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Useful Notes / The Mexican Revolution

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Pancho Villa with the staff of his División del Norte.

"Madero has unleashed a tiger. Now let's see if he can tame it."
Porfirio Díaz, before going into exile

The Mexican Revolution was a conflict that raged (obviously) over Mexico starting in 1910 and ending...well...anywhere from 1920 (with the military triumph and Álvaro Obregón) to 1940 (with the succession of Lázaro Cárdenas and the realization of many of the social promises of the revolution). It's considered the bloodiest conflict ever fought on Mexican soil (or, if you take the number of displaced, exiled, and disappeared people into the equation, the bloodiest fought on North American soilnote ) with over one million casualties. It's also notable as the first social revolution of the 20th century, beating the October Revolution by seven years. All of this war can be summed up in the following phases:

Background: The Porfiriato (1876-1910)

The causes of the war can be summed up as the people being angry with how the aging president Porfirio Díaz was managing the country. In his early years as President, he was considered a very capable one, handling the economy and industrialization of the country in such a way that Mexico managed to make up for all those years of civil strife in a decade, but at the expense of screwing the lower social classes and making it very hard for the middle class to go up in the social pyramid, creating a huge wealth gap between higher and lower classes. And then, at the second half of his presidential years, everything started to change for the worse, as the political scene started to stagnate and foreign industrialists in Mexico were given a lot of privileges. To sum it up, he violently put down several revolts of Yaqui and Mayo Indians in Sonora, and deported the survivors to plantations at Yucatán, where they were worked to death. Peasants were indebted to their landowners, and had all basic human rights stripped from them. There was no freedom of speech (though the clandestine press was quite big) though to make up for it, Díaz organized several "Democratic clubs" where people could rant about how much he sucked, under strict vigilance. And also, many foreign companies and landowners were allowed to run their lands like feudal kingdoms, able to screw their employees in every way they wanted — sometimes literally. And also, he was always committing electoral fraud in every election (though his perennial challenger, Nicolás Zúñiga y Miranda, was a bit odd, and never made much of an impact on the rest of the country).

When finally, in 1908, Porfirio Díaz announced to the American reporter James Creelman that he was going to hold free elections in 1910, the people rejoiced. Francisco Ignacio Madero González, an upper class politician from the far northern state of Coahuila, decided to run for presidency to avenge his brother, who was killed during a democratic revolt in Monterrey, Nuevo León. He founded the Partido Antirreeleccionista (Anti-Reelectionist Party) after selling a lot of his possessions. He was regarded as a messiah of democracy by the people, who had grown tired of the constant political strong-arming by Díaz and his cronies. There were also some other Díaz's cronies who wanted to get in the presidential chair, but they weren't as popular as Madero himself.

When the elections rolled around, Díaz again committed electoral fraud, blatantly rigging the elections. And to make matters worse, he threw Madero into jail, where he started to hatch a plan to reclaim power.

Overthrowing Díaz (20 November 1910-25 May 1911)

On 20 November 1910, Francisco I. Madero called all Mexicans to arms against Díaz's illegal government. This was taken to heart by many factions who were against Díaz's increasingly erratic government policies. The whole conflict against Díaz ended quickly, as no one really wanted him there. At the end, Díaz exiled himself to France (ironically, the country he fought against with such fervor 50 years before), though not before making that quote at the top of the page.

Madero's Presidency (25 May 1911-9 February 1913)

Short story? Madero couldn't tame it.

Long story? Well...

People rejoiced when Madero became president, as his youthful image and his charisma managed to bring a lot of the former people who worked for Díaz under his administration. However, many of these ex-Porfiriato men weren't really invested in Madero's revolution—especially the ones who only went over after he won. But for some reason, Madero insisted on listening to these guys instead of the people who'd had his back from the beginning. Probably this reflected a (somewhat legitimate) concern they'd try and topple his regime if he didn't placate them. However, this policy of listening to his enemies while ignoring his friends and allies understandably pissed off those friends and allies—most especially Emiliano Zapata and his band of agrarian socialist revolutionaries in Morelos (a south-central state extremely close to Mexico City).

This proved to be a problem when the ex-Porfirians plotted against Madero anyway. With the (initially) tacit support of U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson (who hated Madero's guts), the Porfirian General Bernardo Reyes (who had been seen as Díaz's natural successor) and Díaz's nephew Félix Díaz, held together in a Mexico City prison after failing to incite popular rebellions against Madero from Nuevo Léon and Veracuz (respectively), plotted together to incite the Mexican Federal Army to revolt. Since the Federal Army's officer corps was basically unchanged from before the revolution, this could actually work.

