nationwide armed struggle in Mexico (1910–1920)

The Mexican Revolution was a pivotal 10-year period in Mexico when the people rose up against an authoritarian dictatorship that favored a small economic and social elite in order to create a stronger democracy that better served the people. The change was deep and painful and included re-defining cultural values and social ambitions for a new century (and beyond). The Revolution is often poorly understood outside Mexico, probably because it was complex with multiple factions with their own agendas and because it included not only military battles, but political treachery and machinations that often had long-reaching consequences extending almost two decades beyond the conclusion of armed conflict. The Mexican Revolution is generally defined as the period between 1910 and 1920, but storm clouds were brewing well before 1910 and the last vendettas would not be settled until World War II commanded the world's attention.

Porfirio Diaz
Francisco Madero

Entire (boring) books have been written about the Mexican Revolution, most by academics skilled in boring generations of undergraduates, so to spare you the gobbledygook, this article touches on only events and places that might seriously interest a traveler with an eye, ear, and taste for history. Just the good stuff, none of the fluff!

Victoriano Huerta


Mexico historical travel topics:
MesoamericaColonial MexicoMexican War of IndependencePost-Independence MexicoMexican RevolutionModern Mexico

Roots of conflict

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After Mexico achieved independence from Spain, the nascent nation struggled to stabilize and grow as an independent nation. The lofty aspirations of their first constitution were not easy to achieve and some well-intentioned concepts backfired. There were a couple attempts to write a good constitution, France invaded Mexico and installed an Emperor who had to be shot, the treacherous Texans seceded, then former general Porfirio Diaz thought he should be the dictator of the country, serving the richest, most foreign, and most corrupt constituencies, all of which gave rich cause for the average Mexican to feel like he was getting the shaft. The Revolution wasn't focused on only one grievance, though, nor was it between two rival parties, but rather there were three major coalitions that wanted revolution against the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship. All agreed that Diaz, who had been in power for decades and refused to consider proposals to peacefully transition from power, really just had to go.

 
Pancho Villa

The coalitions (armies) that revolted in this period were:

  • Villistas - dedicated followers of Pancho Villa, members of his Division del Norte army. The Villistas were cowboys and laborers who didn't have a cohesive philosophy backing up their rebellion, though they were fanatically loyal to their general.
  • Zapatistas - dedicated followers of Emiliano Zapata, members of his Army of Liberation of the South. The Zapatistas opposed all presidencies from Porfirio Diaz through the end of the Revolution. They are regarded as anarchists and socialists and were revered by the poor and the indigenous who were most likely to have been victims of land steals during the Porfiriato.
  • Constitutionalists - what started as the Carrancista faction supporting Coahuila governor Venustiano Carranza grew by leaps and bounds when Huerta usurped power in 1914. The Constitutionalists wanted a strong central government with orderly transfers of power. They were initially allied with the Villistas and Zapatistas, but overtook and subsumed both. The Constitutionalists were the eventual victors in the Revolution, and Carranza was the first post-Revolution president.
  • Others - there were several other less significant factions, usually backing one minority politician or another, and variously aligning with one or more of the major coalitions.

Heroes and villains

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Emiliano Zapata
 
Venustiano Carranza
 
Alvaro Obregon

Note: Though strongly correlated, the impressiveness of a revolutionary's mustache or hat does not necessarily reflect his power or position.

The politicians

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Porfirio Díaz

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Definitely the villain of the Revolution. Diaz was a general during the French incursion, serving under Emperor Maximilian, then helping to topple him from power. Between 1876 and 1911, Diaz would either be in office as president, or manipulating the strings of his puppet while he waited to get re-elected. Diaz was known for corruption and violent means of suppressing commoners and opponents while giving away favors to his friends and foreigners (especially from the U.S.) bearing cash. His refusal to cede power ignited labor strikes and farmer rebellions. He was a basic power-hungry scumbag.

