A leading source for news and analysis about Mexico and the U.S.-Mexican border.

Nov. 20, 2011

Tribute to historian Paul Vanderwood

Account of his presentation
on the bicentennial
of the Mexican Revolution

By David Gaddis Smith

paul vanderwoodPaul Vanderwood, the San Diego State University historian who chronicled Mexican history, and particularly the Mexican Revolution and its antecedents and aftermath, died in October at age 82. A party in his honor was held Dec. 4 in La Mesa, and it was announced there that a conference dedicated to his work will be held at the University of California San Diego on April 13.

A former journalist and Korean War veteran, he got a Ph.D. in history at the University of Texas in 1969 and began teaching at SDSU. Obituary in San Diego Union-Tribune. The writing and observation skills Vanderwood developed as a journalist helped his many history books, such as "Juan Soldado" and "Satan's Playground," come alive.

juan soldadoOne of my favorite memories of Vanderwood is attending an event next to the border fence in Playas de Tijuana after the U.S. put up the barrier in the 1990s. Vanderwood pushed his hands against the fence and cried, "Tear down this wall!" (Just as President Reagan once remarked about the Berlin Wall.) While Vanderwood was a serious man, he seemed to always have a twinkle in his eye.

Following is an account/excerpts of his talk in November 2010 about the Mexican Revolution at a conference held at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego. This short YouTube video was part of his talk at the "Mexico: Past, Present and Future" conference sponsored by the Mexican Consulate of San Diego. The Mexican Revolution began on Nov. 20, 1910.
Tijuana's 2011 Mexican Revolution parade lasts four hours.



Vanderwood expressed his pleasure that the conference involving Mexican and U.S. historians was being held and said:

"It brings us back to an old feeling that historians have, whether it is better for Mexicans to be studying their own history and writing their own history or whether, as outsiders, Americans or other foreign peoples also can be adding some important aspects to Mexican history. I think the answer is probably both....

"Foreigners can add some wonderful new information about Mexico and Mexican identity and that sort of thing, but really Mexican history belongs to Mexicans and Mexicans are the ones who can really feel the Revolution."

Origins of the Mexican Revolution

porfirio diazVanderwood gave background about the origins of the Mexican Revolution, citing the early 1908 interview that longtime Mexican President Porfirio Díaz, then 77, gave to U.S. journalist James Creelman. "In the interview, Díaz astounded his countrymen and political pundits. He announced his intention to retire from the presidency" and that "now it was time for a change." This encouraged Mexicans anxious for a political opening, but in the end, Díaz decided to run for re-election in 1910 and "forcefully cracked down" on his opponents. "The president himself acted like the Creelman interview never took place. He would run for re-election as usual."

francisco maderoVanderwood's descriptions in his talk demonstrate how the historian helped bring characters alive in his work. In describing Díaz's main opponent, Francisco Madero of the Anti Re-Electionist Party, Vanderwood noted that Madero, 35 in 1908, and born into one of Mexico's wealthiest hacendado families in Coahuila state, had studied agriculture at the University of California at Berkeley and "relied on connections with the dead to make political and personal decisions."

Madero organized political clubs and wrote the book "La Sucesión Presidencial" in 1908. His message of "effective suffrage, no re-election," Vanderwood said, "spread like wildfire."

"Madero campaigned around the country, raising huge enthusiastic rallies everywhere. He was a little fellow, only five-feet-five, with a high squeaky voice, a vegetarian and a teetotaler: hardly the kind of mano-a-mano macho dude so appreciated by many Mexicans.

"But Madero's challenge to the regime was embraced by Mexicans of all stripes clamoring for change. Finally Díaz had had enough of him. In June 1910 he had him arrested for disturbing the peace with rallies in the large northern city of Monterrey and Madero was jailed in San Luis Potosí pending the presidential election.

mingei symposium "When Díaz was quote elected unquote for a seventh straight time, Madero prepared his call to revolution, escaped custody, fled to San Antonio, Texas, and on October 4 proclaimed the recent presidential election null and void and set November 20 as the day for Mexicans to rise in armed revolution against the illegitimate presidency of Porfirio Díaz. In the same decree he promised restitution of land usurped from villages and Indian communities as well as freedom of political prisoners. Other national issues were to be settled after the triumph of the Revolution and the election of a new president, presumably himself."


Madero looked backward to 1857 Constitution, not forward

Vanderwood said Madero wanted to "return to the Constitution of 1857," saying, "Madero was not looking forward for structural changes in the society but going backward."

Vanderwood detailed the half century of political battles Mexico experienced after its 1821 independence between conservatives and liberals, who opposed the power and privileges the army and the church had in Mexico. There was no single Mexico, but many Mexicos, Vanderwood said.

"Conservatives lost much of their credibility in the disaster of the (1846-48) Mexican War, or the War of Intervention, as Mexicans called it. An armed crew drove conservatives from power in midcentury and led in 1857 to this new constitution. Its provisions, especially those attacking the army and the church, immediately led to civil war and the conservative initiative to bring a European monarch to the throne of Mexico. But when that tragic experiment collapsed, liberals returned to national power and in 1876 Porfirio Díaz, by military coup, assumed the presidency in their name."