Decena Trágica (The Ten Tragic Days) (9-19 February 1913)

It worked.

On 9 February 1913, several Army detachments revolted in Mexico City, all of them trying to oust Madero from power. However, during the coup, a loyalist Army officer saw many soldiers bringing machine guns into the city, and raised the alarm at the National Palace. Then, all hell broke loose in Mexico City, as every side was paranoid and shot at everything that moved. In the confusion, Bernardo Reyes—who at the start of the plot seemed the most likely to come out on top—was shot and killed by forces loyal to the Madero regime.

A standoff broke out between the Maderista forces and the rebels. Madero recalled newly appointed General Felipe Ángeles, who had successfully brokered a truce with the Zapatistas in Morelos, to lead his loyal forces against the rebels. Ángeles was the perfect choice for this mission; while he had joined the army under the old regime, he had gotten himself into political trouble before the revolution (and was thus "on an observation mission to France" when the revolution broke out), and was a convinced democrat and Maderista. Also, he was literally an artillery officer in a moment when artillery knowledge (both cannons and the then-new machine guns) was critical. But for some reason, Madero let himself get hung up on the technicality that Ángeles's appointment as general had not yet been formally approved by the Congress as a reason not to just have him take command right then. As a result, he relied on General Victoriano Huerta to command his loyal troops against the rebels.

This was a huge mistake.

Huerta, it turns out, was an ultraconservative arch-militarist who hated Madero's liberal face and the democratic burro he rode in on. It seems that Huerta opened backchannel communications with the rebels pretty quickly, schemed with the anti-Madero US ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson, and within a few days, the general was openly on the other side. And that was all it took.

At the end, in February 19 at Midnight, Madero and the staff remaining loyal to him were caught after an ill-conceived plan to flee, and most of them got jailed or executed unceremoniously, with Madero's brother suffering a particularly gruesome fate in being tortured to death rather than shot. This resulted in the beginning of the government of Victoriano Huerta, thanks to Pedro Lascuráin, a foreign minister that was jammed into the presidency, only to appoint Huerta as Vice President and resign. He was president for 45 minutes (the shortest presidency in history). After that, Huerta eventually said "screw this" and refused to hold new elections, so he got to stay in power after the Congress appointed him as President while surrounded by soldiers with fixed bayonets in a clear show of intimidation.

The Huerta Regime (19 February 1913-15 July 1914)

Huerta became even more hated than Díaz ever was, and he is still viewed in Mexico as the sole unambiguously evil figure of the Revolution. Díaz has his defenders and nuanced takes on his long reign, but Huerta's name is synonymous with tyranny in Mexico.

While Díaz was very authoritarian, he preferred a convincing democratic facade, and used diplomacy, civilian technocrats and a few military officers to run his government. No matter how shallow or flimsy they were, any concessions he made were tailored to carefully satisfy everyone, and Díaz had a very affable personality despite his repressive policies - striking textile workers of the Rio Blanco mill that were gunned down on Díaz's orders even wrote to him for his personal arbitration beforehand. Huerta hated cabinet meetings, treated all his civilian ministers like crap, regularly disdained any idea of elected government in favor of la mano nera (the iron hand), attempted to turn Mexico into an army with a state, and was a rude short-tempered alcoholic.

With only military officers placed in government positions, political opposition from both sides regularly murdered by the army and police in public - the signature excuse being "they were shot while trying to escape"note  - and all government funding solely directed towards expanding the army, resentment towards Huerta grew more fierce each day. The liberals hated Huerta for his open contempt for civil liberties and the constitution, the conservatives (including Felix) hated Huerta because he'd banned all elections and solely wanted power for himself. Even the Zapatistas admitted that the paternalistic Díaz could be clever and had the good sense to leave Mexico when his time was up, while Huerta was simply a stupid thug trying to terrorize everyone into submission.

Most surprising of all, Huerta was an enemy of the United States from day one, despite their ambassador to Mexico conniving to bring him into power in the first place. Huerta was so proudly anti-democratic that he was one of the few tinpot dictators they could not possibly support to protect their business interests, and anti-Huerta cartoons were popular in American publications. Woodrow Wilson would place an arms embargo on Mexico in August 1913, and had the US military famously occupy the port city of Veracruz in 1914 to punish Huerta for destroying Mexican democracy.

