BRIA 25 4 Land Liberty and the Mexican Revolution

Bill of Rights in Action
SUMMER 2010 (Volume 25, No. 4)

Reaction and Reform

The Watergate Scandal  |  Mussolini and the Rise of Fascism  |  Land, Liberty, and the Mexican Revolution  

Land, Liberty, and the Mexican Revolution

For more than 100 years after winning independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico suffered a stream of political calamities. These included civil wars, dictatorships, assassinations, foreign invasions, and a long bloody revolution. Following the Mexican Revolution, President Lazaro Cardenez in 1934 ushered in a new era of stable government.

Between 1821 and 1857, Mexico had about 50 different national governments as conservatives and liberals fought for control of the country. The conservatives were mainly wealthy owners of large agricultural and livestock estates called haciendas, which controlled much of Mexico’s land. Most of the liberals belonged to the business-oriented middle class.

Both conservatives and liberals focused on protecting their property and other economic interests. Neither had much concern for the suffering of rural peasants, factory workers, miners, and other common people who made up the vast majority of Mexico’s population.

After a brutal civil war from 1858 to 1861, the liberals defeated the conservatives and elected Benito Juarez as president. The French, however, soon invaded and occupied Mexico to assure payment of the huge foreign debt it owed.

France set up a monarchy in Mexico under a Catholic archduke, Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria. He gained enthusiastic support from conservatives and Mexican Catholic Church leaders. When France withdrew its troops in 1866, however, liberal fighters under Juarez defeated Maximilian and his conservative allies and executed him by firing squad.

Juarez resumed his presidency, and Mexicans elected him two more times. He wanted to run for a fourth term but died suddenly. His secretary of foreign relations, Sebastian Lerdo, won election as president in 1872.

By this time, liberals had grown wary of presidents holding office for more than one term because they could become corrupt and too powerful. In addition, those in power usually rigged the elections in their favor.

When President Lerdo announced his intention to run for a second term, many liberals objected. Among them was General Porfirio Diaz, a national hero who had fought against the French.

In 1876, Diaz denounced Lerdo and seized the presidency by force. He ruled Mexico either directly or through a puppet president for the next 35 years.

The Diaz Dictatorship

Once in command of the government, Diaz concentrated power in his hands. He put his friends and relatives into key national, state, and local government offices. This angered the poor and middle-class liberals alike who valued local self-rule.

One of Diaz’s main goals was to modernize Mexico’s economy. He granted tax breaks and other economic privileges to foreign investors, which Mexican business owners resented. Diaz changed the law so that non-citizens who bought Mexican land could own the resources beneath the surface such as silver, copper, and oil. He also contracted with American companies to construct a railroad system. The railroad lines reached into most regions of the country, providing easier access to Mexico’s ports. Suddenly, Mexico’s minerals, beef cattle, cash crops like sugar and cotton, and other products for export became more profitable.

Some Mexican peasants farmed their own small plots of land. More commonly, they worked on village land that they traditionally owned as a group. Mexican peasants grew crops and grazed their livestock for food. But under the new Diaz economy, large hacienda owners, called hacendados, wanted more land to increase profits from their cash-crop and beef-cattle exports. Encouraged by Diaz, the hacendados used methods, including bribery and violence, to take land from many nearby peasants and villages.

The loss of their land forced many Mexican peasants to work as low-wage laborers for the hacendados or to migrate to cities in search of work. Landless peasants increased the labor pool, which caused lower wages, higher unemployment, and more poverty. Less land for growing crops like corn led to higher food prices. Hunger stalked the land.

“Debt peonage” trapped many landless peasants. They lived and worked on haciendas as laborers under brutal conditions for what amounted to pennies a week. Since they were always in debt to the hacendado’s store, they remained tied, virtually as slaves, to the hacienda for their entire lives.

Foreigners owned the railroads and most of Mexico’s emerging industries such as textiles (cloth-making) and mining. Workers labored long hours at low pay under frequently dangerous conditions. Mexican workers particularly resented the “dual-wage system,” which paid them less than foreign employees who did the same job.

Diaz tolerated worker abuses and suppressed their attempts to form unions. In 1906, workers went on strike against a French-owned textile factory in Mexico’s chief port of Veracruz. Diaz sent army troops who killed dozens of strikers and executed union leaders.

