The Mexican Revolution was an armed conflict that spanned over 10 years. While it was not a proper revolution that completely changed the regime or abolished the class system, it did however set the bases for contemporary politics in Mexico. Despite treason and plundering becoming recurring themes during the struggle, remarkable events, ideas and traditions — both positive and negative — came to be thanks to the uprising.
First, let’s look at the background of early 19th century México:
The revolutionary movement began to overthrow Mexico’s one and only Profirio Díaz Mori. Born in Oaxaca, General Díaz was something of a liberal hero, his successful military career included fighting next to Benito Juárez during the French invasion. And here is where the first act of treason comes to play: his liberal ideals went down the drain as he orchestrated a coup to overthrow Lerdo de Tejada — Juárez’s succesor — and named himself president for life in 1876.
During his time as president, Mr. Porfirio set forth a second wave of “colonization.” Under the Vacant Lots Act he proceeded to grant land to foreign investors with tremendous tax incentives. Plantations, haciendas and ranches were so massive that some of them were even measured in latitude and longitude. By 1900, one third of Mexico was owned by citizens of the United States or Spain. President Díaz was a strong supporter of all things foreign.
Naturally, people — ancestral and traditional, but paperless, land owners — revolted against these practices. Bloodshed ensued. Indigenous peoples like the yaqui and the mayo fought the “allocation companies” but were met with guns or captivity, which entailed a one-way trip to the Yucatán Peninsula to work as slaves for henequen haciendas. A particular trait of his epoch were the “tiendas de raya” or payment stores, where people were paid in kind and perpetually in debt, which by the way was hereditary.
Díaz’s eager welcome of industrialization and capitalist values into the country yielded impressive results, for one, the value of the peso was equal to the dollar. Also, out of the 13.5 million people living in Mexico at the time, 11 million were poor of which 10 million worked as slaves.
Under these not-so-optimal conditions for the majority, the uprising began.
Journalism, Mexican Caricature and the Carnival
The first manifestation of discontent came under the form of the critical newspaper Regeneración published by the anarchist-influenced brothers Flores Magón. Along with Camilo Arriaga, the Flores Magón brothers held discussion clubs to talk about the current state of things, these meetings eventually led to the foundation of the first opposition party in Don Porfirio’s México: The Liberal Party. Their aim was to pressure the government to enforce the Reform Laws enacted by president Juárez, build more schools and rid them of any influence from the Catholic church and improve workers’ conditions.
Regeneración was obviously shut down — freedom of press wasn’t a thing back then — but another magazine was born, called “El Hijo del Ahuizote,” founded along with cartoonist Santiago R. de la Vega. This publication was responsible for the toughest criticism on president Díaz, who of course was not a fan and had the journalists jailed multiple times. This began the long-standing tradition of Mexican caricature or “moneros,” a new form of criticism that blended humor and aesthetics in a unique way, continued to this day by greats such as Rius and Hernández
Liberal ideas spread in throughout the country and were the intellectual sustenance for the brand new industrial working class. Unions formed and strikes began. The most notable ones happened in Cananea, Sonora; Río Blanco and Acayucan, Veracruz. Needless to say, they all ended in massacres. In the case of Veracruz, where unionized movements gathered particular strength among railroad and textile workers, the establishment of the Carnival as a diversion from union activities remains a bitter reminder of a more organized and intellectual past.
Repression and hunger concocted revolt waiting to happen. In order to appease things, President Díaz announced that elections could take place and that he embraced opposition. This excellent news found its way to Mr. Francisco I. Madero, a bourgeois land owner from Coahuila, who took it literally and under the cry of “Effective Suffrage, No Reelection” decided to run for president. Unfortunately, on the day of the election he was mysteriously incarcerated and to nobody’s surprise, Porfirio Díaz won again! Also, Madero was going to be assassinated so he fled to the United States.
After regrouping and arming himself, Madero issues the famous “Plan of San Luis” where, among several things, he declared the elections void and called Mexicans to raise up in arms against the tyrant on November 20 at exactly 6 p.m.
It didn’t go a long exactly as Mr. Madero had envisioned. A uniform armed mass didn’t exactly happen to sweep over the country, but several uprisings gathered momentum across the nation. Cue the rifle-wielding revolutionary heroes: Zapata, Villa, Orozco, Serdán, Moya and Carranza. (Spoiler alert: Carranza eventually became president, had Zapata killed and Pancho Villa settled down for a hefty piece of property.)
Zapata led the movement in the south, his motto: Land and liberty. He and his troop of armed campesinos were one of the most ferocious opponents of the presidents who followed Díaz (Madero, Huerta and Carranza). Champion of the guerrilla wars, Emiliano Zapata would not rest until the land was given back to the people, as Madero stated in his Plan. At his refusal he enacted his own Plan de Ayala that declared Madero unfit for his charge, but also dictated a series of reforms to agrarian laws that set the basis for the Constitution. Unlike Pascual Orozco and Francisco Villa, Zapata fought until the end. To this day “Zapatismo” is synonym to the right to land.
In case you’re wondering about Porfirio Díaz at this point, he surrendered on May 1911 and left aboard the German ship Ypiranga to live the rest of his days in his beloved Paris.
President Madero was betrayed and killed in a coup known as the “Tragic Ten Days” by his army general Victoriano Huerta who ascends to power. In the mean time, a new self-proclaimed “Revolutionary Head” comes into play: Venustiano Carranza, a former governor of the state of Coahuila.
Carranza had no particular interest in the campesino struggle but needed their support to assert himself in power, which he was very much interested in. His revolutionary ideology was lacking, he merely wanted to re-establish the constitutional order disrupted by Huerta’s coup, so how was he going to get the real armed revolutionaries on his side? Answer: through speeches. The “Revolutionary-style” discourse was brought forth by Don Venustiano, empty promises and ardent language. The staple speech of political parties nation-wide was a by-product of the Revolution. Yes, this got Carranza to the presidency.
Fun Fact: During Carranza’s tenure, his associates and party members stole so much “in the name of the Revolution” that a new verb was coined “carrancear” which literally means to steal.
After seven solid years of fighting, President Carranza decided to give a little order to things and assembled a Constitutional Congress. Along with 200 other advisors, Carranza enacted the Constitution of 1917, which was the first one in the world to provide social rights. This very constitution was influenced by the radical ideas of Zapata regarding education, a right to land and workers rights.
At this point the struggle becomes madness. Zapata is ambushed by a Carranza official who makes himself pass off as an ally. Four armies fight throughout the country and peace is nowhere in sight. Treason happened once again, Álvaro Obregón — trusted military head of the Carranza administration– rose against the president. Don Venustiano escaped by train, only to find his death in Puebla. The provisional government of Adolfo de la Huerta began. All the heroes died.
So if you ever wonder about the current state of things, a quick peek to the past might clarify it all.