An Unbecoming King: Making Mighty Chessmen in Porfirian Mexico

6 minute read

MAA prides itself on housing a diversity of cultural materials from across the globe. One corner of the anthropological collection contains hundreds of Mexican folkloric items from the 19th century. This nook comprises unique objects collected in the 1890s by anthropologist Frederick Starr (1858-1933), including a variety of arts and crafts, toys, and games made for the young and old of Mexico. Since Starr’s donation to the British Folklore Society, these materials have garnered little attention, apart from the select items on display in the Maudslay Hall at MAA that explore Día de los Muertos. Joshua Fitzgerald (JRF, Churchill College) and Jonathan Truitt (Central Michigan University) are leading a new project to counteract this lack of attention by delving into Mexico’s past via board game culture. 

A man and a woman are looking at two board games placed on a table.

Figure 1. Jonathan and Senior Curator Anita Herle looking at the Starr Collection at MAA.

This month, Collections Manager Rachel Hand and Senior Curator in Anthropology Anita Herle welcomed the two researchers to take a look at the Starr materials. Truitt, the Director of the Center for Learning through Games and Simulation and co-author of the Reacting to the Past module Mexico in Revolution with Stephany Slaughter, is currently exploring the impact of games and play on the formation of colonial Mexico, with archival and collections studies spanning the Atlantic. He has spent decades investigating how game play and gamification shape the Humanities. Fitzgerald, the Jeffrey Rubinoff Fellow in ‘art as a source of knowledge’, is researching the artwork and craftsmanship of games. He aims to build on his current Media Studies investigations into the use of Mexican heritage objects in analogue and digital gaming experiences. He is also exploring new public engagement opportunities for the Cambridge Creative Encounters Partnerships and hopes to develop a digitally-enhanced exhibition to encourage public interest in the History of Gaming and Mexican heritage at the MAA. Both researchers aim to combine their efforts and help add indexing details to the many games in MAA’s catalogue whilst also seeking answers to significant questions relevant to contemporary society.

32 chess pieces from a set made in Mexico, in different shades of brown.

Figure 2. 32 clay chess pieces, featuring faces of historically significant political leaders in 19th century Mexico. Puebla, Mexico. Collected by Frederick Starr. Donated by the British Folklore Society. MAA Z 39671.

Made and played during the dictatorship of the infamous Mexican general Porifirio Díaz (1870-1910), these board games mirror popular activities with which our own lives are filled. Just like the games in our time, these too were inspired by entertainment from the past, included contemporary educational components, and served as precursors to future gaming experiences. Games condense politics, economics, geography, history, and identities (especially racist depictions) into the hands of adults and children. How did Mexicans of the 19th century play games together when political and socio-economic tensions threatened to tear them apart? Who had access to these games, and how were they played? A decade after these board games, dice, and pieces were last used, the country would plunge into a catastrophic civil war, the Mexican Revolution (c. 1910-1920), resulting in over three million deaths. What lessons might we learn from playing these games today?

Two dodecahedral dice placed on a grey piece of paper, above a plastic bag and beside a coloured scale.

Figure 3. 130-year old, dodecahedral clay dice used as part of the Oca General Porfirio Diaz (Fortune of General Porfiro Diaz) board game. MAA Z 39669.1-2.

Like an author of a rulebook, Díaz seized control of the government in 1876. Following the destabilising period of French interventions in the mid-1800s, Díaz orchestrated a military and bureaucratic coup, maintaining control throughout his life and until his exile–in France of all places–in 1911. With the assistance of his hand-picked administrators, he quelled political infighting, centralised authority, prioritised international investment over economic nationalism, and dealt with crime and rural corruption with an iron fist. He promoted the doctrine of ‘order and progress’; the consequent technological advancements brought efficiency and economic gain. Whilst the urban elites, bankrolled by foreign investors, profited, the burdens of society fell heavily on indebted labourers, farming families, and marginalised Indigenous and mixed-ethnic communities. Díaz strategically positioned state officials to undermine Indigenous Mexico’s claims to ancestral lands and shift control of the means and modes of production away from the hands of the campesinos (farmers or peasantry) and into the hands of the others. Stability was unevenly governed and any opposition was suppressed. The subsequent social revolution resulted in the greatest loss of human life and economic damage in the nation’s history. How do the games and game artwork in the Starr collection reflect Mexico in those draconian, antebellum years?

Brown-coloured chess pieces placed on a white textured sheet.

Figure 4. Chessmen reverse and Horse-Knight. Collected by Frederick Starr. Donated by the British Folklore Society. MAA Z 39671.

Amongst other games from Mexico, the Starr Collection includes chess. Preliminary studies indicate that its pieces convey a complicated political narrative. Picking up each ficha (piece) from the set of 32 painted clay chessmen in MAA Z 39671, Fitzgerald identifies the dictator himself portrayed as a young and heroic likeness of Díaz. 

A collage of two images. A brown-coloured chess piece on the left and a black and white photographic portrait of a Mexican man in military uniform on the right.

