Mexican Revolution By Ruiz Tresgallo, Silvia

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REM1945-1
Published: 15/10/2018
Retrieved: 20 January 2019, from



The Mexican Revolution is considered one of the first social upheavals of the twentieth century. The military phase of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) started in 1910 with the insurrection led by Francisco I. Madero as a reaction to the politics of Porfirio Díaz. General Díaz had seized power in a coup in 1876 and was the president of Mexico for a three-decade period known as the Porfiriato (1876–1911). Díaz stabilized the country and inaugurated a period of modernization and economic growth. However, the cost of modernization was the use of brute force, the manipulation of elections, and the suppression of basic rights such as freedom of the press. In addition, only a select elite of mainly European descent, the hacendados, owned large estates, had access to education, and became wealthy, while the majority of Mexicans were landless, illiterate, and lived in utter poverty.

Francisco I. Madero, a wealthy landowner and businessman educated in Europe and the USA, was chosen as candidate for the Anti-Re-electionist party in order to bring democracy to Mexico. Díaz imprisoned him so that he would not be considered a candidate in the 1910 presidential elections. Soon after escaping to the US border, Madero realized the only way to defeat Díaz was to call his fellow Mexicans to arms. The revolution broke out on 20 November, and by the late spring of 1911, Pascual Orozco and Francisco Villa’s troops had captured Ciudad Juárez. Díaz could see this was the end of an era and consequently agreed to his resignation in the Treaty of Ciudad Juárez, sailing away to Europe afterwards. With Díaz out of the picture, León de la Barra became the interim president from May to November 1911.

When Madero arrived in Mexico, acclaimed by the multitudes, Emiliano Zapata was among those who witnessed his appearance. Zapata’s mission, as leader of the farming community of Anenecuilco (Morelos), was not only to overturn the disentailment (desamortización) of communal lands that had happened during the Porfiriato but also to return these lands to the peasant communities. Madero asked him for patience, since he wanted to carry out an agrarian reform democratically. Madero was elected president on 6 November 1911, but his democratic reforms were considered insufficient. Revolts and criticism started against the new government, and Madero was overthrown by a military coup in Mexico City on 9 February 1913. General Victoriano Huerta became the new president, while both Madero and his vice president José María Pino Suárez, were assassinated.

Revolutionary leaders did not accept Huerta’s dictatorship, because he imposed order at the expense of freedom. Coahuila’s governor, Venustiano Carranza, a passionate Madero supporter, rebelled against the new regime, finding support in the governors of Chihuahua and Sonora. Francisco (Pancho) Villa and Alvaro Obregón assumed the military leadership of the anti-Huerta movement in the north with the Plan de Guadalupe. In southern Mexico, Zapata rebelled against Huerta, because he did not believe lands were going to be returned to the villages of Morelos. Overwhelmed by the increasing power and victories of the Constitutionalists in the North and the Zapatistas in the South, as well as by the meddling of the USA, Huerta resigned on 8 July 1914.

The years after Huerta’s ouster were the most chaotic and close to anarchy of the revolution. In 1914, First Chief Venustiano Carranza extended an invitation to all revolutionary factions to attend the Military Convention of Aguascalientes. During the convention, there was an obvious animosity between the more moderate Carranzistas and Obregonistas, on the one side, and the more radical Zapatistas and Villistas, on the other side. Civil wars started, and Alvaro Obregón used the military strategies of the Frist World War to defeat Villa. Carranza, the First Chief of the Constitutionalist Army, assumed the presidency in 1917. The president sent troops to Morelos and took many Zapatista towns, killing thousands of innocent civilians. Carranza also commanded the killing of Emiliano Zapata, who died in 1919. In 1920, Alvaro Obregón declared himself in revolt, and Carranza fled the capital and was killed. More than a million people died or fled into exile during the Mexican Revolution. Women suffered enormously during this period, but they also had the opportunity to contribute to the revolutionary army as the famous soldaderas or Adelitas.

The Constructive Phase of the Revolution (1920–1940) started with the election of Alvaro Obregón as president of Mexico and the rebuilding of the country. Obregón won the election thanks to popular support, and he implemented the constitution as well as important domestic reforms. He is especially admired for creating the Ministry of Public Education and naming José de Vasconcelos to be Secretary of Education. This ministry expanded education to the rural areas and reconstructed national pride and identity through the arts. Another chapter of the revolution closed in 1923 when Pancho Villa was assassinated. With Zapata and Villa dead, the moderate side of the revolution was triumphant. After the liberal rule of General Plutarco Calles, the Cristero Rebellion, and the assassination of Obregón, came the election of Lázaro Cárdenas. President Cárdenas moved the revolution to the left, especially in terms of agrarian reform. By 1940, one-third of Mexicans had received land. Cárdenas distributed more land than all his predecessors combined, fulfilling a major promise of the revolution.

The end of the Mexican Revolution is still debatable. Some experts accept 1940 as the end date, while others consider the end to be the year 2000, when the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) lost the hegemony it had kept since 1929. The Mexican Revolution is still perceived by most Mexicans as an unfinished process that has not yet fulfilled the quest for modernity. On the one hand, Mexicans have yet to overcome the strong inequalities between social classes and races that ignited the Revolution. On the other hand, Zapata and Villa remain alive in popular memory and are recalled whenever anti-democratic practices are discussed.