Francisco Madero

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Much to Diaz's surprise, he lost the 1910 presidential election to Francisco Madero, but then threw a temper tantrum claiming the election was a fraud and that Madero wasn't a legitimate winner. When Diaz refused to relinquish office, Madero was forced to escape to San Antonio where he drafted the Plan de San Luis Potosí (finalized and signed in San Luis, naturally), which documented Diaz's abuses and laid out the reasons for revolt. Thus began the Mexican Revolution. Diaz was forced to resign in 1911 when Madero took his office. Madero was slow to institute promised reforms, causing him to lose the support of Emiliano Zapata who wrote his Plan de Ayala, declaring his opposition to Madero, thus the Revolution was back on... Madero would be assassinated in 1913 during a coup led by Victoriano Huerta.

Victoriano Huerta

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Known as el Chacal (the jackal) in Mexico, he was as popular with Mexicans as Benedict Arnold was with Americans. A once respected military officer, he was a Diaz loyalist with ambitions beyond his station. Reviled as a traitor, Huerta fled Mexico after 17 months of illegitimacy as president. He went to Spain for a while, then to the United States where he was arrested for conspiring with German spies. In 1916, he died in a U.S. jail cell. (Of natural causes? Doubtful...)

The soldiers

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Pancho Villa

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Pancho Villa commanded a large army of more than 70,000 soldiers, drawn from the working classes of ranches and haciendas throughout northern Mexico. His army, known as the Division del Norte, had an extremely competent cavalry that Villa used to advantage in a number of battles against federal troops (and sometimes rival factions). Most of Villa's battles were close to the U.S. border, including battles in Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, and the cities of Torreon and Ciudad Juarez. Initially fighting for Madero, Villa retreated until Huerta staged a coup, at which time Villa returned to the battlefield in full force supporting the Constitutionalist faction. Although the Revolution had officially ended, Villa was assassinated in 1923 in the town of Parral, Chihuahua.

Emiliano Zapata

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Emiliano Zapata was the idealist of the revolutionary figures. He believed strongly in social justice and sought land and water rights for the indigenous, whose traditional rights were being run over by hacendados, wealthy foreign landowners being supported by Diaz. Zapata was one of the first to mobilize when Madero called for revolution and his Zapatista army dominated the state of Morelos, where the federal army was quickly humiliated in the Battle of Cuautla. Zapata rarely strayed outside his home state, but in Morelos, he was a formidable figure. He was assassinated in 1919 in Chinameca, Morelos.

Venustiano Carranza

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Carranza was a charismatic leader who led the Constitutionalist coalition after Huerta staged a coup against Madero. Carranza and his Constitutionalists won the Revolution and a constitutional convention created the Constitucion de 1917. Key provisions of the new constitution included land reforms, labor rights, rejection of foreign interests in key industries, and curtailing the power of the Catholic church in governmental affairs. Carranza was elected president in 1917 and served until 1920. He was assassinated in Tlaxcalantongo, Puebla (state) in 1920.

Alvaro Obregon

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Obregon was a military commander in Carranza's Constitutionalist army. After Carranza was forced out of office, Obregon was elected president in 1920 and had the first stable presidency under the new constitution. He initiated several reforms, vastly increased programs for public education, instituted the famous muralist program, and negotiated reparations with the U.S. for nationalizing certain foreign assets. Obregon was assassinated in 1928 in the San Angel neighborhood of Mexico City.

The Meddlers

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United States presidents

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The U.S. government just never seems to be able to mind its own business, and Presidents Taft and Wilson certainly stuck their noses where they didn't belong (sometimes backing opposite horses in the race). Of course, Pancho Villa's constant skirmishes along the U.S. border justified repulsion of any border incursions, but nothing justified Wilson's illegal incursion into Veracruz, other than the fact that he figured he could get away with it since Mexican troops were so darn busy fighting their own Revolution.

Hollywood

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Pancho Villa was having a tough time for a while. Randolph Hearst was smearing his reputation in newspapers across the U.S. even as Villa was running out of ammunition and supplies to wage war against the federal troops. But then came the Eureka! moment. What if he went to Hollywood and asked for big bucks and good press? Well, it worked. Pancho Villa cut a deal with Mutual Film Corporation. Mutual could send film crews into battle with Villa's Division del Norte army to get live action shots as well as the rights to ask Villa's soldiers to re-enact scenes as requested, and in return Villa would be the star of his own film and get a $25,000 advance to buy supplies. The movie, The Life of General Villa was directed by D.W. Griffith and released to U.S. theatres in 1914. The story re-surfaces in the 2003 Antonio Banderas film, And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself.

