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READ: The Mexican Revolution

The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What’s the difference between a social revolution and political revolution, according to the author?
  2. Who was Porfirio Diaz and why did some think of him as a dictator?
  3. Why did Madero’s presidency fail?
  4. What role did the United States play in the Mexican Revolution?
  5. Who were the two sides of the revolution after 1913 and what each side want?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Which of the leaders in the Mexican Revolution do you think was the most effective leader, and why?
  2. First, write a list of the causes of the Mexican Revolution. Second, rank those causes from most important to least important. Finally, identify whether each cause was a “political” cause or a “social” cause. Based on your list, do you think the Mexican Revolution was more of a political revolution or more of a social revolution?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

The Mexican Revolution

By Alejandro Quintana (adapted by Bennett Sherry)
The Mexican Revolution overthrew a dictator in just six months, but for the next ten years, Mexican revolutionaries fought each other to determine the outcome of the revolution.

Two revolutions for the price of one

Revolutions are messy. Historians try to categorize them. Politicians try to simplify their legacy for personal benefit. But revolutions don't fit into neat categories with obvious heroes and villains, and revolutionary legacies are more complicated than any politician would have you believe. One excellent example of this is the legacy of the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910.
Mexico's revolutionaries disagreed violently about their own revolution. As with the revolutions of the long nineteenth century, like the French, American, and Latin American Revolutions, it was a liberal political revolution that established a new constitution and democratic rule. But it was also a social revolution, like the communist revolutions in Russia, China, and Cuba that came later. The tension between these two ideas divided Mexico and led to a decade of violence.
What's the difference between political and social revolutions? Liberal political revolutions seek to establish representative democracies based on personal liberty and political sovereignty. These revolutions want to change the political system. Social revolution, on the other hand, seeks to reshape the social order. Social revolutions change property rights and who controls a nation's wealth, while political revolutions change the political system but leave economic systems in place. Consider the difference between the American and Haitian revolutions. They both established a new political order, but only the Haitian revolution abolished slavery.

Liberal democracy and the spark of revolution, 1910-1913

The Mexican Revolution began in 1910 with the eighth re-election of President Porfirio Diaz, who had ruled since 1876. Under Diaz, Mexico held elections for the president and legislature, but in reality, it was almost impossible to challenge Diaz. He used the military and police to repress dissent. Wealthy landowners and the middle class benefited from Diaz's economic system but wanted more political power.
President Porfirio Diaz, in 1910. He was a general in the Mexican army during the Second Franco-Mexican War, which helps explain all the medals. Public domain.
Diaz opened the country to foreign investors and entrepreneurs. They received incentives to purchase Mexico's mines, oil fields, land, and industries. Foreign investors enjoyed benefits and wages unavailable to Mexicans. By the start of the revolution, as much as a quarter of all land in Mexico was owned by American companies. In rural Mexico, wealthy landowners and foreign investors bought indigenous communal lands and forced villagers—who had no other options—to farm cash crops. The Diaz regime recruited gangs to suppress resistance among peasant and indigenous communities.
Diaz based his authority on Mexico's economic prosperity. And for decades, his policies created a strong economy, even if they limited people's freedoms. However, in the first decade of the twentieth century, economic crises destabilized the country while the vast majority of Mexicans that remained poor were hit by droughts. Mexico was primed for the spark of revolution.
A broadside celebrating the election of President Francisco Madero in 1911. Below an image of the president, rhyming text proclaims his virtues and describes Mexico City’s streets decorated with flowers and banners. By Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, from the Library of Congress.
When Diaz ran for reelection in 1910, Francisco Madero, a member of one of the wealthiest families in Mexico, denounced the regime and launched the Anti-Re-electionist Party1. Diaz imprisoned Madero, but he escaped to the United States. From Texas, Madero issued a call for revolution in the name of land reform and political freedom. He set the date for November 20, 1910. Supporters of all different socioeconomic classes emerged all over Mexico, and Diaz was unable to contain them. By May 25, 1911, Diaz was on a boat, headed for exile in France. At the age of 38, Madero was elected president in a landslide. His administration promised a return to democracy and liberty. But political liberty was only part of what sparked the revolution.

Ten tragic days, February 1913

Madero's main concern was liberal democratic reform, not social transformation. But he led a diverse coalition. In addition to more conservative elites, he was also joined by social revolutionaries like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Villa and Zapata championed peasant and indigenous communities and believed in radically transforming Mexican society by redistributing land from wealthy landowners to peasants and indigenous groups. In the southern state of Morelos, Zapata waged a guerrilla war, and in the north, Villa led the División del Norte, the largest revolutionary army, on a series of successful—and often very brutal—military campaigns.
Madero's presidency was brief. His policies were too radical for conservatives and too moderate for social revolutionaries. For example, he was too slow to follow through on land reform, and he maintained some elements of Diaz's rule. When he was challenged by regional rebellions, Madero used the federal army, which had supported Diaz, against his former allies. After fifteen months in office, Madero was overthrown. He was executed in February 1913 during the "Ten Tragic Days," the name historians give to the ten days from the beginning of the coup to Madero's death. Madero had been betrayed by general Victoriano Huerta, who seized power and declared himself military dictator with support from the United States.

