the current border between Mexico and the United States was established only on December 30, 1853, by the Gadsden Purchase that followed the Mexican-American War (1846-48). Before the mid-19th century, the territories of the Southwest were Mexican.

Arrowsmith Mexico 1832 map
John Arrowsmith’s 1832 map of Mexico.
Vaqueros 1930s
.A Mexican vaquero in a 1830s painting.
Rowel spurs
A Mexican vaquero at a Charreada (Rodeo) event. The antique style Mexican rowel spur is derived from the spurs of the Spanish conquistadores, the espuelas charras (charro spurs) that could have silver rowels as large as 6 inches around.
Vaquero Details
Vaqueros Northern Mexico
Today’s cowboys in Northern Mexico (photo by Artotem, licensed under Creative Common Attribution 2.0 Generic – CC BY 2.0)
Vaquero 3 caballos
Mexican cowboy, photo by Thomas Hook (licensed under Creative Common Attribution 2.0 Generic – CC BY 2.0)
El lazo por parejas, aka “team roping” or “heading and heeling”, is a rodeo sport that developed from the daily work on cattle ranches in Northern Mexico. Here, the vaqueros on horseback had to work in parejas, couples, to be able to stop those cows that needed to be branded, neutered, cured, sold or whatever. They did it by a complex technique. After the steer (novillo, becerro) exits the corral, the first roper, cabecero or “header”, ropes the front of the steer, usually around its horns (sometimes around the neck, or around a horn and the nose). Once the steer is caught, the header must dally (wrap the rope around the rubber-covered saddle horn) and use his horse to turn the steer to the left. At this stage, the second roper, called pialador or “heeler”, gets in on the action: he has to rope the steer by both hind feet in a few seconds. And it’s not that easy.

The raids of the Apache bands, pressed between the English-origin colonizers to the north and those of Spanish origin to the south, intensified during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Originally the Apache tribes were buffalo-hunting nomads, but after being pushed off the buffalo-rich Great Plains into the semiarid Southwestern territories, they had to become more dependent upon raiding for a livelihood. In the 18th century, the relation between the Spaniards and the Chiricahua or Mescalero Apache tribes deteriorated; in the 19th, it turned into a constant clash.

For all colonizers (whatever their origin was), the Apache habits were a thorn in the settlers’ side and a serious barrier to any further economic development. The main issue was not just the Apache pillaging ranches and pueblos: it was their free wandering in a territory they kept on perceiving as their motherland, but that was no longer their own. They had been dispossessed of their land and were going to be dispossessed of their freedom and existence.

José Joaquín Calvo, military commander of Chihuahua, declared war on the Apache people on October 16, 1831. In 1835, the government of the Mexican state of Sonora put a bounty on the Apache which quickly turned into the payment of money for each Indian cabellera or scalp. In the 1840s, Ángel Trías Álvarez, governor of the state of Chihuahua, set a cash prize for every Apache scalp – men, women, old people, and even children of a few years old. Many chihuahenses became professional cazadores (hunters of Apaches).

Western films taught us that the scalping savages were the “Redskins” but the reality was slightly different.

«Pre-Columbian practices of scalping defeated enemies had meanings linked to power and war. The arrival of Europeans altered and spread this practice. The struggle for the local resources during the 19th century between Sonoran and Chihuahuan residents and the Apache people, incorporated actions like rewarding scalp hunters to exterminate the Apache tribes. This local government tactic, promoted between 1835 and 1886, was counterproductive since Apache attacks became more violent to bring vengeance to the offense. Finally, after the establishment of armies from Mexico and United States, in order to pacify and develop the border region as part of the national state building process put an end to this cruel practice» (Ignacio Almada Bay and Norma de León Figueroa, Las gratificaciones por cabelleras. Una táctica del gobierno del estado de Sonora en el combate a los Apaches, 1830-1880, see Bibliography).