Restart of hostilities

The rest of the revolutionary leaders were pissed off by the fact that a democratically elected president was killed by a cowardly bully so vicious he made Díaz look preferable, so the battles started against Huerta as everyone turned on him. In the south, Emiliano Zapata hadn't stopped being in rebellion since the revolt against Díaz broke out in 1911, and Huerta's heavy-handed tactics had basically put every able-bodied man in Morelos and substantial swathes of the states of Puebla, Guerrero, and even México at his disposal. Meanwhile, the state governments of the northeastern state of Coahuila and the northwestern state of Sonora rejected Huerta's coup from the beginning. The Sonorans, under their military leader Álvaro Obregón, developed a firm base of operations throughout their state; the Coahuilans, led by the ex-Porfirian (but reformist) Governor Venustiano Carranza, quickly found themselves overwhelmed by Huerta's forces and ran to Sonora for refuge.

In the meantime, the state of Chihuahua—wedged between Coahuila and Sonora—officially remained loyal to Huerta, but quickly found itself home to a legion of rebel bands opposed to the coup. The most important of these was that loyal to one José Doroteo Arámbula, better known as Francisco "Pancho" Villa. Villa had been a principal commander under Abraham González, the Maderista Governor of Chihuahua and basically Madero's political heir apparent. However, one of the first things Huerta had done once he won power was have González assassinated—hence the chaos in the state. In the event, Villa's formation, known as the División del Norte, quickly proved to be the most effective fighting unit in the war. Combined with pressure from Obregón's Sonorans, things started to go really well really quickly for the anti-Huerta forces.

Eventually, Huerta exiled himself in July 1914 when he realized that he was facing an unwinnable scenario and his allies (like former revolutionary Pascual Orozco in the north, who revolted against Madero) were executed, exiled or imprisoned. After sending Huerta into exile aboard a German cruiser, the revolutionary leaders held a convention in the city of Aguascalientes to settle things. However, there was great tension between Villa and Carranza (the latter even made a "legal" government in Mexico City and called himself supreme commander). Since the convention only managed to appoint a president and not make a common plan that pleased all sides, the revolutionary leaders started battling against each other on 2 sides: Villa-Zapata (on the "Conventionalist" side, who were fond of educating the people and returning the land to its owners) and Obregón-Carranza (on the "Constitutionalist" side, who were more conservative). Then, while things seemed to be going fine, Pancho Villa had a falling out with his fellow revolutionaries and their U.S. suppliers, and in an act of desperation, he took up arms against all of them. This didn’t work out in his favor. Villa’s attack on Columbus, New Mexico in 1916 cost him between 90 and 170 men killed to just 16 American soldiers and civilians (including a pregnant woman, which didn’t exactly help Villa’s public image), in exchange for a few crates of rifles. It also provoked Pershing’s Punitive Expedition, which failed to capture or kill Villa, but still mauled his remaining forces and left him in the position of being essentially at Carranza’s mercy.

On a side note, Ambrose Bierce vanished in Mexico sometime around 1914 after coming to observe the conflict, his ultimate fate a mystery. We also didn't see the last of Victoriano Huerta; he ended up exiling himself in the United States, a country that had despised him. He negotiated with Captain Franz von Rintelen of German naval intelligence to arrange a coup d'etat with German support and weapons against the revolutionary government. But the Secret Service was monitoring Huerta from the start, and he was arrested only to die suddenly in an American jail - it's widely believed that the U.S. poisoned him.

After the Constitution

The whole war more or less died down after 1917, when a new constitution was drafted in the provisional congress led by Venustiano Carranza, since most factions agreed that their demands had been satisfied. However, a few people were not too happy about being excluded from the whole deal, namely Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa.

Those two eventually started to stage new campaigns against the government, and Félix Díaz joined the fray once again. All of these campaigns failed, with Villa eventually retiring in 1920, only to get assassinated Gangland-style while on his way to a wedding, Zapata murdered during a False Flag Operation by the Mexican Government, and Félix Díaz being more of a nuisance until he went back into exile in 1920.

The aftershocks of the revolution were quite strong back in the first half of the 20th century. Depending on who you ask, the conflict ended after the drafting of the Constitution of 1917, in 1924 when Plutarco Elías Calles entered power, a few years later when the Cristero war ended, or until 1936, when then-president Lázaro Cárdenas repossessed all of the foreign oil companies to fund PEMEX, the state petrol company.

