Friday, December 6, 2013

The Mexican Revolution and Ajijic's 2013 Fiesta

A Revolutionary Mona Lisa gazes enigmatically into the camera. Wearing the Mexican national colors, this young woman was chatting with friends along the route of Ajijic's Revolution Day parade. My photographer's eye was caught by her colorful head gear and I managed a quick shot just at the moment she saw me. A fraction of a second later, she burst into gales of laughter. At the time I regretted not catching her laughing, but later when I processed the photo on my computer, I realized this was my best shot of the day.

Every November 20, Mexico celebrates the beginning of its 1910 Revolution. It was a titanic struggle that changed the nation forever, greatly improving the rights and living standards of ordinary people. It was also extremely destructive. Mexico lost 1 out of every 7 of its people and a large part of its infrastructure. In this posting, I'll give you both a look at Ajijic's colorful 2013 Revolution Day parade and a brief history of the Revolution itself. It was a very complex period and I know that this explanation certainly doesn't do it complete justice. I urge those who are interested to delve further into this fascinating time.

A girl's drum corps leads off from the bull ring, heading toward the main Plaza. Most of the people who march in the parade are children from local schools, ranging from kindergarteners to the high school girls you see above. The kids practice their drumming for weeks in advance. Part of my enjoyment of each fall's Fiesta Season is listening to their thunderous drills as they march up and down the streets near my home.

The Revolution had its roots in the unfinished business of the War for Independence from Spain (1810-1821) and the Reform War (1857-1861). The first abolished slavery and ended the dominance of Spain over Mexico. The second reduced the political and economic power of the Catholic Church and established--at least on paper--a liberal republican constitution. Although much was promised to the indigenous people and mestizos (people of mixed race) to gain their support, neither struggle was revolutionary in its result and the same elite class of hacendados (hacienda owners), mine owners, and businessmen remained in control throughout the 19th Century. In the words of a famous rock song, "Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss..."

Young acrobats balance and teeter as they form a human pyramid. There were several groups of high school age kids who erected such pyramids during brief stops during the parade. This year, many school groups performed one sort of an act or another, rather than just march with banners as they have in previous years.

The Conservatives, who lost the Reform War in 1861, then invited the French to invade Mexico in 1862 and install Ferdinand Maximilian as emperor. Maximilian's "empire" met bitter resistance and lasted only five years. Benito Juarez led the Liberal forces that finally expelled the invaders and re-established a republican form of government. The Catholic Church had backed the losing side in both the Reform War and the French Occupation and Juarez demanded that its political and economic power be broken. He and his Liberal supporters objected to the Church's control over a huge percentage of the nation's arable land and its domination of education in Mexico. 

Pretty pom pom girls strut their stuff before an appreciative audience. The crowd was thickening on each side of the cobblestone street. I had to duck and weave to get into position for good shots. A lot of others, expats and locals alike, were doing the same.  We tried--not always successfully--to keep out of each other's viewfinders.

Benito Juarez was a man of unshakeable integrity. Using lands seized from the Church, he hoped to create a large class of independent farmers on which to base a democratic society. Unfortunately, the ordinary people had little capital with which to buy the land, and the government desperately needed revenue from land sales to pay off the debt created by decades of war. Despite Juarez' good intentions, most of the Church land ended up in the hands of the hacendados and foreign investors. In addition, the indigenous people lost what little protection the Church had provided against hacendados who continued their arbitrary seizures of ancestral lands. Once again, the hopes of the common people for land reform and social change were dashed. Once again, the new boss bore a striking resemblance to the old one.

Hula hoop teams were a returning act from previous years. The kids don't twirl them around their waists like they did in my time. Rather, they move them in synchronized routines such as the one being performed above. My guess is that they don't call it a hula hoop either.

Juarez died in office in 1872, and was replaced by his Foreign Minister Lerdo de Tejeda. In the meantime, former General Porfirio Diaz had been maneuvering for power. Diaz had been a hero during the Reform War and the resistance against the French. He won many battles and created quite a name for himself. He was also very ambitious politically and, after the victory over the French, he led several unsuccessful revolts against Juarez. After Juarez died, Diaz continued to maneuver and eventually was elected President of Mexico in 1877. He remained in power for the next 35 years, either directly as president or by alternating with hand-picked successors. Diaz' years in power were known as the Porfiriato. During this time, he modernized many aspects of the economy. However, most of the benefits went to a handful of his political supporters and most of the costs of this wrenching change were borne by Mexico's industrial workers and peones (agricultural workers on haciendas).

