May 17, 2011

Pancho Villa: The Mexican Revolution

It is 1910 and the call goes out. Francisco I. Madero was rising an army and leading it against Mexico's long-term ruler, Porfirio Díaz. Madero was himself a wealthy landowner, one of the very class which benefitted so well under the president, but he was a idealist too. He could see that Mexico couldn't go on like this and his rhetoric espoused change.

He tried to run against the president, legally, in an election, but was jailed. Madero's supporters spoke out. Díaz was a dictator. The people were suffering in poverty. If he wouldn't leave office then there was only one course of action. Revolution! Revolution! Revolution!

Mexican Revolution
The Revolutionaries by David Alfaro Siqueiros

This wasn't the first uprising in Mexico. Before Díaz had become president, the jostling for power had been incessant. But it was the first serious challenge to him in a generation; and the ordinary people had not risen up in such numbers since the War of Independence. After thirty years of dispossession and fear of the police, they had had enough.

Up in the mountains of Chihuahua, another man, adept at reading the way the wind blew, watched the stirrings of revolution with interest. Pancho VillaFrancisco Villa had progressed through the ranks of Durango banditry and crossed the border into Chihuahua.

At 32 years old, he had become something of a folk hero. Stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, in the best traditions of Robin Hood; he was viewed widely as less of a bandit and more a force for justice and the fair redistribution of wealth. While the poor put in all of the hard work, the landowners took all of the benefits. Francisco Villa's gang were simply redressing the odds.

From Durango to Chihuahua, he was known fondly by a pet name for Francisco: Pancho. He couldn't starve. The poor fed him. If he rode through, then the pursuing police would find that no-one had seen a thing. He wasn't a blood-thirsty criminal, he was their Pancho. They loved him and they trusted him.

Thus, in these states, the Revolution wasn't particularly real, until the moment when Pancho Villa came down from the mountains and declared his intention to raise his own army in support of Madero. Then, and only then, did people in the haciendas put down their tools en masse. The División del Norte (Northern Division) of the Revolutionary Army was formed.

Mexican Revolution

It should be noted that Villa wasn't just influential in Northern Mexico. Over the border, in the USA, he was also largely viewed as one of the good guys. When he raised his own revolutionary army, many Americans took up their arms and raced to join him. There were so many, in fact, that Villa created a whole American squadron under the command of Capt. Tracey Richardson.

The rest of his vast army was largely made up of poverty-striken Mexican labourers. They were armed by sympathetic citizens of the USA or else they created their own weapons. Homemade cannons, guns and bayonets flooded into the battlefield. It wasn't just the men out there. Women and children also took up arms in their own defense. The surgency, under Villa, swept the board. Madero's army accepted them into their ranks gladly, though, in many ways, they had no choice in the matter!

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Click images for a larger view.

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Mexican RevolutionMexican Revolution

Fighting broke out throughout Mexico, though Villa's activities were restricted to the north. This fell quickly. Mexcali and Chihuahua City were soon in rebel hands. Then Pancho Villa's troops joined with Pascual Orozco's army to take Ciudad Juárez. This was significant. It meant that a city, bordering the USA, was now out of Díaz's control. Weaponry, from Mexico's northern neighbour, could flood unchecked into the country and provide the rebel army with even greater fire-power.

Moreover, Madero had escaped from prison and he was hiding in Texas. The taking of Ciudad Juárez, which borders the Texan city of El Paso, allowed Madero to just step back into Mexico and appeal directly to the Mexico people and their president.

Díaz was worried. Any fighting, in places like Ciudad Juárez, drew the risk of stray artillery injuring or killing Americans in El Paso. That might be all the excuse that the government of the USA needed to declare open war. The territorial desires of the USA had a strong precedent. During the past few decades, they had already taken northern California, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. It wasn't a huge stretch of the imagination to consider the loss of Baja California, Sonara, Chihuahua and Coahuila too.

Díaz did not want to be remembered as the president who had further lost parts of Mexico. He agreed to meet with Madero and sign a peace treaty. The Treaty of Ciudad Juárez was signed on May 21, 1911. Under the terms of it, Díaz was to step down and install Francisco León de la Barra as an interim president, until proper elections could be held. Díaz did just that, then fled to France. He was never to return to Mexico again.

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Revolutionary leaders, including Pancho Villa, after the signing of the Treaty of Ciudad Juárez

However, commentators at the time noted that, in the Treaty, Madero had not pressed for any of the reforms that had fuelled the ideology of this revolution. Where were the terms of 'free suffrage and no re-election'? Where were the land laws, which protected against just 5% of Mexicans lording it over the other 95%? In fact, the whole government was left intact, with just a new figurehead.

Some just assumed that Madero would change things once he was in power. They shook their heads over the fact that he didn't just assume control now, but that was all. It became academic shortly afterwards, when an election was held and Madero won a landslide victory. The revolution had been a success. Díaz was out and the self-proclaimed champion of the poor was in. Madero was president and the war was over. Hurrah!

Mexican Revolution

Mexican Revolution

Mexican Revolution

Pancho Villa had taken Ciudad Juárez with Pascual Orozco, but he didn't like the man. Something about him just rubbed Villa up the wrong way. With the onset of peace and the installation of Madero as president, Villa resigned his command as general. This doesn't mean that he lost his army. The people were there for him, not some distant politician. They might have largely returned to their homes, but Villa was still their general. He only had to give the call and they would rise again.

Fortunately, despite some unsettling signs, that didn't appear imminently necessary. Pancho Villa declared his intention to lead a quiet life. He would retire to the mountains, perhaps buy a hacienda of his own. In the meantime, he would make an honest woman of his girlfriend, Maria Luz Corral. They married, in Chihuahua, on May 29, 1911.

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Pancho Villa and Maria Luz Corral.

They thought it was all over, but the Mexican Revolution had only just begun.


  1. My great grandmother, Santos Villa Robles shared stories with me of her days being in Pancho Villa's revolutionary. There is a picture of her in a long white dress with two straps of belts with bullets across her chest. Where that picture is now , I wish I knew.

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    right away...

    (VIDEO) Have your ex CRAWLING back to you...?


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