November 17, 2000

The Mexican Revolution of 1910

By Cindy Baxman
UCSD Graduate Student


During the decade of 1910-1920, the United States and the Mexican border was a volatile area. The region was continually interacting, both societies coming into direct contact with one another. Individuals, families, and larger groups from both sides, freely moved from one country to the other.

Porfirio Diaz, Limantour, and Ramon Corral with other "cientificos." c 1910

Two very different cultures were exchanging events and ideas that led to permanent influences in both countries. These influences had a huge impact on the political, economical and social effects in both societies.

During times of extreme and rapid change, like the Mexican Revolution from 1910-1920, these influences were profoundly affected. Essentially the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution had spawned an era of violence as well as political and economic radicalism in Mexico. This was the beginning to the threatened interests and lives of the United States citizens, specifically North Americans living in the border regions as well as in the interior of Mexico. This eventually led to political and military intervention from the side of the United States.

One thing is certain about the outcome of the Mexican Revolution. The United States influenced the revolution at every turn. The United States became heavily involved with Mexico during 1910-1920. Political pressure caused the highest powers to seek interaction. President Taft and President Wilson were both driving forces behind the US military involvement during the Mexican Revolution.

The common US citizen got involved through associations like the Women's groups, Religious groups and The Red Cross. On the other side, Mexican citizens of all classes were fighting for their own political and economic strives. The Mexican women were the most overlooked and underrepresented group in the revolution. These women were, rich as well as poor, educated, as well as uneducated, and went often into combat on the front line carrying their children on their backs.

The Mexican Revolution was a period of contrast and conflict between two nations. What was the best interest of one nation, was the worst interest for the other. What were the political and economic interests of the United States, and Mexico, who was involved in them, and what were the outcomes of their interests?

History of the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920

The decade 1910-1920 is one of the most turbulent periods in Mexican History. Frustrated by a generation of dictatorship and political and economic frustration, various sectors of Mexican society united to overthrow the reigning Porfirio Diaz and his regime. This triggered a prolonged and violent power struggle that inevitably shook the entire republic.

One of the regions most affected by the upheaval was the area bordering the United States. Along the border, political figures such as, Francisco Madero, Francisco Pancho Villa, and Venustiano Carranza emerged to lead movements of national importance. These political figures brought their military staging and key battle sites to the northern frontiers and border cities because of the access to customhouse revenues and American munitions.

In November 1910, Francisco Madero officially launch-ed the revolution by crossing into the border town of Piedras Negras, Coahuila. This ignited uprisings in various border states and throughout the republic. "By April of 1911, an estimated 17,000 people had taken arms against Porfirio Diaz and his government." In May, Francisco Madero and his forces, which included Francisco Pancho Villa, took over Ciudad Juarez, which was the event that marked the first major victory for the insurgents.

"The Treaty of Juarez", provided an end to hostilities and the resignation of Porfirio Diaz. Francisco Madero was later elected president in the fall.

Soon after his election, Francisco Madero was assassinated and a constitutionalist, Venustiano Carranza took over the presidency. Francisco Pancho Villa meanwhile remained a military genius and continued to build up his forces. Carranza and Villa became enemies. Villa continued for years to wage war with Carranza's government, but finally in 1920 Villa made peace with newly elected president, Adolfo de la Huerta.


Mexican Nationalism and Fighting in the Revolution

Every Mexican was involved in the revolution, including men, women and even children. There are many reasons why so many Mexican people became involved in the Mexican revolution. Often there was said to be three types of Mexican nationalism during the revolution. They were, political patriotism, economic nationalism, and popular xenophobia.

These three categories, although often overlapped and many people were part of two of the three categories. Political patriotism comprised the largest and most diffuse constituency. Economic nationalism was a small and select group. Popular xenophobia was nationalism among the popular class and could overlap with political patriotism but never economic nationalism.

Both the middle and upper class, as well as the lower class had their own objective to fighting in the Mexican revolution. In the upper and middle sectors of society, political disaffection from President Porfirio Diaz and his regime prompted many to form or join organizations that propounded revolution, while others assumed the leadership positions on the battle field.

Among the lower class, lack of education and confusion over the precise objectives of the revolution, made it difficult to know the meaning of their own involvement in the conflict. Other factors that lead to the majority of the lower class to become a part of the fighting were: low wages, substandard working conditions, inflation, bad housing, and deficient social services.

Overall the feelings of the lower and working classes throughout Mexico, was that there was widespread cheating and exploitation by the rich, which was aided by the government. These conditions created a ripe environment for embracing revolutionary ideas and fighting for them.

A picture postcard of the Assassination of Pancho Villa. 1927.

