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Scholars have long debated whether the Mexican Revolution was a social revolution, a civil war, a nationalist movement, a struggle for unrealized liberal ideals, or a meaningless rebellion. The revolution is quite universally seen as beginning with the 1910 issuance of Francisco Madero’s Plan of San Luis Potosí, calling for free elections, but there is no universal agreement on its terminal point. Many of the revolution’s demands were codified in a progressive 1917 constitution that for some marks the revolution’s culmination. Those who view revolution as military warfare rather than ideology often view the cessation of fighting in 1920 as the endpoint. In either case, many of the promised social reforms were not realized until the 1930s, under the Lázaro Cárdenas government. The entrenchment of a conservative regime in 1940 largely ended revolutionary social policy, though not necessarily its rhetoric. In 1968 the massacre of protesting students at Tlatelolco in Mexico City demonstrated definitively that Mexico had left its revolutionary heritage behind. The defeat of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 2000 brought an end to the hegemonic institutional legacy of the early revolutionary leaders. Nonetheless, some contend that Mexico continues to be shaped by various legacies of the 1910 popular uprising against Porfirio Díaz’s dictatorship.
General Porfirio Díaz’s entrenched dictatorship, the Porfiriato, lasted from 1876 to 1911. Díaz rose through the political ranks as a liberal leader, but in contrast to the anticlericalism of most nineteenth-century liberals he developed close relations with the Catholic Church and relied on conservative and wealthy elites to assure his political survival. His feared police forces (the rurales) viciously suppressed dissent, but equally significantly Díaz used the mechanisms of a large (and expensive) government bureaucracy to gain popular support. This dual strategy of pan o palo (literally, “bread or the club,” or “carrot or a stick”) successfully eliminated any significant opposition. As Díaz acquired more power, elections increasingly became a farce. The result was one of the longest dictatorships in Latin American history.
In a 1908 interview with a U.S. journalist, James Creelman, Díaz indicated that Mexico was ready for a multiparty democratic system and that he would welcome opposition in the 1910 elections. Apparently the statement was only meant to improve his image abroad, but local dissidents jumped at the chance to remove Díaz from power. Francisco Madero, a wealthy landowner from the northern state of Coahuila who had studied in the United States and France, emerged as the leading opposition candidate. Hardly a revolutionary, Madero championed a liberal democratic ideology and pushed for open, fair, and transparent elections. Before the June 1910 elections, Díaz arrested and imprisoned Madero. As in previous elections, Díaz rigged the vote and won almost unanimously. The blatant fraud convinced Madero that the dictator could only be removed through armed struggle.
When released from prison after the elections, Madero fled north to Texas where he drafted his Plan of San Luis Potosí. The plan made vague references to agrarian and other social reforms, but mostly focused on political reforms. Most significantly, Madero declared the 1910 elections null and void, proclaimed himself provisional president, and called for free elections. With this plan in place, Madero returned to Mexico to launch a guerrilla war. After Madero’s forces won decisive victories in May 1911, Díaz resigned the presidency and sailed for Europe. His reported parting words were, “Madero has unleashed the tiger; let’s see if he can tame it.” In 1915 the former dictator died peacefully in Paris at the age of eighty-five, the only significant figure in the Mexican Revolution not to meet a violent death.
Once in power, Madero faced pressure from both the Left and Right. He had stirred the passions of agrarian rebels who wanted the return of their communal ejido lands. In Morelos, south of Mexico City, Emiliano Zapata confiscated estates and distributed land to peasants. In the north, Francisco (Pancho) Villa also demanded deep social and political changes. Madero, responding to his elite class interests, opposed radical reforms and encouraged his rural supporters to regain their lands through legal and institutional means. Madero insisted that the guerrillas disarm, but they refused. In response, in 1911 Zapata issued his Plan of Ayala, which denounced Madero, called for agrarian reform, and introduced one of the revolution’s most noted slogans, Land and Liberty.
Madero’s legalization of labor unions and inability to confine peasant revolts alienated conservatives. U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, favoring political stability and economic development over democracy, threatened to invade to protect U.S. property. With Wilson’s tactical approval and the support of Mexican conservatives, in February 1913 General Victoriano Huerta launched a coup against Madero. A ten-day battle (called the Decena Trágica) heavily damaged Mexico City and resulted in high civilian casualties, culminating in the overthrow and assassination of the former leader. Huerta’s time in office ushered in a period of chaotic and extreme political violence, with the conflict assuming aspects of a civil war rather than an ideologically driven revolutionary struggle. In April 1914 the United States occupied Mexico’s principal port of Veracruz, an act that drew widespread condemnation. New weapons, including machine guns, brought an unprecedented level of carnage to the battlefield. Various armies moved across the country drafting people and stealing food along the way. These great migrations broke through Mexico’s provincial isolation, creating for the first time a national identity.
