The Mexican Revolution: Bloodshed and Transformation

The Mexican Revolution was the first major revolution of the 20th century. Its impact is still felt across much of Mexico to this very day.

Dec 19, 2022By Francisco Perpuli, BA History (in progress)
madero enters mexico city
Retablo de la Revolución (Sufragio efectivo no reelección) by Juan O’Gorman, 1968, via Gobierno de México, Ciudad de México


The 20th century saw the outbreak and success of many political, social, and cultural revolutions throughout the world. For example, the Russian Revolution, and the Chinese Revolution. The world witnessed a dramatic change in the power dynamics between classes and peoples. All these conflicts led to consequential changes that can still be felt to this day, but one set the ball rolling: the Mexican Revolution.


Lasting about a decade, the Mexican Revolution was a major political, economical, social, and cultural conflict that had been brewing for many decades. Prefaced by el porfiriato, a 35 year-long dictatorship under the rule of Porfirio Diaz, the growing inequalities in the country, combined with years of oppression and exploitation lead the majority of Mexico to bring forth the downfall of the Diaz regime. Nevertheless, when demands from revolutionaries around Mexico weren’t met by the new government, a civil war broke out, sending the nation into a conflict of bloodshed. Though the overall success of the revolution is questioned, the conflict was nonetheless transformative.


El Porfiriato: Prelude to the Mexican Revolution

porfirismo mural siqueiros
Del Porfirismo a la Revolución by David Alfaro Siqueiros, 1957, via UNAM, Mexico City


Mexico saw a first one hundred years of independence surrounded by war, crises, and turmoil. During the first half of the 19th century, the country underwent several major conflicts, from the war for independence to the Mexican-American War. The second half of the century found itself equally violent and chaotic. The Reform War, the Second French Intervention, the Second Mexican Empire, and the restauration of the republic were all major events in the nation that had a significant impact on its future.


In this context, a figure emerged that would forever change the country: Porfirio Diaz. A military leader and hero from previous wars, Diaz got his start in politics as a pragmatist and open critic. He rose to power after a rebellion he orchestrated in opposition to the Liberal administration of the time. Calling for elections, Diaz was first elected in 1877. He would later be recognized by the United States after reaching an agreement over claims both nations had from previous conflicts.


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Diaz’s administration was originally nothing out of the ordinary. Internal conflicts still had a grip on the nation and little progress was made on any front. Nevertheless, after a strict policy for pacification and a focus on attracting foreign investors, Mexico started industrializing and achieving economic success. The benefits, however, came only for a few. Most of the country saw no greater good, with many having been stripped of their own lands, both before Diaz and during his rule. Countless infamous things came out or worsened with Diaz. But regardless, Diaz’s tight grip over the country and his achievement of so far unseen levels of peace allowed him to remain in power for decades. Eventually, after the country grew weary of Diaz, his re-election was challenged.


The Outbreak of the Mexican Revolution & the Madero Presidency

madero arrival after victory
La entrada de Francisco I. Madero en la ciudad de México by Leopoldo Méndez, ca. 1950, via Galerie La Belle Epoque


Diaz allowed political opponent Francisco Madero to run for the presidency in the 1910 elections. A landowner elite like Diaz, Madero held similar convictions to the dictator. He was, however, in favor of democratic reform and strictly against re-election. His famous motto “sufragio efectivo, no reeleccion” called for fair elections and the rejection of re-elections. Diaz was positive that the elites in the nation would ultimately favor him over Madero. Becoming unsure, Diaz jailed Madero and went on to win “almost unanimously.” On October 5th of the same year, having fled to the United States after his release, Madero published the Plan of San Luis, a political manifesto that called on the Mexican nation to revolt against Diaz on the 20th of November.


Madero’s call was a success: the Mexican Revolution had begun. Dozens of uprisings took Diaz by surprise. The states of Chihuahua, Durango, Coahuila, San Luis Potosi, and Morelos rose in revolt, with many others quickly following. In May of 1911, after dealing a major blow to the federal army with the capture of Ciudad Juarez, Diaz accepted his defeat and resigned from the presidency. In November, Madero became president, and the el porfiriato regime officially ended.


Though the changes brought by Madero were important, most of the main demands from the classes were not met. On the 27th of November, after failing to reach an agreement with the presidency, Emiliano Zapata and his faction declared el Plan de Ayala, denouncing Madero for failing to commit to progress. Zapata’s wing of the revolution was the one most closely related to the struggles of the lower classes. A worker of an hacienda himself, though a privileged one, Zapata became the leader of the “Army of the South.” Other revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries also rose against Madero, sending the country into chaos.


The Overthrow of Madero & the Huerta Regime

victoriano huerta and his cabinet
Huerta & cabinet by Bain News Service, ca. 1910, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


The fall of Madero would ultimately come not from the revolutionaries but from an insider’s coup d’état aided by the United States’ ambassador in Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson. After a failed attempt on the presidency by conspirators loyal to Reyes and Diaz, Victoriano Huerta, who was left in charge by Madero to deal with the attacks, was accused by Madero’s brother and close ally Gustavo that Huerta had intentionally hindered with the offensive against the usurpers. Madero chastised Gustavo and brought Huerta back on his side, but he immediately worked fast to get rid of the president.


Huerta signed the Pact of the Embassy together with the ambassador Wilson and Felix Diaz. The plan stated that Huerta would remove Madero and seize the presidency provisionally until Felix Diaz could be elected president. On the 18th of February, the same day the pact was signed, the president and the vice president were arrested. The next day Huerta was declared interim president. On the 22nd, Madero and the vice president were assassinated before completing the transfer to a federal penitentiary. Madero’s presidency lasted only 15 months, meanwhile, Huerta’s rule would last 17 months.


Initially, Huerta had support from the US government, but this quickly changed once Woodrow Wilson assumed the presidency. Only a few days after Huerta rose to power support from the US was pulled and the regime was left without important allies. Nevertheless, Huerta soon rallied around British interests in Mexico and found himself a new ally after ceding to the foreign petroleum companies in the country. Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, soon after the presidency was usurped, the revolutionaries who stood against Diaz were rising once more with the Plan de Guadalupe, denouncing Huerta and calling for his dismissal.


Civil War & Victory of the Constitutionalists

pancho villa and emiliano zapata
Villa en la silla presidencial by Agustín Víctor Casasola, via El Universal


The Huerta regime represented a return to the politics of Diaz. Furthermore, his willingness to submit to foreign powers merely for the benefit of his own cause was badly seen by the other revolutionaries. As a reaction, in Coahuila, a northern state, the constitutionalist army is formed under the command of Venustiano Carranza, who previously fought for the Madero side during the first of the revolution. Carranza, who named himself Chief of the Constitutionalist Army, was joined by fellow revolutionaries in the north, particularly Francisco Villa. Meanwhile, in the center and south of the country, fights of their own continued to happen against Huerta and the status quo in general.


Eventually, the constitutionalists were able to defeat the federal army battle after battle. Huerta’s regime became even more challenged when the United States carried out its second intervention after the Mexican-American War, when it took the port of Veracruz and attempted to take the port of Tampico. In time, the regime would crumble. After the capture of Zacatecas and the victory of the constitutionalists in Guadalajara, Huerta was left with no choice other than resign and go on exile. On the 20th of August 1914, Carranza and his army entered Mexico City, signaling a victory of the constitutionalists.


Soon after, conflict grew once more between the revolutionaries. A convention was called by Carranza to establish a revolutionary agenda to which all factions subscribed. Nevertheless, when the Villistas and Zapatistas failed to attend, Carranza left and the convention moved to Aguascalientes, where the other factions attended and agreed to oppose Carranza. The ensuing fight, however, was lost by the convencionistas. Instead, the constitutionalists affirmed their dominance over the country and called for a constitutional congress, which in 1917 promulgated a new constitution.


The Revolution Continues: The Aftermath of War of Factions

La Constitución de 1917 by Jorge González Camarena, 1967, via Gobierno de México Ciudad de México


The victory of the constitutionalists came with fragmentation of the other revolutionaries. Villa retreated back to Chihuahua and Zapata to Morelos, both being eventually assassinated. Villa was killed in 1923, even after having reached an agreement with the constitutionalists to retire to normal life and being granted an of his own. The reasons and people behind his assassination are still largely unattributed. Zapata, on the other hand, was cowardly assassinated by Carranza’s men after being deceived by one of the constitutionalists colonels.


Carranza’s faction also became fragmented. The successor of the presidency favored by Carranza was a civilian diplomat called Ignacio Bonillas. Obregon, a close ally of Carranza who had been one of the main generals responsible for the constitutionalists’ victories, had envisioned himself as president. When Carranza accused of conspiring for the position, both sides broke apart and became hostile between each other. On the 21st of May 1920, after an ambush by Obregon’s forces during Carranza’s escape towards Veracruz from Mexico City, the former leader of the constitutional army was killed.


After the assassination of Carranza and the defeat of the constitutionalists, Obregon’s faction successfully rose to power. Adolfo de la Huerta, a close ally of Obregon, was declared interim president by congress in June of 1920. In December of the same year, elections were called, and Obregon was declared winner. Governing from 1920 to 1924, Obregon continued the pacification process started by his predecessor. He also followed through with the redistribution of lands and began to focus more on rebuilding the nation’s institutions. Foreign relations with the United States also started to become more stable, after giving in into the American interests through the Treaty of Bucareli.


Final Stages of the Mexican Revolution

president alvaro obregon
[President Alvaro Obregon] by Unknown, ca. 1920, via UNAM, Ciudad de México

In 1924, presidential succession was once more a matter of conflict. De la Huerta rebelled against the government after not being considered the favorite for succession by the president. The uprising ultimately failed, and De la Huerta was exiled. Instead, Plutarco Elias Calles, Obregon’s right-hand man, went on to become president. His administration marked a symbolic end to the revolution, declaring once in a speech that the time of the caudillos —the revolutionary leaders or warlords who had defined the conflict years prior— was over, and the time of institutions had begun. This leadership, however, was not without struggles. His explicit antagonism towards the Catholic Church led to the Cristero War, a religious armed uprising that took place mainly in the western states of Mexico. The conflict even led to the assassination of Obregon by a catholic fanatic after the former president had been re-elected for a second term.


Nevertheless, the revolution was no longer what it had been a decade earlier. Calles came to be known as the Jefe Maximo de la Revolucion, or the Supreme Leader of the Revolution, and would rule as puppeteer over a period known as the maximato. He would also go on to found the National Revolutionary Party, which in time would become the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, a party that would govern without interruption for over 70 years.


madero enters mexico city
Retablo de la Revolución (Sufragio efectivo no reelección) by Juan O’Gorman, 1968, via Gobierno de México, Ciudad de México


All in all, the Mexican Revolution was a conflict that transformed the modern landscape of society that, to this day, remains relevant to understand the intricacies of Mexican history. Though the changes brought forward by the revolution can compare more to significant reforms and not the dramatic structural changes achieved in other parts of the world, the Mexican Revolution still changed Mexico, and according to some, still changes the country even now.

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By Francisco PerpuliBA History (in progress)Francisco is completing a History degree at the University of Guadalajara. He has a keen interest in the study of culture and the arts. In his spare time, he tries to explore and develop other interests while saving up to travel the world.