That same year, miners in the northern state of Sonora went on strike against a copper mine owned by an American. He had refused to meet with the miners to negotiate pay and working conditions. He hired armed Americans from Arizona 40 miles away to cross into Mexico and come to his aid. Diaz authorized the governor in Sonora to deputize the Americans who joined Mexican troops in crushing the strike. The use of foreigners to fight the striking miners enraged many Mexicans.

The Revolution Against Diaz

By 1910, Diaz’s dictatorship had lasted three decades. Landless peasants, hacienda laborers, factory workers, railroad employees, miners, and middle-class liberals hated his rule. Francisco Madero, a liberal and successful businessman, attempted to campaign against Diaz for president in 1909. But Diaz threw him in jail “for insulting the president and fomenting rebellion.” After Diaz won the rigged election, Madero managed to flee to the United States.

On October 5, 1910, Madero declared that the election had been a fraud and he was now the provisional president. He called for Mexicans to revolt against Diaz.

Madero announced a liberal program of reforms that limited the president to a single four-year term, shifted political power to state and local governments, and promoted free market capitalism. He said little, however, about the land taken from the peasants by the hacendados.

Many local revolutionary guerilla armies formed throughout Mexico and rallied under Madero’s banner. They included all sorts of Mexicans: landless peasants, factory workers, miners, cowboys, business owners, teachers, intellectuals, and even some bandits.

Two major groups seemed to form as the Mexican Revolution unfolded. First, were the liberals like Madero. Most were middle class, educated, and interested in securing political liberties like free elections. Second, were the much larger numbers of peasants and workers. They sought fundamental social and economic changes: the return of stolen peasant land, worker rights, schools, and an end to poverty and hunger.

The center of the Mexican Revolution in the north was the state of Chihuahua, a dry cattle-ranching country on Mexico’s wild frontier. Many who joined the revolution here were well-armed cowboys and small ranchers who had recently been fighting Apache Indians. They valued their freedom and hated rule from Mexico City.

Francisco “Pancho” Villa was 32 when he joined Madero’s revolutionary movement in 1910. Villa made his living rustling cattle from wealthy hacendados in Chihuahua. An excellent horseman and gunfighter, he had killed a number of men. He dressed plainly and neither smoked nor drank alcohol.

Villa’s motive for becoming a revolutionary was not clear except for erasing his record as a bandit and getting land for his men. Despite his unpromising background, Villa became the general of a huge revolutionary army. He won battles not by his command of strategy and tactics but because of his charisma and his ability to gain the unquestioned loyalty of his followers, known as villistas.

The state of Morelos was the center of the revolution in the tropical south. Here huge sugar-growing haciendas had expanded by annexing as much peasant and village land as they could. Emiliano Zapata was a small landowner from a village that had lost its best farmland to the nearby hacienda.

Like Villa, Zapata was a superior horseman. Unlike him, he was something of a dandy who liked to sip brandy and wear flashy outfits with a huge sombrero.

In 1909, Zapata was elected village chief. He studied documents that proved his village had a right to its land based on a grant from Spain. In 1909, he confronted the local hacendado to demand the return of his village’s cornfields. The hacendado replied that if the villagers wanted to sow their seed, “let them sow it in a flowerpot.”

In 1910, when Madero declared his rebellion against Diaz, Zapata led a band of armed villagers to retake their stolen cornfields. Zapata was destined to become the leader of the Morelos peasants, called zapatistas. They became fearsome guerilla fighters in reclaiming their land stolen by the hacendados. Zapata’s cry of “Land and Liberty!” became the motto of the Mexican Revolution.

In May 1911, with Villa, Zapata, and other revolutionaries hitting Diaz from all sides, the dictator left Mexico and went into exile in France. A few months later, Madero won election as president.

The Revolution Continued

Zapata soon learned that Madero did not intend to force the hacendados to give up their millions of acres of land. In November 1911, Zapata announced plans to confiscate parts of each hacienda’s land and redistribute it to individual peasants and villages.

Madero sent General Victoriano Huerta and the Mexican army to Morelos to suppress Zapata’s land reform movement. Zapata took his fighters into the mountains to wage guerilla warfare against Huerta.

In the north, disillusioned revolutionaries rebelled against Madero for failing to improve the conditions of workers. Villa, however, remained loyal to him.