So close to the United States

Speaking of the United States, you really can't tell the story of the Mexican Revolution without American interference, which was both governmental and commercial. Even Diaz once said: "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States." American investors owned so much property in Mexico, the U.S. government took great interest in what was happening there. They were especially concerned when revolutionaries started talking about reclaiming that property. The U.S. government intervened again and again during the revolution, often at the request of American investors. The U.S. government supported different factions and even invaded Mexico and occupied the city of Veracruz.
While a revolution was playing out south of its border, the United States watched as World War I broke out across the Atlantic. Mexico remained neutral, providing oil to the British navy, but also maintaining a friendly relationship with Germany. In 1917, a telegram from the German government—known as the Zimmerman Telegram—proposed that Mexico join Germany if the United States declared war. The Mexican government had no interest, believing a war with its northern neighbor would be disastrous. But the British informed the U.S. government of the telegram, which helped push the U.S. into the war in Europe.
American soldiers raising the U.S. flag over the Mexican city of Veracruz during the American occupation in 1914. From the Library of Congress.

The fight to define the revolution, 1913-1920

Madero's policies had certainly displeased revolutionaries, but they were far more united against Huerta. Pancho Villa and Zapata allied with liberals and defeated Huerta in July 1914. But soon after their victory, the revolutionaries again split into opposed camps.
The Conventionistas—including Pancho Villa and Zapata—sought big economic and social reforms. The Constitutionalistas—led by Venustiano Carranza and Álvaro Obregón—wanted to establish a liberal democracy, but were less willing to return land to peasant and indigenous villages. The two sides were unable to resolve their differences, and the civil war that followed was the most violent period of the revolution. From 1915 to 1917, one million civilians and soldiers died in the fighting.
The Constitutionalistas emerged victorious. They passed a constitution and elected Carranza president. The Mexican Constitution of 1917 enshrined legal and political rights, but it also called for economic rights and social justice. The document called for land reform, nationalization of resources, and workers' rights. In practice, however, the post-revolutionary government ignored many of these promises.
Pancho Villa (center) and Emiliano Zapata (with the large sombrero) in 1914. Public domain.

Consolidating the revolution, 1920-1940

Many historians mark the election of President Álvaro Obregón in 1920 as the end of the Mexican Revolution. Zapata was assassinated in 1919 on the orders of Carranza. Carranza was killed soon after. Pancho Villa retired in 1920 and was assassinated three years later. Whether it ended in 1917 or 1920, violence continued after the revolution. Every presidential election in the 1920s produced some sort of uprising. President Plutarco Calles succeeded Obregón and founded the National Revolutionary Party, which won every presidential election from 1928 to 2000.
It was Lázaro Cárdenas, who became Mexico's forty-fourth president in 1934, who finally instituted some of the socioeconomic promises of the 1917 constitution. He enacted a broad set of social and economic reforms that transformed Mexican society. He strengthened labor unions, nationalized Mexico's oil industry, and redistributed over 70,000 square miles of land. That's roughly the size of Syria.

Revolutionary legacy

Over one million people were killed in the revolution, and hundreds of thousands fled to the United States. All this violence and upheaval transformed Mexico, but a lot remained the same. The revolution ended the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, and since 1928, Mexican presidents have not been allowed to run for a second term. The 1917 constitution enshrined political and socioeconomic rights and limited the power of the Catholic church. Eventually, the revolution brought universal education, labor rights, land reform, and the nationalization of some industries.
But change was limited, and not everyone benefited equally. Thousands of women joined or were forced to join revolutionary armies. Women gained some new rights after 1917, but their important role in the revolution was mostly ignored. Women did not win the right to vote until 1953. Wealthy landowners continued to control the economy. The countryside, which had suffered the most in the fighting, benefited the least. Despite the excitement for land reform, most peasants continued to experience poverty.
The Monumento a la Revolución in Mexico City. By Haakon S. Krohn, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Just look at the Monumento a la Revolución, a perfect symbol for the complex legacy of the Mexican Revolution. Intended as a federal legislative building, its foundations were laid by Porfirio Diaz before the 1910 revolution. President Madero continued its construction, but now as a monument to democracy. The chaos of the revolution delayed its completion until the 1930s. The heroes of the revolution—Madero, Carranza, Villa, Calles, and Cárdenas—are all buried there. In life, these men disagreed, often violently, about the meaning of the Mexican Revolution. In death, the bitter rivals symbolize that perhaps the legacy of the Mexican Revolution is more than the sum of its parts.
Author bios
Alejandro Quintana is an associate professor of History at St. John’s University in New York City. His research and teaching focus on state formation, nation-building, nationalism, revolutions, and social movements, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in History from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maine at Augusta. Additionally, he is a Research Associate at Pitt's World History Center. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century.

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