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  • James Houser

November 20, 1910 - The Mexican Revolution

Updated: May 21, 2021

November 20, 1910. Don Porfirio Diaz has ruled Mexico through rigged elections and military autocracy for 31 years, but today his rule is about to end. Liberal challenger Francisco I. Madero has declared his Plan of San Luis Potosi, which on this date 110 years ago begins the Mexican Revolution. But Madero and Diaz will both be dead in a few years – and Mexico is in for a rough, rough decade. Welcome to the most important event in Mexican history.

Sometimes it’s honestly shocking how little most people know about our southern neighbor and its history. While the United States was experiencing World War I and the Spanish Flu, Mexico was undergoing the transformative event of its history, the 20th Century’s first great revolution and one that established the 20th-Century Mexican Republic that was relatively stable until a few decades ago. The Mexican Revolution is often famous in image more than event, since we’ve all seen photos of people with big mustaches and sombreros in somber black-and-white. Some Americans might know Pancho Villa, but only because he deliberately provoked the United States in 1916 by crossing the border and raiding Columbus, New Mexico. Often forgotten is that before this event, Pancho Villa was considered a popular hero by many Americans.

The Mexican Revolution was a big, complex series of events that lasted almost a decade, so this is only going to be an overview and not a detailed narrative. There are so many great stories that I’m going to skip over, figures I’m only going to mention, and drama that I’m gonna have to leave by the wayside. I just hope that anyone who reads this comes away with a bit more of an appreciation for all that crazy stuff in history that gets left out of American history books entirely.

Our story begins with the Old Man himself, Don Porfirio Diaz. Diaz was a military hero who had played a major role in the war against the French invasion of Mexico in the 1860s, including a starring role at the Battle of Puebla (you know, Cinco de Mayo). In 1876, though, he had become President of Mexico and had…well…never really stopped. Despite Mexico’s traditions of “no re-election,” meaning the President could only serve one four-year term, Diaz kept getting reelected. Not by the will of the voters, of course; the elections were thoroughly corrupt, and his loyal Army units marched across the country stuffing ballot boxes and beating up opposition candidates. Even when Diaz wasn’t President for a brief period he was still in charge, much like Putin in Russia today. His regime was so dominant in Mexico that an entire period of Mexican history is named after him – the “Porfiriato.”

Diaz’ regime was good for Mexico’s economy, but no so great for Mexico’s people. His policies tended to benefit a small amount of landed elite, who used legal and illegal tricks to push many lower-class Mexicans into debt slavery and drive them off their land. He also opened up the underdeveloped, near-medieval Mexican economy to foreign investment, especially American and British interests. Anglo corporations and entrepreneurs flooded into Mexico, and with their capital built railroads, opened up mines, and created cash crop plantations – usually by steamrolling local rights and paying the Mexican workers pennies while they made huge profits. All this occurred with Don Porfirio’s approval; his policy was that to modernize Mexico, it had to be developed, and only the gringos had the money to do this. The downside, of course, was that the Mexican people as a whole increasingly lost out and saw no benefit from this modernization.

But Don Porfirio was in control, and he was in control for a LONG time. He had been in power for 31 years by 1910, to the point that many grown men and women had never known any other ruler. Diaz was in total control of Mexico, and had turned the government and army into crony organizations staffed by his loyal subjects – but he wasn’t getting any younger. The man had been born in 1830, and the 20th Century was well under way. Labor unrest, anarchist and socialist movements, and liberal agitations for reform had begun to dog his regime, though the police and the Army rooted out all the issues. But Don Porfirio was tired, and in 1908 – when he was 78 years old – he dropped a bombshell. In an interview with an American journalist, he declared that he would not run for President again in 1910, and that he would accept an opposition party in Mexico.

This breaking news struck Mexico like wildfire. It would be as if Putin or Xi Jinping declared that they were stepping down and wanted an open election. Though Porfirio’s later actions seem to imply that his statement was just political theater, a LOT of people took him seriously. One of the major problems dogging the Porfiriato was that he had not named a successor even as he approached 80 years old, and many members of his conservative army faction believed themselves to be Don Porfirio’s chosen successor. Others who took him seriously included the various liberal factions in Mexico, who wanted a broad reform of Mexican government, free elections, and a return to old-school democratic principles. There were others on the fringes, of course, who wanted a far more radical reform of Mexican society – men like the great rebel leader Emiliano Zapata, who sought to undo the capitalist “invasion” of Mexico and redistribute the land to the peasants.