This top hat drill was a new one. The serious faces and narrowed eyes are a result of the brilliant morning sun slanting directly into the marchers' eyes. The bright light created stark contrasts that are one of the banes of my photography. Fortunately, a lot of it can be corrected using the iPhoto program on my Mac computer.

During the Porfiriato, new railroads and telegraph lines criss-crossed the nation--but were largely owned by British and American companies. Wealthy Mexicans and foreigners invested heavily in mines and factories. This resulted in high levels of production, but the workers suffered from low wages and brutal working conditions. Agriculture improved in efficiency and cash crops like sugar, sisal, and agave flourished. However, Mexico's land was dominated by a hacienda system controlled by a small number of aristocratic families who made millions while their peones lived in poverty and illiteracy.

These little baton twirlers took their roles very seriously. They tried to follow the directions of their teacher but some, like the girl on the right, were distracted by the crowd. Proud parents lined the streets or followed along on the sidewalks to encourage their kids.

Diaz' strong rule provided the stability that enabled all this modernization and economic development. He threw open the doors to foreign investment and created laws to protect business. He aided the mine and factory owners by crushing strikes and suppressing labor organizing. Hacendados benefited when Diaz drastically expanded the Rurales (rural police). Their job was to stamp out banditry and to catch and return peones trying to escape debt slavery on the haciendas. Ironically, many of the bandits were former peones with few options other than banditry or a return to degradation on a hacienda. Famous Revolutionary General Pancho Villa was a former peon who had escaped into the mountains of Chihuahua to lead the life of a bandit after killing a local hacendado who had raped his sister.

Always, there were more drummers, creating an intense racket. These girls were a bit younger, but still wielded their drum sticks with vigor and authority.

Meanwhile, in between the clique around Diaz and the toiling masses below, a small professional class began to emerge. It was made up of doctors, lawyers, hacienda administrators, and middle managers needed by the wealthy classes to make things run. The professionals, along with some of the more forward-thinking elements among the hacendado and business classes, began to chafe under the Porfiriato. Most of them had no desire to change the basic structure of Mexican society, much less to initiate a broad social revolution. They simply hated the glass ceiling that separated them from the vast wealth and power accumulated by the Diaz clique. They thought the solution to their problem would be what people in the US now call "term limits." The theory was that if no one could be elected more than once, a strong man would not be able to maintain himself in power as Diaz had, through a series of rigged elections. The reformers called themselves Anti-reeleccionistas.

Revolutionaries too young to march rode the floats. Proud mothers created their childrens' costumes, often sewing them by hand. Mexican parents love their children deeply and it shines through, not only on these occasions, but in everyday life.

Diaz's strategy for keeping control over the restless middle class was called "plata o plomo" (silver or lead). If special favors (the silver) from the regime didn't bring you into line, an assassin's lead bullet might well be your fate. The Porfiriato was a police state operating behind a mask of "democratic elections" the results of which were never in doubt. Decade after decade, the Porfiriato rolled along, seemingly secure in its power. US and European investors prided themselves on their safe and lucrative holdings in stable, business-friendly Mexico. Unnoticed by them, or by most wealthy Mexicans, a vast upheaval was approaching. The more Diaz clamped the lid down on the boiling pot, the more the pressure built, and the longer it built, the more violent the social explosion was going to be.

Porfirio Diaz and his top-hatted cronies escort their fine ladies in the parade. Diaz liked to appear in photographs and portraits wearing uniforms encrusted with gold braid and medals. Others among the top levels of Mexican society aped the high fashions of Europe. During the Porfiriato, a newspaper cartoonist named Jose Guadalupe Posada began to satirize the pretensions of the newly rich by portraying them as skeletons wearing European finery. The figures in Posada's drawings came to be known as Catrinas. Versions of them are still wildly popular in Mexico, particularly during the annual fiesta known as Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

Among those who objected to Diaz' seemingly endless rule was Francisco Madero, a member of a wealthy family of hacendados from northern Mexico. He took up the Anti-reeleccionista cause as his platform when he ran against Diaz in the 1910 election. Although a member of the upper class, Madero gained support among ordinary Mexicans when he spoke out against the repression of labor unions and the enslavement of the indigenous Yaqui people who had been sent in chains to work on sisal haciendas in Yucatan. Diaz promptly imprisoned Madero, but the reformer escaped to the United States where he issued his Plan of San Luis Potosi. The Plan called for armed revolution and, among other things, for the restoration of lands stolen from indigenous people by hacendados. Madero set November 20, 1910 as the date for the uprising.

