The Stage Is Set for Revolution
Editor: This is the second part in a series about the history of Mexico written for gringos, and it was written in 1979-80. Here is the first part.
The liberal reform movement in Mexico during the middle of the 19th century was lead by Benito Juarez, the first and only Indian to gain the Presidency of Mexico. The reformers wished to dismantle the old semi-feudal economic structure, where the masses of peasants worked on large estates. But the conservative forces of society, the Church, large rancho owners, merchants, militarists, and opportunists who wanted to re-establish the Crown, violently resisted Juarez’s reform efforts.
This brought about a bloody civil war in 1857. The liberal forces did win the war, and in victory they wrote a new constitution that enacted some reforms. But, significantly, the new constitution did secularize the Church’s property.This was significant because back then Church lands accounted for almost one quarter of the national wealth.
Cinco de Mayo
The one thing gringos do know about Mexico is Cinco de Mayo – the 5th of May. Despite it being marketed as a day to get smashed, it actually is a celebration of the defeat of of monarchists by the Juarez forces. Monarchists in Mexico and France had allied themselves and had imposed their ruler on the country – an Austrian aristocrat named Maximilian who was connected to the old Spanish crown. For a short period of time, he ruled Mexico City but not much else. He was toppled in what some derisively call la guerra de las pastales – the war of the pastries.
Yet Mexico’s main problem, the inequitable distribution of land, was not solved by the Juarez “reforms”. This meant that the campesinos, the peasantry, the great majority, saw little gains for themselves. Juarez had opened up Church lands for sale, but mainly these estates were sold to rich Yankees – Yankees who came south to buy up much of the large landholdings for cattle ranches in Sonora and Chihuahua. Yankees also bought up the sugar refineries and hemp plantations in the south.
In order to continue the rule of elites, the reform-minded liberals ultimately developed an agreement with the conservative forces and allowed the hacienda system to remain intact. This required the continued suppression of the indigenous peoples. As a result, the pattern of repression and exploitation and grass-roots rebellion was not broken. Juarez, as history looks at him, had opened up the country to capitalist development, and had allowed the United Sates to increase its efforts to take over Mexico’s economy. Juarez’s reforms actually did more to set up the coming Diaz dictatorship by building up the central government, than in distributing land to the poor.
Colonialism in the North
Up north in the territory seized in the war by the United States, thousands of Mexicanos continued to live their lives, but now under the domination of another nation and a foreign government. But many Mexicans did not quietly accept the lynchings and murders, the theft of their land and resources, and the loss of civil rights. Many resisted throughout the 1800’s with the use of arms.
One such hero of resistance to the new system of colonization was Joaquin Murieta, a miner who had come to California to make a living. Anglos killed his wife, beat and robbed him, driving him – and many other Mexicans – out of the mines. Joaquin fought back, and like a 19th century Robin Hood, stole from the richer Anglos and gave to the poor Mexicans.
The mythical figure of Zorro, popularized by Walt Disney, had his origins during this period. The son of the last Mexican governor of California, Pio Pico, led raids and ambushes, not against fat Sgt. Garcia, but against Yankee settlers from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara.
In Texas, Juan Cortina also fought back against who were perceived as the Yankee invaders. With an armed organization and an ideology of liberation, he waged guerrilla warfare for nearly 20 years.
Las Gorras Blancas, a New Mexico secret organization of the poor against the rich, also resisted the encroaching settlers and the new capitalists. They proclaimed, “Our purpose is to protect the rights and interests of the people in general and especially those of the helpless classes…”
Powerful cattle barons in Texas set up the Texas Rangers as a terrorist force to maintain control in the areas where Mexicans were the majority. Glorified in movies and TV, The Texas Rangers were little more than armed colonial mercenaries, leading a reign of terror against Mexicans. Hangings and torture were their methods.
Over the years, using the machinery of the legal process and the knots of the lynch rope, Anglo settlers came to completely control the economic, political and social life of the new territories—despite the guarantees to Mexicans spelled out in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hudalgo.
Dominated economically and socially, Mexicans suffered the loss of their land, their political rights, their culture, their language and customs. This was colonialism. The Mexican people became the colonized and the Anglo-American settlers became the colonizers.
