More History of Mexico for Gringos

by on June 10, 2011 · 10 comments

in California, History, San Diego

Part 2

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.

Benito Juarez.

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.

Joaquin Murieta

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.”

The Revolution

Porfiro Diaz

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.

Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata with their compatriots in Mexico City.

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.

US Navy aviators had the very first aerial combat at Vera Cruz in 1914.

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.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

jettyboy June 10, 2011 at 7:42 pm

Gee, this brings back good memories of our Borderlands Education Committee days. Maybe we should update the slide show presentation, and get it on-line.


Frank Gormlie June 12, 2011 at 10:23 am

Jettyboy – you could be right there. Patty will be giving you a call ….


JEC June 13, 2011 at 8:40 am

A sanitized history? Always noble? To fill out the picture, I think you should include that Pancho Villa was a racist who in 1915 massacred 20,000 Chinese in just three weeks – to purge the yellow hoard. And that your free use of the word Gringo; an offensive slang word, a put down in LA where I grew up – the latino version of Gringo was Spic – no doubt an ugly racist word. Then again the defenders of the Alamo were there to promote slavery while Mexico outlawed slavery in 1810. Or what about the role of the Catholic Church and the resulting controls put on the church. Or the xenophobia of the 30’s when Spanish was made the official language in an open insult to the Irish, Germans, Italians, Dutch, Poles, Japanese and Chinese who had settled in the land called Mexico. An accurate history seldom behaves as we’d like. The tumult of history flings it’s excrement in all directions.


Frank Gormlie June 14, 2011 at 11:12 am

JEC, upon some reflection, I know what you were doing. You were trying to drum up interest and attention to these posts, so thank you. You were just trying to stir the pot, and bringing up Villa was part of your ploy. Sure, some say Villa started out as a “bandit”, but rose to the status of revolutionary leader because of his later role in the northern areas of Mexico. Here in the US we are always told that Villa is a very bad dude (and to stay away from his kind). So thanks for allowing us to discuss these things and issues.


Frank Gormlie June 13, 2011 at 10:47 am

JEC – First of all, “gringo” as used here and in common usage of today is not a slur or offensive term. (If it is to you, get over it. And BTW, I’ve used it this way for over 30 years and this is the first time I’ve heard of your complaint of its usage. Where were you during the years of the Borderland Education Committee – which was the source of these articles?)

Pancho Villa did hate the Chinese in Mexico. Part of it was due to the Chinese aiding General Pershing in his hunt for Villa and assisting the forces of reaction against those of the revolution. The source I found spoke of a massacre of 300 Chinese by Villa’s troops. Your figure of 20,000 is way out there. Villa did hate the Chinese but he loved the Japanese. (At least on this side of the border, Gringos hated all Asians.)

Of course, the Chinese were much more vilified by Gringos, Anglos on this side of the border, that’s why many of them had moved to Mexico, after building our dams, railroads and other infrastructure. The California-based Working Man party had as their platform the chasing out of all Chinese from the state. Talk about racists.

What about the role of the Church? It is discussed. The conservatism of the Church held back the social, political and economic development of the Mexican people. Their lands should have been confiscated. Thought you were an atheist.

And you complain that Spanish was made the official language of Mexico? What? That’s like the kettle calling the pot black. Don’t get your point. (Many more and different kinds of nationalities and ethnic groups migrated to this country and all their languages were not made official.) This point verges on the silly.

Part of the point in this “lesson” is to cover a lot of ground swiftly, a ground that we are not taught in school and if it is taught, it’s very anti-Mexican. It is the “sanitized” history that we are taught that is criticized by this history.


JEC June 14, 2011 at 3:45 pm

My source- a Chinese graduate student from Hong Kong who attended SDSU so she could find out what happened to her Grandfather – he was a railroad worker in the 1890’s who started farming after the century then was driven from San Diego into Mexico. She found out he settled in the Hermosillo area – as did thousands of Chinese who were driven south because of racism in the north. She traced him to April, 1915 and a massacre – She reported that over a period of 21 days Pancho Villa and his troops killed every Chinese person they could find – killing an estimated 20,000 men, women and children. Villa’s intent was genocide. Are you asking me to trade one racist for another?