A dashing group of mounted Revolutionaries prepares to unleash their fury upon Diaz' forces. I thought the "horses" these kids were riding were particularly creative. By this time the kids had ridden their mounts quite a distance along the parade route. While they were still game for more, they were a bit tuckered.

Although the Revolution got a comic-opera start on November 20 when only 10 men showed up to meet Madero at the appointed place, things soon got underway. Over the first several months of 1911, uprisings broke out all over Mexico. The lid Diaz had held down so firmly, and for so long, finally blew off the boiling pot. People of all classes flocked to Madero's cause, but two of the most effective were Emiliano Zapata in the southern State of Morelos, and the bandit leader Pancho Villa from the northern State of Chihuahua.  

A handsome young Emiliano Zapata raises the red flag of revolt. Like this kid, Zapata was a flashy dresser who favored broad sombreros and dark, silver-bedecked charro outfits. The banner indicates the boy is from one of the local Jardines de Niños (kindergartens). 

Emiliano Zapata was not only a brilliant and aggressive military commander, he was also one of the Mexican Revolution's true social revolutionaries. He centered his operations in Morelos. Like hacendados elsewhere in Mexico, many in Morelos colluded with Diaz' officials to illegally seize the lands of mestizos and the indigenous communities. Zapata had led armed resistance against these land seizures since well before Madero arrived on the scene. His battle cry of "Tierra y Libertad!" (Land and Liberty) drew a fervent following among landless and dispossessed people. In the areas he controlled, he implemented a well-organized program of land reform and encouraged the development of democratic decision-making at the local level. Included in his program was compensation for lands that were taken from hacendados. While Zapata favored a general revolt against Diaz, he viewed Francisco Madero's promises of land reform with skepticism, especially given the northern reformer's hacendado background. Unfortunately, Zapata's skepticism proved well-founded.

A quartet of young soldaderas compares notes during a pause in the parade. Soldaderas were the women who went to war. They followed their soldier-husbands to gather firewood, set up camp, cook, and act as nurse in case of wounds or illness. After a battle, they scavenged the dead for weapons, ammunition, food, and other useful items. Particularly in the early days of the Revolution, armies on all sides lacked support services to perform these functions. As the war continued, more and more soldaderas picked up a rifle and joined the battle when their mates were wounded or killed. Some with strong leadership skills rose to the rank of colonel and commanded male units in combat. The clothing the girls in the photo wear appears historically accurate. Notice the two in the middle who wear their rebozos crossed over their chests. This mimics the crossed bandoliers (bullet belts) that the men wore and was the informal insignia of the soldaderas. Two of the girls carry dolls strapped to their backs, just as the original soldaderas carried their babies. 

Pancho Villa, operating in northern Mexico, launched slashing cavalry attacks on the federalist forces of Porfirio Diaz. Born José Doroteo Arango Arámbula, he adopted Pancho Villa as his bandit name and under it became famous as a Revolutionary general. He was born on the great Hacienda San Juan del Rio in Durango State. Francisco Madero was desperate for good leaders from whatever source and soon recruited Villa to the anti-Diaz cause. Villa remained steadfastly loyal to Madero until the latter's death.  

The crowd in the plaza became densely packed. You can see a scattering of expat faces in the milling throng. Despite the crush, people courteously stepped aside to allow me to photograph the parade. 

Despite his limited education and lack of formal military training, Pancho Villa's hard-hitting tactics led to many victories and he quickly rose to command an army known as the Division of the North. Newspapers grandly dubbed him the Centaur of the North, a reference to his dazzling horsemanship. His friends nicknamed him La Cucaracha (the Cockroach) and his soldiers sang a campfire song by the same name which is still famous. He broke up haciendas, distributed the land to the farm workers, and sometimes held the hacendados for ransom to raise money for this army. This gained him the undying hatred of the big landowners, but won the support of their peones. Unlike Zapata, Villa never developed a detailed social reform program of his own, but he did support Zapata's ideas.

One of the top-hat girls takes a break outside Ajijic's Delegación (city offices). The parade was at its height at this point, with masses of children stretching for blocks into the distance. Those who had completed the route chatted with friends or rested in the shade like this young woman.

