The Mexican Revolution was complicated, confusing and tragic. The fighting began when the 35-year-long regime of Porfirio Díaz failed to reach a solution for presidential succession. This political crisis gave rise to an uprising among poor indigenous farmers and competing elites. The nearly decade-long civil war involved American citizens more than many people realize. The Revolution inspired generations of artists who worked in different mediums to articulate the significance of the conflict.
Ross Chambless: We begin this episode with a little-known linoleum block print by Leopoldo Méndez, made sometime in 1950. This is author Susan Vogel.
Susan Vogel: This is of a man with a moustache in front a chess board.
Ross: Most people don’t know who this guy is. His name was Henry Lane Wilson. He was the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico from about 1910 until 1913.
Linoleum block print by Leopoldo Méndez, portraying U.S. ambassador Henry Lane Wilson using General Huerta as a chess piece to overthrow Mexican President Madero. Made sometime in 1950.
Susan: He’s wearing a suit and tie, and behind him kind of ominous looking people with dollar signs on their eyes or their glasses.
Ross: In front of Ambassador Wilson is a chess board…
Susan: In his right hand he has a chess piece.
Ross: This piece represents General Victoriano Huerta.
Susan: And in his left hand he’s pushed aside two other chess pieces.
Ross: Those chess pieces being swept aside by the Ambassador represent Mexican President Francisco Madero and some anonymous Mexican revolutionary. This work is about the assassination of President Madero, along with the Vice President José Pino Suárez, and Madero's brother. The American Ambassador helped plan this coup d'État.
Susan: We have La Decena Trágica, which is the ten tragic days. This is February 9 through 19, 1913.
Video explaining the 10 Tragic Days.
Ross: Most people have probably never seen this print before. And I’ll bet most people in the United States have never heard of this event. I certainly hadn’t. But it was like throwing a match into a pool of gasoline. It united revolutionaries across Mexico and enflamed what was already a violent, confusing and expansive civil war. This was the Mexican Revolution. It lasted for nearly 10 years. It raged just south of the United States border, and sometimes it crossed over our border.
Susan: “I think the Mexican Revolution is fascinating, confusing, and tragic because a million people died. But the U.S. was really involved. But U.S. people were very involved in the Mexican Revolution.”
Ross: This plot to kill the leader of Mexico was among several occasions when the United States interfered in the politics of Mexico in the early 20th century. What turned into the Mexican Revolution started off – as many conflicts do – with a plan to turn a dictatorship into a Constitutional Republic. To overthrow a dictator. But the violence spun out of control. Millions of people – including civilian men, women, and children, would lose their lives. To this day, many would agree the Mexican Revolution has never fully been resolved. The lasting impacts of this conflict still impact Mexican people, their government, and their society. In many ways, what happened in the Mexican Revolution still impacts Americans as well. So, what does it mean for those of us living in the U.S. – specifically in Utah, and why does it matter?
I’m Ross Chambless, and this is Nuevas Voces – a podcast by Artes de Mexico en Utah – a nonprofit based in Salt Lake City. And here we talk about Mexican history through the lens of art. This is part 11. And so, to understand how all this started, let’s take a step back, to the moment before it all began.
Fanny: Here’s a picture of him when he was very young.
Ross: That’s Fanny Blauer, who was raised in Mexico. She’s talking about Porfirio Díaz. He served seven terms as President of Mexico, a total of three and a half decades, from 1876 to 1880 and from 1884 to 1911.
Fanny: It is true that during his term Mexico had a lot of prosperity. It was Porfirio Díaz who implemented a lot of progress for Mexico. The railroad, and foreign investors. It was an opportunity for everyone to come to Mexico and become rich.
Susan: He was doing the same thing people were doing in Europe, in terms of building boulevards, public works, engineering, opera houses, and the railroads – every modern country was building railroads.
José María Velasco, El Citlaltépetl, 1879
Ross: Prior to this period, Mexico wasn’t widely recognized as a developed, modernized nation.
Susan: And now here it was on the same level as a lot of European countries –
or perceived that way thanks to him. So, there was progress, and his motto was order and progress.
Ross: But there are other thoughts of what this was like for Mexicans. Luis López gives a Chicano perspective.