Apaches on horseback 1
Five Apaches on horseback in a half-circle, in an open area with sparse vegetation. Photo by Edward S. Curtis, ca. 1903, US Library of Congress.
Apaches on horseback 2
Five Apaches on horseback in the desert. Photo by Edward S. Curtis, ca. 1903, US Library of Congress.
Apache portraits
Left: Apache man. Right: Ostoho Apache cowboy. Both photos by Edward S. Curtis, very early 20th century, US Library of Congress.
4 APACHES Geronimo
Four Apache warriors. From left to right: Yanozha (Geronimo’s brother-in-law), Chappo (Geronimo’s son from the second wife), Fun (Yanozha’s half-brother, Geronimo (here at the age of 57). Photo by Camillus Sidney, Arizona, 1886, US Library of Congress.

In the state of Chihuahua, the age of the vaqueros and the Apache slaughter was also the golden age of one of Latin America’s most powerful and wealthy men of all time (except, perhaps, for someone of present-day drug traffickers). It was the golden era of Luis Terrazas.


Born in Chihuahua in 1829, Luis Terrazas was a ferociously ambitious man from a modest family of Spanish origin. After getting married to Carolina Cuilty, a wealthy woman who brought him money, some properties, and above all a network of relationships with members of the local elite, he began a political and military career in the 1850s. He was a flexible pragmatist in politics and a shrewd opportunist in the business field. He soon understood that special relationship between power and money which makes either one of them alone a short-living factor. He was elected Governor of Chihuahua in 1860, a powerful position he will occupy over and over again in the following decades. And it was in the 60s that his colossal accumulation of wealth began.

As governor, he applied the Leyes de Reforma, a set of anticlerical laws enacted in Mexico between 1855 and 1863. These laws included La Ley de Nacionalización de los Bienes Eclesiásticos which entailed the expropriation and the nationalization of Church real estate. He seized parts of the ecclesiastical assets by selling them to his relatives and members of his own political team, or by directly adding them to some of his estates. He seized as well many areas of communal land and Indian pueblos territories. He gradually got his hands on all money-making activities in the state of Chihuahua, controlled border customs and all federal rents, and assumed the role of the foreign investment manager. When necessary, he did not hesitate to grease entrepreneurs’ and politicians’ palms; when he wanted to buy some land or a new hacienda, he created some instability in prices by slightly unorthodox means. He used his sons and daughters (13) as pawns to build a network of useful relationships. In his projects, business and family had to be as thick as thieves, or – as Italian wittily say – as an ass and the bottom of a shirt (is there any other place where the bottom of a shirt could adhere to?).

In the 1860s he purchased el Rancho de Ávalos, La Cañada Ranch and the Hacienda de Encinillas with its 186,000 ectares of land. In the 70s, he expanded the field of its investments and diversified them. In 1871 he bought a group of shares of La Industrial, a company of wool fabrics formerly operated by the Spanish Carlos Moya. In 1874 he built the first flour mill of the state, in 1878 he founded a bank, the successful Banco Minero de Chihuahua that in two decades will become the most important bank in the whole of Mexico.

Hacienda El Sauz
The Hacienda de El Sauz was purchased by the Terrazas family in 1890. Today, it houses a museum: the Museo de la Apachería, an interesting reconstruction of the daily life of Apaches and vaqueros.
Photo by Alfredo Peñaloza (under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license – CC BY 2.0.
Quinta Carolina
Quinta Carolina, built in 1896, gifted by don Luis to his wife Carolina. Today, it houses a cultural center.
Terrazas' Haciendas
LEFT: Hacienda San Diego, built by don Luis in 1902 near Nuevo Casas Grandes.
RIGHT: Hacienda San José del Torreón, surrounded by 46,000 hectares of land.

The final act of the war on the Apaches

All this relentless success, however, was overshadowed by a constant threat that the Chihuahuenses had been trying to eliminate since 1831: the existence of Apaches and Comanches, Indios bárbaros – as don Luis was used to calling them – whose uncontrolled hordes were stealing livestock, robbing stagecoaches, plundering the cultivated fields. In a few words, they were putting a spoke in Terrazas’ wheel, hindering the “magnificent and progressive fate” of his companies and activities. At the end of the 1870s, Don Luis, who was not lacking any of those “qualities” needed to remove any living obstacle that stood in his way, decided it was the right time to write the final chapter of the war on savages.