After 35 years in power, Diaz and his clique had become complacent. His regime was like a great tree, seemingly strong, but rotten at the core and ready to fall if given a hard push. Uprisings sprouted all over the country. In the south, Emiliano Zapata had been leading a guerilla war even before November 20 and now he pushed northward toward Mexico City. In the north, Villa took Ciudad Juarez on the US border. This opened the floodgates for arms and supplies.  On May 25, 1911, only six months after the Revolution's outbreak, Porfirio Diaz resigned and sailed for France. Ironically, he would be the only major figure of the Revolution to die peacefully. In October, 1911, Madero was elected President of Mexico with 90% of the vote, the first honest election in more than three decades. That was when the trouble began.

A squad of police keeps a watchful eye for trouble. Armed and armored, the local police can use their powerful motorcycles to zip through traffic, down narrow alleys, and across open fields. Although they look pretty intimidating, they are friendly enough. 

Madero quickly lost the support of key allies like Zapata and Revolutionary General Pascual Orozco of Chihuahua when he failed to fulfill his promises of land reform. He foolishly allowed a Diaz loyalist to become interim president until the national elections, and left in place a national Congress that had been hand-picked by Diaz.  Once he was elected, Madero staffed his Cabinet with former Diaz supporters such as wealthy hacendado Venustiano Carranza, whom he appointed Minister of War. Madero turned to a former Diaz general named Victoriano Huerta to head the army. He apparently viewed these appointments as steps toward unifying the country. Instead, he alienated  his strongest supporters while surrounding himself with men who looked at him like a fox looks at an unwary chicken. Huerta was an especially disastrous choice. Within a short time the general was conspiring with US Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson to overthrow Madero and make Huerta president. Meanwhile Zapata went back to armed resistance and Orozco launched a revolt in Chihuahua.  

The Associación de Charros de Ajijic is an enthusiastic participant in most fiesta parades. Charros are Mexican cowboys who are highly skilled horsemen. The Charro Tradition in Mexico began in the State of Jalisco, but has its roots in Spain. The riders are noted for their elegant costumes which typically include a broad sombrero and tight, silver-bedecked jackets and pants. Their beautifully groomed horses are as skilled as their riders. The men above would have fit right in with Pancho Villa's cavalry.

Pancho Villa remained loyal to Madero, in good part because the new President had prevented Huerta from executing Villa on trumped up charges. Villa assisted in the defeat of Orozco's revolt, but he never fought against Zapata. The plotting between Huerta's clique and Ambassador Wilson continued. Their conspiracy resulted in La Decena Tragica (Ten Tragic Days) when, in February 1913, Huerta's forces staged a coup d'etat. A week later, Madero and Vice President Piño Suarez were summarily executed. Huerta appointed himself president, but his actions resulted in public outrage that was both national and international. Pancho Villa started a revolt in Chichuahua and joined forces with Zapata against Huerta. Newly elected US President Woodrow Wilson recalled Ambassador Wilson and refused to recognize the Huerta government.

Riding side saddle, women and girls participated in the Charro delegation. The Charros marched at the end of the parade, as they usually do. At first I didn't understand why, but then I reflected on the amount of poop that gets produced by a large troop of horses. The parade organizers clearly wanted to spare the children from having to march through it.

President Wilson kept the US border open for arms and supplies traveling south to Villa and the anti-Huerta forces. He also sent the US Navy to seize Vera Cruz, Mexico's main Gulf port, so that Huerta could not receive arms from Europe. Venustiano Carranza, the Minister of War under Madero, called for a nation-wide uprising against Huerta and was supported by other important Revolutionary generals including Álvaro Obregón, Emiliano Zapata, and Pancho Villa. While Obregón was a strong supporter of Carranza, Villa and Zapata did not trust the War Minister and supported him only as the lesser of two evils. Carranza and the other generals were collectively known as the Constitucionalistas because they held that Huerta had not assumed power legitimately under the Constitution of 1857. While Zapata fought Huerta's forces in the south of Mexico, Carranza, Obregón, and Villa moved down from the north. 

A Charro rides with his daughter on his lap. Kids learn to ride horses at an early age in these parts. Often I see youngsters hardly bigger than toddlers casually riding large horses through the streets, sometimes with no adults in sight.