The leading light of the liberals ended up being a privileged landowner from northern Mexico named Francisco I. Madero. Madero was, to be honest, a slightly comic figure and an unlikely revolutionary; no one seemed to take him seriously at first. But after Diaz’s 1908 interview, the cheerful, naïve and somewhat ridiculous Madero decided that he was going to run for President. Maybe he was the only one dumb enough to try it, or maybe he had a more calculated approach. Either way, starting in 1909 Madero began touring Mexico, building a liberal network across the country in opposition to Diaz’s regime. Madero was successful not because he was brilliant, charismatic, or popular, but because he was the only real figure willing to openly oppose Diaz. Poor Madero had no idea what he was unleashing, but that was part of his charm.

Diaz, who had proclaimed his intent to allow open opposition only a year ago, suddenly backtracked. First he purged his own party of any potential successors, exiling some of his most prominent subordinates to foreign diplomatic stations or even downright humiliating them. This was not a smart move, since…well…the man was 80 years old, and SOMEONE eventually had to pick up the reins. Then Diaz looked with alarm at Madero, who was actually making a lot of ground and increasingly looked like he might win this thing. In the spirit of “Oh, you didn’t think I MEANT what I said, did you?” Diaz struck during the height of the election campaign in summer of 1910. Madero and most of his top advocates were arrested and thrown in prison, and Diaz – surprise! – won overwhelming reelection. Of course, there were plenty of soldiers standing by the ballot boxes to ensure the *right* votes were counted.

So, there. Crisis averted, right? Don Porfirio certainly thought so, and held a mighty extravaganza in Mexico City in September 1910. He was celebrating both his 80th birthday and the 100th anniversary of Mexican independence. It was lost on most of the rich Mexican and American attendees that this lavish festival pushed the beggars off the streets, sent out gilded invitations that 85% of Mexicans could not read because they were illiterate, and the cost of the celebration exceeded the entire education budget for the year 1910. But as Diaz celebrated, trouble was brewing. In early October, Madero had escaped his jailors and fled to the United States by train. Soon he was planning to return. The liberals had tried to make their change through the political process, but the political process had shown itself to be corrupt; now it was time to resort to force of arms.

In the middle of October, Francisco I. Madero – hiding out in Texas – issued his Plan of San Luis Potosi, which made an emotional appeal for the people of Mexico to rise up against a violent and illegal government to regain their liberty. He declared himself Provisional President of Mexico until new elections could be held, and called for a nationwide uprising on November 20, 1910. Madero, a pampered son of a rich landowning family with high-minded, innocent ideals, had somehow become the figurehead of what was about to be the Mexican Revolution.

Madero himself crossed into Mexico on November 19, but his allies across the Rio Grande failed to rendezvous and he limped home in disgrace, believing his attempted Revolution to be a failure. The government of Diaz, who had been on the lookout for Madero’s reentry, also believed this to be the case. They were all wrong. Mexico exploded on November 20, as local leaders and popular figures broke out in revolt all across the country on the designated day. Nowhere was it more violent than Chihuahua, as town after town declared itself in rebellion against Don Porfirio. Rebel armies soon emerged from the mountains, made up not only of peasants but also townspeople, lawyers, deserting soldiers, and even some mercenaries from the United States – including many black ex—Buffalo Soldiers. The rebel armies were a cross-section of society, often led by local landowners or charismatic figures.

The diverse cast of the Mexican Revolution’s leaders was fascinating. There was Pancho Villa from the north, the renegade Army officer turned cavalry leader extraordinaire – brave, reckless, magnetic and photogenic. There was Emiliano Zapata in central Mexico, an honest and heroic figure who tended to an anarchic peasant socialism and became well known for his attractiveness, fairness, loyalty, and that EPIC mustache and hat. There was Alvaro Obregon of Sonora, a moderately successful businessman with a remarkably sharp mind and calm demeanor who would emerge as the best general of the war. All of them emerged to fight for Francisco Madero, a man that none of them really liked or admired but who had somehow become the centerpiece of the revolution.

Madero returned to Mexico when he saw that the Revolution was beginning to succeed, but he was more swept up on the tide than in any sort of control over events. The Diaz regime put up a fight, and well into 1911 they fought a running battle across the barren terrain of northern Mexico against Madero’s powerful allies. Soon provinces across the country were falling into rebel hands, and Diaz – at 80 years old barely in any shape to control his army – saw his regime crumbling to pieces around him. He insisted on trying to coordinate military maneuvers from Mexico City since he barely trusted any of his generals, but this was doomed to failure. Finally accepting the inevitable, Diaz resigned on May 25, 1911, and went into exile in Paris. After 31 years in power, Diaz was overthrown, but he had a dire warning for his successor. “Madero has unleashed a tiger, now let us see if he can control it.”