He asked his cousin, colonel Joaquín Terrazas, to organize the decisive attack against the most feared Apache leaders: Victorio, Juh, and Gerónimo. After a 14-month fight against the Apache guerrilla warfare actions, Joaquín Terrazas, at the head of 260 well-armed men on horseback, supported by the veteran major Juan Mata Ortiz and by Mauricio Corredor, a Tarahumara Indian scout hired to follow footprints and rat on Victorio, attacked the chief’s camp on the Tres Castillos desert plain (the ‘Three Castles’ were three modest rock spikes), in the state of Chihuahua.

It was the night of October 14, 1880. Before morning, the battle was over. The chief Victorio, bad-armed and with little ammunition, was killed together with 61 warriors and 18 among women and children. The Mexican took the cabelleras, the scalps of Victorio, and some of his warriors, and displayed them in a parade through the street of the state capital. The survivors, 68 women and children, were taken prisoner and enslaved (the children were separated from their mother and sent to different haciendas).

Prisoners of Tres Castillos
The Apaches (women and children) taken prisoners at the Battle of Tres Castillos (October 14, 1880). Behind them, on the wall, there are the Apache warrior scalps on display (indicated by the black arrows). The women and children you see in this picture were all enslaved: the children were separated from their mothers and sent to different haciendas. How was the Apache extermination possible? Among its conditions of possibility, there was a racist attitude towards colonized indigenous people widely shared by the Mexican elites at that time. Justo Sierra, one of the most prominent ideologists of that era, for example, saw in the indigenous people an alleged “degeneration” and an obvious “human inferiority”.
This photo was taken in Chihuahua city likely by a local newspaper photographer a day or a few days after the battle.

After the 1880 defeat, the raids of the Apache bands dropped. Major Juan Mata Ortiz, however, was ambushed, caught, and burned alive in November 1882 by chief Juh, in revenge for the Tres Castillos defeat.

El coronel Joaquín Terrazas, whose exploits earned him the nickname of el Azote de los Apaches (the Scourge of Apaches), was regarded as the Héroe de Tres Castillos. El mayor Juan Mata Ortiz as a martyr.

The rhetoric of power.

There is no heroism or martyrdom in exterminating a people, let alone enslaving the few surviving women and children. Not that the Apaches were gentlemen, mind you. Chief Juh had a reputation as a true sadist. Geronimo and Vittorio had grown in a world imbued with blood and violence. However, that of the Chihuahenses against the Apache was not just a war, however dirty: it was an extermination campaign. In the state of Chihuahua, there was no assimilation, no mestizaje between Spaniards and Indians, no mixing at all, as it was common elsewhere in Mexico: the Indians were annihilated.

For that reason, today, remembering Joaquín Terrazas and Juan Mata Ortiz as heroes is historically incorrect and morally controversial.

Geronimo, photo by A.B. Canady, Kansas, ca. 1907, US Library of Congress.
3 Apaches
Three Apache men: chief James A. Garfield, Pouche Te Foya and Sanches. Detroit, Michigan. ca. 1899, US Library of Congress.
Flute: Steven Rushingwind; cello: JC; percussion: Nelson Rios.
Steven Rushingwind is a Native American flute musician, born in South Pomona, California. His father was a full blooded Ópata, his mother a native from Chihuahua, Mexico.

The end of the war on the Apaches coincided with the arrival in Chihuahua of the Mormons and of the railway (the first not on the second).

The arrival of the Mormons

Starting from 1885, groups of Mormons, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, left the US, passed the border, and entered the Mexico land. Men, women, and children, crammed in small wagons and carriages, together with some furnishing and money, arrived, felt strangers in a new land, prayed, rolled up their sleeves, and prepared to sweat under the Chihuahuan sun.