Wealthy landowner and former Madero supporter Venustiano Carranza merged the forces of Zapata, Villa, and Alvaro Obregón into a Constitutionalist Army against the new dictator. Together they defeated Huerta and forced him to flee the country. With a common enemy gone, the revolutionaries fought among themselves. Carranza felt threatened by his rival Villa, who proposed much more radical social policies. In October 1914 delegates representing Villa and Zapata met at Aguascalientes to unify their forces and drive Carranza from power. Under the impression that the United States was supporting his enemy Carranza, Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico. In response, U.S. president Woodrow Wilson sent General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing into Mexico to capture Villa. Pershing’s pursuit was a fiasco and Villa’s popularity increased. Under Obregón’s military leadership, however, Carranza gained the upper hand over Villa and Zapata.
1917 Mexican Constitution
Once in power, Carranza convoked a new constitutional convention that debated many key issues of the revolution, including the roles of the church and state, property rights, agrarian reforms, labor reforms, education, foreign investments, subsoil rights, and the political participation of Indians and women. Carranza wanted a conservative document, but delegates drafted a constitution embodying the aspirations of more radical revolutionaries that attacked large landholders, the church, and foreign capitalists. Even though many of its provisions were only slowly, if ever, implemented, it was a surprisingly progressive document that influenced subsequent social reforms in other Latin American countries.
The constitution codified much of the revolution’s nationalist ideology. Article 27 claimed mineral rights for the state. In a reversal of policies under the Díaz regime, it tightly restricted foreign and church ownership of property and returned ejido lands to rural communities. In what some view as the high point of the revolution, in 1938 Lázaro Cárdenas used these provisions to nationalize Standard Oil and establish the state oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX). Article 123 incorporated a labor code that instituted an eight-hour workday, set a minimum salary, abolished company stores and debt peonage, defended the right to organize and strike, outlawed child labor, and provided for generous pregnancy leaves. Article 130 provided for freedom of religion and separation of church and state. Other articles extended the constitution’s liberal anticlericalism, including provisions outlawing religious control over education.
Carranza assumed power under the new constitution as the first constitutionally elected president since Madero. In 1919 he rid himself of one of his primary enemies by killing Zapata. Carranza had moved significantly to the right by then, and attempted to manipulate the electoral apparatus to maintain himself in power. In response, Obregón, who had by then become more liberal, overthrew Carranza, who was then killed in an ambush. With Carranza gone, Obregón won the 1920 elections and made concessions that largely brought the ten years of fighting to an end. In 1923 Villa, who had retired to a comfortable estate in the northern state of Chihuahua, was assassinated in an attack that seemed to trace back to old feuds between revolutionary leaders. In the first peaceful transfer of power since the revolution began, Plutarco Elías Calles became president in 1924. His time in office witnessed increased conflict between the government and the Catholic Church hierarchy, leading to the 1926–1929 Cristero rebellion. In 1928 Obregón was once again elected president, but was then assassinated a few months later. Facing endless violence that seemed to be claiming the lives of all the revolutionary leaders, politicians devised a system that would assure their continued hold on power. In 1929 Calles formed the National Revolutionary Party, the forerunner of the PRI that ruled Mexico for the next seventy years. This opened the way for Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940), who not only implemented progressive agrarian and social reforms, but also consolidated control over the country.
By the time Cárdenas handed power to his conservative successor Manuel Ávila Camacho, the governing party had developed a corporate state that held more absolute control than had Díaz. Although the government introduced successful reforms in education and health care and created political stability, for many marginalized peoples the revolution had brought few changes. Although women participated massively in a variety of roles in the revolution—most notably as soldaderas who accompanied their husbands, providing domestic and other services—they ultimately gained little. Indigenous peasants were still confronted with authoritarian political structures and racial discrimination.
- Brunk, S 1995. Emiliano Zapata: Revolution and Betrayal in Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
- Gilly, Adolfo. The Mexican Revolution. Trans. Patrick Camiller. New York: New Press.
- Gonzales, Michael 2002. The Mexican Revolution, 1910–1940. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
- Knight, 1986. The Mexican Revolution. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- McLynn, F 2001. Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution. New York: Carroll and Graf.
- Salas, E 1990. Soldaderas in the Mexican Military: Myth and History. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- Womack, John, Jr. Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. New York: Vintage.
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