The Mexican Revolution in the media:

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    Films — Live-Action 
  • And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003): A story about the filming of "The Life of General Villa", the first movie about the Mexican Revolution, starring Pancho Villa.note 
  • Zapata: El Sueño del Héroe (2004): A film about Emiliano Zapata. Massively hyped due to having several famous actors from Televisa and because it promised to deliver a new perspective on the hero. It bombed quite badly, thanks to the fact that its director, Alfonso Arau, assaulted historical accuracy (which was what the audience expected) to present a quasi-mythological and larger-than-life Zapata, and terrible special effects. On the other hand, the scenes that didn't involved the same ruined hacienda were gorgeous.
  • The Professionals: A wealthy rancher hires four American cowboys to rescue his wife from a revolutionary-turned-bandit leader.
  • A Fistful of Dynamite features an "idealized" (read: Artistic License – History) version.
  • ¡Three Amigos!! takes place in this period, with a German agent as The Dragon to a Pancho Villa Expy.
  • The Wild Bunch is about a group of American bandits trying to take advantage of the chaos.
  • Viva Villa! is a biopic about Pancho Villa.
  • Viva Zapata! is a biopic about Emiliano Zapata, who is played by Marlon Brando.
  • For Greater Glory, taking place during the Cristeros War which happened afterward.
  • The Revolution Trilogy, three movies (El Prisionero Trece, El Compadre Mendoza and Vámonos con Pancho Villa) directed by Fernando de Fuentes. Notable for their cynical portrayal of the conflict unlike other movies of the time, and due to this, the movies were poorly received at the time. However, they have been Vindicated by History by critics and film clubs alike because of this.
  • Hardcase is about and American soldier-turned-rancher who gets caught up in the early days of the revolution when he travels to Mexico looking for his wife who has run off with a revolutionary.

  • Los de abajo (Published from 1914 to 1918).
  • Temporada De Zopilotes (2010) (English: Buzzard Season): A book later made documentary by Mexican historian and writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II. It's a factual book about the Decena Trágica. Very well researched.
  • Insurgent Mexico (1914): A collection of memoirs from the war correspondent John "Jack" Reed, otherwise known as the author of Ten Days that Shook the World.
  • Pedro Páramo, which deals with the Cristeros War.
  • Mexico En Llamas (Mexico Ablaze) (2012), a book about the Revolution from a sociological point of view.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Senda de Gloria (Path of Glory) (1987): The first soap opera that featured the aftershocks of the 1917 constitution as they were, and the events played out. It was Televisa's first superproduction, and it shows. It plays out the chaotic years after the 1917 constitution and the early years of the then-ruling political party Partido Revolucionario Institucional, from the perspective of a family that sided with Carranza. However, due to Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas' split from the PRI (who is the son of Lázaro Cárdenas, a historical person glorified in that series' last 30 episodes), the soap's last 30 episodes got shafted by orders of the government.
  • El Vuelo Del Águila (The flight of the Eagle) (1994): Another historical soap opera from Televisa, about the whole presidency of Porfirio Díaz, told from his perspective. The last half was about the first years of the Mexican Revolution, and the toll it took on him.
  • El Encanto del Águila (The Eagle's Charm) (2011): Yet another historical soap opera by Televisa, this time as a mini-series about the Mexican Revolution itself between the years 1910 (when the first uprising began and Madero called for an insurgency) and 1928 (ending when Plutarco Elías Calles elected his successor, Emilio Portes Gil) dealing with the most important parts of the Revolution, its key characters (some appearing later than they should) and how it affected Mexico.
  • The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles has an episode set during that time, where he encounters Pancho Villa. Which he mentions to Mutt Williams in Crystal Skull while in Peru looking for Oxley.

  • Season 9 of Mike Duncan's podcast Revolutions (aired August 2018-March 2019) is a narrative history of the Mexican Revolution. In terms of length, it is roughly tied for fourth place with Season 5 on the South American Wars of Independence, at 27 episodes eachnote —though Season 5 did have one supplemental, Season 9's count includes a double-length episode, and it feels longer and more epic, somehow. Duncan was very excited to do this revolution, and had planned to include it from the very beginning of the series some five years earlier, so the history is quite detailed.

    Video Games 
  • John Marston, the protagonist of Red Dead Redemption, reluctantly helps both sides of an alternate revolution in his efforts to either capture or kill his former gang members Bill Williamson and Javier Escuella. The game takes place in 1911.
  • In the 1914 scenario of Darkest Hour, the game takes place during the war against Victoriano Huerta, and you can pick any of the factions involved in the conflict.
  • The Hearts of Iron IV: The Great War mod for Hearts of Iron IV has a 1910 and 1914 starts, and includes the Revolution as one of the events of the game. Both Mexican factions are playable, and USA have national focuses allowing to support one side and intervene in the war. For Mexico, a victory of either Pancho Villa, Zapata, or Porfirio Díaz unlocks national focuses allowing reclaim Texas and conquer other Central America countries. Note that leaving the Mexican Revolution to its own devices often results in Porfirio Díaz's AI crushing the Mexican Opposition in a couple of months.

Alternative Title(s): Mexican Revolution