Snapshot from Mexican History: Francisco Madero

A black-and-white photograph of Mexican president Francisco Madero

Calling the Mexican Revolution ‘a revolution’ is a bit like calling a pack of wild dingos ‘house pets’. The tumultuous period between 1910 and 1920 was more like several nominally related revolutions spiraling into a schizophrenic nightmare of continuous regime change, replete with the implied betrayals, coups, and assassinations. In essence, a particularly nasty and complicated civil war.

A nightmare, but an entertaining nightmare, if you can stomach the violence and don’t think to deeply about the untold dead. The Mexican Revolution has the most epic cast of characters ever to exist in the same relative time and place: the drunk and traitorous Huerta; the duplicitous Carranza; and the two most bad-ass peasants of all time: the bandit king Pancho Villa and his counterpoint, the righteous and unyielding Emiliano Zapata. Slightly less bad-ass but equally interesting  is the man pictured above, Francisco Ignacio Madero.

Francisco Madero was born in 1873 and came of age during the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, who had seized power in 1876. Madero was the effete and eccentric son of an extremely wealthy family of haciendados. He was a vegetarian who dabbled in spiritualism and homeopathic medicine. (Given his hippie interests it shouldn’t surprise you that he was for a time a student at Berkley.) He was also an avid spiritualist. As Richard Grabman writes in Gods, Gachupines, and Gringos: “Madero’s wife would go into a trance and dictate what the ghosts told her. Madero, with his wife taking ghostly dictation, held long conversations about democracy and government reform with his dead brother Raul. Raul had died as an infant, put apparently the dead Raul had landed a job as ghostly secretary to…Benito Jaurez! Juarez had never showed any interest in Hinduism and had been dead for over thirty years. Why he chose Raul Madero as his secretary in the afterlife (and why he was corresponding with Mrs. Madero) was something best left out of Madero’s book, The Preseidential Election of 1910.”

The book in question put Madero in the spotlight. The volume was intended as a reasoned argument for a gradual shift toward a more democratic form of government, but it hit a nerve with the Mexican people, and Madero found himself as the figurehead for revolutionary thought. Diaz was alarmed and sent thugs to arrest Madero, but Madero’s family pulled strings and he escaped across the border to Texas. While in Texas, he drummed up publicity for his cause. On November 20, 1910, he returned to Mexico and launched a revolution.

Various rebel factions (including Villa and Zapata) joined forces behind the banner of Madero, and the initial revolution was short. The rebels took Casas Grandes. Juarez was the next logical point of attack, but Madero hesitated because he thought it unwise to fight so close to U.S. soil. Villa and another rebel chieftain, Orozco, ignored Madero’s orders and attacked Juarez anyway. They won. After the battle, Madero and Diaz signed a peace treaty. Diaz was exiled to Europe, and Mexico held one of its only truly democratic elections. The people of Mexico declared Madero president in November of 1911. He immediately began to blunder.

To be continued…

note: If you’d like to read more, the books below are good choices for learning about Mexican history. They represent history at its best: A rollicking and powerful story.

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