USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

The Mexican Revolution

The Mexican Revolution was the most significant political and military event in Latin America during this period. Between 1911 and 1917, the revolution witnessed the largest loss of life in Mexican history since the destruction of the Native Americans during the early decades of Spanish conquest.

What we see occurring, beginning in 1913 with the assassination of Mexican President Francisco Madero, is a general fracturing of power, both at the center of Mexican politics and throughout the countryside. The two most significant movements beyond the “official” liberal army were led by Pancho Villa in the north and Emiliano Zapato in the south. It is this fracturing and resultant internecine warfare that is the most dramatic and most destructive aspect of the Mexican Revolution, a protracted war that left one million Mexicans dead. Why was it so fractured? One reason is that it was primarily a populist revolt against a hugely unequal social structure. As such, different constituencies in different areas rallied around local or regional leaders. These leaders had divergent political and military goals and ambitions. This is an important point, because the Mexican Revolution was the first of many anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist wars in the 20th century -- and many of these wars suffered the same fate, the fracturing of power and the descent into bloody civil war. Modern weaponry only increased the horrors. The novella The Underdogs by Azuela takes us deep inside this society ripped asunder by what seems even to its participants as a violent free-for-all.

What did the revolution accomplish? After the Mexican Revolution finally ground to a halt, the foundation was set for the formation of a new type of nationalist Mexican state, ruled by the liberal party and with a political mandate to govern the entirety of the country. The heroes of the Mexican Revolution, Zapato, Villa, Madero, became the heroes of the newly created constitutional state (1917). This sense that the people of Mexico delivered a constitutional state from the hands of imperial puppets and agricultural oligarchs created a newfound national pride and nationalistic sentiment among Mexicans. This pride looked back not to Mexico’s European roots, as did many liberals throughout South America, but to the country’s pre-Columbian heritage. The lines were clearly drawn. Indigenous Mexicans had finally won their independence from Europeanized oppressors. The struggle that began with Cortes decimating the Aztecs had finally been reversed, the historical injustice, in the eyes of the “Mexican people,” finally rectified. The great Mexican painter and muralist Diego Rivera captured this spirit in this mural entitled The History of Mexico: from the Conquest to the Future. The conquest was of course that of Cortes. The future, in Rivera’s imagination, belonged to the (indigenous) Mexican workers and farmers. In the center of this chaotic mural, an eagle is devouring a serpent, the official emblem of Mexico taken from Aztec mythology. Rivera seems to be redefining this classical Mexican image, updating it for modern times. The eagle in this context comes to represent the Mexican people, the snake embodies the tyranny of the oppressors, first the Spanish and then the oligarchs and foreign corporations which together enchained the Mexican people. Nationalism had come to Mexico, a nation re-founded, like many others, on the bodies of the dead.

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