Then, Vanderwood said, "Economic liberalism flourished but political liberalism foundered." He added, "An aura of peace, an aura of peace and prosperity, some of it real, much of it imagined, settled over Mexico."

Impact of railroads and capitalism before the Revolution

Vanderwood detailed the dramatic impact of railroads on the country. "Their benefits in terms of communication, shipping and travel are well known. They also help tie regions accustomed to relative independence to central power." He said among the dramatic changes they helped cause was putting "stagecoach lines out of business along with posadas along their routes." Farmers who grew fodder for mules lost their livelihoods, and others used to getting free mule manure for fertilizer also were affected. Blacksmiths lost work. "In sum, we all know the result when rapid transportation bypasses formerly thriving towns and villages," he said. Still, Vanderwood said women gained a large and diverse market selling to passengers at train depots.

"Capitalism of course rides a roller coaster. Today we can all agree on that, can't we," he said to laughter.

World economic problems in 1907 had a major negative impact on Mexico, contributing to the factors setting off the Mexican Revolution. The seizure of peasants' land by the powerful and major labor issues also increased resentment.

Revolution breaks out

Then the Mexican Revolution broke out on Nov. 20, 1910. "Francisco Madero had promised an army of thousands when he crossed the Río Grande below Eagle Pass, Texas in northern Chihuahua at midnight on the 19th of November. But his army of liberation never materialized. So he and his staff retreated to the safety of an El Paso hotel. Nothing had gone as planned. And then he learned that an armed band of his supporters shouting ¡Viva Madero! and led by a muleteer ... named pascual orozcoPascual Orozco (left) had captured a small federal garrison in the pueblo of Guerrero which lay ... up against the Sierra Madre mountains in central Chihuahua. Díaz immediately dispatched by train a strong military contingent with artillery to recapture the village. But as the train approached the site through a mountain gorge the rebels under Orozco ambushed it, shot up the soldiers and sent the train carrying its dead and wounded back to the state capital. The press was there to photograph the carnage and spread the word. The Díaz military, thought to be invincible, had suffered a stunning defeat. That news raised more than an eyebrow. Setbacks such as these kindle revolutions."

pancho villaemiliano zapataThe Revolution spread. "Pancho Villa, then a railroad section boss and a formidable recruiter, joined the Revolution in Chihuahua." Then opponents to Díaz rose up in Guerrero state in January 1911. The Zapatistas joined in Morelos state south of Mexico City in February. Then an uprising began in Sonora in March. "Then Zacatecas."

"In accordance with today's military strategy, Díaz would have needed an army of 100,000 to crush this largely guerrilla movement engulfing him, but he had at a maximum 15,000 soldiers, many of them of uncertain loyalty," Vanderwood said.

Madero again forded the Río Grande, "with his staff and a coterie of supporters, among them American mercenaries," hoping to capture a military rail hub at Casas Grandes in northern Chihuahua. But Madero's forces were routed and he was wounded and had to retreat.

Díaz began negotiating with the insurgents. After an overwhelming insurgent victory at Ciudad Juarez in May, Díaz gave up and sailed to France. "The Revolution had triumphed in a little over six months. That was much too quickly to allow the Maderistas to establish a government which could handle the avalanche of demands made upon it from every quarter. The victors wanted their spoils. Madero won the presidency in 1911 in what has been said to have been the freest and most voted-in election in Mexican history. But he could not or would not satisfy quickly enough the land demands of Zapatistas. So they issued their famous reform plan of Ayala and went to war against Madero. In the north, Pascual Orozco was disappointed that he didn't receive a high Cabinet position in exchange for his service and rebelled.... Countless other insurgencies broke out in various parts of the country." The revolution in Baja California.

Nature of Mexican Revolution changes; Madero killed, Carranza fights Villa and Zapata

Vanderwood said the nature of the Mexican Revolution seemed to be changing.

victoriano huerta"In February 1913, a top Maderista general, Victoriano Huerta, with the support of the American ambassador in Mexico, turned traitor, had Madero and his vice president arrested and while the pair was being transferred from a local jail to the federal penitentiary they were pulled from their transport and shot dead. We know who did the shooting but not for sure who ordered it. But Huerta quickly had Congress name him the new president. Mexico and the world recoiled from this repellent act.

venustiano carranza"Almost immediately, Venustiano Carranza, the patrician governor of Madero's home state of Coahuila, vowed to avenge the martyred president and raised an army called the Constitutionalists to do so. Like Madero, he promised to return to the Constitution of 1857 but deliberately mentioned no social reforms. Although suspicious of Carranza ... (Emiliano) Zapata and Villa pledged their forces to fight the usurper, Huerta. The three armies converged on the capital in July 1914 and drove Huerta into exile.

