Mexican Revolution: Peasant Leaders--Emiliano Zapata and Francisco (Pancho) Villa

Emiliano Zapata Pancho Villa
Figure 1.-- This is surely the most famous photograph in Mexican history. Villa and Zapata met in the Presidential Palace after driving the Constitutionalists out of Mexico City (December 6. 1914). They were received by President Eulalio Gutiérrez and the diplomatic corps. Villa agreed to sit in the presidential chair for a photograph, but Zapata refused. Note the boy peeking out behind the chair to Villa's right. We had no idea who he was, but a reader tells us, "I was just looking at your web site, looking for information on my Great Grandfather, Brigadier General Alfredo Serratos. In the famous picture you have of Poncho Villa and Zapata you mention the little boy peeking out behind the presidential chair. That is my grandfather as a child, youngest son of Brig. Gen. Alfredo Serratos who is officer behind him. His name was Salvador Serratos. The woman in the picture in the center is my great grandmother Maria Serratos. Villa gave Gen. Serratos a medal for his contributions during the war. He was a liaison between Villa and Diaz." -- Charlotte Sheppard. Put your cursor on the image for an enlargement. Source: Augustín Víctor Casasola

A major factor in the campaign against General Huerta were the two key peasant leaders--Emiliano Zapata in the south and Francisco (Pancho) Villa in the north. They are the two induividuals who most vividly come to the popular mind in association with the Mexican Revolution. These two men played a major role in the defeat of General Huerta, but they did not have the education or governing skills to form a government. And they were two very different people with widely different goals. While Zapata was fairly consistent in supporting the Plan de Ayala and land reform, Villa was much less committed to comprehensive social reform. This was in part because Villa turned large estates over to his generals and not the peasants who worked them. Instead, they were used to finance his operations. The cowboys who rode with Villa were not committed to land reform like the peasants who backed Zapata. Both men were defeated and did not play a major role in the Revolution after the defeat of General Huerta. Even so, Zapata's Plan de Ayala, resonated throughout the Revolutionary period and influenced the Land Reform of the PRI Government which followed it. Villa on the other hand left no permanent influence on Mexico except for his image in the popular imagination of confronting the United States.

Emiliano Zapata (Morelos, 1879-1919)

Emiliano Zapata is perhaps the figure modern Mexicans most think of as aymbol of the Revolution. (Americans tend to think more of Villa because Villa operated in the north and conducted a campaign against Americans.) Zapata was born in San Miguel Anencuilco in the southern state of Morelos (1879). His father was a farmer. Zapata was an intitove leader and he spoke Náhuatl, the local Native American languae. (In fact it was the language of the Aztecs and related tribes.) He was elected leader of his village (1909). He proceeded to organize an army to challenge Díaz before Madero launched his rebellion against Díaz. Zapata was disapointed with the palid reforms promoted by Madero. Instead he issued his pronouncement--the Plan de Ayala (November 1911). Zapata joined the Constinuionalist cause after Huerta killed Madero and attempted to restanlish a new Porfiriato. After Huerta's defeat, Zapata and radical even ararchist elements dominated the Convention in Aguascalientes which was to decide the future of Mexico. There the Zapatistas demanded 'tierra y libertad' - land and freedom. - for their people. This was not the vision of of Mexico that the more conservative Constitutioinalists (Carranza and Obregón) held. Zapata was strongly supported by the pesantry of Morelos in their mountaneous stronghold. The peasant soldiers of the Army of the South was, however, unwilling to venture far out of their bastion. They were defeated by the more moderate Constituionlists led by Carranza and Obrgón. Actually destroying Zapata in his Morelos stronghold proved much more difficult. Zapata continued to resist the Caranza Government. Eventually he was trecherously led in to an ambush (1919). Thus Zapata's reforms (especially land reform) were not achieved during the Revolution itself. They came during the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1930s).

Franciso (Pancho) Villa (Durago, 1877?-1923)

Francisco (Pancho) Villa is certainly the most controversial Revolutionary figure. Villa was born Doroteo Arango, probably in San Juan del Río, Durango (1877). He reportedly at yhe age of 16 years killed an hacendado for attacking his younger sister. He changed his name to Francisco Villa to evade the Rurales. He became a bandit amd muleteer, becoming widely known in Chihuahua. He made money by rusteling cattle and selling them across the border in the United states. He tried mining with little success, but eventially began robbing banks. It is at this time that he developed his Robin Hood reputation. Giving to the poor does not seem to have been a major objective. His resistance to the landowners and repressive Rurales probably had more to do with this reputation. He joined the Madero revolution to oust President Díaz (1910). The transition from bandido to revolucionario hrlped him recruit a sunstantial army--the División del Norte. It included some Americans. > When Orozco rebelled against the Madero, Government, Villa again supported Madero. And after Huerta betrayed MNadero, Villa joined the opposition to Huerta. The División del Norte became a major assett in fighting Huerta's Federales. aCoahuila's Venustiano Carranza and Sonora's Alvaro Obregón were major figures leading the Constitutionalist forces, both of whom distrusted Villa, It was Villa's decisive victory at Zacatecas that sealed Huerta's fate (1914). The anti-Huerta forces split at the Aguascalientes Conerence. Superficial descriptions of Villa describe him as proponent of land reform. While this is true of Zapata, there is no evidence that Villa supported land reform. Hanciendas he overan were parcelled out to his commanders, not the landless compesinos. Villa did however suppot the radical faction at Aguascalientes. He and supported drove the Constitutionalists out of Mexico City and met with Zapata. Obregón retook the capital and then decisely defeated Villa's calvalry at Calaya (1915). This ended Zapata's national role. When the U.S. recognized the Carranza Government, Villa was outrahed. He retaliated by raiding Columbus, New Mexico on the border (1916). Much of Villa's popularity in Mexico today comes from his conflict with the United States, especially the failedc punative incursions. The Mexican government eventually accepted his surrender and retired Villa on a general's salary to Canutillo, Durango. He was assassinated while returning from bank business in Parral, Chihuahua (1923).

Constututionalist Defeat Peasant Revolutionaries

The Maderoistas who defeated Huerta were by no means unified. Both Villa and Zapata refused to recognize Carranza. They with their Armies of the North and South drove on Mexico City. Carranza and Obregón with their forces fled the capital. The Villistas and Zapatistas held raucous celebrations after reaching Mexico City. They did not, however, have the organizational skills to organize an effective government. Carranza and Obregón retreated to Veracruz, Mexico's major port. There they reorganized and resupplied and launched a new offensive to retake the capital. In the fighting that followed, Obregón largely destroyed Villa's cavalry at Celaya (1915). Obregón lost his right arm, but won the battle. Celaya was actually a series of engagements which constitute the most massive battle ever fought in Latin America. Obregón commanded a modern force with artillery and machine guns. As Villa's cavalry was the major force of his army, Villa never seriously threatened the government again, although he was a continuing irritation in the North.

Sources

Hall, Linda Biesele. Alvaro Obregon : Power and Revolution in Mexico, 1911-1920

Katz, Frederich. The Life and Times of Pancho Villa

Obregón, Alvaro. Autobiography.

Sheppard, Charlotte. E-mail message, December 29. 2011.







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Created: 1:52 AM 6/27/2008
Last updated: 2:36 PM 9/5/2014