Mexican Revolution (1910-1920)

views updated Jun 11 2018

Mexican Revolution (1910-1920)







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 Maderos Plan of San Luis Potosí, calling for free elections, but there is no universal agreement on its terminal point. Many of the revolutions demands were codified in a progressive 1917 constitution that for some marks the revolutions 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 Díazs dictatorship.


General Porfirio Díazs 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 Maderos 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; lets 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 revolutions most noted slogans, Land and Liberty.


Maderos 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 Wilsons 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. Huertas 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 Mexicos 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 Mexicos 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. Pershings pursuit was a fiasco and Villas popularity increased. Under Obregóns military leadership, however, Carranza gained the upper hand over Villa and Zapata.


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 revolutions 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 constitutions 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 19261929 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 (19341940), 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 revolutionmost notably as soldaderas who accompanied their husbands, providing domestic and other servicesthey ultimately gained little. Indigenous peasants were still confronted with authoritarian political structures and racial discrimination.

SEE ALSO Civil Wars; Communalism; Coup dEtat; Guerrilla Warfare; Land Claims; Land Reform; Partido Revolucionario Institucional; Politics, Gender; Socialism; Villa, Francisco (Pancho); Zapata, Emiliano


Brunk, Samuel. 1995. Emiliano Zapata: Revolution and Betrayal in Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Gilly, Adolfo. 2005. The Mexican Revolution. Trans. Patrick Camiller. New York: New Press.

Gonzales, Michael J. 2002. The Mexican Revolution, 19101940. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Knight, Alan. 1986. The Mexican Revolution. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

McLynn, Frank. 2001. Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution. New York: Carroll and Graf.

Salas, Elizabeth. 1990. Soldaderas in the Mexican Military: Myth and History. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Womack, John, Jr. 1968. Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. New York: Vintage.

Marc Becker

Mexican Revolution

views updated Jun 11 2018


In 1913 John Reed (1887–1920), who was later to gain fame in the Russian Revolution and become one of the founders of the American Communist Party, joined Pancho Villa's troops in Northern Mexico and wrote the best English language reportage on the Mexican Revolution. Jack London funneled his socialism and revolutionary idealism into the short story "The Mexican" (1911) and a year later followed Reed to Mexico to cover the revolution. The irascible and irreverent Ambrose Bierce, who was suspicious of all ideological cant and often mocked the left-wing politics of Reed, London, and other American writers, wrote letters from war-torn Mexico—including one in which he imagined ending his turbulent life "against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags" (p. 196)—and then he simply disappeared. Lincoln Steffens, the renowned journalist and one of the first muckrakers, turned his social criticism from the "shame of the cities" to the chaos and political quagmire of the revolution; in 1914 he also went to Mexico, and he produced astute observations on the American involvement there. Richard Harding Davis, journalist, novelist, and the leading reporter of his day, personified the romantic image of the foreign correspondent. Handsome and always impeccably dressed, he had cut a dashing figure covering the Turko-Greek War of 1895 and the Sino-Japanese War of 1899. When he arrived in Mexico to report on the revolution he was bloated and dissipated; his state of being seemed to augur the corruption, disenchantment, and failed dreams of the revolution itself.

Writers from many countries, of every temperament and political stripe, flocked to this first major revolution of the twentieth century and made it the century's first media event. The drama just south of the border was a great story, in which the United States played a constant role.