"The victorious parties, Carrancistas, Zapatistas, and Villistas, then called a convention for October in Aguascalientes to decide who was to govern Mexico along what lines. Carranza wanted to be president but Villa objected, so Carranza backed out of the conclave altogether although he sent a delegation. Concerned that the delegates had no intention of enacting the land reforms at the core of his movement, Zapata also opted out, but sent delegates who forcefully and articulately stated his case. Villistas controlled the meeting, but Villa himself professed no interest in the presidency and his delegates presented no cohesive program. So the convention named an interim president, hoping that cooler heads could resolve differences through negotiations down the road. Carranza would have none of that and declared war on the convention, meaning Villa and Zapata, and Mexico collapsed into a no-holds barred civil war."

Carrancistas triumph, write new forward-looking 1917 Constitution

"The Carrancistas finally triumphed in the armed struggle, but even before they had consolidated their gains they declared that a new constitution was needed to legitimize their hold on power. Delegates, but only from the regions held by the Carrancistas, met in Querétaro in ... 1916 to draw up the new document, which they meant to look a lot like the old one, the Constitution of 1857. But the Revolution had already outdistanced (that document and) the majority of delegates, while endorsing citizens' rights included in the earlier constitution, emphatically embedded in the new one provisions which embraced their vision of a new and substantially different Mexico. In other words, they were looking ahead, not looking back over their shoulders. In a series of articles they voted in a heightened anticlericalism — priests could not engage in politics from the pulpit, could not wear clerical garb outside of churches, could not teach in public schools, only a limited number of foreign priests would be allowed in the country, and governors could limit the number of priests in their particular states. And so the long-term conflict between church and state from the colonial period to the present was ratcheted up another notch. Catholics complained that the new mandates infringed upon their guaranteed religious freedom, foreshadowing the internecine Cristero wars of the 1920s.

"In another notable renovation, the delegates allotted all land to the state, including subsoil properties such as oil and minerals. The state would parcel out property rights as it saw fit. As a result, private property, a mainstay of the former liberal agenda, lost its footing.

"Taking a page from the Zapatista manifesto, the new document also provided for the breakup of large estates, the restoration of land illegally taken from villages, and the granting of property and water to campesinos who lacked them. Rural Mexicans were to have their due, not some hazy political promise, but a constitutional right.

"Labor also received its due and then some. Article 123 of the new constitution has been referred to as the magna carta of Mexican labor, or the workers' manifesto. The most progressive labor contract of its time, it limited workdays to eight hours, created double pay for overtime, banned employment of children under 12 years of age, and protected minors over 12 from hazardous conditions and night work. The government was given the right to arbitrate strikes and industrial disputes and to legalize unions. Many of these provisions had been on labor's agenda during the Porfiriato but now they became constitutional rights. (The Constitution was adopted in 1917.)

New constitution not always followed; what was Revolution all about?

"How these constitutional changes, the printed words, played out in the real world later on is the subject for another conference of this kind. Suffice it to say constitutional changes are one thing and realpolitik another."

Vanderwood said there are many loose ends in the Mexican Revolution and that it is hard to have an overarching definition of it.

"Some historians have regarded it as populist, masses of 'los de abajo' struggling for betterment, in short, an example of class warfare. Others argue that it was principally a nationalist event, meaning that Mexicans of all stripes were determined to rid themselves of foreign intrusions, making the Mexican Revolution the first of the 20th century's great anticolonial events. Or that it was a from-the-top revolution with bourgeois, middle class, and even elite social climbers looking to break down traditional structures which had excluded them."

Vanderwood said the Mexican Revolution may have included all three elements and went through stages. He said it started as an attempt to return to a better perceived past but that "the euphoria of its quick success unleashed repressed, uncontrollable, popular passions which changed the trajectory of the struggle. Masses of Mexicans began to see Madero's program as just more of the same, too narrow, too slow. You can hear them shouting, 'We want our revolution, yes, but we want it now!' "

He concluded that in the chaos that followed, "the Carrancistas won the armed fight ... (and tried) to return to the old constitution but they could not. Popular demands for social justice and a share of the national patrimony were too strong and at least some of them were addressed in the country's plan for the future."

* * * * *

Epilogue: Carranza had Zapata killed in 1919; Carranza was assassinated while trying to flee the country, taking all the treasure he could carry, in 1920; Villa was assassinated in 1923 while in retirement, three years after the major violence of the Revolution had ended.
Huerta died of cirrhosis of the liver in a U.S. jail in Texas in 1916; he was jailed to prevent his return to Mexico. Orozco, who had planned to accompany Huerta on a return to Mexico, was shot and killed while fleeing a posse in Texas in 1915.

* * * * *

Vanderwood discusses his book "Satan's Playground" on KPBS
Voice of San Diego interviews Vanderwood about "Satan's Playground"

Vanderwood's website.

Some of Paul Vanderwood's books:

juan soldadosatan's playgroundborder furypower of god bookpaul vanderwood


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