Timeline

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  • 1910 - Porfirio Diaz loses election to Madero. Diaz has Madero arrested. Madero escapes to San Antonio, writes Plan de San Luis Potosi
  • 1911 - Diaz resigns in Treaty of Juarez, Madero becomes president. Zapatistas take Cuautla.
  • 1913 - Ten Tragic Days (February 9-19, 1913) President Francisco Madero is assassinated and Victoriano Huerta usurps power, triggering a second phase of the Revolution: Venustiano Carranza is incensed and forms the Constitutionalist Army to oppose Huerta's federal troops. Other factions back Carranza.
  • 1914 - Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata come to Mexico City and meet in Xochimilco. Huerta resigns in disgrace and flees country.
  • 1915 - Plutarcho Calles declares himself governor of Sonora
  • 1916 - Congress starts writing new Constitution
  • 1917 - Venustiano Carranza is recognized as president. Constitution of 1917 adopted
  • 1920 - Revolt against Carranza under Plan de Aguala. Obregon is elected president, fulfills many promises of the revolution.

Museums

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Mexican Revolution Museums
 
Francisco Villa Museum, Durango
 
Monument to the Revolution, Mexico City
  • 1 Historical Museum of the Mexican Revolution, 3010 Calle 10a, Chihuahua. Colonial era hacienda-style home owned by Pancho Villa. After he was assassinated in a hail of gunfire (some say ordered by Alvaro Obregon), his wife and son continued to live in the home until his widow's death in 1980 when it was willed to the state of Chihuahua, which operates it as a historical museum containing many of Villa's guns, saddles, and personal belongings (including the bullet-ridden car he was driving when murdered).
  • 2 Museo de la Revolucion en la Frontera, Av 16 de Septiembre y Av Juarez, Centro, Ciudad Juarez. The 19th century Customs House has been turned into a historical museum about the Revolution on the U.S./Mexico border, particularly Ciudad Juarez, where several battles were fought. Lots of guns, old carriages, artwork, and even a woolly mammoth skeleton. Signage is in both English and Spanish. Large museum, well presented, free admission.
  • 3 Birthplace of Pancho Villa (Doroteo Arango), La Coyotada, Durango (near the town of San Juan del Rio). Birthplace of Pancho Villa, charismatic commanding general of the Division del Norte and former governor of Chihuahua. The house preserves the way it looked during Villa's childhood and has exhibits describing Villa's military campaigns as well as some of his personal possessions.
  • 4 Francisco Villa Museum, 5 de Febrero y Zaragoza, Centro, Durango, +52 618 811 4793. Large historical museum that tells the tale of the Revolution from the perspective of Pancho Villa. Set in a historic colonial-era building with a large open courtyard, balconies, and large galleries. Many guns, saddles, maps and other military equipment from the war. Several impressive murals visualize major events of the 1910-1920 period.
  • 5 Monument to the Revolution, Reforma, Mexico City. Major landmark in Mexico City with an observation deck and a large historical museum below ground with exhibits documenting the background, battles, places, and major figures of the Mexican Revolution. This is Mexico's largest and most popular Revolution museum.
  • 6 Casa de Carranza, Calle Río Lerma 35, Mexico City. Former home of President Venustiano Carranza from 1917-1920. Several rooms are preserved with original furnishings from the period when Carranza lived in the house. Personal belongings including engraved guns and a macabre display of bullet fragments taken from Madero's body after his assassination. Exhibits explain his political philosophies and hopes for Mexico.
  • 7 Casa Natal de Morelos (Morelos' Birthplace), Calle La Corregidora 113, Centro Histórico, Morelia. Interesting small museum about Jose Maria Morelos and his role in the Mexican Revolution. The museum is adjacent to the house where Morelos was born (open to visitors). The museum includes 5 galleries of artwork, several galleries of historical artifacts and exhibits, as well as a pleasant courtyard garden. Signage is in Spanish but English-speaking guides are occasionally available (inquire at front desk).
  • 8 Museo y Casa de Emiliano Zapata (Emiliano Zapata House), Anencuilco, Morelos. Small, humble home where Emiliano Zapata, hero of the Revolution, was born. Guides explain Zapata's childhood, his years as a revolutionary, and his enduring image as an icon for basic human rights of the indigenous. A mural depicts images of his life story.
  • 9 Regional Museum of the Mexican Revolution, Av 6 Ote 206, Centro, Puebla. The first shots of the Revolution weren't fired by soldiers on the battlefield, they were fired by Puebla police raiding the house of Aquiles Serdan, a shoemaker, who together with his brother Maximilian, had gathered guns in preparation for the Revolution, as called for by Madero. The house is still peppered with bullet holes from that raid that killed Serdan, which incensed Madero who said, "He has shown us how to die." The house is now a historical museum filled with artifacts from the Revolution and focusing on the role played by citizens of Puebla. Many of the exhibits have English explanations making it quite easy for foreign visitors to understand.
  • 10 Museo de la Toma de Zacatecas, Zacatecas. Museum with galleries containing weapons, documents, photos, and other artifacts relating to this decisive battle of the Mexican Revolution. The Battle of Zacatecas took place on June 23, 1914 when the Division del Norte under the command of Pancho Villa won a decisive victory over the federal army led by General Luis Medina Barrón. The battle led to the resignation of President Huerta.