Luis López: Yes, he’s credited for pushing Mexico and getting caught up, if you will. But at what cost? Right? When it came to industrialization, there were communities of people who suffered. That is something important to recognize. And coming from the Chicano perspective, I look out for my peeps. It was good for the country at the time maybe, but for many it was horrible.
Ciriac Alvarez: yeah, I think in a lot of ways he represented the disconnect between communities… indigenous communities, poor communities. The marginalized communities did not see that same growth and stability that Porfirio was pushing for. And I think that disconnect helped push towards change.
PabloO'Higgins, La Huelga de Cananea, Los Obreros Reclcarpeta Estampa de la Revolución Mexicana, 1947.
Ross: As the social and economic disparity worsened, uprisings began to occur. One lithograph crated by artist Pablo O’Higgins – who was an American expat, born in Salt Lake City by the way – illustrates one such uprising.
Susan: And it’s called Huelga De Cananea, so “Strike in Cananea”
Ross: Cananea was a town in the state of Sonora, near the U.S. Mexico border.
Susan: He shows a worker participating in a strike, with a sign that says "Unidad obrera, igualdad", “Worker unity, equality”. And they’re at the doors called Green Consolidated Mining Company. And through the door are bayonets coming for the strikers.”
Ross: In many ways this event foreshadowed the Mexican Revolution. By 1910, foreigners owned half of Mexico’s oil industry, and 20 percent of Mexico’s real estate.
Susan: So, what’s happening is the Mexican workers are protesting that they’re paid half of the U.S. workers for doing the same work. So, these U.S. mining companies who controlled 90 percent of the mining in Mexico, were discriminating, paying U.S. workers more. And the workers began to see this as unfair and began to organize against it.
Ross: OK, remember Francisco Madero? He would eventually become the new president –before he was to be that chess piece being knocked off the board by the American ambassador – he emerged as Porfirio Díaz’s main political opponent for the 1910 election.
Susan: One thing I like about Madero is that he studied at U.C. Berkley.
Fanny: He came from a wealthy family in northern Mexico. But he was still an advocate for social justice and democracy. And his voice was really taken by the Mexican people.
Ross: But, after Porfirio Díaz had promised that he wouldn’t be running again for office, he changed his mind. And he had Madero and thousands of his supporters thrown in jail, and then of course, he claimed himself the winner, in what was actually a rigged election. But shortly thereafter, Madero escaped.
Susan: He fled to San Antonio, Texas, and wrote his “Plan de San Luis Potosí”
Plan de San Luis Potosí
Ross: From Texas, Madero called out Díaz’s illegitimate presidency and called for an armed revolution to begin on November 20th, 1910. Basically, things are going to get really complicated here, so let’s just summarize by saying Madero returned to Mexico and within a matter of months. The enormous backlash of resistance to President Diaz forced him to flee to France with his tail between his legs.
Susan: Porfirio Díaz really doesn’t want to be in the middle of this. He does say something – he says Madero just unleashed a tiger.
Juan O'Gorman, Sufragio efectivo, no reelección, 1969, mural, Museum of National History in Chapultepec Castle.
Ross: So, Madero became president. And as we know his tenure would not last long. But there’s a famous mural by Juan O’Gorman that celebrates this chaotic moment early in the revolution. Madero is shown prominently in the middle riding a white horse.
Fanny: Madero arrives in Mexico City, and he’s so well received by the people. Everybody loves Madero.
Ross: An important detail of this mural is the slogan written on the red banner above the crowd.
Fanny: "Sufragio efectivo, no reelección", means “Effective Voting, No Reelection.” Let me just give you an idea about how powerful that phrase is. In every official document, that sentence is always printed at the end of the letter. My grandfather was an attorney, and any official letter that came, had that phrase… so, the Constitution of 1917, after the end of the Revolution, established that no president could be reelected after a period of 6 years. That was one of the main outcomes of the Mexican Revolution.
Susan: Because Porfirio Díaz had gotten himself reelected for 30 years.
Ross: And the idea is we don’t want dictators anymore.
Fanny: No. But, we will talk about that later. Because we had the problem of one political party holding power for 70 years.
Ciriac: For me, I think it’s interesting how close the painter put everyone next to each other. On the left hand corner you see two wealthy men standing next to a boy without a shirt. And next to him is a man with a ratty shirt. It shows this no reelection was for everyone. And in the top right hand corner, the doves showing this idea of peace and unity and a heroic idea of doing this… at least the idea of people of different classes coming together.