Madero could not. When he was elected President on October 1, 1911 in a landslide victory, he promised to fulfill the dreams of the Revolution. The problem was that he was caught between two extremes. The Mexican political apparatus, army, and capitalist interests – all extremely conservative and who had benefited under the Porfiriato, and were not at all keen on this liberal reformer. While trying to keep them calm, Madero alienated many of his revolutionary supporters, ESPECIALLY the irrepressible partisan Emiliano Zapata, who still wanted the peasants of his home province of Morelos free from the overwhelming power of the landowners and corporations. By trying to please both of them, Madero only lost the support of both, and there were not enough moderates in the country to assure support for his regime. The mild-mannered, naïve, trusting Madero had never been cut out to lead a revolution, much less head a revolutionary government, and soon the country was in revolt again. This time, many of Madero’s old supporters including Zapata and Chihuahua grandee Manuel Orrozco rose up against him, and the conservative Army went out to suppress them against Madero’s wishes.

The conservatives decided that it was time this silly imposter had to go, and one of their own be put in charge. The trusting Madero had left the military near Mexico City in the hands of Victoriano Huerta, who had promised his loyalty. Huerta was lying. On February 9, 1913, the Ten Tragic Days began in Mexico City as the military made its bid for a coup. Artillery and machine guns blasted apart Mexico City in an urban battle, killing many innocent civilians. Madero, helpless, denounced Huerta when the general suddenly changed over to the rebels, but to no avail. Madero and his Vice President were taken into custody and promised asylum. Instead, Huerta’s officers took them onto a side street and shot them dead on February 21, 1913. Huerta, through legal shenanigans and the assistance of the rogue American ambassador, had himself declared President.

Huerta’s new government tried to set about restoring order, but the bloody spectacle of the Ten Tragic Days and Madero’s execution once again set the whole country on fire. Even people like Zapata who had opposed Madero were aghast at his betrayal and murder, and soon Mexico was rising up once again and raging for revenge for Senor Madero. Poor Francisco Madero. In life, the leader of a movement he did not understand; in death, the rallying cry for people who mostly hated him. He may have been a bit dumb, eccentric, naïve, and waffling, but he had had the courage to stand up for something when no one else did and he really did want a better future for Mexico. He just wasn’t up to the challenge.

Huerta’s regime tried to remodel itself on the Porfiriato, basically trying to roll the clock back to 1910. But that ship had sailed. The new unlikely revolutionary leader was another liberal and an ardent supporter of Madero - Venustiano Carranza, Governor of Coahuila. How Carranza ended up being the face of the movement was – like Madero – something of a mystery. But he was the first state governor to declare himself in open opposition to Huerta’s murderous takeover, and others joined his banner. Here was where Pancho Villa came into his own, as his brilliant cavalry tactics across northern Mexico undid Huerta’s regime. The rebels, though, were working through clenched teeth since it turned out Carranza hated Villa’s guts and Villa hated his.

Carranza and Villa recognized early that American support would be vital for their regime.

President Woodrow Wilson had come to side with the rebels, and Villa’s brilliant capture of Juarez opened a pipeline of American arms and money to back their rebellion against Huerta and his conservatives. This is the forgotten period when Villa was actually a romantic hero in America, with one of the first “documentaries” made about his legendary exploits. Villa was something like a weird hybrid of Robin Hood-type bandit, cowboy movie star and murderous rebel. His legendary exploits still make him a beloved figure in northern Mexico today, but he often committed acts of unpardonable brutality. With the passionate and unstable Villa posing a possible problem down the road, Carranza placed most of his trust in the reliable and brilliant Obregon. And, of course, Zapata was still on the loose to the south despite Huerta’s repeated attempts to put him down.

The revolutionaries were once again successful: for the SECOND time, the conservatives were driven from power as Huerta fled into exile in July 1914. A major factor in his decision was the United States occupation of Mexico’s key port of Veracruz in 1914 – a deliberate move by Woodrow Wilson to place pressure on Huerta. With Huerta out of the picture, Carranza entered Mexico City in triumph. As night follows day, though, the rebels soon began to fight amongst themselves. Carranza, much like Madero but smarter, was all about political and liberal reform but had no intention of changing the social fabric of Mexico. By 1915, he had permanently fallen out with Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, and these two popular heroes formed an alliance to bring the revolution home and defeat the lukewarm moderates once and for all.

Villa and Zapata, though, faced an uphill battle. These romantic, charismatic figures ultimately had a narrow field of view. Zapata almost never left his power base of Morelos, and failed to see the broader picture of Mexico. His ideas were breathtakingly radical, but they were confined to Morelos. Villa, on the other hand, had a plan for all of Mexico – but his style of leadership was ultimately too personal and his personality too impulsive and reckless. This was in contrast to his former comrade and now enemy, the systematic and careful General Alvaro Obregon. The two great revolutionary generals of northern Mexico were about to come head to head in the bloodiest battle of the Mexican Revolution.

