Most saloons have shorter names, but most tend to express the inchoate wish-dreams of their poor clientele, who drown their collective sorrow in the cheap alcoholic drink called pulque. One bar in the slums of Mexico City is called The Reincarnation of Pancho Villa, and the one next door is hopefully named The Revolution Starts Tomorrow. For drinkers of more conservative bent there is a busy apolitical bar called Safe Refuge for Lonely Whores, which paradoxically discourages the patronage of unescorted women.

At first blush, one could easily assume that the revolutionary names of various neighborhood saloons are deliberately facetious (some probably are), but one soon realizes that most of them reflect a sort of linguistic ossification dating back to the bloody revolution of 1910. The whole country seems to be caught in a verbal prison defined by that word revolución . Wherever one travels—through the barren sierras of Durango, the muggy tropics of Chiapas, or the pine-covered mountains near the capital—many hillsides are decorated with giant slogans spelled out with large calcimined stones: Pan, Tierra y Libertad; Revolución Agraria; Revolución para los Obreros, Fuera Imperialismo; Mexico para los Mexicanos; Partido Revolucionario Institucional; Campesinos por la Revolución —(Bread, Land and Liberty; Agrarian Revolution; Revolution for the Workers; Down with Imperialism; Mexico for Mexicans; Party of Institutional Revolution; Farmers for Revolution). The very same slogans are plastered on the walls of public buildings, schools, bullrings, and thousands of private homes—a forever-echoing cry for social upheaval that gives the uninitiated traveller a jittery feeling that thousands of fiery-eyed campesinos are waiting at the barricades, fully prepared to invade scores of slumbering dusty villages and towns of questionable strategic value.

But every Mexican knows that the slogans are almost meaningless, that revolución is one of the emptiest words in the vocabulary. The politicians also know this but nevertheless feel a compulsion to mouth and gargle the word— revolución, revolución, revolución —as if to wash it clean of any dangerous semantic residue.

The obsession with revolución is understandable enough in a country where it is almost impossible to count accurately the number of revolutions that took place in a single century: from 1810—when the rebellious priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla started the first one—to 1911, when the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz was finally toppled. In recent times, revolución has become so sanitized that in 1954 Miguel Alemân, considered by some to be the most reactionary President since Diaz, actually formed a Committee for the Conservation of the Revolution ( Comité para la conservatión de la revolución ).

Yet one must admit that the word revolución was anything but abstract when it was the banner cry of Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, Venustiano Carranza, and Alvaro Obregon, the legendary guerrilla chieftains who supported Francisco Madero in the prolonged and devastating struggle that began in 1910. The revolution they talked about was not a fuzzy, ambiguous concept: they knew what it meant. Backed by thousands of landless peasants and lowly urban workers who yearned to be free of the oppressive thirty-year dictatorship of Diaz, they led a tumultuous campaign that eventually changed the face of Mexico. The old dictator fled into exile, the baronial hacendados lost their enormous estates, and the church was finally stripped of its great wealth and power. It was, in every sense of the word, a genuine revolution. No other country in the Western Hemisphere, with the sole exception of Cuba fifty years later, has been so radically restructured within a single decade.

But in spite of their ultimate success, the revolutionary forces participated in a strange, often bewildering series of battles and political coups that resembled a badly edited movie with maddening flashbacks, devious side plots, and innumerable minor actors spasmodically diverting attention from the main plot. The picture portfolio accompanying this essay has a chronological commentary that will guide the reader through—or at least along the edge of—the complexities of Mexican history, including the tangle of the revolution of 1910. Here, I would prefer to consider some of the principal characters in that hundred-act drama—Villa, Zapata, Carranza, Obregón, and Madero.