Friction between Carranza and Villa grew. Carranza felt, with some justification, that Villa was undisciplined and insubordinate. Villa felt, with equal justification, that Carranza was deliberately favoring Obregón in his strategic decisions so as to limit Villa's opportunities for action (and for time in the limelight--this was a very political war). Ignoring Carranza's orders, Villa captured Zacatecas, an important silver mining center and a major source of Huerta's finances. Carranza, in turn, arranged that he and Obregón would reach Mexico City before Villa so that they could make a grand entrance. While the entry into Mexico City was dramatic, it was the taking of Zacatecas that broke the back of Huerta's resistance. Victoriano Huerta fled to Vera Cruz, then to Europe, and later died in a US jail.

Dancing horses are always a great favorite in Ajijic parades. The Charros train them to prance in time with the music played by the marching bands. Watching the local horses perform is one of Carole's favorite activities.

With Huerta gone, the Revolutionaries began to set up a new government at a Constitutional Convention in Aguascalientes. Neither Villa nor Zapata wanted to be President of Mexico but neither trusted Carranza, fearing he would be another Diaz. The Convention chose Eulalio Gutierrez as interim president and he was supported by Villa, Zapata, and many other important Revolutionaries. However, Carranza refused to accept Gutierrez as president and Obregón backed Carranza. If the first phase of the Revolution was the struggle against Diaz, and the second was the fight against the usurper Huerta, the third was the terrible civil war among the Revolutionary generals. Initially, the united forces of Villa and Zapata held the upper hand, and they entered Mexico City in triumph, forcing Carranza and Obregón to flee to Vera Cruz. However, Vera Cruz was a very important base for them because of the revenue from imports. It was also a key entry point for arms and supplies.

A rider and his son lead yet another proud delegation of Charros. The boy is now old enough to ride his own horse in the event, although his legs don't yet reach the stirrups.

Villa's troops were undisciplined and Mexico City's leaders soon encouraged him to leave. Zapata's forces, by contrast, were disciplined and very polite to local people, but Zapata was never very comfortable outside his home territory. The two armies separated, Zapata heading back toward his old stronghold of Morelos and Villa marching north. Álvaro Obregón was an excellent general and a shrewd tactician who carefully studied the lessons of  World War I, which had recently broken out in Europe. He realized that technological advances in artillery and the machine gun had changed the balance of war to favor the defense. Obregón used this knowledge to defeat Villa in a series of battles that are collectively known as the Battle of Celaya. US President Wilson, growing tired of the turmoil in Mexico, decided to recognize the Carranza government and cut off supplies to Villa. Angered, Villa attacked Columbus, New Mexico, and Wilson sent US General "Black Jack" Pershing into Mexico in pursuit. Villa ran circles around him until 1917 when the US entered World War I and Pershiing was forced to withdraw.

A solemn young soldadera is draped with bandoliers. Mexico's children have much better possibilities now than before the Revolution, but many still face large obstacles such as poverty and poor education.

Villa lacked supplies and, in Obregón, faced a general who was at least his equal. The Centaur of the North continued to lose battles and supporters and his army eventually dwindled to a few hundred men. Villa finally agreed to a deal with Carranza that allowed him to retire to a hacienda outside Parral, Chihuahua. He was assassinated in 1923, possibly on Obregón's orders, but just as possibly by his old enemies among the hacendados. Zapata had previously been assassinated in Morelos in 1919, on orders of Carranza. This left Carranza in the Presidency, with Obregón as his military chief. In 1920, Obregón rose against Carranza, forcing him to flee toward his old haven of Vera Cruz, but he was assassinated enroute. Obregón became President and served his full term--the first leader to do so since 1910. As president, he instituted a number of important labor reforms and radically overhauled Mexico's education system. However, he too was assassinated in 1928 after he had won a second election but before he could take office. The Revolution effectively came to an end with Obregón's victory over Carranza in 1920, although there were numerous aftershocks, including the Cristero War of 1926-29. A long and difficult decade had passed since it all began on November 20, 1910. While all the top leaders of the Revolution met violent ends, Mexico survived, even as it will survive the challenges of the present day. 

This concludes my posting on the Mexican Revolution and Ajijic's celebration of it. If you would like to leave a comment or ask a question, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Jim, just got home and my wife and I wanted to find out more about Ajijic. This is the first article I read and really enjoyed the way you interspersed the great pictures with the historical info.

  2. Jim, I am so amazed by your writing. I am Mexican but I have learned SO MUCH about my country with your blog. This is the first time I read it. I am very happy to have people like you in Ajijic that give good and accurate information about our history. Thank you very much for showing MEXICO to the world.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim