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A Brief History of Mexico
Part Four: Revolution
By Steven Alexander
By 1821, the Spanish were gone and their descendents, the "criollos," were in charge of Mexico. Politically, the criollos were divided into two groups: conservatives and liberals. The conservatives wanted to establish a constitutional monarchy in Mexico while the liberals envisioned a democratic republic based on the American example. The two sides squared off against each other in a civil war that seesawed back and forth for the next 50 years. Governments were formed and overthrown at the drop of a sombrero. It was the era of coups…and the typical transition of power took place at the end of a gun barrel.
While political chaos ruled, it was difficult to hold the Mexican Empire together or to prevent foreign invasions. Central America broke away from Mexico. The Spanish invaded in an unsuccessful attempt to retake control of the colony. Texas seceded from the Mexican union. France invaded and was repelled. America invaded and defeated Mexico, taking half its territory as a prize, an area that included what are now the U.S. states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. And, in 1862, France invaded Mexico a second time, installing the Austrian Hapsburg Maximilian as emperor.
It's difficult, even with 200 years of hindsight, to tell the heroes from the villains during this period of Mexican history. For instance, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna should be remembered as a great Mexican hero. He certainly fought heroically in the struggles against the Spanish, American and French invaders, losing a leg in defense his homeland. He was well loved by the people of Mexico and served as president on 11 separate occasions for a total of 30 years. Although a conservative, Santa Anna often ruled with the backing of both factions. But he became more authoritarian, more dictatorial and more corrupted by his own personal greed with each successive term in office. Ultimately, Santa Anna is remembered as the man who sold out his country to the Americans while presiding over the loss of half of its territory.
The Catholic Church could have risen to heroic status during this period of turmoil in Mexican history…but that didn’t happen. The main constituency of the Church was the great mass of native and mixed-race people, a large underclass who were called "campesinos" (farmers). But these people were farmers in name only. They had no land to cultivate. When the Spanish conquered Mexico, they assumed ownership of all the land. Now it was all owned by their criollo descendents and the Catholic Church. Indeed, the Church was the largest single land owner in the country. By some estimates, it owned half the land in Mexico. The Church was rich and powerful. It could have helped the plight of the campesinos by handing out food, building schools and allowing communal farming on its vacant lands. But the Church did nothing for the campesinos. In order to maintain its status as the state-sanctioned religion, the Catholic Church sided with the conservatives against the liberals and against the interests of the common people. As a result, mistrust and resentment toward the Church grew throughout Mexico.
One true hero did arise. That would be Benito Pablo Juarez. The first and only full-blooded native to serve as a Mexican head of state, Juarez and the liberals took power after defeating Santa Anna in a bloody war during 1857. Santa Anna was sent into exile and Juarez led the country as president for the next 15 years, a period known as "La Reforma" (The Reform). Although outright slavery had been officially abolished in 1828, it wasn't until Juarez came along, some 30 years later, that the masses of the Mexican people were actually given legal equality. Under Juarez, a new constitution was written, extending voting and civil rights to the entire population. The Catholic Church was disavowed as the state-sanctioned religion. Most of the land owned by the Church was confiscated by the government and redistributed to the campesinos for use as "ejidos" (communal farms).
But La Reforma was interrupted by the French invasion of 1862. During the five-year French occupation, Juarez fled Mexico City and led the resistance from a temporary capitol in El Paso del Norte, now the city of Juarez. At one point, Maximilian offered a truce to Juarez in which they would rule jointly, with Maximilian emperor and Juarez prime minister. But Juarez refused to accept any form of monarchy for Mexico. In 1867, with the help of guns and ammunition supplied by the U.S., the Juaristas defeated the French and their criollo allies. Maximilian was captured and killed by a firing squad. Juarez returned to Mexico City, where he continued to work on La Reforma until his death by heart attack in 1872.
And then there was the villain in this story. That would be General Jose de la Cruz Porfirio Diaz. Following Juarez' death, the conservative Diaz led an armed revolt against Juarez’ liberal successors and, in 1876, he took control. Long before Europe had Mussolini and Hitler, Mexico had Diaz. He was, indeed, a prototype fascist dictator, melding government and business into a single entity and ruling with an iron fist. Diaz' 34-year reign of terror is known as "El Porfiriato." A measure of his enduring lack of respect is the fact that nothing else in Mexico is named after him: no streets, no schools, no cities, no states.
Under Diaz' rule, all government was centralized under his chain of command. In addition to the military, Diaz had control over all legislators, governors, mayors and police chiefs. Dissent was not tolerated and political opponents were often assassinated. Diaz' word was the law, enforced by the "Federales" (federal police) the "Rurales" (rural police) and the "Brevi" (secret police). The Rurales, in particular, had a reputation for sadistic brutality. Most were former "bandidos" (bandits). When miners went on strike, Diaz would send the Rurales to kill them. When native tribes rebelled, Diaz would send the Rurales to eradicate them. For amusement, they would bury their captives up to their heads and then ride their horses over them.
Once Diaz had control of everything Mexican, he put it all up for sale to foreign investors, with the money going into his pockets and the pockets of his cronies. This included silver mines, copper mines, hardwood forests, vineyards, wineries, banks, utilities and the precious ejido farmland previously redistributed to the campesinos during La Reforma. The campesinos were evicted from these lands, their homes and crops were destroyed and, once again, the great mass of the population of Mexico had to deal with the day-to-day realities of starvation and homelessness.
The elite classes flourished under Diaz. There was a relative peace from the interminable civil war and, with the help of foreign investment, Mexico was able to move into the industrial age. Although some foreign investment came from Britain, France and Germany, by far the largest investors were Americans, such as, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. Business boomed. To help expedite the transportation of goods and materials, Diaz had a modern railway system built throughout Mexico. The train system he built would later help lead to his downfall.
By 1910, it was obvious that the time had come for the 82-year-old Diaz to step down. But he was reluctant to let go. Instead, Diaz declared that he would seek one last term in office, leaving the decision up to the people in a free and open election. The egocentric old man was convinced that the people would overwhelmingly support him in his last hurrah. His opponent was Francisco I. Madero, a 37-year-old liberal criollo intellectual. But, as the election neared and it appeared that Madero would win, Diaz had Madero arrested. On election day, before the votes were even counted, Diaz' cronies in the national legislature declared him the victor. Madero later escaped his captors and took refuge across the border in Texas, where he called for an insurrection to oust Diaz to begin on November 20, 1910.
It was like déjà vu all over again. Peasant armies arose throughout Mexico in answer to Madero’s cry for revolution. The most prominent were the armies of Francisco "Pancho" Villa and Emiliano Zapata. At the time, Villa was a 32-year-old career criminal who led a large gang of bandidos in northern Mexico, where the local people thought of him as a Robin Hood type. He agreed to fight for Madero against the hated dictator Diaz and assembled an army composed of bandidos, farmers, peasants and natives. Villa had his own ideas on how to conduct warfare. He used the railways to quickly strike deep into enemy territory. Horses, ammunition, artillery, food, beer, wives, children, girlfriends and prostitutes were all loaded on the train. His troops would party all night on the train and then go out and fight the loyalist army in the morning. Any man, woman or child capable of firing a rifle could be a hero of the revolution in Villa's army. The "soldaderas" (women soldiers) often fought and died alongside the men.
Zapata was a 31-year-old farmer and horse trainer. Although his family actually owned their small farm, he was well aware of the plight of his fellow campesinos. He had tried repeatedly to get the government to recognize their claims to their lands. But the government refused to act, even when presented with legal documentation of the validity of their claims. When the call to revolution came, Zapata assembled a huge guerrilla army of campesinos who vowed to fight for "Tierra y Libertad" (Land and Liberty).
The initial phase of the revolution was quickly won by the rebel forces. Diaz resigned and took refuge in France, where he died a few years later. Madero was overwhelmingly elected to the office of president in 1911. But his term in office didn't last long.
Yes, it was like déjà vu all over again one more time. Diaz was gone…and the civil war was back on. Both Villa and Zapata became disillusioned with Madero and his reluctance to institute immediate land reform. Villa went home to Chihuahua and Zapata to Morelos, where they took matters into their own hands, evicting the wealthy landowners at gunpoint and giving their lands to the campesinos and peasants. Some landowners were killed. Madero turned to the national army to put a stop to the lawlessness of Villa and Zapata. This was a bad move on his part. Not only did the national army give chase to Villa and Zapata, they staged a coup against Madero. During "La Decena Tragica" (Ten Tragic Days) of February, 1913, war erupted in the heart of Mexico City. Thousands of people were killed in the crossfire of the opposing sides. Madero was arrested and assassinated. General Victoriano Huerta, a conservative, emerged as the new president.
Huerta was no stranger to either Villa or Zapata. In fact, Huerta had once tried to have Villa killed by a firing squad, only to have the execution stopped by Madero at the last minute. Huerta, who was known as "El Chacal" (The Jackal) turned his attention to destroying the peasant armies of Villa and Zapata. The new standard-bearer of the rebel forces was Venustiano Carranza, who organized the Constitutional Army to oppose Huerta. Although Villa and Zapata had little faith in Carranza, they fought for his cause due to their hatred of Huerta. Once again, Villa's army loaded onto trains in order to strike deeply into Huerta's strongholds. Meanwhile, Zapata’s guerrilla army struck relentlessly from the south, squeezing Huerta's forces between them. In August of 1914, Huerta surrendered to General Alvaro Obregon of the Constitutionalist Army. Villa, Zapata and Obregon triumphantly marched into the capitol of Mexico City and turned over the government to Carranza.
It was a short honeymoon. Within a month, Villa and Zapata denounced Carranza, who responded by sending the Constitutionalist Army after them both. The in-fighting continued on-and-off for the next 20 years. Zapata was assassinated in 1919, Carranza in 1920 and Villa in 1924. About the only thing that survived the revolution was the new constitution of 1917, which is still in effect today.
Next Month: Part Five: The Aftermath
Steven Alexander is a former journalist and award-winning sports writer. He is retired and lives in Ajijic.