In 1910, after almost four decades of authoritarian rule, Mexico found itself in one of the bloodiest conflicts in the country’s history: the Mexican Revolution. The war that ensued engulfed the country in years of turmoil and would dramatically change all aspects of life. And though it was the people that fought and delivered whatever changes were achieved, there were also key figures who shaped the landscape of the revolution. From the early stages of the revolution to the post-revolutionary society that followed the conflict, many important military, political, and social leaders emerged to drive the many factions toward their goals. Some of the largest factions included the maderistas, villistas, zapatistas and constitucionalistas. Other major groups were also in play, such as loyalists to the previous regime and external actors like the United States government.
1. The First Leader of the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero
The Mexican Revolution officially began on the 20th of November, after an attempt for fair and democratic elections had failed just months earlier. The date of the uprising was set by the Plan de San Luis, a revolutionary manifesto published by Francisco I. Madero. Though many didn’t heed the call at first, eventually, most of the country rose against the dictatorial regime.
Madero was a wealthy hacendando, a member of the landowning elite in Mexico. But he was also a staunch democrat who disagreed with Diaz’s regime policy of re-election and authoritative control of the government. He led the maderistas, a faction that believed in the toppling of Diaz, political reform, and broad social justice. Madero’s motto became a rallying call nationwide: sufragio efectivo, no reelección (effective suffrage, no re-election).
Unlike other more radical factions, the maderistas would only support moderate reforms since their main revolutionary aim was to return democracy to Mexico and not the dramatic transformation of the order of things. Such a stance would eventually lead to Madero’s fall when other revolutionaries rebelled against him when he failed to meet their demands as president. Left without real allies, he was betrayed by his own generals in a coup d’état known as la decena trágica.
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Although Madero became the face of the Mexican Revolution at the start of the conflict, he was not the first to oppose the Diaz regime or call for significant changes in the country. Before him came the Flores Magon brothers and their collaborators, a group of anarchists and radical liberals who are attributed with setting the scene for the revolution.
The so-called magonistas believed in self-emancipation and self-governance, stating that power should be abolished, not exercised. Likewise, popular uprisings, protests, and demonstrations preceded the revolution, notably in the mines of Cananea and Rio Blanco. These showings of discontent were quickly put off, but their appearance proves the changing sentiments within most of the population. Madero’s stage of the revolution represents a symbolic starting point for the transformation of the country. The Mexican Revolution rallied behind him, but it would inevitably transcend him.
2. & 3. The Dictator & the Usurper: Porfirio Diaz & Victoriano Huerta
Before Madero came Porfirio Diaz, the dictator that brought about or at least intensified most of the reasons for the eventual Mexican Revolution. The period known as el Porfiriato was an authoritarian and oppressive regime, albeit modernizing and economically successful too. Under Diaz, Mexico achieved industrialization after decades of failed or limited attempts, thrusting the country into a dramatic transformation. New nationwide railroads were built, major monuments were constructed, and the Mexican nation-state was consolidated.
Diaz was also known for his Pax Porfiriana, a decades-long period of peace, possible only with brute force and free use of the army. His rurales, one of the two armed government forces together with the federales, were famously used to suppress any kind of uprising from workers or peasants. The Diaz government also led an open ethnocide against the Yaqui people, as well as their deportation and enslavement in the haciendas of Yucatan.
Whatever progress came with the Diaz regime, it was at the expense of the popular classes, who were exploited and saw no major benefit to their own. The revolution began with the aim of toppling Diaz, but the underlying motivations of justice and fairness drove the conflict into something greater. On the 25th of May, 1911, Diaz resigned and soon left for exile to France.
4. The Usurper of the Mexican Revolution: Victoriano Huerta
After the overthrow of the Madero presidency, one of Diaz’s sympathizers came to power: Victoriano Huerta. Huerta had organized the coup alongside other Diaz loyalists and the United States ambassador, Henry Lane Wilson, in a conspiration later known as el Pacto de la Embajada. Huerta remained in power even after Diaz’s defeat and exile by changing sides once Madero’s victory became inevitable. An influential and commanding general, Madero needed Huerta as an ally within the army, as it was unknown whether the army’s loyalty remained with the previous government. Huerta seized power with the help of the Americans, but he was soon left without their support. He instead attempted to gain support from the British and French, siding with the economic interests of such countries in Mexico. His fall came after the rest of the revolutionaries rebelled against him and toppled him in 1915.
Next to Diaz and Huerta, a few other establishment figures sought to return the order of things in Mexico to one that resembled the status quo before the revolution. For example, Manuel Mondragón, Aureliano Blanquet, and Gregorio Ruiz. Among them stood two others: Bernardo Reyes and Felix Diaz, two loyalists of the Porfiriato, the latter being Porfirio Diaz’s nephew. These men would become active counterrevolutionaries, stirring conflict and opposing every new government throughout most of the revolution.
5. The Robin Hood of the Mexican Revolution: Francisco Villa
When Madero called for an uprising in 1910, a number of caudillos rose in their regions and joined the revolution. The caudillos were powerful men who held important influence in their respective regions, similar to warlords or strongmen. Two men gained an important following with their uprisings: Francisco Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Both became known for their advocacy for the popular classes.
Francisco Villa rose in the state of Chihuahua, in the north of the country. He was a charismatic bandit who believed in land reform. He originally sided with Madero, but he became disappointed with the president’s inability to deliver change and the demands made by the revolution. Nevertheless, Villa fought on the side of Madero when a fellow caudillo, Pascual Orozco, rebelled against him. Villa fought next to Huerta, but tensions between the two drove Huerta to try to execute Villa. Villa’s life was saved by Madero, but he was imprisoned for his actions. When Huerta overthrew Madero, Villa sided with the constitutionalists and fought against the usurper.
