The Mexican Revolution

10 Years That Forged a Nation

Mexican Soldiers
Fox Photos - Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910 when the decades-old rule of President Porfirio Díaz was challenged by Francisco I. Madero, a reformist writer and politician. When Díaz refused to allow clean elections, Madero's calls for revolution were answered by Emiliano Zapata in the south, and Pascual Orozco and Pancho Villa in the north.

Díaz was deposed in 1911, but the revolution was just beginning.

By the time it was over, millions had died as rival politicians and warlords fought each other over the cities and regions of Mexico. By 1920, the chickpea farmer and revolutionary general Alvaro Obregón had risen to the presidency, primarily by outliving his main rivals. Most historians believe this event marks the end of the revolution, although the violence continued well into the 1920s.

The Porfiriato

Porfirio Díaz led Mexico as president from 1876 to 1880 and from 1884 to 1911. He was an acknowledged but unofficial ruler from 1880 to 1884 as well. His time in power is referred to as the "Porfiriato." During those decades, Mexico modernized, building mines, plantations, telegraph lines, and railroads, which brought great wealth to the nation. It came, however, at the cost of repression and grinding debt peonage for the lower classes. Díaz's close circle of friends benefited greatly, and most of Mexico's vast wealth remained in the hands of a few families.

Díaz ruthlessly clung to power for decades, but after the turn of the century, his grip on the nation started to slip. The people were unhappy: An economic recession caused many to lose their jobs and people began calling for change. Díaz promised free elections in 1910.

Díaz and Madero

Díaz expected to win easily and legally and was therefore shocked when it became evident that his opponent, Francisco I.

Madero, was likely to win. Madero, a reformist writer who came from a wealthy family, was an unlikely revolutionary. He was short and skinny, with a high-pitched voice that became quite shrill when he was excited. A teetotaler and vegetarian, he claimed to be able to speak to ghosts and spirits, including his dead brother and Benito Juárez. Madero didn't have any real plan for Mexico after Díaz; he simply felt that someone else should rule after decades of Don Porfirio.

Díaz fixed the elections, arresting Madero on false charges of plotting armed insurrection. Madero was bailed out of jail by his father and went to San Antonio, Texas, where he watched Díaz easily "win" re-election. Convinced that there was no other way to get Díaz to step down, Madero called for an armed rebellion; ironically, that was the same charge that had been trumped-up against him. According to Madero's Plan of San Luis Potosi, the insurrection would begin on November 20.

Orozco, Villa, and Zapata

In the southern state of Morelos, Madero's call was answered by peasant leader Emiliano Zapata, who hoped a revolution would lead to land reform. In the north, muleteer Pascual Orozco and bandit chieftain Pancho Villa also took up arms.

All three rallied thousands of men to their rebel armies.

In the south, Zapata attacked large ranches called haciendas, giving back land that had been illegally and systematically stolen from peasant villages by Díaz's cronies. In the north, Villa's and Orozco's massive armies attacked federal garrisons wherever they found them, building up impressive arsenals and attracting thousands of new recruits. Villa truly believed in reform; he wanted to see a new, less crooked Mexico. Orozco was more of an opportunist who saw a chance to get in on the ground floor of a movement he was certain would succeed and secure a position of power for himself (such as state governor) with the new regime.

Orozco and Villa had great success against the federal forces and in February 1911, Madero returned and joined them in the north.

As the three generals closed in on the capital, Díaz could see the writing on the wall. By May of 1911, it was clear that he could not win, and he went into exile. In June, Madero entered the city in triumph.

The Rule of Madero

Madero barely had time to get comfortable in Mexico City before things got hot. He faced rebellion on all sides, as he broke all of his promises to those who had supported him and the remnants of Díaz's regime hated him. Orozco, sensing that Madero was not going to reward him for his role in the overthrow of Díaz, once again took up arms. Zapata, who had been instrumental in defeating Díaz, took to the field again when it became clear that Madero had no real interest in land reform. In November of 1911, Zapata wrote up his famous Plan of Ayala, which called for Madero's removal, demanded land reform, and named Orozco Chief of the Revolution. Félix Díaz, the former dictator's nephew, declared himself in open rebellion in Veracruz. By the middle of 1912, Villa was Madero's only remaining ally, although Madero did not realize it.

The greatest challenge to Madero was none of these men, however, but one much closer: General Victoriano Huerta, a ruthless, alcoholic soldier left over from the Díaz regime. Madero had sent Huerta to join forces with Villa and defeat Orozco. Huerta and Villa despised one another but managed to drive off Orozco, who fled to the United States. After returning to Mexico City, Huerta betrayed Madero during a standoff with forces loyal to Féliz Díaz. He ordered Madero arrested and executed and set himself up as president.

The Huerta Years

With the quasi-legitimate Madero dead, the country was up for grabs. Two more major players entered the fray. In Coahuila, the former governor Venustiano Carranza took to the field and in Sonora, chickpea farmer and inventor Alvaro Obregón raised an army and entered the action. Orozco returned to Mexico and allied himself with Huerta, but the “Big Four” of Carranza, Obregón, Villa, and Zapata were united in their hatred of Huerta and determined to oust him from power.

Orozco's support was not nearly enough. With his forces fighting on several fronts, Huerta was steadily pushed back. A great military victory might have saved him, as it would have drawn recruits to his banner, but when Pancho Villa won a crushing victory at the Battle of Zacatecas on June 23, 1914, it was over. Huerta fled to exile, and although Orozco fought on for a while in the north, he too went into exile in the United States before too long.