But listen to yourself Frank – even though I grew up knowing the word Gringo to be pejorative – get over it! A bit insensitive is you ask me – not your strongest argument. The idea seems to share a similarity with the rappers claim that using the N’ word is not racist.

Mr. Rick’s comment, while the origin of ‘Gringo’ is not as a benign as Haole, Haole did become an overt racist term – as in ‘hit a haole day’; through out the 1980’s Tuesdays in local schools was hit a haole day until in 1991 two high school students on Oahu were killed in two separate events – beaten to death. On Kauai the Mayor (Joann) initiated a island wide discussion on racism and using ‘haole’ – the discussion lasted four months – in 1992 the island decided to end hit a haole day and condemned the racist use of the word. While it may mean visitor, it was only applied to whites.

And I agree, in the end we’re all aiming at the same target.


Frank Gormlie June 14, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Your source on the massacre is very sketchy. You are using one iffy source to spread a great misrepresentation. 20,000 Chinese vs 300. Not a good way to toss “facts” around.

You equate the use of “gringo” with the N-word?? Society has pretty much accepted that African-Americans can call each other by the N-word, but it’s not okay for whites to use it. Do you agree?

You are confusing apples and oranges, or is it plums and nectarines? Who is the colonizer here? Who was colonized?

In today’s world and terminology usage, “gringo” is not a pejorative word.


JEC June 14, 2011 at 10:21 pm

This was original research, done as part of her Master Thesis and presented to faculty and students. But the information clearly makes you uncomfortable. Might I suggest you research beyond one private source.

Regarding Gringo – are we gringos calling ourselves gringos (like African-Americans calling each other the N-word)? A, no. You may dismiss me as a person, but I find gringo a load word filled with bias. But let’s see what Wikipedia that always trusted arbitor of definitions says “Some English dictionaries classify gringo as “offensive slang,” “usually disparaging,” and “often disparaging.”[1] However, according to the definition provided by the Real Academia Española, the official regulator of the Spanish language, the term simply identifies a foreigner and does not carry a negative connotation.[2]”

Sounds like the inventors of the word find it ok while the subjects do not. Not unlike – spic (Mexican), square head (pejorative for a Dane), wop (Italian), Mik (or Mic – Irish) and the list goes on.


Frank Gormlie June 15, 2011 at 10:25 am

Apparently, the entire article made you feel uncomfortable. Doing the original research in 1979 (yes it’s dated but I used the best sources) I utilized over ten sources for the overall project, the text, the photos, slide show, pamphlet, etc. You’re basing your numbers on ONE source, a graduate student’s work. Not even published as far as I can tell from your description.

Again, you equate derogatory terms mainly white, Anglos used on the ethnic Europeans who migrated to the US with the use of gringo. (See the following definition from Miriam Webster). I had also heard the term originated from the song that the Americans would sing as they massacred their way into Mexico in 1848-49, a song that contained the words “green goes …” We were the conquerors, the new Conquistadors in an unjust war against our neighbor. We colonized half of Mexico. By our use now of the term we acknowledge this horrific past that we forced our neighbors through, and we’ve neutralized it. As you and I have debated in the past, American English is still a living language.

Definition of GRINGO : (often disparaging)
: a foreigner in Spain or Latin America especially when of English or American origin; broadly : a non-Hispanic person

Origin of GRINGO
Spanish, alteration of griego Greek, stranger, from Latin Graecus Greek
First Known Use: 1849


mr.rick June 14, 2011 at 11:04 am

If “Gringo” is a slur, then it would stand to reason the Hawaiian reference to visitors,”Haole” has got to be a slur also. From what I learned in my few years living in the Aloha State, The term “Haole”is translated as “Visitor”. It could could be in the heart of the speaker or the listener for the appropriate inference. For some reason I find it hard to believe Mr. Gormlie would be slinging slurs around on the pages of his “Baby” (Slur not intended.)


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