The U.S. involvement in the Mexican Revolution came on the heels of its imperialistic venture in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and marked the beginning of a long and often ignoble history of political and military intervention in Latin America. All along, United States foreign policy and American business interests had supported the thirty-year dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, known as the Porfiriato. Díaz had opened Mexico to foreign interests, mainly American and British, and an oligarchy ruled Mexico during the Díaz regime. The great disparity between the wealth of the ruling oligarchy and the widespread poverty of the Mexican peonage system laid the seeds for revolution; the people's bitterness was aggrandized by the knowledge that Mexico's abundant natural resources were being plundered by foreigners. The historian John Mason Hart calculates that "about 130 million acres, more than 27 percent of Mexico's land surface, came into the possession of American owners," and concludes that "the overwhelming commitment of American capital to Mexico and the subordinate origins of the Díaz regime underscore the deeper significance of the Mexican Revolution: a war of national liberation against the United States" (p. 320). With the overthrow of the Díaz regime in 1910 and the dismantling of the oligarchy that had ruled Mexico, Americans and American property were placed in jeopardy and the United States steered a protectionist course in its relations with revolutionary Mexico.

The struggle for power that ensued after the overthrow of the Díaz regime would plunge Mexico into a bloodbath and an astonishing cycle of violence that would include assassinations of leading figures of the revolution: Madero, Obregón, Zapata, and Villa. Francisco Madero was constitutionally elected president of Mexico and he tried to effect democratic reforms, but he could not control the forces that had been unleashed. General Victoriano Huerta, who had served Díaz and became one of Madero's military commanders, betrayed Madero and had him assassinated. Huerta usurped the presidency, formed a counter-revolutionary government, and plunged Mexico into civil war. It was a crucial turning point; the Mexican historian Manuel Plana has underscored the moment: "The assassination of Madero, and the illegality and trickery with which Huerta acted, sparked the immediate formation of a resistance movement that opened the next phase of the revolution, in which popular movements, in particular that led by Villa, assumed a determining role" (p. 31).


Francisco Villa (born Doroteo Arango) was the most famous figure to arise from the Mexican Revolution. Undoubtedly, he was the most charismatic, controversial, and paradoxical. Reed's Insurgent Mexico (1914), which covers the three months he spent with Villa's troops, contains some of the most breathtaking prose on the revolution; the heroic exploits recounted in Reed's sweeping narrative romanticized the revolution and mythicized Pancho Villa as the Robin Hood of Mexico. Reed wrote: "It seems incredible to those who don't know him, that this remarkable figure, who has risen from obscurity to the most prominent position in Mexico in three years, should not covet the Presidency of the Republic. But that is in entire accordance with the simplicity of his character" (p. 128). In fact, Pancho Villa was as complex and contradictory as the revolution itself: magnanimous and cruel, generous and ruthless, noble and self-serving, and a brilliant success and a catastrophic failure. He was also, at the beginning, one of the most pro-American figures of the revolution. He was from the northern border state of Chihuahua; he was familiar with the United States and American life and customs; there were Americans with his troops, supporting or fighting for the revolutionary cause. The turnabout in Villa's attitude and the negative reaction of American opinion came in 1916, culminating with Villa's raid on Columbus, New Mexico.

After the resignation of Huerta in 1914 the power struggle, mainly between Villa and Venustiano Carranza, erupted into civil war. In 1915 the United States recognized the Carranza government and Villa's eventual defeat became inevitable. The collusion between the United States and Carranza led Villa to wage guerrilla warfare in northern Mexico and along the U.S.-Mexican border. The Mexican historian Manuel Plana explains the turn of events: "Villa's response was not born of his natural instinct for rebellion, as some would have it, but rather of the political defeat of his movement, and his conviction that he was betrayed. Villa's anti-Americanism and Carranza's inability to stop him would spawn strong conflicts between the United States and Mexico, especially during the early months of 1916" (p. 91). In early 1916 Villa sacked the Mexican headquarters of several American mining companies, and executed sixteen Americans. The most sensational episode occurred on 16 March when a five hundred–man Villa force crossed the border and attacked a military garrison in the town of Columbus, New Mexico. There were twenty-six American casualties, mostly civilian, and Villa's troops made off with a cache of arms and munitions; Villa had invaded American territory and he was now branded a renegade and outlaw. On 15 March 1916 General John Pershing, with an army of five thousand men, crossed into Mexico and went after Villa; the objective of this "punitive expedition" was to capture and punish Villa and end his guerrilla activities.