Mexicanos were a colonized people in a land whose economy they had built. The skills in building adobe houses, in sheep-herding, in mining and irrigation farming that Anglos later employed were learned from Mexicanos. Virtually everything we credit the Anglo-cowboy with was taken from his Mexican counterpart, “el vaquero” including much of western slang. The labor of Mexican workers on the railroads, in the mines and in the fields laid the basis for the economy throughout what we now call the “southwest.”
By the latter part of the century, the Mexican government had been strengthened but not democratized. A new ruler came to power, a man so ruthless in dealing with his opponents and the Mexican people that even today he remains a symbol of despised despotism—Porfiro Diaz.
The powerful Diaz dictatorship lasted for 35 years and was only broken by the upheaval of the 1910 Revolution. Diaz tried to modernize Mexico with railroads and revived industries, but he did it from the top down, using the saber and bullet for persuasion. Opening wide the doors to the interior of the country to foreign powers, especially the U.S., Diaz allowed foreign investments to control mining, utilities, banking and commerce. The north became very strongly dominated by wealthy North Americans like William Randolph Hearst, who owned 6 million acres of land.
Other U.S. capitalists, with visions of colonial profits dancing in their heads, continued to buy up the country. By the time of the revolt, two-thirds of all U.S. foreign investments were in Mexico. This during a time that most of all rural families went landless, as Diaz had appropriated the Indian communal lands.
Once again rising up against tyranny, masses of campesinos confronted and struggled against Diaz and the entire capitalist system. The bloody revolt raged across the land, resulting in over a million deaths.
Peasant leaders such as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa emerged to fight the federal government and its allies. In the state of Morelos, with a slogan of “land and liberty” Zapata began a revolutionary re-distribution of land to the poor, declaring that those who work the land should own it. Villa, meanwhile, led the rebellion in the north. Other revolutionaries in the Yucatan and up around the border called for a socialist Mexico. These included Flores and Enrique Magon, who operated out of Los Angeles.
The Mexican revolution was not just for men. Women played a very strong and significant role during the struggle, joining their men at the front and supporting them behind the lines. One woman general fought alongside the other revolutionaries: General Carmen Robles who led an armed brigade into battle.
Because U.S. businesses and investments became threatened by the revolt, the U.S. government once again intervened militarily in the internal affairs of Mexico. In a classic show of gunboat diplomacy, U.S. Marines landed and occupied Vera Cruz in 1914. Two years later, General Pershing invaded from the north in pursuit of the elusive Pancho Villa.
One part of history we are taught: that Pancho Villa’s forces attacked and burned sections of Columbus, New Mexico, killing a number of Anglos. He is painted as a bad guy. What we are not taught is that he carried out this attack in retaliation for the U.S. allowing the federales to travel through the U.S. to hit Villa on his northern flank.
Up here on the border, Tijuana witnessed its own combat 1911, when a small army aligned with Flores Magon – a Mexican anarchist who lived in LA – took over the town – and several smaller places along the border. It was an attempt to set up an independent socialist republic in Baja California. The Magon army included mercenaries, Indians, and members of the I.W.W. They were eventually overwhelmed by Mexican troops.
Through the bloody revolution – during which a million died – Mexico’s own emerging capitalist class allied with the U.S. government and Anglo businesses. The new Mexican elite’s army – led by General Huerta – consolidated their forces and engineered a coup against the moderate leader Francisco Madero. The Revolution was betrayed. To this day, people in Mexico spit whenever the name “General Huerta” is mentioned.
The more revolutionary insurgents were outmaneuvered; Zapata and Villa were both ambushed and assassinated, the Yucatan socialist movement was brutally smashed, and Magon was jailed by the U.S.
The fighting ceased and the forward motion of the Revolution was halted. Yet another constitution was written, this one with minimum wage laws, rights to unionize and strike and provisions for equal pay by sex and nationality. But throughout this turmoil, little of substance was gained by the campesinos and urban workers. Poor Mexico, the saying goes, so far from god but so close to los estatos unidos.