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Life Arts

Part 1: Mexico at the Turn of the Century

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To understand the book, Villa and Zapata, and what is intended by the author, Frank McLynn, it is necessary to understand what Mexico was like at the turn of the 20th Century, the role of the main characters involved in the revolution from 1910 to 1920, and the civil war itself and its aftermath. This first part will focus on the country itself at the turn of the century.

Throughout history, colonial nations have never really concerned themselves with their nation's creation ability and have allowed borders between countries to fall where they may, with little regard to natural barriers or indigenous boundaries. McLynn correctly identifies this unfortunate reality and its eventual impact on the civil war that would consume Mexico during the first decades of the 20th Century.

A quick glance at the topography of the country will show exactly how this problem exacerbated the many dilemmas each faction faced in their particular area of the country and why it was so difficult to reconcile them over time. The Northern regions are made up of several different blocks, each one with its own distinct flavor.

Pancho Villa came from the state of Durango, mountainous and rugged with many hidden canyons and hideaways, yet far enough away from the US to avoid any American influences. Alvaro Obregón, who would become president of Mexico at the end of the revolution, hailed from Sonora to the west, which was mining country where many of the mines were owned by Americans. Coahuila, to the northeast of Durango, was home to Francisco I. Madero, the man who precipitated the events in 1910 and Venustiano Carranza, who perpetuated them through his narcissistic dreams-come-true. It was also home to a large American influence that would play a role throughout the entire period.

But Emiliano Zapata came from Morelos, just south of Mexico City. Where the northern states above were mainly desert and home to huge haciendas, some extending for over a hundred miles, Morelos, and much of the interior of Mexico, was filled with smaller tracts of land divided among more people. The ideals of the northern rebels never really meshed with those of the central area of Mexico as McLynn rightly points out. The needs of the Natives in the interior were for agrarian reform and a return to individual farming, while in the North, the needs were more urban in nature.

In the Southern regions of the country, the Yucatan peninsula, a vast tropical forest extends from the Caribbean Sea across the Gulf of Mexico and all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The wants and desires of the Mayas and other indigenous tribes of the region never entered into the overall story as these people felt little connection with their fighting compatriots elsewhere. Topographically, historically, and culturally there is little to connect the Yucatan region with any other in Mexico and their contribution to its lore has been as much through absence as it has been through participation.

Add to this the fact that the Yaqui Indians from the Northern regions, particularly Sonora, have always been fiercely independent, fighting tooth and nail for their territory, regardless of which Mexican group was rebelling there. The indigenous tribes of central Mexico, on the other hand, merely wanted more agrarian justice and sought egalitarian land rights almost exclusively. Of course, those tribes from the tropical rain forests of Southern and Southeastern Mexico had little desire to join in on the commotions elsewhere and preferred to allow the others to simply bludgeon each other to death.

The final layer of foreign ownership and intervention completes the complex tapestry that was Mexico at the beginning of the 20th Century. Most of the mines in Northern Mexico were owned by Americans who always benefited from tax breaks and other incentives to keep the mines active. The oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico off of the coast of Tamaulipas were also owned by American industries and were considered off-limits to Mexican internal strife and disorder, lest they suffer the wrath of American military intervention. The border towns in the US were also strictly off-limits with similar punishment as a threat, should that rule be breached.

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McLynn does a very good job of showing how all this came into play over the first two decades of the 20th Century in a slow, macabre dance of egotistical men, each with his own set of criteria for running the country, and none willing to share it, save Villa and Zapata. He starts with a briefing of the prior 100 years in Mexico to lay the foundation for what was to transpire during the beginning of the revolution.

Throughout the 19th Century, Mexican leaders tried unsuccessfully to unite the country under one banner. However, Texas broke away by the 1830s and war broke out with the US a decade later. By 1850, Mexico had been reduced to almost half the size it started with. More turmoil came when Napoleon III, Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon I, sent in a Hapsburg prince, Maximilian I, to rule over Mexico in the 1860s.

The political unrest in Mexico continued until General Porfirio Diaz appointed himself president in 1876. Over the next 35 years, Diaz would rule Mexico like a dictator, giving and taking favors as he found necessary, to ensure his continued nonstop reign at the top. His pronouncements became exceedingly unpopular, making the rich land owners increasingly wealthy and powerful, while crushing all indigenous uprisings with an iron fist.

Enter Francisco I. Madero

As McLynn correctly points out, Madero was a very unstable person. He was a member of one of the wealthiest families in Mexico and had, therefore, the wherewithal to challenge the ruler, President Diaz. But Madero wasn't all that radical and, as McLynn points out, his main support came as a result of the dissatisfaction others felt for the dictatorship of President Diaz, and not for his Plan of San Luis Potosi. McLynn does an excellent job of explaining how Madero, who believed he was in touch with the spirit of Benito Juarez (considered the "George Washington" of Mexico), became the spark that ignited the fires of revolution that soon spread over most of Mexico.

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In Morelos, Emiliano Zapata rose to power attacking federal troops there, while in Chihuahua, Pancho Villa took up the Madero charge. There are many main actors who play pivotal roles throughout the revolutionary years of 1910 to 1920 and McLynn does a good job of properly portraying their part, though he tends to lean towards their main contribution in the revolution itself, leaving their overall personality less understood.

Another main problem I have with McLynn is his constant reference to European stories as metaphors for the actions these players take during their years in the revolution. I felt like I needed a library of 14th to 20th century European textbooks next to me in order to understand the many oblique references he makes. To demonstrate Villa's impatience, he compares Villa to Murat, King of the Two Sicilies in the 19th Century. McLynn describes the curanderos, practitioners in herbal remedies who date from precolonial times, as Chaucer's Pardoner, an obscure reference to a personage from the Canterbury Tales who carried around strange potions.

I give McLynn high marks for describing the Mexico that existed prior to the revolutionary years of 1910-1920. He gives a good understanding of the differences between the various geographical areas and points out beautifully how these are merely arbitrary points forced together by the colonial powers with little regard to historical realities, yet become nevertheless integral parts of the country known as Mexico. The complexity that resulted during the revolutionary war is a direct result of this arbitrage.

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60 year old Californian male - I've lived in four different countries, USA, Switzerland, Mexico, Venezuela - speak three languages fluently, English, French, Spanish - part-time journalist for Empower-Sport Magazine. I also write four (more...)
 

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