The American army that went after Villa was given a lesson that would be painfully repeated later in the twentieth century: a mobile guerrilla army, knowing and using the terrain, could hold at bay or even defeat a numerically superior invading force. The Pershing Expedition, which numbered twenty-five thousand men by the time it left Mexico in February 1917, lacked mobility or effective tactics; it chased Villa for eleven months through the deserts, mountains, and canyons of northern Mexico and never got a glimpse of him. In the end, Pershing's mission was neither punitive nor expeditious. Pershing would later command the American Expeditionary Forces with greater success in Europe during World War I. As for Villa, he was removed from power by more cunning and ruthless men. On 23 July 1932 he was ambushed and murdered near Parral, Chihuaha, his assassination plotted by Alvaro Obregón (who had once been his friend and ally) and Plutarco Calles. The death of Pancho Villa ended one chapter of the Mexican Revolution. Villa's fame, however, would outlast that of his contemporaries; he would become the stuff of legend and the subject of countless songs, stories, biographies, novels, and movies.


John Reed's Insurgent Mexico stands as the most extraordinary American literary product to come out of the Mexican Revolution. A melange of reportage, poetry, memoir, and political commentary, it is marked by Reed's youthful enthusiasm and revolutionary romanticism: "It was the most glorious sensation I have ever felt. . . . It was a land to love—this Mexico—a land to fight for" (p. 77). Notwithstanding his lapses into exaggeration and sentimentality, Reed had more insight into the Mexican character than any other foreign correspondent or writer. His razor-sharp prose captures the dusty sweat of troops on the march and the confused fury of battle. The most engaging aspect of Reed's book is his vivid description of rank- and-file soldiers (men and women) and his poignant depiction of the heroism and sacrifice of the peons who fought and died in revolution. Years later Reed would nostalgically recall that the happiest moments of his life were those days spent riding with Villa's troops. Reed left Mexico with his revolutionary idealism intact; his experiences in the whirlwind of the Mexican Revolution would brace him and serve him well five years later during the Russian Revolution and the writing of another memorable book: Ten Days That Shook the World (1919).

In contrast, Jack London's (1876–1916) experiences in Mexico were a shattering disappointment. Three years before going to Mexico as a correspondent for Collier's Magazine, London had enthusiastically endorsed the peasant revolt in Mexico by addressing a letter to the "brave comrades of the Mexican Revolution" and signing it "revolutionist, Jack London" (p. 352). In the same year, London further demonstrated his solidarity in one of his best short stories, "The Mexican." In this story, London romanticized the revolution and made protagonist Felipe Rivera a shinning model of revolutionary purpose. Using the story to advance his socialist ideas, London contrasts the corruption of capitalist American society with the nobility of Rivera, who becomes a prizefighter in the United States in order to raise money to buy guns for the revolution. Lacking boxing skills or the cunning of his Anglo opponents, Rivera wins on sheer fortitude and endurance and because of the spiritual righteousness of his cause. But London's dream of a socialist utopia started to disintegrate in Mexico, when faced with the brutal reality of revolution and civil war. An astonishing reversal took place. As many commentators have noted, London "shed his socialist skin" in Mexico. He took a reactionary position supporting American military intervention, and he joined the American invasion of Vera Cruz in 1916. Racked by what he called "a severe attack of rotten, bacillary, tropical dysentery" (Letters, p. 1334), he vented his spleen in a series of dispatches; he called the revolution a fraud, hurled racist epithets at the Mexican peon, and praised Victoriano Huerta, arguably the most vicious murderer in the long history of Mexican despotism.