Mormon colonies in Mexico
The Mormon settlements around Nuevo Casas Grandes. From Leslie L. Sudweeks, cit., in
Mormons building a house
 Mormons building a house in Northern Mexico, late 19th century, US Library of Congress.
Mormon store
A “small Mormon store” in Northern Mexico, late 19th century, US Library of Congress.
BELOW: A pair of scuffed old shoes. By courtesy of the Media Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

They were migrating to avoid the 1882 Edmunds Act that outlawed polygamy throughout US federal territories. They settled in the north of Sonora and Chihuahua, at a short distance from the border; many of their first settlements were in the plateau of Casas Grandes. Here, they were not welcomed with open arms: on the contrary, they were surrounded by suspicion and enmity and received an expulsion order by the state authorities. Therefore, some of them went to Mexico City to bring the case before dictator Porfirio Diaz and were successful in having the expulsion order revoked. They got also the right to purchase some acres of land near Nuevo Casas Grandes and started to build wooden houses; to plant corn, vegetables, and sugar cane; to grow row crops, wheat fields, and fruit orchards; and to realize an irrigation system with the waters of Río Piedras Verdes.

Among the very first Mormon settlers, there were William G. Romney and Miles Park Romney; this last was among the founders of Colonia Dublán, and his wife, Annie M. Romney, became the first teacher of Colonia Juárez. They were respectively the great-grandfather and the great-grandmother of Mitt Romney, US senator, former governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, and the Republican Party’s nominee for president of the United States in the 2012 election.

Colonia Dublán and Colonia Juárez (14 km north of Mata Ortiz), both in the Municipality of Nuevo Casas Grandes, are still prosperous today.

The railway and the old Scrooge

Finally, the telegraph and the railway arrived in Chihuahua. In 1883 the telephone line was inaugurated in the state, and guess who was the very first owner of a phone. In 1881, don Luis, state governor that year, organized the company that was to build the railway from the city of Chihuahua to Ciudad Juárez on the Mexico-US border, passing throughout its estates, and on August 2, 1881, he inaugurated the construction works. His official biographer (José Fuentes Mares) wrote that with “illuminated generosity” the powerful landowner gifted both the right to pass and the land to cross to the Compañía Ferrocaril Central.

Lol. Never trust an official biographer whatever!

The old Scrooge was anything but generous. He was forward-looking and smart. Very smart. Look at this 1903 map of that part of the Ferrocarril Central Mexicano (Mexican Central Railway) that linked Chuhuahua city to Ciudad Juárez and El Paso in Texas. Look at the railway stops north of the capital city: the Terrazas stop was named not just as a tribute to don Luis but because it was located inside one of his estates; Encinillas and Laguna were two railway stations inside his Hacienda de Encinillas; Gallego was located inside his El Torreón ranch, etc., etc.

1903 Poor's Mexican Central Railway
Alma Mexicana
The locomotive no. 40, the very first to be entirely manufactured in Mexico (in the Aguascalientes plant), patriotically named “Alma Mexicana” (Mexican Soul).

The railway line allowed don Luis to multiply exports of agricultural products and livestock to the United States and to enliven goods to central Mexico. His choice to give up portions of land and the rights of pass proved to be a far-sighted decision.

In parallel with the Mexican Central Railway, new companies developed to extend the railway line to even the most marginal areas of Chihuahua rich in mines or other natural resources (such as timber). In 1897, the Railway Company of Río Grande, Sierra Madre, and Pacific was founded by the CEO of an important mining company in Chihuahua, the American, A.A. Spendlove, and Enrique Creel, son-in-law of don Luis Terrazas. This secondary railway line crossed the plateau of Nuevo Casas Grandes and changed its landscape forever. In 1898, 258 km of this secondary line connected Ciudad Juárez-El Paso to Nuevo Casas Grandes, by passing through the freight station of Don Luis: it was built – you’ll probably have already figured it out – to allow the vaqueros working in three of Luis Terrazas’ haciendas (those of San Lorenzo, San Luis, and San Miguel Babícora) to load up the train cars with tenths of thousands of cattle.

In 1909, the Compañía del Ferrocarril del Noroeste de México – Mexican Northwestern Railway Company, founded with capitals from the Terrazas-Creel family and some Canadian investors, acquired the old Railway Company of Río Grande, Sierra Madre, and Pacific: the further development of the railway in the Casas Grandes area had the priority as it was a precondition to begin systematic and large-scale exploitation of the forest resources in the Western Sierra Madre.

