20th Century Mexico by Chris Michael Ratliff
By the end of the 1800's Mexico was still under the rule of one of history's longest
running dictators, Porfirio Díaz. While Díaz may have brought modernization of sorts to
Mexico, the revolution that would oust him, the first social revolution of the twentieth
century, would usher in the new age.
Despite the mask of modernization during Díaz's rule, by 1910 the average Mexican was
worse off than in 1810. While foreigners owned many of the factories, transportation
systems, and mines, most of Mexican land was owned by a few Mexican families. Some owned
land the size of small countries. Mexicans worked for these foreigners and land owners
under paltry conditions. Malnourished, underpaid, overworked, and impoverished, the people
of Mexico badly needed change.
The first signs of unrest came through labor unrest. In 1906, at Colonel William
Green's Cananea Consolidated Copper Company, Mexican workers struck over unfair wages and
conditions. Arizona Rangers were called in and given power by Mexican officials to
suppress the workers, showing Díaz's willingness to give foreigners power over Mexicans.
A second strike at the Rio Blanco textile mills, in 1907, resulted in Federal troops
firing point blank into a crowd of striking workers, killing over a hundred men, women,
In 1904, three Mexico exiles, the Flores Mag´on brothers and Camilo Arriaga
publish REGENERACION, attacking Díaz's regime. After being jailed, they went to
the U.S. to publish REGENERACION. During a 1908 interview, Díaz announced he would
not seek re-election in 1910 and he would welcome opposition. This announcement led to
heightened political activities among liberals. The Anti Re-electionist party candidate,
Francisco Madero, supported a democracy. He was from a wealthy land-holding family and was
an early supporter of REGENERACION. On Election Day Díaz had Madero imprisoned,
Díaz was re-elected and Madero escaped to the U.S.
While in exile Madero and his supporters drafted a plan that called for all Mexicans to
rise up in revolt on November 20, 1910. Madero made himself President. The revolution
didn't exactly begin on that date but soon afterwards uprisings grew until the whole
country was in revolt. The turning point in the revolt against Díaz happened on May 13,
1911 when revolutionary generals Pascaul Orozco and Pancho Villa captured Ciudad Juárez,
twelve days later Díaz resigned and fled the country. Following Díaz' departure Madero
won a new election and tried to instill democracy to Mexico.
In 1911, revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata issued his Plan de Ayala in response to
Madero's disappointing reforms. The Zapatistas wanted agrarian reforms, and soon began an
armed struggle against the government. By 1913, Mexico City was surrounded by rebel
forces. Madero was betrayed by one of his generals, Victoriano Huerta. Huerta ordered the
murder of Madero and became dictator. Opposed to Huerta was the Constitutionalists to the
north and the Zapatistas to the south. The years 1913-14 showed an escalation in the
The events that led to Huerta's overthrow in 1914, was started when U.S. president
Wilson sent marines into Veracruz to occupy the city. While Huerta sent troops as a show
of force, rebel forces quickly filled the vacuum left by federal troops. By July, Huerta
had resigned. Venustiano Carranza of the Constitutionalist party filled the role of First
chief after Huerta's overthrow. His bitter enemies were the Zapatistas and the Villistas.
During 1916, Pancho Villa raided some U.S. border towns, provoking the U.S. to send Gen.
Pershing into Mexico to pursue Villa, but never finding the Mexican general.
In 1917, the revolutionary leaders drew up their constitution, it would be a radical
constitution for its day. It strongly supported labor unions, socialized property,
contained strong anti-clerical measures, and was extremely nationalistic in nature.
Carranza reluctantly accepted it. Carranza didn't enforce the constitution; in fact, he
distributed a very small amount of land and was slow toward social reform. His reform
record was purposely lower than his hated enemy and predecessor, Huerta. The end of the
armed struggle happened soon after Carranza had Zapata killed in 1919. In 1920 Alvaro
Obregón revolted against Carranza and overthrew him. Villa made peace with the government
and retired. Obregón started to implement the constitution; he spent more for education
than any of his predecessor. Obregón favored CROM, the national labor union, and its
leader Luis Morones, but not radical labor unions. The 1924 election brought Plutarco
Calles to power. Calles was anti-clerical, so much so he closed many church institutions,
deported priests. Whereupon the Church declared a strike , thus starting the Cristero
Rebellion. Catholic rebels, the Cristeros, attacked government forces, they destroyed
government property such as schools. By 1929 a compromise was reached.