Ambrose Bierce (1842–1913?), on the other hand, suffered no disappointment because he arrived in Mexico with no political baggage and a simple death wish. As he put it in one of his last letters, "To be a Gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia!" (p. 196). Inadvertently, Bierce became part of the many legends surrounding Pancho Villa. The most popular conjecture about Bierce's disappearance was that he crossed the border, joined Villa's revolutionary army and died fighting in the revolution. Bierce's biographers have discounted this romantic tale, pointing out that he had contempt for the revolution and disdain for Pancho Villa and the rabble that followed him. Most likely Bierce was robbed and killed by bandits because he was carrying fifteen hundred American dollars.

Different from both Reed and Bierce in temperament and literary vision, Lincoln Steffens (1866–1936) was perhaps the most politically astute North American witness to the revolution. Disenchanted by the corruption of Europe and the "financial imperial expansions" that he saw as the real causes of World War I, Steffens left Europe for Mexico in 1914. As he put it in his autobiography: "I looked around for a revolution, and there was Mexico in the throes of one" (p. 714). Steffens arrived in Mexico after the revolution had turned to civil war: Carranza and Villa were not only fighting the Huerta regime but each other. Using his knowledge of history and political philosophy, Steffens brought an intellectual incisiveness to the debate inside the United States. Recognizing the torturous complexity of the situation, he chided both liberals and conservatives for reducing the struggle in Mexico to cliches and using it to bolster political prejudices. His criticism of American involvement and military intervention in Mexico was withering: "The Americans who were at all interested in Mexico coveted the country, wanted to change its laws and the people, and to possess or anyhow to govern Mexico. . . . We Americans don't seem to get it, that you can't commit rape a little" (p. 716).

Richard Harding Davis (1864–1916) accompanied London and other war correspondents on the Vera Cruz campaign. Like London, he supported American intervention and he had no sympathy for the Mexican people or the goals of the revolution. Indifferent to the civil war raging between Huerta's and Villa's forces, he wrote, "It was a falling out among cattle-thieves. Between Huerta and Villa there was the choice between Lefty Louie and Gyp and Blood" (p. 82). Several times Davis was caught, almost comically, in dangerous crosscurrents. The Wheeler Syndicate arranged for him to interview Huerta in Mexico City but his trip turned into a hair-raising comedy of errors. En route to Mexico City he was arrested twice and twice threatened with death by firing squad, but he managed to secure his freedom and return to Vera Cruz. The Wheeler Syndicate arranged another meeting with Huerta. This time Davis refused the assignment and wired his employers: "I'm leaving in the morning." He also failed to find in Mexico the romantic adventures that had previously fueled his fiction and reportage. "Not that I want to catch bullets in my teeth, but I did expect quick action and something to write about," he wrote (p. 82). When he left Mexico on 15 June 1914, the only story he had was about revolutionist soldiers injured in a train wreck caused by a herd of cows.

Events in Europe stole the thunder of the Mexican Revolution as the attention of the American public and American writers shifted to the fighting on the other side of the Atlantic. The entry of the United States into World War I in 1917 overshadowed any other political concerns; Mexico was left to its own devices, to ten more years of bloody conflict, and to the uncertainties of the twentieth century.

see alsoAnnexation and Expansion


Primary Works

Bierce, Ambrose. The Letters of Ambrose Bierce. Edited by Bertha Clarke Pope. New York: Gordian Press, 1967.

Davis, Richard Harding. Adventures and Letters of RichardHarding Davis. Edited by Charles Belmont Davis. New York: Scribners, 1917.

London, Jack. The Letters of Jack London. Vol. 3. Edited by Earle Labor and Robert C. Leitz. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988.

London, Jack. "The Mexican." 1911. In The Night-Born. New York: Century, 1913.

Reed, John. Insurgent Mexico. 1914. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969.

Steffens, Lincoln. The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1931.

Secondary Works

Hart, John Mason. Revolutionary Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Hicks, Granville. John Reed: The Making of a Revolutionary. New York: The Macmillan Company Co., 1937.

O'Connor, Richard. Ambrose Bierce: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1967.

O'Connor, Richard. Jack London: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1964.

Osborn, Scott Compton, and Robert L. Phillips. Richard Harding Davis. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.