Mexican Central Railway train
Mexican Central Railway train at a station, Mexico, 1880s. US Library of Congress.

The railway line was extended to pass through two new settlements-stations: Estación Pearson and Ciudad Madera, where the Pearson Company, founded by Enrique Creel and the Canadian businessman Frederick Stark Pearson, built the two largest lumber mills in the American continent (to that date, of course).

The huge lumber mill in Pearson, Chihuahua, Mexico, ca. 1910-1919. The mill was built on the bank of the river San Miguel, a few kilometers south of Nuevo Casas Grandes. In the beginning, the small village of Pearson was made up of a few low houses overlooking a dirty road, in a narrow strip of arid land between the railway and the river bank. In a decade, it boomed, reaching 3,000 inhabitants. It was home to many workers, employed both by the lumber mill and by the railroad repair yard and station. Photo by US Library of Congress.

As we saw, don Luis and his enlarged family, especially the “branch” Terrazas-Creel, had a finger in all of the Chihuahuan pies. Between 1904 and 1910, Enrique Creel was the powerful Governor of the state. In that very same period, the empire of don Luis reached its peak.


How rich was don Luis?

Terrazas money

The industrial and financial empire as well as the investments of the Terrazas family were very diversified and branched out. Don Luis founded companies, joint ventures, and corporations in partnership firstly with Chihuahuan oligarchs, then with his family members (= sons and sons-in-law), and, finally, with foreign investors. The Terrazas family owned several city residences and buildings, and many monopoly companies: the Compañía Telefónica de Chuhuahua (telephony sector), the Compañía Cervecera de Chuhuahua (brewery), the Compañía Tranvías de Chuhuahua (urban transport services), the Compañía de Seguros La Protectora (insurance). He owned or had shareholdings in the agrifood sector (flour mill, bakeries, meat processing plant, fruit packaging plants, a sugar factory), textile and clothing sector, metalworking and chemical fields, oil sector, mining industry, timber processing, and others. He even owned a racecourse.

In 1906, the industrial empire of the Terrazas-Creel branch included 26 companies which, in one way or another, enjoyed tax exemptions or concessions, state aid, subsidies, and loans obtained thanks to the enormous political power of the family. The Terrazas-Creel clan owned – as we already saw – a bank, the Banco Minero de Chihuahua, that in the early 20th century became the most important financial institution of the whole of Mexico. He also possessed – as we shall see – a mysterious treasure of gold bars and coins.

gold bars

However, the bedrock of one of the world’s largest fortunes was made up by the land: don Luis was above all a landowner.

How much land did he own?

It’s difficult to say it with accuracy. When he was alive, estimates were made upwards, after his death, downwards (to avoid confiscations). An article published by The Herald, and dated March 1, 1907, defined him as «a king among ranch owners (…), and the largest land-owner in the world», assigning him a record of 15,000,000 acres. It’s too much. Scholars as Alonso Domínguez and Mark Wasserman estimate a minimum of 2,679,954 hectares, namely 6,622,000 acres; Beldon Butterfield speaks of a minimum of 7 million acres, others of a maximum of 8 million acres. The truth lies in between: he probably owned an overall area equal to the whole of Belgium in Europe or the state of Maryland in the US.

Only a very small part of this immense area was inherited or acquired through marriage, a part was purchased (after conditioning price trend), and a large part was both grabbed after the nationalization of Catholic Church real estate and obtained thanks to the systematic expropriation of the Indian lands and continued illegal communal land seizures (a common trend throughout Mexico between 1876 and 1910, as Friedrich Katz highlights in his essays, see Bibliography).

Mark Wasserman writes that 7 of the 19 landowners of the state of Chihuahua were part of the enlarged Terrazas family; together they controlled more than 5 million hectares (M.W., Oligarquía e intereses extranjeros, see Bibliography), that’s to say 12,360,000 acres, an area equal to the whole of Belgium and the half of The Netherlands.