See, while all this chaos has been going down in Mexico, Europe has been on fire with the First World War. An ocean away, the tactics and methods of warfare had changed dramatically in the last few months, and only a few men – including Alvaro Obregon – had been keeping track of that conflict. So when Obregon paid a visit to the former U.S. occupation zone in Veracruz and found containers full of gift-wrapped machine guns, barbed wire, and modern rifles, he knew what to do with them, and he was about to give Villa a rude surprise.

In April 1915, Villa and Obregon fought two major battles near the town of Celaya. Villa’s patented cavalry charges were shattered by Obregon’s artillery, machine guns, and trench warfare methods – the quiet Sonoran had created the Western Front in central Mexico, and Villa’s brave raiders simply had no response. In these battles, Villa’s army was virtually broken, and in subsequent battles throughout 1915 the radical faction was forced back. Villa was soon reduced to the status of a bandit in the hills of Chihuahua.

The Mexican Revolution, of course, was not over. There were still a few acts to play out. The most famous was Villa’s brief and futile attempt to rally the Mexican nation around him by raiding the United States. On March 9, 1916, Villa’s band crossed the border into New Mexico and attacked the town of Columbus, killing about eight American soldiers and ten residents before retreating to Mexico. The United States organized an Army expedition under General John J. Pershing and containing young Lieutenant George S. Patton to invade northern Mexico and bring Villa to justice. The Punitive Expedition never did catch Villa, but it did piss off the Mexican people AND Carranza’s government something fierce.

But Villa and his ally Zapata were fighting against increasing war weariness. Seven years of revolution had devastated Mexico. The economy was in the gutter, starvation and disease were widespread, many railroads, mines and farms were torn to bits, and almost two million Mexicans were dead of various causes. The country was tired of war, rebellion, and revenge, and Carranza’s new liberal government was – if not great – certainly better than Diaz, Huerta, or even Madero. Gradually, support for Villa and Zapata among the population began to ebb away. They resisted, though, with Villa claiming that he would see Carranza “swinging from a tree.”

Villa, Zapata, Obregon, and Carranza. Who was going to make it out of the Mexican Revolution alive?

The end came first for Emiliano Zapata. He had survived a horde of regimes – Diaz, Madero, Huerta, and now Carranza. He had remained dedicated to the rights and liberties of his peasant commune in Morelos, had never surrendered his principles to any man, and had never fallen into corruption or betrayed his followers. He had survived all manner of counterinsurgency tactics, including concentration camps and scorched earth. He died as he lived – honestly – when he walked trustingly into a meeting of soldiers who claimed to want to desert. It was a trap, and Zapata was shot dead in an ambush on April 10, 1919.

Venustiano Carranza had been elected President of Mexico in 1916. The most conservative of all the revolutionary leaders, he had overseen the writing of an extremely progressive constitution but refused to carry out its most radical requirements like secularization, land reform, or labor rights. Carranza rapidly began to lose popularity, and even American backing. In 1920, when his term was up and he could not run again, Carranza tried to force through a political toady as the new President. In what we can call the final military act of the Mexican Revolution, this time it was his old general – Alvaro Obregon – who rose up and overthrew Carranza. The ex-President was assassinated as he fled Mexico City, and Obregon became President of Mexico.

Obregon’s tenure, against all odds, proved Mexico’s first stable presidency since the fall of Porfirio Diaz. One of his first acts was to bring in from the cold his old enemy Pancho Villa. Villa accepted a pardon so long as he refrained from political activity, and retired quietly in his hometown – but he could not stay silent for long, and when he decided to reenter politics, he was assassinated in his car in 1923. Mexico’s most famous revolutionary hero met the fate of all the rest.

Even Obregon was not immune. Under his Presidency, many of the dreams of the Revolution were finally realized. Though he was never as radical as Villa or Zapata, Obregon implemented widespread land reform, labor laws, restrictions on corporations, and the repealing of Mexico’s outdated religious laws. Alvaro Obregon and his administration even went out of their way to restore the land rights to Morelos’s peasants, fulfilling the dream of the dead Zapata. But Obregon was not immune from the revolutionary’s curse, and in 1928 he was assassinated by a radical Catholic who opposed his secularization of Mexico. With his death, the final revolutionary icon had passed. The Mexican Revolution was now, well and truly, over.

Whew, what a ride, right?

Strangely, the Mexican Revolution might be one of history’s most effective revolutions. It took ten years of chaos, bloodshed, and hardship, but things DID change for the better. Even if not all the dreams of the revolution were fulfilled, Mexico emerged in 1920 as a nation with one of the most progressive and egalitarian constitutions in the world, somehow steering clear of radical nationalism AND communism in an age when they were both on the rise. Don’t insult our southern neighbor too harshly; they have some glorious moments in their history.

And if you haven’t picked up on it, I’m still angry those bastards killed poor Madero. I am legitimately pissed about it!

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