The context in which Mexican artists worked changed radically in 1921 as a result of the Mexican Revolution. President Álvaro Obregón undertook a crusade to unite citizens with the new revolutionary regime through public education and the arts. The Secretary of Public Education, José Vasconcelos formed a network of artists who commissioned the creation of murals in public buildings. This generation of artists contemplated mural painting as a way to represent history and revolutionary ideals. However, the artistic proposals of this period were diverse. Mexican artists understood the popular struggle in various ways, either through a more utopian vision or through an approach to the naked violence of the revolutionary war. Likewise, there were works that alluded to the so-called “Mexican people” and that sought to register in a closer and more authentic way their traditions and daily life.

Mural painting may be the most significant art form of the Mexican Revolution, and was produced mainly by male artists. In 1921, Vasconcelos’ mural programme began with the decorations of Gerardo Murillo (“Dr Atl”) and Roberto Montenegro in the former temple of San Pedro y San Pablo, in addition to the works of Diego Rivera in the National Preparatory School. In 1922, The Syndicate of Workers, Technicians, Painters and Sculptors (Sindicato de Obreros Técnicos Pintores y Escultores—SOTPE) was founded. Rivera joined the Mexican Communist Party; and David Alfaro Siqueiros the following year. In 1924, SOTPE published El Machete, an illustrated political newspaper. Later, the publication became the diffusing organ of the Mexican Communist Party. Soon after, Plutarco Elías Calles replaced Obregón as president, and as a result of this political change, many of the muralists’ contracts were cancelled and the SOTPE was dissolved. The most important muralists of the Mexican Revolution are Gerardo Murillo, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, Rufino Tamayo, Roberto Montenegro, and Juan O’Gorman among others.

The legacy of women’s art, that emerged during and after the revolution is significant, though it has been obscured for many decades. Muralist and poet Aurora Reyes, for example, who painted her first mural Atentado a las maestras rurales (1936) in the Centro Escolar de la Revolución has been erased from most art history books. However, women’s artistic production during the revolution is finally becoming more visible, due to its indisputable quality and, in some cases, undeniable success. As an example, the painter María Izquierdo, appreciated at the time for her representations of surreal and abandoned landscapes, was invited by Frances Flynn Payne to show her work at the Arts Center Gallery in New York in 1930. She was the first Mexican artist to exhibit her paintings in the USA. In addition, some creators were ahead of their time. Carmen Mondragón, also known as Nahui Olin, was an avant-garde artist who experimented with a variety of genres such as poetry, literature, performance, music, and especially, painting. Being a unique artist, whose production was not fully understood, she has been largely forgotten in art history studies, and was only recently rescued in the exhibition ‘Nahui Olin. The Infinite Gaze’ at the Museo Nacional de Arte (México, 15 June 2018 to 9 September 2018). The first Professional Mexican Photographer, Lola Álvarez Bravo, created the Galería de Arte Contemporáneo in which maybe the most famous Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, exhibited her work. Kahlo has transcended her paintings—inspired in corporality, pain, and self-representation—to become a controversial figure whose unique looks have surpassed her time and place, to make her a symbol of both fashion and pop culture in a globalized world. Foreign artists who came to Mexico during the avant-garde period, fleeing the war in Europe, such as Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, due to the length of their residence in the country, can also be considered Mexican artists.

Literature can be divided into the so-called literature of the Mexican Revolution, and the later literature that represents this conflict. Literature of the Mexican Revolution is defined as the literary production created during the revolutionary process which involves the ideas that Mexico experienced between 1910 and 1920. The Mexican Revolution offers new ways to account for social issues, especially through short stories and novels. Among the topics included are the misery and hunger of the Mexican people as well as the particulars of the soldiers during the civil war. According to scholars and public alike, the most important novel of the period is Los de Abajo (1915) by Mariano Azuela, which denounces the complicity of intellectuals in the manipulation of commoners during the revolution. Other important narratives that belong to this period are La sombra del caudillo (1929) by Martín Luis Guzmán, Mi caballo, mi perro, y mi rifle (1936) by José Rubén Romero, and El Indio (1935) and Arrieros (1937) by Gregorio López y Fuentes. After the war, the Mexican Revolution keeps on being a topic included in important literary works such as La muerte de Artemio Cruz (1962) by Carlos Fuentes, Pedro Páramo (1955) by Juan Rulfo, Hasta no verte Jesús mío (1969) by Elena Poniatowska, Los recuerdos del porvenir (1963) by Elena Garro, and Entre Villa y una mujer desnuda (1993) by Sabina Berman. Recently, the graphic novel Pancho Villa toma Zacatecas (2013) by Paco Ignacio Taibo, adds spectacular images in black and white to the narrative of this epic battle that keeps on being recalled by present and future generations of Mexican writers.

Further reading

  • Beezley, W. H. and Meyer, M. C. (2010) The Oxford History of Mexico, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Gonzales, M. J. (2002) The Mexican Revolution 1910–1940, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

  • Meyer, M. C. and Sherman, W. L. (1983) The Course of Mexican History, New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Museo de Bellas Artes. Pinta la revolución.

  • Poniatowska, E. (2006) Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution. El Paso: Cinco Punto Press.

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Citing this article:

Ruiz Tresgallo, Silvia. "Mexican Revolution." The Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism. : Taylor and Francis, 2016. Date Accessed 20 Jan. 2019 doi:10.4324/9781135000356-REM1945-1

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