Villa’s volatility often led him to unnecessary conflict. Famously, after Villa’s attack on Columbus, the United States responded with a punitive expedition into Mexico, looking for Villa. Villa was never found, and the expedition was ultimately a failure. In the later stages of the revolution, Villa allied with Zapata against the constitutionalist government. They were both eventually defeated, but Villa was allowed to retire and was given an hacienda in the state of Chihuahua. He was assassinated in 1923, most likely by his political enemies, Alvaro Obregon and Plutarco Elias Calles.
6. “El Caudillo del Sur”: Emiliano Zapata
Emiliano Zapata is quite possibly one of the most recognizable and transcending figures of the revolution. His character continues to be a revolutionary invocation, even giving the name to a more recent uprising with the “Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional” in southern Mexico. Though born into a moderately well-off family from Morelos —nowhere near as privileged as Madero or other of the caudillos— Zapata’s humble upbringing and closeness to other disadvantaged people motivated him towards ideals of change and justice.
Zapata didn’t lead the uprising from Morelos at the start, but he quickly became its leader after gaining the trust of the people. He went on to receive many nicknames: the Southern Caudillo, the Attila of the South, among others. His figure was highly controversial as he was more on the radical side of the revolution, believing in more dramatic changes and policies, unlike more moderate figures like Madero or Carranza.
The Army of the South, commanded by Zapata, was neither crucial nor useless for the success of the revolution in the national stage, but his movement in state of Morelos and the surrounding regions became a clear example of a radical stronghold which was decided in defending their ideals and struggles even if it came to force and opposition to others who were once allies.
7. “El Primer Jefe”: Venustiano Carranza
Once a loyal man to Diaz, Venustiano Carranza went on to disagree and later oppose in arms to the regime, when he lost Diaz’s favor and realized he was better off siding with Madero. And though his motivations for siding with the maderistas were certainly more complex, Carranza was a first a politician and a businessman, not a military man, hence his careful calculations.
The Huerta regime soon became a rallying call for all the revolutionaries, who left no time to mourn the death of Madero, but instead chose to rise in arms against the usurper. Carranza proclaimed the “Plan de Guadalupe,” which denounced Huerta’s authority and rose in open rebellion against his government with Carranza as the First Chief of the new army: the constitutionalists, named after their belief in the restoration of the democratic order of the Constitution of 1857. Most revolutionaries sided with the uprising and together defeated Huerta.
Carranza went on to become president, but he faced opposition first from the convencionistas, the combined factions of the Villistas and Zapatistas who fundamentally disagreed with Carranza’s ideas and rise to power. Then, he faced opposition from within his faction, eventually costing him his life.
8. “El Manco de Celaya”: Álvaro Obregon
Another leader of the constitutionalists was Alvaro Obregon, a politician from the northern state of Sonora. Obregon first became farmer but soon got his start in politics. When the revolution started, he sided with the maderistas and supported Madero all throughout his administration. When Huerta seized power, Obregon joined Carranza in a rebellion against the usurper.
The constitutionalists, together with the Villistas and Zapatistas, were able to defeat the new regime. Nevertheless, the common front that formed in opposition to Huerta soon broke apart, when the Villistas and Zapatistas rebelled against the new government formed by Carranza. Obregon then became the main military leader, after Carranza, in charge of dealing with the newborn faction war. Obregon’s military leadership proved effective, defeating the Villistas after a difficult series of clashes in the Battle of Celaya that would go on to cost Obregon his right arm, thus receiving the nickname, “the One-Armed Man of Celaya.”
With the Villistas defeated and the Zapatistas sent back to their stronghold in Morelos, the constitutionalists consolidated power for their own. But peace was short-lasting. After naming an unknown diplomat as his successor, Carranza angered Obregon who had ambitions of becoming president after him. Thus, the constitutionalists faced their own split, with Obregon and Calles opposing Carranza, who was eventually killed when fleeing to Veracruz from Mexico City. Obregon rose to the presidency and even chose to later run for re-election, which was seen with great judgement. Nevertheless, shortly after winning his second non-consecutive term in 1928, Obregon was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic who opposed the previous government under Calles.
9. “El Jefe Máximo”: Plutarco Elias Calles
There is no official date for the end of the Mexican Revolution, but the presidency of Plutarco Elias Calles can be seen as a symbolic one if nothing else. Calles was one of Obregon’s closest allies throughout the revolution. Though a military man like Obregon, Calles’ true skill came in the shape of his political savviness. Born into a privileged family with an existing proximity to power, Calles learned his way through politics from a very young age. When the revolution broke out, Calles sided with the maderistas and remained loyal to them despite the uprisings against Madero. Once Madero was overthrown, Calles went with the constitutionalists, with which he remained until he and Obregon betrayed Carranza.
In a speech delivered to Congress during his presidency, Calles proclaimed the end of the times of the caudillos and the beginning of the time of institutions. Ironically, Calles became a caudillo of his own, by consolidating power around him and centralizing the Mexican government’s authority in the executive. He is normally held responsible for the outbreak of the Cristero War, a religious rebellion where Catholics opposed the secular Calles’ government which was antagonistic to the Catholic Church.
Calles also founded the National Revolutionary Party (PNR in Spanish), which went on to become the sole governing party in Mexico for over 70 uninterrupted years. Although driven by his political ambitions, Calles never ran for a second term, respecting anti-re-election sentiments and legislation in the country. Instead, Calles became a puppeteer, ruling over the country through submissive and obeying presidents through a period known as “El Maximato,” named after his sobriquet, “El Jefe Máximo de la Revolución.” Calle’s power would ultimately fade when thought-to-be loyalist Lazaro Cardenas was elected as president and drove Calles into exile, fearing he would challenge his authority.