Plana, Manuel. Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution. Translated by Arthur Figliola. New York: Interlink Books, 2002.

Tuck, Jim. Pancho Villa and John Reed: Two Faces ofRomantic Revolution. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1984.

Antonio C. Márquez

Mexican Revolution

views updated Jun 08 2018

Mexican Revolution

This bloody upheaval (1910–1920), which left more than 1 million dead, brought profound political and economic change to Mexico. It caused the fall of the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1877–1911), produced the radical Constitution of 1917, and furnished Mexico with a regime that has lasted more than seventy years.

The Revolution went through several stages. The first, the maderista era (1910–1913), encompassed the outbreak of rebellion, the victory of Francisco I. Madero over Díaz in May 1911, the interim presidency of Francisco León De La Barra, and the presidency of Madero until his murder in February 1913. The second comprised the reactionary dictatorship of General Victoriano Huerta, who ousted Madero, from 1913 to 1914. The third, the war of the winners, included the civil war between Venustiano Carranza (called the First Chief), Francisco "Pancho" Villa, and Emiliano Zapata, the latter two of whom were loosely allied. The fourth incorporated the victory of Carranza and his presidency (1916–1920). The final stage covered Carranza's failure and overthrow.

The Revolution had its origins in the changes brought about by the rapid economic growth that took place during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. During this period, economic development, fueled by foreign investment in export industries, permanently altered the Mexican class structure and created widespread unrest. The construction of a nationwide railroad network after 1880 enabled Mexico to compete on the world market for minerals and agricultural products. A burgeoning mining industry helped engender a growing working class that sought improved wages and working conditions. Flourishing commercial agriculture raised land values, which set off periods of land expropriations of small landholders and villages by owners of haciendas. These expropriations alienated peasants, who were forced to immigrate to the cities, mining camps, and across the border to the United States in search of employment.

The expanding economy and government produced a new middle class that, in the face of unfair privilege, sought equal access to politics and economic advancement. All of this dissatisfaction simmered beneath the surface for the most part until the first decade of the twentieth century, when two crises converged to spark the Revolution.

The first crisis was political. Porfirío Díaz would be eighty in 1910, when a new presidential election was to take place. His profession in 1908 that it was time to retire gave rise to a "loyal opposition" led by Madero, the scion of a rich Coahuilan family. Campaigning around Mexico despite threats and imprisonments, Madero won a large following.

The second crisis was economic. A worldwide depression that lasted from 1907 to 1909 adversely affected the export sector, causing a precipitous rise in unemployment that in great part ruined the new middle class. Desperate workers would join the Revolution in 1910, as would members of the middle class who saw no way other than violence to obtain a fair system.

The Revolution erupted in the fall of 1910, when rebels in the northern state of Chihuahua, under the leadership of Pascual Orozco, Jr., staged a series of guerrilla attacks in the name of the Anti-reelectionist movement, headed by Madero. Other regions, most notably Morelos and Sonora, also spawned armed movements. The federal army, incompetently led, undermanned, and badly trained, was overextended and unable to put down the rebellion. When Orozco, ignoring the orders of the timid Madero, captured the important border city of Ciudad Juárez in May 1911, dictator Díaz abdicated and went into exile. The victorious Maderistas installed a holdover from the Díaz dictatorship, Francisco León De La Barra, as head of an interim government. Madero was subsequently elected president of Mexico in October 1911. He took office on 6 November.

Madero found himself in an impossible situation, between the still-entrenched ancien régime, whose army was intact, and radicals who demanded land and labor reform. The new president, whose father, uncles, and brothers were great landowners and industrialists, was disposed to proceed slowly toward reform. The peasant revolutionary Emiliano Zapata refused to lay down his arms. To convince him, Madero sent the Porfirian army, which was unsuccessful.

