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The Mexican Revolution

ISSUE:  Winter 1934

Porfirio Diaz, Dictator of Mexico. By Carleton Beals. Philadelphia: j. B. Lippincott Company. $5.00. The Crimson Jester: Zapata of Mexico. By H. H. Dunn. New York: Robert H. McBride and Company. $3.00. Viva Villa! By Edgcumb Pinchon, assisted in research by Odo B. Stade. New York: Har-court, Brace and Company. $3.00.

Almost a quarter of a century has gone by since Francisco de Madero launched the revolution that overthrew the social fabric built up in Mexico between the years 1876 and 1910 by Porfirio Diaz. That revolution, because of a series of fatalities typically Mexican in nature, lasted as an active phenomenon for nearly fifteen years, and gave occasion to a considerable number of Mexican “strong men” to battle against one another for control of the Republic. Now Mexico is quiet, and it is beginning to be possible, with the aid of the perspectives afforded by retreating years and the dying out of personal emotions, to form judgments concerning the personalities and accomplishments of the leaders of the several factions that played major roles in the early years of the struggle.

Mexican history, since the outbreak of the revolt against Spain in 1810, reminds one of a stark mediaeval tapestry woven to depict the deeds of ruthless men. Through the whole of it, from the beginning to the present moment, run two symbolic threads that represent the two irreconcilable forces which motivate all politico-military action in our sister republic. One thread is gold, and symbolizes the feudal, aristocratic, oppressive ideology of the Spanish tradition, often sustained—now by arms, now by money—by imperial-istically-minded foreigners, and resting upon the foundation belief that the indigenous peoples of the country exist solely to serve and enrich their masters. The other thread is scarlet, and represents the persistent determination of the indigene to get back his own and to rid himself of the domination of all elements not native Mexican in origin. These two shining threads, interwoven with the black of tragedy and the white of sacrifice, give the tone of every epoch, as one or the other predominates. From the days when Hidalgo led his pitiful, unarmed Indians against the bayonets of Spain to the last foray of an Indian Robin Hood bandit against the hacienda of some correcto rico, the red slowly becomes the dominant tone. Indian leader after Indian leader has arisen, won a little—and passed on into the shadows. But the small gains accumulate—and in the end, perhaps, if outside forces do not interfere, the red will succeed in blotting out the gold.

Such, at least, is the idea that is likely to come to the mind of the thoughtful upon reading three recent biographies of Mexican leaders. Especially if the reader have some previous knowledge of Mexican history, and—perhaps—Spanish enough to have read beforehand some of the powerful, though still groping, attempts of several Mexican writers to depict and interpret the recent profound changes in their native society. Among the more significant Mexican works of this nature are: “El Aguila y la Serpiente” and “La Sombra del Caudillo,” by Martin Luis Guzman; “Los de Abajo,” by Mariano Azuela; and “Vamonos con Pancho Villa,” by Rafael F. Mufioz. More and more, as one reads of and meditates upon what has happened in Mexico since Diaz came into power in 1876, does one feel that the story has all the characteristics of the mediaeval epopeya—that it is but a modern version of the struggle of the serf to shake off the dominance of a “divinely sanctioned” aristocratic class, and that the personalities which emerge from the welter of revolution are men. not of this but of an earlier epic age.

In his “Porfirio Diaz,” Carleton Beals has made an able study of a man whose life-work was rendered futile by the curious fatality that so often pursues Mexican leaders. Diaz, the Mixtec Indian, began as an inspired fighter on the side of the indigenous Mexican in a successful struggle, under the leadership of the Oaxaca Indian, Juarez, against the reactionary Creole elements who wished to make Maximilian Emperor of Mexico with the aid of Louis Napoleon. But when Juarez was dead, and Diaz came to power, he quickly forgot the cause of the common people; perhaps due to the influence of his wife, as much as to anything, since she was of the correcto class, he went over to the side of the Creoles, the oppressors. His undoubted genius was used, not to sustain the reform laws of Juarez that he had helped to make, but to render them ineffective. Instead of building up a state based upon the culture and necessities of the eighty-five per cent of Indians, he tried to Europeanize and Americanize Mexico, and his supporters, toward the end of his long domination, went so far as to declare publicly that the Indians ought to be exterminated, since they constituted a useless and hopeless element in Mexican society. Diaz’s success was impressive and far-reaching—on the surface. He developed Mexican industries and communications to an astonishing degree. But in so doing, he gave the nation over to the dominance of foreign capitalists, and the peon over to the merciless exploitation of foreigner and correcto Mexicans. But underneath the glittering edifice of Diaz’s exotic civilization, the crushed peon bided his time with Indian patience; and when, at last, old age weakened the iron will of Diaz, and when the corruption of his partisans, the cientificos, and their foreign allies, had eaten the heart out of the army and the governmental machine, the Indian struck—and the apparently invincible old Lion of Chapultepec saw his life’s work crumble like a house whose beams were rotten, as indeed they were.