Wether it was true nationalism or not, persuasion, pressure, or force, induced thousands of peasants (campesinos) and workers (obreros) to fight in the Mexican revolution. Countless died, without understanding the nature of the struggle, but many knew from the beginning that the revolution presented a long-awaited opportunity to address the wrongs inflicted on the entire republic by abusive functionaries of the old regime.


Mexican Migration to the United States

The Mexican people fighting in the revolution and the Mexican people trying to escape it, crossed over the border during some point of the revolutionary years between 1910- 1920. For those who wanted no part in the conflict, the choice became to hide or to leave the country. Most of the citizens in the bordering cities opted to leave the country and migrate to the United States.

Some of the important factors that caused the migration were from; the chaos, danger, economic disaster, social disorganization, conditions of violence and seized population growth, all which led to the migration across the Mexican American border. Mexican revolutionaries, as well as federales migrated to the United States when conditions made it impossible to operate in Mexico. The Mexican revolutionaries and federales entered the United Sates in hope to plot further incursions into Mexico. These exiles were joined by thousands of other political and economic refugees who sought asylum north of the international border.

Whether you were a supporter of the revolution or had no involvement in it, the United States for many was a stable and safe alternative to staying in Mexico during certain periods of unrest. "An estimated 890,371 legal Mexicans immigrants came to the United States between July 1910 and July 1920." The Mexicans were either legal immigrants, temporary workers, refugees or illegal aliens.

Other factors can be noted to why there was a huge migration to the United States during the years of the Mexican revolution. Besides escaping the social and economic disorganization in Mexico, the Mexican looked to the United States as a place to find stable employment and a place to seek adventure and opportunity. The Mexicans did find work opportunities primarily in railroad construction and maintenance.


The US Reaction to Migration and Immigration Laws

In the beginning of the Mexican Revolution the US immigration officials had noted that the quality of the immigrants were not measuring up to their expectations. The US immigration officials though had a sympathetic attitude and were able to justify why the immigrants fled to the United States and why the United States should allow them to stay. By 1914, during the heaviest fighting period of the revolution, the better-class started to immigrate in large numbers. The war thus was depriving the lower and working class citizens the opportunity to migrate. Only the wealthier Mexican citizens could afford to travel across the border. At this point in the revolution it was not unlikely that the US immigration officials would see entire towns cross the border before or during military clashes in the area.

Mexican migration to the United States became problematic with the Immigration Act of 1917. The Immigration Act imposed a literacy test, a $8.00 head tax and also reiterated the prohibition against contract labor. Mexicans not understanding the new regulations or fearful of exclusion, began to immigrate illegally in to the United States. "An estimated 60,000 illegal immigrants had entered the United States in 1920 alone." The Mexicans were desperate for money, food and badly needed a job. The problem got so severe, an new smuggling industry was created to get the Mexican aliens across the frontier. Illegal immigration caused bad feelings among the Americans and the Mexicans.

Overall Mexican migration during the Revolution had a huge impact on the United States. Many Americans felt that immigration was beneficial and necessary to the economy and were critical of the laws that were restricting the free flow of Mexicans northward. Mexicans were seen as people with good character and their migration meant they would be both producers and consumers in society and help economic growth in the United States. After traveling south of the border, many Americans were also left with the feeling that the United States simply could not turn their backs on the Mexican people, simply because the quality of life that they had in Mexico was minimal.


United States Response and Involvement with Mexico during the Revolution

The United States was involved politically and socially with the Mexican revolution from 1910-1920. The US. had attitudes and interests among the Mexican population. The attitudes stem mostly from common American people including religious groups and womens groups. These organizations were socially involved with Mexico during the revolution because of the harsh times that many Mexican people faced economically and socially. The Mexican people were devastated by the revolution and had no work, adequate food and sheltering. The attitude of American organizations like the religious and womans groups, was that they could not just let the Mexican people suffer, they had to help them.

Numerous groups like the Red Cross were able to help the Mexican people out during the revolution. The interests among the US citizens in Mexico during the revolution on the other hand were mostly representative of the US politicians. The economic interest in Mexico during 1910-1920 had decided US policy toward Mexico and thus the US response and involvement with Mexico during this time.

The US economic interest in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution assured revolutionary nationalism and also xenophobia which had determined that the US economic policies towards Mexico would be, unsympathetic, hostile, and even interventionist. The economic interest in Mexico was so great that many Americans were investing in Mexico through capital investments, indirect and direct investments. These investments included government bonds and real estate investments. The biggest economic investment that the US made with Mexico during the revolution was the exportation of oil.