In December the reactionaries led by General Bernardo Reyes Ogazón rose against the regime. Emiliano Vázquez Gómez added to the turmoil by proclaiming his revolt along the northern border in February. Pascual Orozco, Jr., disgruntled by Madero's passing him over in favor of Abraham González for the governorship of Chihuahua and backed by funds from the great landholder-political boss Luis Terrazas, rebelled the next month. Attempted coups and labor strikes added to the chaos. Madero's Mexico was being pulled apart by opposition from the states. His refusal to quicken the pace of economic reform badly eroded his support in the countryside. In February 1913, after ten tragic days of artillery fire and slaughter in Mexico City (La Decena Trágica), Victoriano Huerta betrayed Madero and overthrew him on 18 February. Madero and his vice president, José María Pino Suárez, were murdered four days later. Through a series of political machinations, Huerta took over as president on 19 February.

The "usurper," as he became known to Mexicans, confronted three dangerous adversaries: Emiliano Zapata and his strong peasant-based movement in Morelos; Francisco "Pancho" Villa and his peasant-worker-middle-class coalition from Chihuahua and Durango; and Venustiano Carranza and his reformist followers from Coahuila and Sonora. The three joined against Huerta in an uneasy, mutually suspicious alliance, the Constitutional coalition, that would disintegrate with victory.

Primarily as a result of the military talents of Villa and Carranza's most important general, Álvaro Obregón Salido, and the diplomatic and armed intervention of the United States, the Constitutionalist coalition defeated Huerta. In a series of bloody battles in the center of the country (Torreón and Zacatecas), Villa defeated and demoralized the Huertista army.

President Woodrow Wilson undermined the dictator by refusing to recognize his government and by shutting off access to arms and munitions supplies. In April, ostensibly because a Mexican officer in Tampico refused to apologize for a minor incident involving U.S. sailors, Wilson dispatched occupation forces to both Tampico and Veracruz, Mexico's two major ports. U.S. forces deprived Huerta of easy access to supplies and of the use of customs revenues. The dictator resigned on 15 July 1914; the U.S. occupation ended in late November.

The most destructive part of the revolution lay ahead. At a convention the winners held in Aguascalientes in October 1914, it quickly became evident that the allies had widely disparate goals, and moreover that Villa and Carranza had become personal enemies. The rough, former bandit and man of the people could not have been more different from the haughty, aloof hacendado.

Carranza with drew support from the convention, thus assuring the split between him and the Zapatistas and Villistas, who then joined forces against him. A costly, brutal civil war ensued. It is estimated that between October 1914 and October 1915 200,000 soldiers died, a total surpassed only by the suicidal battles of World War I in Europe during the same era.

Carrancista general Obregón defeated Villa in a series of battles at Celaya, León, and Aguascalientes between April and July 1915. In March 1916 a group of Villista raiders crossed the border into Columbus, New Mexico, provoking the second military intervention by the United States in the Mexican Revolution. U.S. troops, led by General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, futilely chased Villa for nearly a year until February 1917. At several points clashes with Carrancista troops came close to sparking full-scale war.

Carranza convoked a congress of revolutionaries at Querétaro in November 1916. The Convention of Aguascalientes (1914) produced a new constitution that offered a program of far-reaching reform over the bitter objections of the more conservative Carranza. By contrast, the Constitution of 1917 was notable for three aspects: its virulent anticlericalism, its radical land reform, and its wide-ranging intervention in labor-management relations. Carranza, however, ignored most of the new reforms, and actually reversed the process of land reform.

Carranza won the presidential election of March 1917 and assumed office on 1 May. He still faced diminished but stiff opposition from Villa in Chihuahua and from Zapata in Morelos. Zapata was killed in an ambush in 1919, but Villa outlived the First Chief. The primary goals of the victorious Constitutionalists were to restore order and rebuild the economy. As Carranza's popularity plummeted, he sought allies among the old prerevolutionary elite to whom he returned lands expropriated by Villa and others.