Chihuahua landscape 3
Landscape in the area of La Balleza, south to Chihuahua state capital. Photo by Lon&Queta, under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license.

However, there’s a gap we have to notice: owning land in Mexico at those times was not like owning land today.

My uncle, the brother of my grandmother, was a landowner in the Copán area (in Honduras, near the border with Guatemala). My father was used to tell me that in the 1920s and 30s, he owned not only the land as far as the eye could see, not only the natural resources on and under the ground but also everything that breathed on that land, heads of cattle and heads of human beings included.

Does it hold true for the Terrazas’ estates as well?

The great majority of the people working in the don Luis’ haciendas was not in a condition of servidumbre, debt slavery, or feudal-type serfdom: in Chihuahua, there were not many peones endeudados, unlike in central Mexico, where the peonage system (a form of forced labor) was a real plague. Except for some Indians and a few slaves, the majority of the people working in the Terrazas’ haciendas were legally free. It was a rural proletariat made up of peones acomodados, privileged servants living inside the hacienda, and peones acasillados, permanent resident workers such as vaqueros, shepherds, artisans, and peasants; all received a (low) wage plus a ration of food and some basic goods. There were also two other groups of people: the temporary workers such as the jornaleros, day laborers, more vulnerable to the economic ups and downs; and the arrendatarios, that’s to say, tenants and sharecroppers who paid the hacendado, the landowner, a fixed sum or a share of their harvest (usually a third or a half).

Don Luis, therefore, was not a sort of feudal lord and did not resemble the master of a cotton plantation. However, his decision-making power over the people living in his land or working in his haciendas knew no obstacle and had no boundaries. Legally there was no serfdom, but the landlords like don Luis were masters of the land and of the peons.

In 1892, he purchased la Hacienda del Carmen, a wide area that included the hamlet of El Carmen. The village and all of its inhabitants became a part of this new Terrazas’ estate. The Hacienda embedded the village and converted it into one of its many production units.

Here, as in all of his haciendas, don Luis had the power to decide whether to build schools or not, to provide medical facilities or not.

He had the right to fix all wages and could also force “his” peones to buy goods at the hacienda’s stores at the prices he had arbitrarily fixed.

He could affect most of their daily lives and he did it. In all of his haciendas, «the stables were more elaborate than the living quarters for the workers» (VV.AA., The magnetism of Mata Ortiz, see Bibliography). This was his choice as well. A “reasonable” choice from an economic point of view: a cow was certainly worth more than a cowboy.

He could exert strict social and political control over “his” workers (through a hierarchical chain of command), and he did it.

Last but not least, he allowed local chiefs and the rural police to inflict violent punishments and tortures on unruly or disobedient peones. Even for negligible errors.

Tienda de Raya in Hacienda
A tienda de raya, a company store inside a Mexican hacienda in the late 19th century.
Capatases, peones y sus hijos en la hacienda de las Cruces, Guanajuato (Watchmen, peones and their children in La Hacienda de Las Cruces in Guanajuato), 1905-1910, photo by Casasola, © Phototeca Nacional INAH, Mexico.
Peones en la capital
A peon family in Ciudad de México. Photo by Globe Stereograph Co., ca. 1906, US Library of Congress.
There is a dark and murky core, morally miserable and spiritually degrading, in all those people who accept the shocking contrast between those who have everything and those who have nothing, without feeling a cramp of shame in their own flesh.
Photo by Wayne S. Grazio, 2011. Under  Creative Commons LicenseDeed Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

According to Mark Wasserman, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Terrazas family owned many haciendas, and no less than 10,000 people were living or working for them (only the largest hacienda, Encinillas, counted approx. 2000 inhabitants).

As to the animals, their tally is slightly uncertain (different scholars, from Fuentes Mares to Wasserman give different accounts): don Luis owned 350,000 to 500,000 head of cattle, 225,000 sheep and goats, 25,000 horses, 5,000 donkeys, and mules.

