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The Centennial of the World’s First Social Revolution in Mexico

By William H. Beezley


November 20, Mexicans everywhere will celebrate the centennial of their epic revolution. A century ago, a generation of young, largely provincial Mexican men and women initiated and carried out a social revolution that preceded the Russian Revolution (1917), had greater educational and public health successes than the Chinese Revolution (1948), and, arguably, created a political system less authoritarian than the Cuban Revolution (1959) and certainly one more economically viable than Castro’s. Not that these comparisons matter much to Mexicans, who have an intense pride in achieving the world’s first social revolution.

The revolution sputtered into action in the fall of 1910 and by the next April, with only minor victories over the federal army in the north, especially in Ciudad Juarez, but accompanied by mounting popular mobilization, overthrew the 35-year old regime of Porfirio Diaz, who fled to Paris. From 1911 to 1946, this generation of Mexicans threw themselves into the revolutionary conflict, with renewed battles that by 1914 had destroyed the federal army; the battle-hardened rebels turned on each other and fought for domination as young, ambitious Mexicans spoke to each other through the idiom of violence. During the first decade, the struggle cost two million lives out of a population of 14 million (500,000 through flight into exile). Death in battle, by execution, wounds, disease, or deprivation followed the rebels as they crisscrossed the nation. Heroes emerged, with the chief among them: Francisco Madero, who initiated the struggle; Alvaro Obregón, the most successful general; Emiliano Zapata, spokesman for land redistribution; and, Pancho Villa, onetime bandit with inspired lower-class charisma. Despite vast differences, they all met the same fate of assassination by their opponents.

These individuals—Madero, Obregon, Zapata, Villa–and in the 1920s and 1930s, Plutarco E. Calles and Lázaro Cárdenas put a personal stamp on the movement. Their personalities ascended above ideological considerations, and in every case gave an edge of daring, risk-taking, and passion for the Mexico people to their campaigns. They inspired, cajoled, threatened, and killed their country’s men and women until they forged a new national identity and regime.

Despite the continuing violence, the revolutionaries sponsored a convention to write a new Constitution in 1916-1917. This document contained the essence of a social revolution, with land redistribution to peasant and indigenous villages, labor protection for workers, public health and primary education for all, and secularization of everyday life. Efforts to implement these provisions over roughly the next three decades inspired further violence (the 1923 de la Huerta Rebellion and the 1926 Cristero Rebellion), yet gradually the benefits began to reach the people and to change the nation.

The apogee of the social revolution came during the administration of President Lázaro Cárdenas, 1934-1940, as Mexico sought recovery from incessant violence and the World Depression. Cárdenas was intent on extending the benefits of the revolutionary programs to the nation’s poor and downtrodden, especially in the countryside. Land distribution reached new levels, strikes increased and resulted in improved conditions for workers, primary education, despite anti-clerical goals, taught literacy, hygiene, and vocational skills. His fame was insured when he took a firm stand against the British and United States oil companies who refused to accepted government rulings and Supreme Court decisions demanding they improve the lives of workers as outlined in the Constitution. The oil company intransigence finally resulted, March 18,1938, in the president’s announcement on the radio that he expropriated all foreign-owned oil . This event, more than any other, signaled the nationalistic character of the revolution, and the commitment of the government to put Mexicans workers, not foreign entrepreneurs, first.

As early as 1921, the Ministry of Public Education under the leadership of José Vasconcelos sent educational missions into the countryside and opened schools in buildings and parks in the cities. The goal was first to teach Spanish to indigenous peoples and second to teach literary and music to everyone in order to establish a standard, uniform national culture across the nation. It never completely succeeded, but it made great progress toward creating a Mexican national character. This culture and character built on the blending of indigenous and Spanish (as appropriated in Mexico) customs and folklore into a hybrid culture and a hybrid population that would make up Mestizo (mixed ethnic and cultural) Mexico, what Vasconcelos called the Cosmic Race. In this campaign to educate Mexicans through informing them of their past the revolutionaries promoted folkloric music, dress, and stereotypes. One effort in this regard was the sponsorship of murals in and on public buildings by the artists Diego Riviera, José Clemente Orozco, and Dávid Siqueiros. These cultural efforts resulted as much as anything else the revolutionaries did or attempted to do in growing sense of possibilities for individuals. Life was made better, but it was possible to do even more.

The revolution destroyed many religious, community, and family sanctions on individual actions, so that a new sense of liberty emerged that, among other things, resulted in public displays of affection. In the new, revolutionary society, Mexicans could and did express their emotions in public. In such small ways as a kiss in public, the revolution changed the daily life of the people, their relationships, and their willingness to hope for a better future. On November 20, everyone can and should join in the shout, “¡Viva la revolución!”

William H. Beezley is a Professor of History at the University of Arizona and editor of The Oxford History of Mexico.

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