Luis: Yeah, here, you start to see different people represented, whereas before, with Porfirio Díaz, you didn’t. I think that’s one powerful aspect of this mural and others during that time period to unify the country under a national identity.
Ross: It should also be pointed out there is no flag of Virgin of Guadalupe shown in this image.
Fanny: Remember, Virgin of Guadalupe was an icon of identity. It’s suddenly the flag, the Mexican flag, what we see everywhere in the beginning of the 20th century... It’s really implementing this idea of nationalism.
Alvaro Obregón, Pancho Villa and U.S. General John J. Pershing, 1914, Casasola Archive.
Ross: But there were different competing ideas about what kind of Nation Mexico should be. One of the leading revolutionaries fighting in Northern Mexico was a guy named Francisco “Pancho” Villa. You may have heard of him.
Susan: His story was so fascinating. He was a bandit and he knew every square inch of Chihuahua, which gave him a great advantage as a revolutionary. And Madero gave Villa a chance to do something really important. To redeem his past and become a hero.
2003 American film “And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself”
Ross: This is from the 2003 American film “And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself”, with actor Antonio Banderas.
[Film scene: “When you’re president Wilson sees my movie, he will know he must support Pancho Villa. He will see Pancho Villa is a good guy, not like Presidente Huerta. That donkey f*#*@%*. Yeah, got it. Bueno.”
Susan: Pancho Villa had Hollywood film crews film the Revolution from El Paso, and had the battles staged so they would be in good light for the filmmakers.
1952 American film Viva Zapata!
Ross: At the same time, in southern Mexico, there was another famous revolutionary: Emiliano Zapata. This is from a 1952 American film Viva Zapata! With Marlon Brandon playing the role of Emiliano Zapata.
Film: “… the man with a circle around his name. A machete in his hand, fire in his blood. Taking by storm and holding by fury. And where he rode they conquered.” [click off]
Susan: So, Pancho Villa was fighting for something: Justice. A basic sense of fairness and justice for Mexicanos. Whereas, Emiliano Zapata was really focused on what he was fighting for – Tierra y Libertad, land and liberty. They were fighting in the south to regain the lands their families had farmed for thousands of years.
Colorized portrait of Emiliano Zapata.
Fanny: When Emiliano Zapata indicates the idea of equality and freedom and the land is for those who work the land, Madero was not sure how to understand that aspect of what was happening in Central Mexico.
Ross: Despite Francisco Madero’s early popularity, he failed to grasp what so many impoverished and alienated Mexicans wanted to achieve. A year after Madero’s Plan of San Luis Potosí, Zapata decided Madero had betrayed the revolutionary ideals he promised and came up with his own plan: The Plan of Ayala. At the same time, Pancho Villa had also grown disillusioned with Madero’s leadership. And then, there was the “10 Tragic Days” – 1913 – when Victoriano Huerta and military leaders, with help from U.S. Ambassador Lane Wilson, organized a coup d'état and Madero was killed.
Emiliano Zapata in the City of Cuernavaca.
Ross: The killing of Madero ignited the civil war, and it just continued to get really terrible. So just to summarize, General Victoriano Huerta who had betrayed Madero, took over. But he’s met with fierce resistance from all sides, including the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who sent Pancho Villa’s fighters weapons and support across the border. American marines even invaded Veracruz to take down Huerta, who himself, finally fled the country.
The moment Villa and Zapata captured the Presidential Throne, 1914.
Ross: And this takes us to when Pancho Villa from the north, and Emiliano Zapata from the south converged on Mexico City. And in a moment famously captured in a photograph, Villa and Zapata were presented with the presidential throne.
Fanny: It is told that during this picture, La Silla Presidencial, Juárez was the first to sit in this chair. And then Porfirio Diaz. The gold and red velvet chair. And here Pancho Villa is making fun of taking the chair. What is interesting to me is it is believed Pancho Villa asked to sit first. And Zapata said no. And this is where you can see the ideology being so different from each other. I think they were both fighting for the same, but in a very different way. Zapata was very genuine, and loyal to his people and his ideas. And sitting down in this chair was humiliating… would [betray] what he had fought for, for many years.
