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Villa and Zapata – A History of the Mexican Revolution, Part 2: Villa and Zapata – the main players

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Frank McLynn does a very good job at presenting these distinct characters along with all their personal flaws and foibles. His portrayal of many of the minor actors is also well done. There are a few areas where he may exaggerate the importance of certain aspects, such as the telegram from German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman to his embassy in Mexico in February, 1917, promising German financial support if Mexico attacked the US. While the telegram is very significant in pushing America into WWI, it had very little impact in Mexico's Civil War, if any at all.

President Porfirio Diaz, in power for 34 years, was the whole reason a civil war happened in the first place. McLynn rightly places him as the aging, cynical dictator whose mind had started to slip and whose power had continued only through the vast amount of bribes and control-sharing that he dished out to his main supporters. And as McLynn states, not every major player was against his policies. Though he supported the oligarchs throughout Mexico and stamped out any and all organized protests against his rule, he was no different than President Francisco I. Madero who succeeded him in power. Indeed, when President Alvaro Obregon finally arrived in power at the end of the civil war, he continued many of the same policies. The end of President Diaz did not constitute an end to Porfiriismo, but merely a repackaging of its contents.

Francisco I. Madero was the catalyst whose spark of defiance finally ignited the underlying brush of resentment against President Diaz. McLynn does a good job of portraying this son of one of the main oligarchs as being mentally unstable and too timid to perform the overwhelming tasks of presidency adequately. Though President Madero's heart was in the right place much of the time, he was too easily swayed by others with malicious intent and he wound up following the same dictatorial path of oppression that his predecessor had pursued. In the end, his short reign as president was as predictable as the spiritual visits he received from some guy named Jose and his long, dead brother Raul.

Victoriano Huerta, who was also General of the Armies under both Madero and Diaz before becoming president, connived his way to the top and was found to be loyal to no one other than himself. He is described as a raging alcoholic, an integral part of his personality that was one of unbridled ruthlessness and cruelty. In fact, on page 220, McLynn notes how one of his drunken stupors led to the American invasion at Veracruz in April, 1914, "when run to ground in one of his drinking dens, Huerta point-blank refused to comply [with an apology to the US for taking some of their sailors prisoner]. [President] Wilson welcomed the pretext to remove Huerta by force." Though in the end, the US never moved past Veracruz, it shows how much Huerta's rule was affected by his constant drunkenness.

As general, Huerta was one of the first to embrace what is commonly known as a policy of take-no-prisoners, one where even the civilian population isn't safe from military execution. This policy was subsequently echoed by Villa, Zapata, and most of the other main military leaders throughout the civil war years. As a direct result, tens of thousands were needlessly slain.

Of all those who took over the presidency between 1910 and 1920, Venustiano Carranza was perhaps the most enigmatic of them. His entry into the fray in 1911 on Francisco I. Madero's side came about solely due to the fact that President Diaz had snubbed his appointment as governor of the state of Coahuila, whereas Madero promised him that and much more. Even though he was allowed to conduct the terms of surrender with Diaz which gave the presidency to Madero, he never became a true Madero follower. Rather he just bided his time knowing that the revolution that saw the fall of Diaz and the rise of Madero would also see the rise of a certain backlash that would end Madero's reign as well. On page 162, McLynn gives Madero's personal assessment of Caranza quoting him as saying, "[Carranza is] vindictive, spiteful and authoritarian ... a phlegmatic old man who asks one foot for permission to drag the other."

By the time Huerta became president in 1913, Carranza controlled the three Northern states of Coahuila, Sonora and Chihuahua. Throughout the civil war years he was the only one who professed to be the true leader of Mexico even when he was the only person who believed it. Madero had named him his War Minister in 1911 and when Huerta became president, Carranza became the Primer Jefe of the Constitutional Army in opposition to the new Huerta government. In 1915 he became President and presided until a year before his death in 1921. Like Huerta, Madero and Diaz before him, he was a centrist who allowed the oligarchs to run most of the country while he ceremoniously took over the tasks of head of state.

There were many generals of all stripes during the civil war years. Most were merely high ranking soldiers who had distinguished themselves with their leaders, be they Diaz, Madero, Huerta, Villa, Zapata, or Carranza. One that stood out among the crowd was Pascual Orozco. He embodied the quintessential Northern leader who, though leading an army of poor discontents who were angry with the status quo, sought to be on the winning side at the end of the day, regardless of which side that was. As McLynn correctly points out on page 131, "He is for Pascual Orozco, first, last and always." Unfortunately for Mexico, there were many just like Orozco who led armies of all sizes ostensibly to rid the country of the "evil doers," but who, in reality, were simply using their followers in the hopes of securing a prominent position in whatever future government existed at the end of the war. By the time Orozco's army was defeated by General Huerta at Rellano in 1912, he was a broken man and could do little more than run across the border to the US to hide from his pursuers.

