- Historic Sites
In the bright mestizo tapestry of Mexico’s thirty centuries of civilization, the Indian, the Spanish, and the modern threads interweave—and tangle
April 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 3
Since my father was perhaps the only permanent private in Villa’s army, I am naturally drawn to that picaresque Centauro del Norte , who was regarded as a Robin Hood benefactor by his admirers in the northern states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Sonora. Reared in a Mexican-American ghetto in Colorado, where the devil-may-care exploits of Villa were a constant source of supper-table conversation, I was understandably dismayed to learn (many years later) that he was held in low esteem by most Mexican historians. They agree that Villa was more bandit than revolutionary—that he was a bloodthirsty, womanizing adventurer with no basic understanding of the revolution. (Two years ago Villa’s widow heatedly denied that he frequently tortured his victims. “That’s a lie!” she told an interviewer. “If Pancho didn’t like someone he would simply shoot him, but he never tortured anyone.”) Rather reluctantly, I have been forced to accept the view that Villa was a somewhat less heroic figure than, say, George Washington, and that his understanding of the revolution was deficient.
Although his grasp of revolutionary theorems was probably no greater than Villa’s, Emiliano Zapata completely enchanted the intellectual radicals who disdained Villa and his hell-raising los dorados , “the golden ones,” who served as Villa’s elite personal troops. Zapata’s quiet, modest demeanor—which became a curiously aggressive modesty in Marion Brando’s film portrayal—is more appealing to certain historians and writers who like their heroes strong and silent. Of the many thousand words written about this charismatic guerrillero from the state of Morelos, none have been more perceptive than those of Octavio Paz. “Realism and myth are joined in this ardent, melancholy and hopeful figure who died as he had lived—embracing the earth. His image, like the earth, is made up of patience and fertility, silence and hope, death and resurrection.” In response to the peasants’ hungering determination to get back their ancestral lands, most revolutionary leaders strongly urged far-reaching agrarian reforms; but it was Zapata who best expressed the basic wants of his fellow campesinos with his demand for pan, tierra y libertad —a profound and moving gut cry that soon inflamed the deepest passions of thousands of white-clad peasants who followed and fought for Zapata as if he were the reincarnation of Cuauhtémoc himself.
Though they lacked the natural charisma of either Villa or Zapata, Madero, Obregón, and Carranza undoubtedly had a greater understanding of revolutionary principles. Aside from their active participation in the war itself, they were the principal architects of the constitution of 1917 and all subsequent enabling legislation. They also shared a fate common to many Mexican leaders—each one became President, and each one was shot to death as a result of political intrigue. (Small wonder that the average Mexican regarded violence and murder as political norms.)
Indeed, if one wishes to understand the Mexican psyche, one must be acutely aware of the kind of war Mexico fought to liberate itself from its feudal past. As previously indicated, Mexicans are obsessively fascinated by the most minute details of their glorious revolución . Their movies, their ballads, their murals, their public ceremonies, constantly allude to the exploits of their heroes, often ignoring the schisms that sometimes made them fight each other. Though there was no binding agreement between them, nor a general strategy, Villa, Zapata, Carranza, and Obregón were initially unified in their fundamental goals—death to reactionaries, down with foreigners, Mexico for Mexicans. Bound together only by their common hates, their various guerrilla forces operated as separate entities. They had no common supply lines, no general staffs, no over-all plans, no central organization. They simply attacked at random, arming themselves with captured guns and ammunition, feeding themselves from the storage bins of raided plantations. Snowballing in size with each successive attack, the rebel bands would ride into town in a cloud of dust, yelling “ Viva Madero!” “Viva la revolución! ” And they were soon joined by hundreds of defectors from the government rurales whose dove-gray uniforms contrasted sharply with the motley come-as-you-are garb of the maderistas .
Their tactics and weapons varied considerably, but they did share a common fondness for blowing up trains. Most of the crucial battles were fought along railroad lines, with some of the railroad workers conspiring with the rebels to sabotage their own trains. Quite frequently a handcar or an old steam engine was converted into a makeshift torpedo by loading it with dynamite and then rolling it down the rails for a brief encounter with an oncoming enemy troop train.