He “owned” as well 13 sons and daughters: he was born in a patriarchal family and became a controlling, authoritative father who used all of his children to build a network of business and political alliances. He sent all of his sons to the best US universities, while all of his daughters were firmly “invited” to become religious women, obedient wives, supporters of pious projects, and charity works. None of them ever rebelled. Maybe one: his son Guillermo committed suicide at 14 (an age when nothing can be under your responsibility). So happy wasn’t to be that family.

Don Luis is perfectly defined by a legendary boutade: once a journalist asked him if he was from Chihuahua. He answered: Yo no soy de Chihuahua; Chihuahua es mío. I’m not Chihuahuan; it’s Chihuahua to be mine.

Some Mexicans say he was a personaje de luces y sombras, a man of light and shadow, good and bad. What a nonsensical platitude, good for everybody. Moreover, what many usually define “shadows” makes me laugh: arrogance, hubris, egotism, avidity… all black marks of a cartoon villain. Don Luis was not a mix between Scrooge McDuck and Mr. Burns (The Simpsons).


«Even in a nation replete with powerful regional caciques and great land-owning families, the empire of the Terrazas was extraordinary, for they combined an iron grip on the politics of their home state with vast and diverse economic interests» (Mark Wasserman, The Social Origins of the 1910 Revolution in Chihuahua, see Bibliography).

Cacique (pron. Ka’ sike) is a Latin American word of Antillean origin, used today to designate a local boss whose tyrannical power is based on a local network of patronage. Don Luis was a tyrant and a cacique, and the political power of his enlarged family was pervasive and prolonged: between 1860 and 1910, three different members of the “family” held the office of Chihuahua governor for a total of 25 (not consecutive) years. Their power was a sort of oligarchic monopoly whose main features – for all scholars – can be summarized in a few words: corruption, abuses, arbitrariness, despotism, repression, generalized inefficiencies, and incompetencies at all levels of the management of public affairs, impunity.

Even when the Terrazas were not governors, they could exert considerable influence and retain strict control over many public affairs. For them everything and everyone had a price: «Over several decades, the family used its great financial resources and widespread business interests to purchase the cooperation of the most adamant opponents and potential rivals» (M. Wasserman, cit.).

The “family” paid and demanded to be paid. «In Chihuahua, it was impossible to obtain favorable action from the state government without the expensive intervention of a member of the Terrazas inner circle. In return for lucrative concessions and contracts, subsidies, and tax exemptions provided to native and foreign entrepreneurs, the Terrazas and their allies received attorney and notarial fees, commissions, stock, or jobs. At the local level, jefes were less sophisticated: they stole, extorted, and embezzled. Jefes, police, tax collectors, and judges received bribes in exchange for favorable tax assessments and overlooking law violations. There were continual complaints of favoritism and nepotism» (M.W., cit.).

Don Luis Terrazas
Don Luis Terrazas

Thanks to the “family”, «the Chihuahua judiciary was a morass of corruption and incompetence, favoritism, nepotism» (M.W., cit.), but to win the prize of the most irresponsible political choice was the Terrazas’ fiscal policy, aimed both at supporting the family’s economic investments with public funds and at guaranteeing tax exemption (or ridiculously derisory taxes) to the family and its political or business allies (Don Luis and Enrique Creel used tax reductions or exemptions as tools to build a network of international major alliances).

If many US investors and Chihuahuan elite members paid little or nothing at all, who did pay the taxes? Certainly not the peones.

«La estructura politica del estado, basada en favoritismos y en exenciones especiales de impuestos, unicamente transferìa dicha carga al ciudadano comun, cuya situacion economica no le permitia soportarla»: the political structure of the state, based on cronyism and special tax exemptions, transferred the tax burden to the common citizen, whose economic situation did not allow him to bear it. (Robert Sandels, Antecedentes de la Revolución en Chihuahua, see Bibliography). The burden of the taxes fell almost entirely on the emerging middle class and the most privileged workers: small rancheros, small farm owners, office workers, employees with management duties, shopkeepers, artisans owners of workshops, teachers, officials of lower rank, etc.

This tax policy that blocked any income redistribution in the Chihuahuan society was brought to its extreme consequences by Enrique Creel, who became the state’s governor from 1904 to 1910.