Carranza fell when he tried to impose his successor, Ignacio Bonilla, a civilian, as president. The army would not stand still for this imposition and overthrew the First Chief in the April 1920 revolt of Agua Prieta. A month later Carranza was killed trying to escape. Obregón won election to the presidency.

The violence of the Revolution was unrelenting (and lasted long after 1920). All of its major leaders were murdered: Madero and Pino Suárez at the hands of Huerta; Orozco and Huerta in aborted efforts to organize revolts from the United States; Zapata in an ambush; Villa by assassins in 1923; and Obregón by a religious fanatic in 1928. Some whole families were wiped out. Although it is impossible to calculate with certainty, between 1.5 and 2 million Mexicans (perhaps one of eight) perished in the decade of the Revolution. The economy lay in ruins. The nation would not regain the level of development reached in 1910 for another twenty years.

Recent trends in the study of the Mexican Revolution continue to broaden the historical perspective. Marjorie Becker examines the cultural history of the Cárdenas era in order to highlight the process of state building. Along with Katherine Bliss, Becker also pays special attention to gender relations in the Revolution. A recent general study that is useful for teaching the Revolution to undergraduate students is Michael Gonzales's The Mexican Revolution (2002). In 2006 Adolfo Gilly published an updated version of his classic Marxist history of the Mexican Revolution.

See alsoMexico, Constitutions: Constitution of 1917 .


The magisterial two-volume study by Alan Knight, The Mexican Revolution (1986), is the best single work on the Revolution. Friedrich Katz, The Secret War in Mexico: Europe, the United States, and the Mexican Revolution (1981), is the standard examination of the role of other nations in the upheaval. See also Frank Tannenbaum, Peace by Revolution (1933); Charles C. Cumberland, Mexican Revolution: Genesis Under Madero (1952), and Mexican Revolution: The Constitutionalist Years (1972); Robert Quirk, The Mexican Revolution, 1914–1915 (1960); John Womack, Emiliano Zapata and the Mexican Revolution (1970); Michael C. Meyer, Huerta: A Political Portrait (1972); Adolfo Gilly, The Mexican Revolution, translated by Patrick Camiller (1983); and John M. Hart, Revolutionary Mexico: The Coming and Process of the Mexican Revolution (1987).

Additional Bibliography

Becker, Marjorie. Setting the Virgin on Fire: Lázaro Cárdenas and the Redemption of the Mexican Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Bliss, Katherine Elaine. Compromised Positions: Prostitution, Public Health, and Gender Politics in Revolutionary Mexico City. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.

Gilly, Adolfo. The Mexican Revolution: A People's History. New York: New Press, 2006.

Gonzalez, Michael J. The Mexican Revolution, 1910–1940. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002.

Tutino, John. From Insurrection to Revolution in Mexico: The Social Bases of Agrarian Violence, 1750–1940. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Vaughan, Mary Kay, and Stephen E. Lewis, eds. The Eagle and the Virgin: National and Cultural Revolution in Mexico, 1920–1940. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.

                              Mark Wasserman

Mexican Revolution

views updated May 23 2018

Mexican Revolution (1910–40) Extended political revolution that improved the welfare of the Mexican underpriviliged. The dictatorial, elitist presidency of Porfirio Díaz prompted the Mexican Revolution. Díaz, who had agreed not to stand for re-election following the threat of armed revolt by Francisco Madero, reneged on his agreement and was re-elected in 1910. In 1911, he was forced to resign by Madero, who was subsequently elected. Madero intended to make land-ownership more egalitarian, to strengthen labour organizations, and to lessen the influence of the Catholic Church. In 1913, he was assassinated by his former general Victoriano Huerta. The repressive regime of Huerta caused massive unrest in the peasant community, who found leaders in Venustiano Carranza, Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa, and Emiliano Zapata. Huerta resigned and Carranza became president (1914). Although some agrarian, educational and political reforms continued, it was Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–40) who finally began the process of land distribution, support of the labour movement, and improvements in health and education.

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