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Not enough can be said about the oligarchs that ruled Mexico, many of whom still enjoy the special status. The Madero family, whose son Francisco began the entire process, weren't among the super elite. However, they did own vast tracts of land and were among the more privileged in the country. The Terrazas family typified this small group of megarich who has always bent the role of government to satisfy their own greed and goal above and beyond the moral needs and desires of the populace. These families have always forced the federal government to promote their chosen few into high public office locally and statewide and have ensured that, regardless of the actual laws on the books, the enforcement of those laws will be dictated by the families themselves, not the state or federal government. During the civil war years, these families financed the armies they felt would do their bidding if successful and often financed groups whose mission was simply to destroy other armies.

When I lived in Mexico, I saw first hand the absolute power over commerce these oligarchs still possess. They often practice a policy known as "Especulación" where they purposefully remove a particular commodity from the market place in order to drive up its price before reintroducing it. I had a chance to see this in action when toothpaste was completely removed from all store shelves. For a few months only the brand Sensodyne was available, and then, it too disappeared. Over the next few months we were forced to brush our teeth with baking soda and water as no toothpaste at all could be found.

In recent years, the United States has been tending towards a similar reign by its oligarchs. In this case, however, the oligarchs control medicines and banking. By taking a step back and looking at the United States and recent developments, it is easy to see how suspect drugs are passing more and more easily through government regulations and winding up on consumer shelves and in the ready hands of doctors. These same drugs are often recalled in only a few short years after disastrous and often deadly results are brought to light. At the same time, the deregulation of the financial sector has led to a complete economic meltdown where these same oligarchs are allowed to recuperate their financial losses at the expense of the population as a whole. If left unchecked, there will soon come a day when the average American will see the same type of "Especulación" committed on their department store shelves, or banks, or hospitals, with the same disastrous results.

Alvaro Obregón was the only true winner at the end of the civil war. He did not participate in the first years and was a mere cavalry commander in 1912 when the defeated Orozco tried to cross into Sonora with his army after his defeat at Rellano. But Obregón's quick victories and out-of-the-box tactics impressed General Huerta and his rise inside the military was mercurial. According to McLynn, "he was the first person to advocate that each soldier should dig his own fox hole."

When Huerta betrayed President Madero and succeeded him as President of Mexico, Obregón turned against him and joined forces with General Villa and his División de la Norte army. Eventually, Obregón would wind up defeating Pancho Villa in a series of battles that saw him lose his right arm as a result. His cunning and daring propelled him to the top, but after a fall out with newly elected Carranza as president, Obregón decided to retire to his ranch and await the following election. In 1920, he became President of Mexico and effectively ended the tumult and uncertainty of the civil war.

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The two most famous protagonists of the civil war, Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, actually entered the fray rather reluctantly and innocently. Zapata was born to a mestizo family who spoke nahuatl rather than Spanish. His skills as an orator and horseman brought him fame in his village of Anenecuilco and he was asked to represent them. As his fame grew regionally, along with his passion to help his neighbors retrieve the land stolen from them by the rich hacendados, he began recruiting an army of peasants to stand up to the federal government.

Zapata was considered a Mexican dandy in all its pretense and pomp. He often wore charro outfits with colorful neckerchiefs, brightly colored shirts, black short coats and tight leather pants with silver buttons going down the sides. The customary sombrero added the finishing touches to his dandy attire.

Zapata never liked Porfirio Diaz nor his successor, Francisco I. Madero. He was extremely untrustworthy of all city folk and looked down on Mexico City as a corrupt place full of insincere people. In fact, the only person Zapata ever came to trust was Pancho Villa and even then, it wasn't a blind trust, but rather a suspicious recognition of Villa's work to liberate those from his region, "so far." To the end, Zapata fought the government in all its manifestations for the rights of the indigenous farmer and worked tirelessly to end the hacendados' stranglehold on land reform. His push for reform only reached the small state of Morelos, his home state, and the few adjacent ones, never really encompassing much of Mexico at all and rarely mentioned outside of the inner circles of those directly involved in the civil war.

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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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Your measured judgements combined with your encycl... by GLloyd Rowsey on Wednesday, Oct 21, 2009 at 11:25:08 PM
looks interesting. Have you read it?... by GLloyd Rowsey on Thursday, Oct 22, 2009 at 6:18:16 AM
Thanks for the kind words. I'll have a look at the... by John Little on Thursday, Oct 22, 2009 at 11:06:45 AM
El Gringo. However, I typo-d her name: it's Elizab... by GLloyd Rowsey on Thursday, Oct 22, 2009 at 11:41:39 AM
No one really talked much about the female partici... by John Little on Thursday, Oct 22, 2009 at 12:17:31 PM