Emiliano Zapata, the leader of a Mexican peasant rebellion, and Francisco Madero, a politician, were allies in a national movement to separate Mexican strongman Porfirio Díaz from the office of the presidency, after 31 years in power. Zapata wanted Madero to understand though that the coming revolution would change the balance of power.
Zapata’s Message to Madero
In June 1911, Emiliano Zapata pointed his carbine rifle at the politician in front of him: Francisco Madero. Zapata represented agrarian villagers who’d been displaced from the land by wealthy sugar cane planters. Zapata pointed at the gold chain on Madero’s vest and asked if he took it, would Madero have the right to ask for it back one day should the two men meet again, and if next time Madero was as heavily armed as Zapata. Madero responded that, of course, he would. What’s more, he would demand not only the return of his property but also an indemnity for the affront. Zapata nodded. He’d just made his point.
Zapata represented agrarian villagers who’d been displaced from the land by wealthy sugar cane planters. The farmland in the south-central state of Morelos had belonged to the villagers until it was taken away by the wealthier, more powerful planters.
But this day in Mexico City—at Madero’s home—Zapata was serving notice that to the villagers, the land was their gold chain. While it had been expropriated by superior force, the coming revolution would change the balance of power. Madero needed to understand that.
First Major Social Revolution
Today, the significance of the Mexican Revolution is obscured by contemporaneous regime changes in Russia and China over a period of 30 years, up through World War II. Still, the transformation in Mexico is considered to be the first major social revolution of the 20th century. The drama was heightened by seemingly endless plot twists and turns.
Unlike the transformations in China and Russia, the Mexican Revolution wasn’t driven by a cohesive ideology. Enrique Krauze, the historian and author of Mexico: Biography of Power wrote: “The Mexican Revolution is an exception” to the norm of movements that are “organized around ideas or ideals”.
Instead of ideological principles, “it was organized around personages”; personages such as Zapata, Madero, Pancho Villa, Venustiano Carranza, and Victoriano Huerta. As a result, a unified revolution with a singular purpose was never a reality.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Great Revolutions of Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Roots of the Mexican Revolution
Even though modern Mexico ascribes its legitimacy to a revolutionary history and identity, the aims of its revolution shifted with regularity. Sometimes change occurred with the presidential elections instituted by the 1917 constitution; sometimes the shift occurred simply when one revolutionary murdered another. Historian Thomas Benjamin describes the Mexican Revolution as “complicated, inspirational, and terrible”. In many ways, its roots go back to colonial Spain.
Beginning in the early 16th century, Spanish conquistadores established a system of governance and wealth extraction rooted in the encomienda system of land grants. The crown invested landowners with the right to impose forced labor, and tribute. The system created vast inequities that endured after Mexico gained its independence in the early 19th century.
After independence, Mexico became plagued with political instability. Between 1824 and 1867, 52 presidents ruled the newly independent country. In 1876, after a civil war and several foreign conflicts, the military leader Porfirio Díaz ousted President Sebastían Lerdo de Tejada from office. He was supported in this by prominent Mexican landowners and American interests alike. The next year, Díaz was elected president; initially to a four-year term, as stipulated by the 1857 constitution.
After his first term, Díaz stepped aside in favor of a hand-picked successor. He then began a second term in 1884. After neutering the Mexican congress and opposition, Díaz then engineered a constitutional amendment that enabled him to stay in power.
While many of Díaz’s Mexican allies grew wealthy, much of Mexico’s riches found their way into the pockets of foreign investors. By 1910, Americans owned more than 100 million acres of Mexican territory while communal land previously belonging to villages was seized by large agricultural estates. Americans also controlled many of the most profitable sectors of the economy, including the railways, timber, textiles and mining.
Dictator as President
Rapid economic growth and modernization increased the number of Mexico’s industrial workers. But the collapse of the international market for copper, silver, and other metals amid the US financial panic of 1907 undercut the Mexican mining sector. And textiles—the country’s most important industry—entered a deep recession.
Mexican workers saw their wages decline, living standards deteriorate, and goods priced out of reach. Strikes and protests proliferated as workers expressed growing resentment against the government and foreign exploitation. President Díaz responded to these popular struggles as we would expect of a dictator.
He made concessions to his political supporters and allies while shifting economic and tax burdens onto workers, peasants, professionals, and business owners not closely aligned with him. When criticized, Díaz responded with repression. So a growing number of Mexicans began to see him as a dictator who sacrificed the people’s well-being to the benefit of foreign interests and to line the pockets of him and his cronies.
Francisco Madero, though a member of the landed class, found common ground with industrial workers and peasants in their shared opposition to Díaz. It was time, Madero argued, for new leadership. His appeal led to the creation of new political opposition organized as the Anti-Reelectionist Party. And in 1910, Madero ran as his party’s candidate against Díaz. However, Díaz had Madero arrested on charges of sedition and went on to claim a landslide victory.
Common Questions about the Mexican Revolution
Unlike the transformations in China and Russia, the Mexican Revolution wasn’t driven by a cohesive ideology. Instead of ideological principles, it was organized around persons.
With Porfirio Díaz in power, many of his Mexican allies grew wealthy. However, much of Mexico’s riches found their way into the pockets of foreign investors. By 1910, Americans owned more than 100 million acres of Mexican territory. Americans also controlled many of the most profitable sectors of the economy, including the railways, timber, textiles and mining.
Francisco Madero‘s opposition to Porfirio Díaz and demand for new leadership led to the creation of new political opposition organized as the Anti-Reelectionist Party. In 1910, Madero ran as his party’s candidate against Díaz. However, Díaz had Madero arrested on charges of sedition.