«When Creel became governor, he embarked upon a massive and expensive public works program. The state borrowed two million pesos between 1903 and 1911 to finance the construction of public buildings, infrastructures, sewer and water systems. In order to pay for these projects, which afforded lucrative contracts and land speculation for the oligarchy and foreigners, the legislature raised taxes. Since both the oligarchy and foreigners enjoyed tax exemptions or favors on their haciendas, stores, and mines, the burden fell hard on small landowners, small merchants, and small service establishments. These groups found themselves encumbered by unfair taxes that not only increasingly absorbed their income but also put them at an acute disadvantage in relation to their bigger and more influential competition. In 1904, Creel sponsored a new tax law, which squarely laid the burden of taxation on smallholders, small merchants, artisans, and manual laborers. (…). The state legislature imposed troublesome burden on skilled craftsmen, artisans, and workers in 1908. The state raised taxes in 1908 by an estimated 300 to 400% (in some cases as much as 1000%); once again, the burden fell on the middle and working classes. (…). Another law, passed two years later, caused hardship for small farmers and freighters, because it placed a levy on all work animals in the state, such as horses, oxen, burros, and mules. Large landowners, of course, paid nothing on the thousands of head of livestock on their vast estates» (M. Wasserman, cit.).

Enrique Creel
Enrique Creel, 1910. © Phototeca Nacional INAH, Mexico.

The fiscal policy and the growing concentration of land ownership and wealth implemented by the Terrazas-Creel family stretched the social and economic inequality of Chihuahua to its limit. The economic modernization and the technological development, which Don Luis and Enrique Creel proudly claimed to have wanted and supported in “their” state, had benefited only members of the local elite. The vast majority of the population lacked bread, shoes, dignity, and respect. Moreover, the Chihuahuans had to bear the burden of pervasive corruption and lived in a totally undemocratic political situation that locally echoed the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (who ruled all of Mexico from 1876 to 1911).

To make matters worse, a severe depression struck the state of Chihuahua in 1907 and lasted well into 1910. Disastrous weather conditions and drought in 1907 and 1908 plus an early frost in 1909 ruined the state’s staple harvests and put thousands of laborers and jornaleros on the streets. The economic crisis of 1907-08 in the United States left thousands of Mexican seasonal border workers out of work. This crisis also caused the closure of many mines in northern Mexico, including Chihuahua, reducing thousands of miners to starvation.

The situation was explosive.

And it exploded.

In 1910, Chihuahua caught fire with speed and violence that none of the Terraza-Creel family was able to foresee or prefigure. Too much power and too much money often make you blind and dullard in the face of your world’s complex reality.

Mexican data
Data sources:  VV. AA., The Magnetism of Mata Ortiz, cit. P.I. Taibo II, Pancho Villa, see Bibliography.
GORMAN mural
Juan O’Gorman, EL FEUDALISMO PORFIRISTA, 1970 to 1973
Mural, fresco, 650 x 450 cm. © Museo Nacional de Historia Castillo de Chapultepec, Ciudad de México.
This mural by Juan O’Gorman (a Mexican painter and architect of Irish origin), represents the feudalism of the Porfirian era.
LOWER PART: On the left side (La Dictadura) is General Diaz surrounded by some members of his cabinet and politicians of the time. On the right side (La Represión) a peon tortured by caciques and foremen is exposed, while a rural guard is watching. The old man behind the wall recommends us to remain silent, showing the fear that the population had.
UPPER PART: on the left side, there is a group of constructions with a Frenchified character and the Rural barracks, the political police of the time. A group of peasants goes to the place armed with machetes, representing the first signs of the Revolution. On the right side stands a tienda de raya, one of those hacienda stores that became symbols of the extreme exploitation of peones.

Alyx Becerra




Did you inherit from your aunt a tribal mask, a stool, a vase, a rug, an ethnic item you don’t know what it is?

Did you find in a trunk an ethnic mysterious item you don’t even know how to describe?

Would you like to know if it’s worth something or is a worthless souvenir?

Would you like to know what it is exactly and if / how / where you might sell it?