The Most Influential Mexicans Since Independence

Presidents, Revolutionaries, Statesmen, Artists and Madmen

Since throwing off Spanish rule in the early nineteenth century, Mexico has produced some truly remarkable individuals including noble presidents, obsessed madmen, ruthless warlords, inventors, visionary artists and desperate criminals. Meet a few of these legendary figures!

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Agustín de Iturbide (Emperor Agustín I)

Agustín de Iturbide. Public Domain Image

Agustín de Iturbide (1783-1824) was born into a wealthy family in the current Mexican state of Morelia and joined the army at a young age. He was a skilled soldier and quickly rose in the ranks. When the Mexican War of Independence broke out, Iturbide fought for the royalists against insurgent leaders such as Jose Maria Morelos and Vicente Guerrero. In 1820, he switched sides and began fighting for Independence. When the Spanish forces were finally defeated, Iturbide accepted the title of Emperor in 1822. Infighting between rival factions quickly broke out and he was never able to get a firm grip on power. Exiled in 1823, he tried to return in 1824 only to be captured and executed.

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Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (1794-1876)

Antonio López de Santa Anna. Public Domain Image

Antonio López de Santa Anna was president of Mexico eleven times between 1833 and 1855. He is remembered with disdain by modern Mexicans for "losing" first Texas and then California, Utah and other states to the USA, although in reality he fought hard to keep those territories. He was crooked and treacherous, switching ideologies as it suited him, but the people of Mexico loved his flair for the dramatic and turned to him again and again in times of crisis in spite of his incompetence.

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Maximilian of Austria, Emperor of Mexico

Maximilian of Austria. Public Domain Image

By the 1860's, embattled Mexico had tried it all: Liberals (Benito Juarez), Conservatives (Felix Zuloaga), an Emperor (Iturbide) and even a mad dictator (Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna). Nothing was working: the young nation was still in a state of near-constant strife and chaos. So why not try a European-style monarchy? In 1864, France succeeded in convincing Mexico to accept Maximilian of Austria (1832-1867), a nobleman in his early 30's, as Emperor. Although Maximilian worked hard at being a good Emperor, the conflict between liberals and conservatives was too much, and he was deposed and executed in 1867.

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Benito Juarez, Mexico's Liberal Reformer

Benito Juarez, President of Mexico five times during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Common property image

Benito Juarez (1806-1872) was President on and off from 1858 to 1872. Known as "Mexico's Abraham Lincoln," he served during a time of great strife and upheaval. Conservatives (who favored a strong role for the church in government) and Liberals (who did not) were killing one another in the streets, foreign interests were meddling in Mexico's affairs, and the nation was still coping with the loss of much of its territory to the United States. The unlikely Juarez (a full-blooded Zapotec whose first language was not Spanish) led Mexico with a firm hand and a clear vision.

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Porfirio Diaz, Mexico's Iron Tyrant

Porfirio Diaz. Public Domain Image

Porfirio Diaz (1830-1915) was President of Mexico from 1876 to 1911 and still stands as a giant of Mexican history and politics. He ruled his nation with an iron fist until 1911, when it took nothing less than the Mexican Revolution to dislodge him. During his reign, known as the Porfiriato, the rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and Mexico joined the ranks of developed nations in the world. This progress came at a high price, however, as Don Porfirio presided over one of the most crooked administrations in history.

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Francisco I. Madero, the Unlikely Revolutionary

Francisco Madero. Public Domain Image

In 1910, long-term dictator Porfirio Diaz decided it was finally time to hold elections, but he quickly backed off his promise when it became apparent that Francisco Madero (1873-1913) would win. Madero was arrested, but he escaped to the United States only to return at the head of a revolutionary army led by Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco. With Diaz deposed, Madero ruled from 1911 to 1913 before he was executed and replaced as President by General Victoriano Huerta.

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Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919)

Emiliano Zapata. Public Domain Image

A dirt-poor peasant turned revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata came to embody the soul of the Mexican Revolution. His famous quote "It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees" sums up the ideology of the poor farmers and laborers who took up arms in Mexico: for them, the war was as much about dignity as land.

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Pancho Villa, the Bandit Warlord of the Revolution

Pancho Villa. Photographer Unknown

Born into grinding poverty in Mexico's dry, dusty north, Pancho Villa (real name: Doroteo Arango) led the life of a rural bandit during the Porfiriato. When the Mexican Revolution broke out, Villa formed an army and enthusiastically joined in. By 1915, his army, the legendary Division of the North, was the mightiest force in the war-torn land. It took an uneasy alliance of rival warlords Alvaro Obregon and Venuztiano Carranza to bring him down: his army was destroyed in a series of clashes with Obregon in 1915-1916. Still, he survived the revolution only to be assassinated (many say on Obregon's orders) in 1923.

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Diego Rivera (1886-1957)

Diego Rivera in 1932. Photo by Carl Von Vechten. Public Domain image.

Diego Rivera was one of Mexico’s greatest artists. Along with others such as José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siquieros, he is credited with creating the muralist artistic movement, which features enormous paintings created on walls and buildings. Although he created beautiful paintings around the world, he may well be best known for his tumultuous relationship with artist Frida Kahlo.

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Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo self-portrait "Diego and I" 1949. Painting by Frida Kahlo

A gifted artist, Frida Kahlo’s paintings reflect the pain that she often felt, both from a debilitating accident while a young girl and her chaotic relationship with artist Diego Rivera later in life. Although her importance to Mexican art is great, her importance is not limited to art: she is also a hero to many Mexican girls and women who admire her tenacity in the face of adversity.

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Roberto Gómez Bolaños “Chespirito” (1929-)

Chavo del Ocho Pinata for sale in Guatemala. Photo by Christopher Minster

Many Mexicans don’t know the name Roberto Gómez Bolaños, but ask anyone in Mexico – or most of the Spanish speaking world, for that matter – about “Chespirito” and no doubt you’ll get a smile. Chespirito is Mexico’s greatest entertainer, creator of beloved TV icons such as “el Chavo del 8” (“the kid from #8”) and “el Chapulín Colorado” (“the red grasshopper”). The ratings for his shows are staggering: it is estimated that during their heyday, over half of all televisions in Mexico were tuned in to new episodes.

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Joaquin Guzmán Loera (1957-)

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. photo by Mexican Federal Police

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán is the head of the dreaded Sinaloa Cartel, currently the largest drug-smuggling operation in the world and one of the largest global criminal organizations in existence. His wealth and power are reminiscent of the late Pablo Escobar, but the comparisons stop there: whereas Escobar preferred to hide in plain sight and became a Colombian congressman for the immunity it offered, Guzmán has been in hiding for years.

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Your Citation
Minster, Christopher. "The Most Influential Mexicans Since Independence." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Minster, Christopher. (2023, April 5). The Most Influential Mexicans Since Independence. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "The Most Influential Mexicans Since Independence." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).