Battles

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Mexican Revolution Battles
  • 1 Agua Prieta, Sonora. Site of 2 battles that took place in this town on the border with Douglas, Arizona, where amused gringos watched the Maderistos defeat Diaz's federal troops in April 1911, then they pulled up lawn chairs again in 1915 when they watched Pancho Villa's troops defeat troops backing Venustiano Carranza.
  • 2 Celaya, Guanajuato (state). After the Constitutionalist faction won the Revolution, skirmishes continued between various factions. At Celaya, General Obregon knew his infantry would be attacked by Villa's far superior cavalry force, so he selected a field of battle with trenches and barbed wire that would hinder Villa's horses and he set up machine guns in strategic locations. Although outnumbered by a 2 to 1 margin, Obregon won the battle as Villa retreated with heavy losses.
  • 3 Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. Site of 3 battles in this border town with El Paso, Texas. The first battle was significant in that it convinced Porfirio Diaz that he could not prevail against rebel forces. Diaz signed the Treaty of Juarez in which he agreed to relinquish his illegitimate claim to the presidency. Diaz then fled to France, clearing the way for Madero to take his place as the legitimately elected president. In the second battle of Juarez (1913), 2,000 of Villa's troops hid on board a coal train headed into the city of Juarez where they ambushed federal troops (guess those federales never heard of a Trojan Horse, errr, Trojan Train). The third battle turned into a rout of Villa's army when U.S. Army units from Fort Bliss crossed the border and went after Villa, who beat a hasty retreat to Durango.
  • 4 Cuautla, Morelos. In 1911, the Zapatista forces, led by Emiliano Zapata, attacked federal defensive positions. Despite being outgunned by federal artillery units, the Zapatistas defeated Diaz's federal army.
  • 5 Ojinaga, Chihuahua. In 1914, the last federal army outpost was the border town of Ojinaga, across the Rio Bravo from Presidio, Texas. An initial attack was unsuccessful, but the town was strategic, plus the film crews from Hollywood were capturing the scenes for posterity and Villa didn't want to let down his cinematic fans. Villa's army attacked at nightfall. Within two hours, the last federal troops were retreating with their tails between their legs.
  • 6 Topolobampo, Sinaloa. Topolobampo is a port on the Sea of Cortez and is the site of 4 naval battles in 1914 as the federal forces tried to blockade the port to prevent it being used as a supply depot by any of the revolutionary factions.
  • 7 Torreon, Coahuila. Site of 3 major battles, in 1913, 1914, and 1916, all involving Pancho Villa's Division del Norte attacking federal troops trying in vain to hold the city of Torreon.
  • 8 Tijuana, Baja California. Site of two battles between a faction known as the Magonistas, who were a cross between anarchists and communists and were led by a Welsh soldier of fortune named Caryl ap Rhys Pryce. In both battles the Magonistas beat federal forces. The first battle seemed to have served as a recruiting advertisement for California adventurers to pick up guns and go south to Tijuana to join the Revolution on the Magonistas behalf as the second battle involved quite a number of new American soldiers of fortune, ready to hitch their fortunes to whatever wagon was following Caryl ap Rhys Pryce.
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