In July 1928, Obregón won re-election, but before he could retain office, he was
assassinated by a Catholic fanatic. Afterwards Calles pulled strings for three puppet
presidents. By 1929 Calles had organized the PNR (Partido National Revolucionario), now
the PRI (Partido National Institucional). Mexico's government shifted to the right under
Calles' puppets and progressive changes slowed until Cárdenas took office in 1934. The
PRI can be seen as a coalition of centrist parties rather than one political party. From
1929-87, the PRI , organized by occupational sectors, contained the left, right, and
Cárdenas was a left-wing president; he distributed more land than any of his
predecessor sand he was very much pro-labor, but his greatest triumph was the
nationalization of Mexican oil companies. Since oil was first discovered in Mexico,
foreigners, specifically American and British companies, owned it. By 1911, 12.5 million
barrels of oil were produced in Mexico, by 1921, 193 million barrels, making Mexico the
second largest oil producer. First Cárdenas created STPRM (Petroleum Workers Union of the
Mexican Republic) in 1936, and placed demands on oil companies, declared that the
companies exploited Mexican workers. He also created the PEMEX (Petróleos
Méxicanos) as a state oil enterprise. He supported the CTM (Confederation of
Mexican Workers). In 1938, Cárdenas nationalized Mexican petrol, creating bitter
U.S.-Mexican relations until World War .
The Cárdenas Presidency was the most radical of the Revolution, the election of 1940
marked the end of his presidency and of the revolution. After Cárdenas' term, the Mexican
political leaders changed from social reformers to economist and industrial capitalists.
President Avila Camacho declared war on the side of the allies in May 1942, after two
Mexican tankers had been torpedoed by Germans. Mexico's main contribution to the war was
its raw materials. The 1950's saw social reforms slowed down considerably. Although
industrialization grew, the work force grew faster, leaving many unemployed. During the
1960's, urban populations grew to surpass that of the rural population. Health programs
made progress in rural areas, reducing tuberculosis, polio and almost eradicating malaria.
Low cost housing projects were started in the vastly growing urban areas, to compete with
Mexico's fast population growth.
Social unrest also plagued Mexico during the 1960's. In 1968, the Olympic Games were
held in Mexico City. In addition to earlier student demonstrations against police
corruption, shortly before the games anti-government rallies were held. In October at
Tlatelolco, troops and police showed and opened fire on a large group of demonstrators.
The Government claimed 43 dead, although some Mexicans claimed hundreds died.
Mexican oil production was low after nationalization, but by 1973, production was back
to the level it was at 1921. When OPEC formed and the price of oil rose, Mexico's debt
increased each year, and even more so when President Echeverría devalued the peso. By
1979, crude oil was up to 511 million barrels, and much of that going to the U.S. In the
early 1980's corruption and inflation plagued Mexico. Increase in gas, food, and
electricity costs went along with Mexico's problems. In addition to these calamities, a
huge earthquake hit Mexico City in September 1985, killing around 8,000 people and
totaling about four billion in damage. Another problem due to Mexico's economic woes is
the flow of undocumented workers in the U.S.
The latest problems in Mexico is the criticism of the one party system. In 1987, some
of the left within the PRI split and formed the FDN (National Democratic Front). Ernest
Zedillo rebuilt the PRI coalition with the right and center factions. Considering the 1994
murder of a PRI party leader Mario Ruiz Massieu, believed to have been executed by party
members, and the recent uprisings in Chiapas, the future is still uncertain for Mexico.
Ernesto Zedillo, chosen as the PRI nominee and, thus, President of Mexico, after the
murder of Colosio is wrestling with how to keep the system functioning.
Meyer, Michael and Sherman, William. THE COURSE OF MEXICAN HISTORY. Oxford University
Press. New York, 1987.
Mabry, Donald J. "Mexican Anticlerics, Bishops, Cristeros, and the Devout during
the 1920's: A Scholarly Debate". JOURNAL OF CHURCH AND STATE. Vol. 20, no.1, 1978,
Shafer, Robert J. and Mabry, Donald J. "Mexican Oil and Nationalism". Neighbors-Mexico and the
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Baker, George and Galindo, Alfonso. "PRI Victory?". G.BAKER@CGNET.COM