Corrido about La Silla Presidencial
Ross: This music is a corrido – a Mexican ballad – about the Presidential Throne – La Silla Presidencial – which Pancho Villa sat in, with Emiliano Zapata at his side. The singer laments how anyone who sits in the chair is corrupted by power and forgets the people and their pain. He sings that the chair is red, just like the blood of the all Mexican people
Ross: What else makes this moment interesting?
Susan: I think it’s interesting with all the people standing around in the background. We’ve looked at so many pictures of people in suits and people decked out in European royalty. This one shows so many different kinds of people that look like they’re from different backgrounds. We don’t see women, and women were very much involved, either as soldiers, or as the Adelitas who went with the soldiers. So the military men were not just going off by themselves, women went with them. And they did a lot of work. Some of them fought, and they were called the Adelitas. Women wore pants and carried guns and actually were soldiers. So, this unfortunately doesn’t show the women. But it shows several Gringos. And there is speculation as to who they were.
Adelitas - Mexican women who fought in the Revolution.
Susan: You know this was very alive in the U.S. - the Mexican Revolution. If you go down to the archives of the Salt Lake Tribune, and look at on microfiche, and see the newspapers from the time, the front page was the Mexican Revolution. And a lot of it was because of the Mormon colonies in Northern Mexico. I mean, come on, they’re right in the middle of it. Pancho Villa is in the Mexican colonies, and some of the people are trading arms. So, it’s really alive in the U.S., and it attracted a lot of people from the U.S.
Ross: Let’s be clear. Any war is horrible. It’s awful for the soldiers who experience it. And it also is harrowing for the civilians who get caught up in it.
Emiliano Zapata in a nutshell.
Susan: Anyone from northern Mexico has a great story about the revolution. One of my friends said whenever the revolutionaries came through town we would hide our silver and our daughters. Another friend said her grandmother’s sister disappeared, and son was taken by the troops and traded from one revolutionary group to another. Came home knocked on the door, two years later. He knocked on the door, she said ‘who’s there’. Your son. And she said I have no son. She never expected the son to come back, but the daughter never came back.
Luis: I heard some of these stories from our elders. My wife’s grandparents are from Michoacán. And her grandmother talked about hiding the women in the graves when revolutionaries would come by. So that was interesting to me, that they would respect the panteones (graveyards), right. That’s the one place they would not go and search. They would not search the graveyards.
Ross: Fanny Blauer has a more intensely personal story. She says during the Revolution her grandfather on her mothers’ side and his family who lived on the southern side of Mexico City, owned a store and tried to support Zapata’s fighters.
Fanny: As the revolution took place they ran out of goods. And one night, my grandfather described that bandits came. They asked him to give them food. My grandfather said we have only food for us. The bandits were really upset. They said if you don’t give us food we’ll kill you. So, they took him towards the wall, and when they were about to shoot him my great grandmother, Guadalupe, grabbed her three children and put herself with the children against the wall. And my grandfather remembers how his mother asked him, “close your eyes.” He was 6 years old when this happened. You can imagine how frightening it could have been. And the bandits said, “move away”. And she said, no. If you are killing this man, my husband who is my main provider, we are nothing without him. If you kill him, you are killing us all. Well, they ended up not killing my great grandfather. And my grandfather was always touched by this act of courage and bravery by his mother.
Ross: Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata together conquered the Mexican capital. But neither of them wanted the presidency. This meant a power vacuum, and the chaotic fighting continued.
Susan: The aftermath of this is Carranza, Venustiano Carranza, becomes president. He’s responsible for the first constitution, of 1917.
Ross: Apparently there’s some murals about him too.
Susan: Not really many. He’s not really lauded as one of the revolutionary heroes. The U.S. acknowledges him as the president of Mexico, which really sends Pancho Villa into a tailspin. And what does Pancho Villa do? Invades the U.S.
1973 American film called “Mexico Invades the U.S.!
Ross: This is from a ridiculous 1973 American film called “Mexico Invades the U.S.!”
Susan: We don’t consider this an official invasion of the U.S. But he invades Columbus, New Mexico. About 16 people are killed. And, you know, it’s not funny. It’s a serious thing. It was awful.
