Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2013
Born February 19, 1880 on the Hacienda Siquisiva in in the
municipio of Navojoa, Sonora, he attended school in Huatabampo and in Alamos.
Although he taught primary school for a time, he was a very successful chickpea
(garbanzo) farmer until the age of 30 at which time he began to involved
himself in politics as well. Much of
his success came from applying scientific principles and imagination to his
farming. This intelligence and his formidable memory would also help him
become the finest general in Mexican history and one of its outstanding
In 1910, Francisco I. Madero had sparked a revolt against Porfirio Díaz and Benjamin Hill, nephew and friend of Obregón, became an ardent supporter of Madero. Obregón initially was not concerned with national politics. As a widower with two children, he believed that his first obligations were to his family and the community in which they lived. His first political job was being president of the municipio of Huatabampo, having been appointed by his brother José, a local cacique (leader). Obregón led a small army against the invasion of Sonora by Pascual Orozco in 1912, serving as a lieutenant colonel. When Victoriano Huerta ousted Madero in 1913 and had him murdered, Sonora rebelled and Obregón joined the resistance. He was friends with Mayo Indians and Yaqui Indians and spoke their language. He began recruiting them into an army; they would form an integral part of his command thereafter. He proved to be an effective military commander as well as an effective politician. By June, 1914, Venustiano Carranza, First Chief of the Constitutionalist Armies, promoted him to General of Division. He commander the Army of the Northwest.
After Huerta's fall and exile in 1914, Carranza, Pancho Villa, and Emiliano Zapata vied for power; Obregón backed Carranza. He did not like Villa but respected Zapata although he disagreed with him. At the Convention of Aguascalientes, he spoke on Carranza's behalf. When the Convention repudiated Carranza, Obregón fought Villa at the battles of Trinidad, León y Celaya. He lost an arm at the battle of Santa Ana del Conde and almost committed suicide. In the fight against Villa, who liked to use mass cavalry charges, Obregón used trenches, barbed wire, and machine guns, techniques he learned from reading new of World War I. He forged a disciplined army and beat Villa down to the status of a nuisance.
Villa respected Obregón's courage. When Obregón had gone to Chihuahua to lobby for Carranza, Villa ordered him shot by a firing squad. Obregón calmly replied that Villa would be doing him a favor because Villa would be making a martyr of him. While waiting to be shot, Obregón calmly played cards, reciting the sequence of cards played after a game. His memory and concentration astounded his capturers. Villa relented and let him leave. Obregón made it back to Mexico City even though Villa changed his mind twice.
When Carranza began President of the Republic, Obregón became his Secretary of War. He was a Carranza delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1919 in Querétaro but quietly broke ranks when the Convention adopted liberal and radical articles which Carranza did not want. Obregón kept quiet but encouraged the leftists. After the Constitution was promulgated in 1917, Obregón returned to private life in Sonora where he had a large farm and several businesses. He was disassociating himself from the conservative Carranza but had not yet decided to challenge him. He cultivated friends and associates such as General Benjamin Hill, Plutarco Elías Calles, Adolfo de la Huerta, Woodrow Wilson, labor leaders, and agrarian leaders. In 1919, he announced his candidacy for the presidency. He had carefully paved the way.
Carranza erred in trying to impose as president Ignacio Bonillas, an engineer who was so close to the United States that he was jokingly referred to as "Meester Bonillas, " instead of Obregón in 1920. The Sonora group--Obregón, Calles, de la Huerta, Hill--overthrew him and he was shot while trying to flee to Veracruz. Elections were held and, of course, Obregón won.
The United States refused to recognize Obregon's government, for, since Woodrow Wilson in 1913, it had arrogated to itself the right to decide when foreign governments were "proper." Although non-recognition was intervention in Mexican affairs, Obregón swallowed his resentment. He needed recognition to avoid the belief among domestic opponents that revolt might be supported by Washington; and he needed it internationally for credits to rebuild war-wrecked Mexico.
Obregón tried to reassure the United States with promises, but Washington feared any Mexican agreement less binding than a treaty, possibly overestimating the inviolability of the latter. Obregón in 1921 and 1922 had the Mexican Supreme Court declare that if the owners of oil leases had performed a "positive act" to develop their properties before the constitution went into force, they were ensured possession. The smaller oil companies and other business interests were largely in favor of acceptance of this assurance, but the State Department held out.
The problem was then taken to the Bucareli Conference in Mexico City, May-August 1923. Agreements were reached on a number of matters unrelated to oil, and on the latter Mexico offered a "gentleman's agreement" to adhere to the doctrine of positive acts. With that, the United States recognized the Obregón government. Mexico, of course, considered that it had been coerced, yet it was a good guess that some future government would argue that such an agreement need not be honored.
Although the Bucareli agreements helped secure a friendly U.S. government attitude during the Adolfo de la Huerta rebellion in the winter of 1923-1924, the leaders of the Mexican Revolution perceived significant American business support for the conservatives supporting the rebellion. The nationalistic distaste of the leaders of the Revolutionary faction for foreign business thus was further stimulated.
Obregón kept peace among revolutionary cliques. Adamantly against implementation of agrarian provisions of constitution because it would hurt production. He negotiated the Bucareli Agreements (1923) over the retroactivity of implementing constitutional provision with regard to alien [read American] property. These were "gentlemen's agreements," not binding treaties. Obregón started out using CROM as a political support but switched to the Agrarian Party led by Díaz Soto y Gama, thus creating competition. He caused a division among his opponents. There was always a lot more talk than action about the Revolution. At times, this talk seemed to be encouraged by the government. Obregón set up National Agrarian Commission, but he had no money. There was corruption in the agrarian reform program. Obregón redistributed about three million acres of land.
Obregón was a strong believer in education. He appointed José Vasconcelos as Secretary of Public Education. Vasconcelos dramatized the need for education. Obregón, with Vasconcelos, started the Cultural Mission program to teach literacy and other basic skills. He promoted nationalism. Vasconcelos was one of Mexico's leading intellectuals. He required the reading of the classics in schools. He was proud of Mexico's Spanish past, but he also wanted Mexicans to be proud.
He was a good speaker who used humor to his advantage. He joked that he did not know a Mexican general who could withstand a cannonade of 50,000 silver pesos. As for himself, he explained that the way the doctors had found his arm among all the body parts when it was blown off in the battle of Santa Ana del Conde, they threw a silver peso into the air and his arm reached up and caught it.
He was not a man to offend or trifle with. He had a bad temper and one could die for having crossed him. He demanded loyalty and got it from persons of all political stripes and in all kinds of occupations.
In 1927, he decided that he wanted to be president again, succeeding Calles. They had to get the constitution amended to allow reelection, for one Revolutionary slogan had been "Effective Suffrage, No Re-Election!" Obregón was so popular and powerful that he easily won.
On July 7, 1928, he joined friends in a celebratory banquet in the restaurant La Bombilla in the San Angel district in the southern part of Mexico City. A young man, José León Toral, circulated among the attendees, drawing sketches of them. When he reached president-elect Obregón, he shot him dead. He had done it to avenge the executions of fellow Catholic fanatics.
The best work on Obregón in English is Linda B. Hall, Alvaro Obregón: Power and Revolution in Mexico, 1911-1920.