The Warlords at War

With the despised Huerta out of the way, Zapata, Carranza, Obregón, and Villa were the four most powerful men in Mexico. Unfortunately for the nation, the only thing they had ever agreed on was that they did not want Huerta in charge, and they soon fell to fighting one another. In October of 1914, representatives of the “Big Four” as well as several smaller independents met at the Convention of Aguascalientes, hoping to agree on a course of action that would bring peace to the nation.

Unfortunately, the peace efforts failed, and the Big Four went to war: Villa against Carranza and Zapata against anyone who entered his fiefdom in Morelos. The wild card was Obregón; fatefully, he decided to stick with Carranza.

The Rule of Carranza

Venustiano Carranza felt that as a former governor, he was the only one of the “Big Four” qualified to rule Mexico, so he set himself up in Mexico City and began organizing elections.

His trump card was the support of Obregón, a genius military commander who was popular with his troops. Even so, he did not fully trust Obregón, so he shrewdly sent him after Villa, hoping, no doubt, that the two would finish each other off so that he could deal with the pesky Zapata and Félix Díaz at his leisure.

Obregón headed north to engage Villa in a clash of two of the most successful revolutionary generals. Obregón had been doing his homework, however, reading up on trench warfare being fought abroad. Villa, on the other hand, still relied on the one trick that had carried him so often in the past: an all-out charge by his devastating cavalry. The two met several times, and Villa always got the worst of it. In April of 1915, at the Battle of Celaya, Obregón fought off countless cavalry charges with barbed wire and machine guns, thoroughly routing Villa. The next month, the two met again at the Battle of Trinidad and 38 days of carnage ensued. Obregón lost an arm at Trinidad, but Villa lost the war. His army in tatters, Villa retreated to the north, destined to spend the rest of the revolution on the sidelines.

In 1915, Carranza set himself up as president pending elections and won the recognition of the United States, which was hugely important to his credibility.

In 1917, he won the elections he had set up and began the process of stamping out remaining warlords, such as Zapata and Díaz. Zapata was betrayed, set up, ambushed, and assassinated on April 10, 1919, on Carranza's orders. Obregón retired to his ranch with the understanding that he would leave Carranza alone, but he expected to take over as president after the 1920 elections.

The Rule of Obregón

Carranza reneged on his promise to support Obregón in 1920, which proved to be a fatal mistake. Obregón still enjoyed the support of much of the military, and when it became apparent that Carranza was going to install little-known Ignacio Bonillas as his successor, Obregón quickly raised a massive army and marched on the capital. Carranza was forced to flee and was assassinated by supporters of Obregón on May 21, 1920.

Obregón was easily elected in 1920 and served his four-year term as president. For this reason, many historians believe the Mexican Revolution ended in 1920, although the nation suffered from horrible violence for another decade or so, until the level-headed Lázaro Cárdenas took office. Obregón ordered the assassination of Villa in 1923 and was himself shot to death by a Roman Catholic fanatic in 1928, ending the time of the “Big Four.”

Women in the Mexican Revolution

Before the revolution, women in Mexico were relegated to a traditional existence, working in the home and in the fields with their men and wielding little political, economic, or social clout. With the revolution came an opportunity for participation and many women joined up, serving as writers, politicians, and even soldiers. Zapata's army, in particular, was known for the number of female soldaderas among the ranks and even serving as officers.

Women who participated in the revolution were reluctant to return to their quiet lifestyle after the dust had settled, and the revolution marks an important milestone in the evolution of Mexican women's rights.

Importance of the Mexican Revolution

In 1910, Mexico still had a largely feudal social and economic base: rich landowners ruled like medieval dukes on large estates, keeping their workers impoverished, deep in debt, and with barely enough basic necessities to survive. There were some factories, but the basis of the economy was still mostly in agriculture and mining. Porfirio Díaz had modernized much of Mexico, including laying train tracks and encouraging development, but the fruits of all of this modernization went exclusively to the rich. A drastic change was obviously necessary for Mexico to catch up with other nations, which were developing industrially and socially.

Because of this, some historians feel that the Mexican Revolution was a necessary “growing pain" for the backward nation.

This view tends to gloss over the sheer destruction wrought by 10 years of war and mayhem. Díaz may have played favorites with the wealthy, but much of the good that he did—railways, telegraph lines, oil wells, buildings—were destroyed in a classic case of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” By the time Mexico was once again stable, hundreds of thousands had died, development had been set back by decades, and the economy was in ruins.

Mexico is a nation with tremendous resources, including oil, minerals, productive agricultural land, and hard-working people, and its recovery from the revolution was bound to be relatively speedy. The biggest obstacle to recovery was corruption, and the 1934 election of the honest Lázaro Cárdenas gave the nation a chance to get back on its feet. Today, there are few scars left from the revolution itself, and Mexican schoolchildren may not even recognize the names of minor players in the conflict such as Felipe Angeles or Genovevo de la O.

The lasting effects of the revolution have all been cultural. The PRI, the party that was born in the revolution, held onto power for decades. Emiliano Zapata, the symbol of land reform and proud ideological purity, has become an international icon for just rebellion against a corrupt system. In 1994, a rebellion broke out in Southern Mexico; its protagonists called themselves the Zapatistas and declared that Zapata's revolution was still in progress and would be until Mexico adopted true land reform. Mexico loves a man with personality, and the charismatic Pancho Villa lives on in art, literature, and legend, while the dour Venustiano Carranza has been all but forgotten.

The revolution has proven to be a deep well of inspiration for Mexico's artists and writers. The muralists, including Diego Rivera, remembered the revolution and painted it often. Modern writers such as Carlos Fuentes have set novels and stories in this turbulent era, and films such as Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate take place against the revolutionary backdrop of violence, passion, and change. These works romanticize the gory revolution in many ways, but always in the name of the inner search for national identity that continues in Mexico today.

Source: McLynn, Frank. Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000.