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The Mexican Revolution

Mexico Before

In 1909, Mexico was tranquil and peaceful…on the surface. Appearances can be deceiving, as the nation was a powder keg which would soon detonate. Porfirio Díaz, a former war hero, had been uncontested dictator of the nation since 1876, and his reign, known as the “Porfiriato,” was marked by great progress for the once-backward nation: roads were built, train tracks were constructed, and agriculture and manufacturing sectors boomed.

It was a great time to be Mexican…if you were a rich crony of Don Porfirio, that is. The wealthiest Mexicans lived like princes, but none of the new prosperity ever reached the poor peasants who toiled in the fields. Millions lived in abject poverty, and even those who had land were vulnerable: rich landowners could steal just about anyone’s land and get away with it.

The Build-Up

In 1909 the first cracks began to appear in the Porfiriato as a village leader in the state of Morelos named Emiliano Zapata began causing trouble, returning stolen land to poor peons. Still, Zapata was much like other rebels before him, and Don Porfirio had crushed them all.

In 1910, Díaz decided to allow a free election, assuming he would win. He was opposed by Francisco Madero, a young son of a wealthy family. Madero wasn’t any sort of visionary: he simply felt that it was time for someone else to rule the nation. Díaz was shocked when he discovered that Madero was likely to win: he jailed his rival before sending him into exile and then rigged the election. But Madero refused to go away.

From safety in the United States, he called for revolution…and his call was answered. In the south, Zapata and his ragged peasant army began attacking government and military posts only a few miles from Mexico City itself. In the dry, hot north, former bandit leaders Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco raised huge armies and went to war with the government.

Porfirio could probably have dealt with Pancho Villa, Pascual Orozco or Emiliano Zapata individually, but together he could not and by May of 1911 the aged dictator left the nation for good and Madero settled into the presidential palace. And that’s when all hell truly broke loose.

The Revolution Begins

Madero was a weak leader, and he managed to alienate Orozco and Zapata before being betrayed and murdered by General Victoriano Huerta in 1913. Huerta allied himself with Orozco and seized the presidency. Two other major players joined the fray at that point: Sonoran chick pea farmer Alvaro ObregĂłn and former Governor of Coahuila Venustiano Carranza. They all raised armies and allied against Huerta and Orozco, defeating them in 1914.

With Huerta and Orozco gone, the nation quickly descended into total anarchy. The “Big Four” of Villa, Zapata, Obregón and Carranza made and broke alliances with one another for three terrible years, until an alliance of Carranza and Obregón finally crushed Pancho Villa in the north.

Carranza ascended to an unsteady throne, making a deal with Obregón that his turn would be next. Zapata was still stirring up trouble in the south, so Carranza’s agents tricked him and assassinated him in 1919. Pancho Villa was on the run, and things were peaceful for a while, until Carranza reneged on his promise to support Obregón in the 1920 elections.

Obregón swiftly drove Carranza from power and had him assassinated in 1920. Villa accepted an amnesty of sorts but was himself killed on Obregón’s orders in 1923, leaving Obregón firmly in power, the last of the “Big Four” to survive.

The Aftermath

Depending on who you ask, the revolution either ended in 1920 when Obregón firmly seized power, or in 1930 when the last of the fighting died out. If Obregón was the “winner,” the losers were the people of Mexico. Millions had died or been displaced in the horrible years of the Revolution. Many of the gains made during the Porfiriato, such as roads and train tracks, lay in ruins. Entire cities had been leveled. It would take the nation decades to rebuild.

Today, the revolution is a great source of inspiration for modern Mexicans. Many artists and writers, write, paint or sing about it. Although it ended decades ago, it’s still fresh in the minds of many Mexicans, and any visitor to Mexico should know the basic facts about it, if only to fully appreciate the mariachi songs.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Mexico: Site History, Emiliano Zapata, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, Subcomandante Marcos, Porfirio Diaz, Teotihuacan History, Monumento a la Independencia, Tequila tour, The Ciudad Juarez Murders and Oaxaca History.

By Christopher Minster
I am a writer and editor at V!VA Travel guides here in Quito, where I specialize in adding quality content to the site and also in spooky things like...
04 Nov 2009

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