Figures 5 and 6. Left – Chess piece representing ‘Bishop’ Porifirio Díaz. Collected by Frederick Starr. Donated by the British Folklore Society. MAA Z 39671. Right – A photographic portrait of Porifirio Díaz in military uniform. Source: Library of Congress.

The piece reflects photographs and portraits of Díaz from the post-war era, possibly envisioning him on 5th May 1868, when he led a squadron for the city of Puebla de los Ángeles to defy the Second French intervention. Crafted in the city of Puebla, according to Starr, the major and minor Mexican pieces, excluding the pawns, consist of a darker brown or red coloured coating. Alongside Díaz, the poblano (Pueblan) artisan has moulded clay versions of Mexico’s first Indigenous president, Benito Juarez García (1806 – 72), who is possibly the ‘King’ piece of the set. Juarez would face off against Maximiliano I, represented by one of the lighter coloured fichas, the French ruler’s parted beard revealing his vulnerable neck. Díaz and what appears to be a likeness of the renowned priest and independence leader Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla (1753-1811) would have been placed on the board as the ‘Bishops.’

Four chess pieces in different shades of brown.

Figure 7. Major and Minor Chessmen: From top left, Player 1 ‘Bishop’ Porifirio Díaz; Player 1 ‘King’ Benito Juarez; Player 2 ‘King’ Maximiliano I; Player 2 ‘Queen’ Empress Charlotte. Collected by Frederick Starr. Donated by the British Folklore Society. MAA Z 39671.

For the opposition, the piece representing Maximiliano I is accompanied by General Charles de Lorencez (1814-1892) and an unrecognisable male figure. The major pieces of ‘Queens’ are Charlotte of Belgium and an unknown female figure for the Mexican Republican side. The French forces and all Pawns are in a lighter tan colour. The ‘Knight’ pieces, represented by horse heads, come in both tan and brown. Two tan anthropomorphic cannon-heads are matched by two brown Indigenous ruler busts wearing diadems or feathered headdresses. It is likely that these pairings are opposing ‘Rook’ pieces to complement the two pairs of Horse-Knights, though more analysis is needed. The 16 Pawns feature eight bearded men in Phrygian style caps and eight androgynous youths with long unkempt hair and fringes framing their faces. Notably, General Ignacio Zaragoza, the true tactician of Cinco de Mayo, is absent from the field of battle. In the imagination of the 1890s, Díaz takes prominence.

Six chess pieces placed on a white textured material.

Figure 8. Clay Chessmen Colour Variance. Collected by Frederick Starr. Donated by the British Folklore Society. MAA Z 39671.

Starr catalogued the set under ‘Games of Skill for Adults’ explaining that most pieces were ‘often fanciful or artistic’. The pieces of this particular set feature leaders of the Mexican Republic in a contest against Maximiliano’s French imperialists (Starr, 1901: 23). Mistakenly, the ‘Mexican Folklore Collection’ label lists that the chess pieces were intended for a game called ‘Fox and Geese.’ However, this is clearly not the case. They are piezas de ajedrez (pieces of chess), a game introduced from Andalusian traditions in Iberia, with its 32 pieces competing over a checkerboard. Manufactured in Puebla, the chessmen politicise the site of the Battle of Puebla, allowing players to choose either the light or dark side. The fact that Díaz and Juarez, political opponents before Juarez’s death in 1872, are positioned on the same side in the 1890s chess match indicates that the set commemorates a unified resistance.

A black and white illustration of a man in a military jacket holding another man in his hand.

Figure 9. ‘Porfirio Díaz Holds Bernardo Reyes in a Hand’, caricature. Ca. 1910, Ciudad de México, Distrito Federal, México. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Placing Juarez and Díaz on the same team in the 1890s may seem illogical, but games allow for artistic licence. They had become bitter political rivals by the time of Juarez’s death in 1872. The Puebla chessmen provided players with the opportunity to weaponize the recent past in the midst of a contentious political climate. In this game, Juarez would forever hold the role of the King, while Díaz would faithfully serve as his loyal sidekick. Reflecting on his own experiences in preparation for battle, Díaz once wrote in his memoir that on 4th May 1868, he was instructed to ‘fight to the point of sacrifice… [and] at the very least, try to cause some havoc to the enemy’. He acknowledged that winning was ‘a very difficult task, an illogical aspiration’ (Díaz, 1947: 149-150; author’s translation).

During the game, a player who picked up the set of defenders from Puebla at some point, staving off checkmate, might have faced a similar ‘difficult challenge’ and ‘illogical aspiration’. They may have sacrificed the current dictator-bishop to save the former president-king, embodying the spirit of sacrifice and strategic manoeuvring in the face of adversity.


The authors thank the MAA staff for accommodating this initial research, especially Anita Herle, Eleanor Foster, Rachel Hand, and Jimena Lobo Guerrero Arenas.


Porfirio, D. (1947). Archivo del general: Memorias y documentos, Vol. I; ed. Alberto María Carreño. Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Historia.


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