In February 1913, President Madero put General Huerta in charge of defending his government against a conspiracy of Diaz supporters who wanted to bring back the old dictator. But Huerta joined the conspiracy, took over the government, and had Madero executed.

With Huerta in charge, Mexico reverted to a dictatorship supported by Diaz’s men, the hacendados, and top military generals. It was as if the Revolution of 1910 had never taken place.

Venustiano Carranza was a liberal supporter of Madero and governor of the northern state of Coahuila. Carranza declared himself “first chief” and launched a rebellion against Huerta.

Villa joined with Carranza and organized his own paid professional army of 20,000 men and even a few women. Villa formed many of his villistas into a superior cavalry. He confiscated trains to quickly transport his troops and horses to battle. He also had a hospital train of 40 cars with the latest medical equipment and both Mexican and American doctors. To finance his army, Villa raided haciendas for cattle that he sold in the U.S. where he purchased firearms. When rustled cattle were not enough to pay his bills, he printed his own money.

In Morelos, Zapata continued his guerrilla war against Huerta. But he refused to recognize Carranza as first chief. Zapata saw him as another liberal who would do little to return land to the peasants if he became president.

To complicate things even more, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson ordered a fleet of warships to Veracruz in April 1914 and occupied the city with marines and sailors. Wilson viewed Huerta’s government as illegal and supported Carranza’s effort to overthrow him. By occupying Mexico’s chief port, Wilson hoped to cut off customs revenue to Huerta’s government.

Meanwhile, Villa’s cavalry defeated a force of 12,000 Huerta troops, and Zapata tied down another part of his army in Morelos. Carranza’s military chief, General Alvaro Obregon, fought his way toward Mexico City with his army. In July 1914, Huerta gave up and fled to Spain. A few months later, President Wilson ordered U.S. occupation forces to leave Veracruz.

‘War of the Winners’

Four winners emerged from the fight against Huerta: Carranza, Obregon, Villa, and Zapata. “First Chief” Carranza and General Obregon represented the Mexican liberals. They opposed the rule of dictators but were not committed to basic social and economic reforms. Villa and Zapata represented most workers and peasants who demanded labor rights and land. But who would become president of Mexico?

In October 1914, the revolutionary winners sent delegates to a convention to decide on a temporary president, pending an election. Carranza, as self-proclaimed “first chief,” assumed the convention would pick him. When the delegates chose someone else, Carranza angrily headed for Veracruz to plot taking power with his ally, General Obregon.

A few months later, Villa and Zapata met for the first and only time near Mexico City. They both expected Carranza to fight them to take control of the government. But they failed to agree on a joint plan to stop him. Many believe that by not joining forces at this moment, Villa, the heroic leader of a professional army, and Zapata, the champion of the peasants, lost the Mexican Revolution.

Zapata quickly returned to Morelos. Villa took his time, enjoying life in Mexico City, before heading to Chihuahua. Meanwhile, Carranza and Obregon trained their army in Veracruz.

Early in 1915, Obregon moved his army north to battle Villa, whom most Mexicans and even President Wilson believed would win. But Villa ignored his top military adviser, who wanted him to retreat deep into Chihuahua, which would have forced Obregon to lengthen his military supply line from Veracruz. If this had happened, Zapata could easily have sent his peasant army from Morelos to cut off Obregon’s supplies. But Villa refused to retreat, believing he was unbeatable.

Both Villa and Obregon commanded armies of about 15,000 soldiers. Obregon, however, had been studying European trench-warfare tactics, including the use of machine guns.

Villa chose to attack Obregon’s trenches head-on with cavalry charges. Over two days in April 1915, Villa’s brave cavalrymen charged the trenches dozens of times, but Obregon’s machine guns ripped them apart. After Villa’s ammunition ran out, Obregon ordered his own cavalry charge and drove the villistas from the battlefield.

Villa regrouped with fresh reinforcements, increasing his army to 30,000 cavalry and infantry soldiers. He fought Obregon in a series of battles during the summer of 1915. But Villa stubbornly continued to order cavalry charges along with infantry frontal attacks. The results were always the same. Villa’s defeated army finally retreated with their demoralized hero into the mountains of Chihuahua, where he assembled a small guerilla force.

