Calles, Plutarco Elías (1877–1945)

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Calles, Plutarco Elías (1877–1945)

Plutarco Elías Calles (b. 25 September 1877; d. 19 October 1945), president of Mexico (1924–1928). The poor relation of a notable family in the northwestern state of Sonora, Calles was an aspiring young professional and entrepreneur who had met with only limited success before the Mexican Revolution. Initially on the periphery of Francisco Madero's movement against the Porfirio Díaz regime, from a minor appointment in the new state government he rose steadily in the ranks of what became the constitutionalist army, becoming Alvaro Obregón's principal political associate. As president, and then as jefe máximo (supreme chief) in the wake of the assassination of president-elect Obregón (1928), Calles dominated the national government for more than a decade and initiated the institutionalization of the Revolution.

Until the Revolution, Calles's life had been punctuated with misfortune and disappointments. He was the illegitimate son of Plutarco Elías, scion of one of the most prominent families in northeast Sonora in the nineteenth century. Following the death of his mother when he was four, he was raised by his stepfather, Juan B. Calles, who owned a small cantina in Hermosillo (and from whom he took his second family name). After being educated in Hermosillo, Calles became a schoolteacher. The death of his first wife, Francisca Bernal, in 1899 prompted him to move to the port of Guaymas, where he began a decade-long search for economic success and social mobility. To do so, he relied on his connections with, and the support of, his father's family, the Elíases. First a school inspector and newspaper editor in the port, Calles next was appointed municipal treasurer (he lost the post when funds were discovered missing), followed by a stint as manager of his half brother's hotel until it burned. He moved in 1906 to Fronteras, where he managed his father's modest hacienda, was bookkeeper for and shareholder in a small flour mill, and served as municipal secretary—at last achieving modest success and some local prominence. But he then became embroiled in the Elíases' conflict with the local cacique (boss) and in a dispute with farmers over water rights. As a result he returned to Guaymas in 1910 to manage a hotel and open a commission business in partnership.

Though not an active participant in the local Maderista movement, Calles lent it some support—his store as a meeting place. He used this connection to run unsuccessfully for the state legislature in 1911. Again he returned to northeast Sonora, opening a general store (in partnership) in the border town of Agua Prieta, a most fortunate choice. The railroad running through the town connected Arizona with important mining districts in the interior of Sonora; and the new governor, José M. Maytorena, was looking for a loyal follower who, as the town's police chief, would secure customs revenues, quiet disgruntled former insurgents, and forestall a rumored invasion from Arizona by the radical Magonista revolutionaries. His choice of Calles proved to be the turning point of the latter's life. Calles proved to be a capable, diligent local official, against the Orozquista rebels (1912) and the Huerta coup a year later (being among the first to proclaim armed resistance in the state).

Calles soon developed a working relationship with Obregón, who was emerging as the leader of the revolutionary jefes in the northwest. While Obregón carried the constitutionalist movement beyond the state, Calles remained to manage the military and political affairs of Sonora. As governor of Sonora (1915–1916, 1917–1919) and working with Obregón's other principal Sonoran associate, Adolfo De La Huerta (governor, 1917, 1919–1920), Calles set forth a radical program to promote education on a broad scale; break up monopolies (including the cancellation of all prior government concessions which had tax exemptions) and support small entrepreneurs; extend secularization (including the legalization of divorce and the expulsion of all priests); establish an agrarian commission to distribute the expropriated land of those deemed enemies of the Revolution; foster government patronage of workers, assisting in their organization and legislating rights and benefits; and limit foreign influence (principally, severe economic and social restrictions on Chinese immigrants, and cancelling contracts with some large foreign investors). This radical program put Calle at loggerheads with President Venustiano Carranza. Obregón sought to moderate these concepts, but failed in his efforts to establish singular control over the state. He was forced to work with Calles and de la Huerta, forming a triumvirate.

When Obregón announced his presidential candidacy, Calles resigned as secretary of industry, commerce, and labor (1919–1920). Soon after, he led the military forces and proclaimed the Plan of Agua Prieta against Carranza's attempt to impose his successor, and then served as Obregón's interior secretary (1920–1923). When Obregón chose to support Calles over de la Huerta as his successor, and de la Huerta led a revolt, Calles commanded the troops in the northwest. As president, Calles pressed his radical anticlericalism in the face of the Catholic Church's challenge to the restrictions of the 1917 Constitution and then of the Cristero Rebellion (1926–1929). But his support of agrarian reform and the workers' movement ebbed as he moderated his policies and concentrated on the development of the nation's infrastructure (especially irrigation, roads, air and postal service, a telephone network, national banking and investment institutions) and on the promotion of enterprise, even to the point of supporting large-scale domestic and foreign investors.

To retain control over the national government in the wake of the assassination of president-elect Obregón, Calles and his followers pursued a limited and expedient institutionalization of the hierarchical, personalist system that had bound the ruling coalition of revolutionary jefes together: the National Revolutionary Party. However, the Maximato (the oligarchic rule of the Callista political machine) increasingly lost a popular base, as it turned away from the Revolution's promises of reform and as the Great Depression deepened. Reformers in the party used its structure to institute a radical program and mobilize popular support, coalescing around Lázaro Cárdenas. Again employing expediency, Calles responded by acceding to some of the reformist demands and settling on Cárdenas for the 1934 presidential elections, as the best option to contain growing party dissidence and rising popular alienation. This time, however, his expedient adjustments set in motion forces he could not control. Cárdenas mobilized popular support and employed the institutional prerogatives of the party and the presidency to the fullest. When Calles resisted, he was deported (April 1936). He remained in California until Cárdenas's successor, Manuel Ávila Camacho, permitted his return in 1941 and accorded him full honors at his funeral four years later.

See alsoMexico, Political Parties: National Revolutionary Party (PNR); Mexico: Since 1910.


Juan De Dios Bojórquez, Calles (1923).

Ramón Puente, Calles (1933).

Francisco R. Almada, La Revolución en el Estado de Sonora (1971).

Hector Aguilar Camín, La frontera nómada: Sonora y la Revolución Mexicana (1977).

Alejandra Lajous, Los orígenes del partido único en México (1981).

Luis Javier Garrido, El partido de la Revolución instituciona-lizada (medio siglo de poder político en México) (1982).

Additional Bibliography

Krauze, Enrique. Plutarco E. Calles: Reformar desde el origen. Mexico, D.F.: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1987.

Silva, Carlos. Plutarco Elias Calles. Mexico, D.F.: Planeta, 2005.

                                           Stuart F. Voss

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Calles, Plutarco Elías (1877–1945)

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