Mr. Beals’ book is one of the two or three most important works on a Mexican subject written in English during the past half century. It is the only scientifically constructed biography of a Mexican that has been written in English. The amount and quality of his research can not fail to excite the adniration of anyone who is familiar with the difficulties of such work in the Mexican field.

The most interesting aspect of the study is the insistence throughout upon the fatality to which Diaz fell a victim, a fatality that is the leitmotif of the Mexican tragic epic since the wars for independence. To understand this fatality, it is necessary to recall that Mexican society is composed of two irreconcilable groups: one, about fifteen per cent of the population, is made up of what the Mexicans call los cor-rectos or, sometimes, la gente decente; the other, about eighty-five per cent of the people, is composed of the peones —the pelados—the inalfabetos—the gente menuda. The division is based principally, but not wholly, upon race. There are correctos who are pure Indian; and there are others, white or predominantly so, who belong to the group of the pelados, at least in their sympathies. The correctos are, in general, of European blood; but it is more exact to describe them as that group in Mexico whose individual members are well educated in the European fashion, usually well-to-do, heirs of the colonial tradition of Spain (a cardinal tenet of which is that the Indian was divinely ordained to be a slave without even the most elementary of human rights), and sympathetic with modern industrial and financial imperialism, often to the extent of being willing to allow Mexico to fall under the dominance of one sort of foreign control or another.

The curious fatality that runs through Mexican history and has frustrated so often the attempts of her native population to shake off the feudal dominance of the correctos is, that many of the Indian leaders of her native peoples, once they come into power, are seduced by the correcto philosophy and go over, body and soul, to the side of the oppressors. Usually, with the zeal of converts, they become even more ruthless toward their former followers than the white cor-rectos themselves. Such a one was Diaz—almost pure blood Mixtec Indian, disciple of Juarez in his youth, thorn in the side of the French invaders, ruthless destroyer of the pelado in his day of power. He is truly a tragic figure, worthy of the attention of a great poet or a great dramatist.

In view of the uncommon excellence of Mr. Beals’ research, it is rather a pity that he should allow himself—as he has frequently done—to write some extremely wretched English, and to descend occasionally to vulgar invective against Diaz, when a clear statement, or even an understatement, of fact would have been effective. This boiling over of personal feeling against the subject of his biography is a lamentable defect in an otherwise most admirably conceived book.

In “The Crimson Jester,” by H. H. Dunn, and “Viva Villa!” by Edgcumb Pinchon, we have excellent studies of leaders of the people who did not fall victims to the fatality that destroyed Diaz. Mr. Dunn’s book on Zapata is not only completely documented, but is written with an austerity of style and a restraint of statement all too rare in books about Mexico and Mexicans. Mr. Pinchon’s book on Villa —confessedly a “fictional biography”—is badly marred at times by a sensationalism that would do credit to a Hollywood press agent. And it is much too long to be entirely effective. In spite of his over-idealization of Villa, however, he tells a convincing and gripping tale. It is not as good as Mr. Dunn’s work on Zapata—but I have never seen a book on a Mexican topic handled quite as satisfactorily as that one.

Zapata is, in my opinion, one of the most extraordinary men the world has seen in many a year. His accomplishments have made a deep and permanent alteration in Mexico’s social fabric, and the work he did had, and will continue to have for a long time to come, disturbing repercussions throughout Latin-America—as witness the work of Sandino in Nicaragua. So, too, will Villa’s work, though perhaps to a lesser degree. Both espoused the cause of Mexico’s “forgotten men,” and both were true to their ideals to their tragic ends. Now that we of the United States are beginning to discover something about our own “forgotten men,” perhaps we shall be better able to understand what such men as Zapata and Villa mean to Mexico. Certainly no better introduction to the subject could be found than the two books about which we are speaking.


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