Many of the attitudes of the American religious and womans group, as well as the economic interest of the politicians, correlated into military response and at the time, President Woodrow Wilsons response and involvement in the Mexican revolution.

US Military Involvement

Decisions made prior to the breakout of the Mexican revolution and during the beginning of the war, proposed that the United States would only aid civil authorities in enforcing the neutrality laws. The secretary of war Jacob Dickinson, authorized American military commanders to only warn the Mexican militaries about the actions that would be taken if American lives and property were ever threaten.

Mexican military commanders were warned that only if the military endangered the lives and property of North Americans, then the US military would intervene. Otherwise the US had no intention to further disrupt the relations in Mexico.

As the situation in Mexico deteriorated along with the viability of the Diaz administration, US president Taft took action which was an early departure from his non-intervention policy.

President Taft in March 1911, ordered the creation of the so-called, "Maneuver Division." This was a division of American men designed to provide field training and assume the official role of enforcing neutrality laws. The division was centered in San Antonio, Texas and became quickly known as a division that would essentially be used to intervene with Mexico. President Taft hoped that the military division would be available if there was substantial deterioration in the Diaz regime that might pose threat to American lives and property. Non-intervention and military action remained challenged until President Taft was out of office and the newly elected President Wilson was in. Then the non-intervention plan seemed to go the other way.


President Wilson and Mexican Politics

President Wilson and his policies towards Mexico received bad press from Americans and Mexicans. Wilson's policy had been seen as narrow-minded, patronizing and hypocritical. Despite being committed to representative government and self-determination, Wilson was said to have, carried out more armed interventions then any of his predecessors. While interventions by other administrators were carried out because of real politick or profit, Wilson's motive to intervene was of peer desire. Wilson tried to get constitutionals, including the once Mexican leader Carranza, into power.

When Wilson succeeded at this he then attempted to control the party. Wilson felt Mexico, (according to the "Wilsonism critique"), was meant to be educated along liberal, constitutional, and North American lines. Wilson himself declared to be the self appointed tutor of Mexico.

Wilsons polices and their premises were false. The policies involved a fundamental misreading of Mexican reality, and therefore were bound to fail in practice. Wilson's initial intervention in Mexico was not wrong but his reasons for the intervention were wrong.

Wilson's policy included dreams of constitutional government in Mexico. Wilson also envisioned what many of his predecessors wanted; to restore order, to protect American lives and property and to avert European interference. Wilson's policies combined liberal moralist with long term real politick for the United States. Wilsons policies for the US individual allowed for short term morality with long term self interest. Wilson's policy addressed the need for representative government in Mexico because it was conducive to political stability and capitalist development. This was especially true in Mexican societies struggling to get rid of old, corrupt, dictatorial regimes. Wilson's policy tried to convince Mexican dictators of short term stability and profit. Wilson's policies were aimed at an idea of a orderly and righteous government but also his policies addressed Mexico's social striving as well. All of Wilsons pollices would fail because they all compromised sincerely held Mexican values. Wilson's "good neighbor" policy had failed.

Mexican soldiers enter Mexico City with Virgen de Guadalupe standard. c. 1910.


From 1910-1920, the relationship between the United States and Mexico was troubling because of the two nations vastly different interests. Mexico was facing opposition from all classes of Mexican society. The upper-middle and upper class societies were in support of the elitist government, while the poor and working class were strongly opposed to the overwhelming wealth and power that the government had. Mexico was fighting a class revolution and all sides were losing. Dictator's and their regimes were short lived.

Politics was a problem since the society was so divided economically and know one could agree on any kind of political rule. Mexican's started to migrate across the border illegally, in search of work and to plot further acts of violence among each other. Mexico was bringing their revolution across the border. The interest of Mexico was not about creating equality for all, but to continue to widen the gap between the political elite and the poor working class.

The United States proceeded with intervention, specifically by political and military forces. The United States had gained interest in Mexican affairs when American lives were threatened and economic interests were jeopardized. The United States had made investments in Mexico's economy (through oil and bonds), Americans were living in Mexico and illegal immigration was causing economic hardships on the economy (through the wage rate and labor force). The United States was also concerned for the welfare of the poor and working class in Mexico, with numerous women and religious groups getting involved during the revolution for primarily, humanity reasons.

Mexico and the United States each had their own agenda's to look after. During the Mexican Revolution unfortunately, the social and economic changes that were taking place in Mexico had too great of an impact on the Unites States to ignore. The result was a period of political and economic intervention. The impact of both the political and economic interest of the United States and Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, from 1910-1920, have caused distrust and anti-American and anti-Mexican feelings that continue to evolve today.

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