The Revolution in Retreat

Villa’s revolutionary army, the most powerful in Mexico, had been decisively defeated. Zapata continued to fight his own guerilla war, but mainly in Morelos. Carranza formed a government, and called for a new constitution and election.

Villa was not quite finished. He became angry when President Wilson recognized Carranza’s government. Villa mistakenly believed Carranza had agreed with Wilson to make Mexico a U.S. colony. Villa began to strike out at Americans and their property in Mexico.

In May 1916, Villa led about 400 men across the border and raided Columbus, New Mexico, killing over a dozen Americans. Villa’s purpose is not certain, but he may have wanted to provoke trouble between Carranza and Wilson.

President Wilson reacted to the raid by convincing Carranza to allow a U.S. “punitive expedition” to track down Villa in Mexico. General John Pershing with thousands of U.S. soldiers and several warplanes hunted Villa in northern Mexico for almost a year.

Pershing never found Villa, despite offering a $50,000 reward for his capture. About the only thing Pershing did accomplish was to make Villa a patriotic hero again in the eyes of many Mexicans.

In the meantime, Carranza organized a convention to write a new constitution for Mexico. Although he barred supporters of Villa and Zapata, the delegates produced some radical constitutional provisions.

The Constitution of 1917 put controls over foreign investment, restored ownership of minerals to the nation, listed worker rights, and outlawed debt peonage. It also required the hacendados to give up land, with government compensation, to the peasants. Carranza won election as president following adoption of the new constitution, but he did little to carry out the reforms.

President Carranza decided to end Zapata’s guerilla war and sent an army to Morelos to wipe him out. When the attempt failed, Carranza conspired to have him assassinated. On April 12, 1919, Carranza’s commander lured Zapata into a trap and cut him down with a barrage of bullets.

As the next presidential election neared, General Obregon decided he wanted to be president. Carranza objected and fled to Veracruz with a trainload of gold from Mexico’s treasury to plot another comeback. His enemies assassinated him on the way.

Obregon negotiated with Villa to end his guerilla war in the north. Villa got a hacienda for himself and land for his remaining villistas. Obregon won election as the new president in 1920. The Mexican armies that had fought one another for 10 years ceased operations. This ended what some call the military phase of the Mexican Revolution.

The continuous warfare between 1910 and 1920 claimed the lives of up to 2 million Mexican fighters and civilians. The country was a wasteland of ruined crops, burned buildings, ripped up railroad tracks, and other devastation. A quarter million Mexican war refugees had fled to the United States. Yet, President Obregon held views that seemed to be closer to the old dictator Diaz than to Villa or Zapata.

Political violence continued. Obregon helped plot Villa’s assassination, which took place in 1923. Obregon stepped down as president in 1924 but ran for reelection four years later. A religious fanatic assassinated him before he took office.

Not until the election of President Lazaro Cardenas in 1934 did the government act seriously to distribute land to the peasants and fulfill the other revolutionary reforms of the 1917 Constitution. Cardenas distributed land to more peasants than all previous presidents before him had.

Cardenas instituted other reforms. He nationalized the railways, electric utility companies, and the oil industry. He did away with capital punishment. Most important, he began a tradition of transferring power by democratic election, which has continued to this day in Mexico.

For Discussion and Writing

1.  How did Madero, Villa, and Zapata differ from each other when they rebelled against Diaz?

2.  Who do you think was the chief hero of the Mexican Revolution? Who do you think was the chief villain? Why?

3.  President Wilson ordered U.S. troops into Mexico two times during the revolution. Was he justified? Explain.

For Further Reading

Eisenhower, John S.D. Intervention! The United States and the Mexican Revolution 1913–1917. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.

McLynn, Frank. Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 2000.


Villa and Zapata

When Villa and Zapata met in 1914, both rejected becoming president of Mexico. Villa told Zapata, “I am a fighter, not a statesman. I am not educated enough to be president, I only learned to read and write properly two years ago.”

When the two revolutionaries visited the presidential palace, Zapata declined Villa’s invitation to sit in the president’s chair. Zapata told Villa, “I didn’t fight for that. I fought to get the lands back. I don’t care about politics. We should burn that chair to end all ambitions.”

Write an essay, explaining why you think Villa, Zapata, or both should or should not have become president of Mexico. Use information from the article to support your reasons.



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