Ross: Naturally, this pissed off a lot of Americans.
Susan: So, the U.S. launches a raid to kill him.
Ross: You can see old footage of American soldiers crossing the border and pursuing Pancho Villa.
Susan: 10,000 people were involved. Airplanes. And we can’t find him. Why? Because he’s very wily and he knows every square inch of northern Mexico.
Corrido about Americans hunting for Pancho Villa.
Ross: This Corrido mocks the futility of America’s pursuit of Pancho Villa.
Susan: You know, when Fanny and I have given classes we try to give the Mexican point of view. And the Mexican point of view is often how Mexico has fought off foreign invaders. And one of the point of pride is we could not get Pancho Villa. General Pershing was involved. We spent so much so much money and manpower to find him. We could not find him.
Fanny: I want to share this story. For me it’s powerful. My family was very supportive of the revolution. And my father had collections and pictures of Pancho Villa in my house. But when I got married to a white American from a conservative family here in Salt Lake City, even with my husband, I remember asking him who is Pancho Villa for you? And his response was he was a traitor. He’s a bandit. He was not a good man. And when he said that, it was a big shock. Because I grew up with this image of this Mexican Robin Hood. Yes, he stole and he was a bandit, but he gave to the people who really deserved it. So, it’s true the image of Pancho Villa is very much as a traitor. He was probably both.
1952 American comic book parody of Pancho Villa.
Ross: As a white American, when I’ve heard the image of Pancho Villa evoked, it’s usually been an insult or a stereotype of Mexican people. Here’s Luis with his Chicano perspective.
Luis: U.S. propaganda was a major influence on how he was viewed. And not just that, Mexicans and revolutionaries. Mexican men were portrayed as these tequila drinking, gun slinging, marijuana smoking bandidos, when Pancho Villa didn’t even drink! In fact, he was against alcohol. So, I think when he decided, OK, I’m going to invade the U.S. real quickly that came into play and changed how he was viewed in the U.S.
Ross: Carranza would remain president for several more years until he was murdered in 1920. A guy named Alvaro Obregón took over and finally gave Mexico its most stable presidency since the Revolution began. Reforms were made to Mexico’s education system to teach the values of the Revolution, along with labor laws to protect workers. For many the fighting phase of the Revolution was over. But it also meant an end for Villa and Zapata would have to end too.
Pancho Villa was finally murdered along with some companions in 1923.
Susan: Well, when the revolution ended, Zapata and Villa were definitely had to be eliminated. The stories of those are both interesting. And the way the Emiliano Zapata was assassinated was really, really tragic.
Ross: This corrido is about the death of Zapata. We won’t get into that here, but the story of Zapata’s ambush assassination in Morelos is a story worth learning about. Still today, Zapata is still a big deal. His legacy and his principles of standing up for poor hardworking farmers live on with modern revolutionary groups including the Zapatista uprising movements in the 1990s. His image is seen in murals along with Che Guevara, and more recently with Caesar Chávez and the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.
Corrido about the death of Zapata.
Ross: As for Pancho Villa, he also met a violent end. He was gunned down with his companions while driving one day. Susan, says in the greater scheme of things, his death along with Zapata’s was necessary.
Susan: The government needed to get rid of those revolutionaries in order to move forward. They weren’t going to come into the fold of the government. So, who knows what they were going to do.
Ross: For some, the Revolution brought about some positive changes for farmers and indigenous peoples. Some of the most patriotic Mexicans were determined to stick it out, lest they betray the values of the Revolution. But for others, the chaos of the Revolution never really dissipated. The nearly 10-year-long civil war made life hard, and it stayed hard. Many Mexican families had lost trust in their government – trust that would never be regained.
Susan: Right now, we’re so far away from the Revolution we can laugh at Pancho Villa and smile about different things, but when you think of all the people who suffered, and the lives lost, for what? All this bloodshed. A million dead, for what? And that’s an important question.
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Thanks to our commentators Susan Vogel; Fanny Guadalupe Blauer; Luis López, Ciriac Alvarez; Episode produced and edited by Ross Chambless; Thanks to KCPW 88.3 FM for the studio space; Music credit: The music you heard in this episode comes from Calexico, Antionia Pinto, and Al Caiola. This podcast is made possible thanks to Utah Humanities.
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