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War Along the Border
The Mexican Revolution and Tejano Communities
By Arnoldo De León
Texas A&M University PressCopyright © 2012 University of Houstonâ"Center for Mexican American Studies
All rights reserved.
Beyond Borders Causes and Consequences of the Mexican Revolution
The Mexican Revolution of 1910–1920 was the first successful revolution of the twentieth century. It was also the most enigmatic. It overthrew a dictatorship, but unlike other major revolutions such as the Russian, Chinese, or Cuban, no unified ideology directed it. No vanguard party seized power and implemented clearly articulated reforms designed to create an idealized society. Instead, the ruling party that emerged in Mexico coalesced after the Revolution and rested on a delicate alliance of often competing groups whose visions of what revolutionary Mexico should look like had differed violently.
The outcome of that struggle defined the future of modern Mexico and transcended its borders, impacting society in the United States, especially in border states like Texas. Revolutionaries, reactionaries, migrant workers, labor organizers, and refugees, found their way to the state. From the increased ethnic violence and initial civil rights activism of early twentieth century Texas, to immigration and the politics of ethnicity today, the results of the Mexican Revolution reached beyond the border.
Three main struggles defined Mexico's Revolution. First, the agrarian revolution of peasants and landless laborers sought the redistribution of land and wealth in the countryside. They lost the war but won significant concessions from the new revolutionary government. Second, the workers' revolt of urban and industrial labor included anarchist-inspired revolutionary demands for worker control of production, distribution, and profits. The workers were too few and too weak for victory, but they too won important guarantees. Third, the nationalist bourgeois rebellion desired a greater political voice through representative democracy, and modernization through government support of Mexican businesses versus powerful, and previously privileged, foreign capital. Their goals did not include a radical social transformation through the redistribution of wealth to peasants or labor. In the end, they won the war, but not decisively enough to impose their vision on the rest of the nation. They had to accommodate the peasants and workers, at least to a degree. That accommodation anchored the ruling party of the Revolution (eventually known as the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) and gave it enough cross-class legitimacy to maintain control for most of the twentieth century. However, over time, peasants and workers were sufficiently co-opted, and then marginalized, so that by 1968 revolutionary change neared a halt, and by the mid-1980s it had slipped into reverse. Since then, many of the major social reforms of the Revolution designed to protect workers, peasants, and the national economy have been dismantled. Today, the results, especially increased immigration, make headlines in Texas almost every week.
The Revolution overthrew the thirty-five-year-long dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (the Porfiriato, 1876–1910) when people from different social classes joined together in 1910–1911 to demand fair elections and an end to the reelection of the President. However, different social groups voiced their demands for very different reasons. Once they drove Díaz from power, the real fight began, as the revolutionary factions turned on each other in a brutal decade-long war.
The Revolution of 1910 had many causes, some ancient, and some coming about during the reign of Díaz. Defeated multiple times in elections for the presidency, first by Benito Juárez and then by Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, General Díaz launched a rebellion and seized power in 1876. His revolt, called the "Revolution of Tuxtepec," took its name from a town in his home state of Oaxaca, but actually, powerful Americans interested in economic opportunities in Mexico in part funded it, and the Plan had San Antonio, Texas, as its inaugural point. Some Americans backed Díaz because President Lerdo's nationalistic policies impeded their desires to build railroads and gain access to Mexico's vast natural resources. Reflecting his protectionist attitude, Lerdo is supposed to have said "between strength and weakness, the desert." Others, like rancher Richard King in Texas, supported Díaz for local reasons. Most importantly for King and his allies in South Texas, Díaz promised to restrain General Juan N. Cortina and end the so-called Cortina Wars, which involved Mexicans and Tejanos "rustling" cattle and interfering with the operation of Anglo ranchers whom they felt had acquired the land from Mexicans in fraudulent and illegal ways. Cortina's family had lost their land, and he supported the raids and gave safe haven to Mexicans and Tejanos whom Anglo ranchers considered "bandits." Cortina and many border Mexicans, however, thought the Anglo ranchers to be the actual perpetrators. Díaz's assurances to reign in Cortina, therefore, made him an appealing alternative for some Texas ranchers.
Díaz also looked good to American banking, railroad, agribusiness, timber, and mining interests, because he promised to open Mexico to foreign investment. The General wanted to modernize Mexico, but he felt that to join the ranks of modern industrializing countries, the country, like all poor nations, needed foreign capital, technological expertise, and markets. Therefore, he opened the doors to Mexico and enticed foreign capital with land concessions, tax breaks, cheap labor, and the promise of a secure social climate for investment. Capital flowed in and his policies spurred impressive economic growth for a time. The problem, though, was that Díaz failed to ensure that the benefits reached enough Mexicans.
The Porfirian model of economic growth and modernization came with a high human cost. Hoping to modernize farming beyond the ox and the plow, Díaz and his associates promoted large-scale commercial agriculture and the greater privatization of landholding. That decision came at the expense of subsistence-oriented communal villages and self-sufficient small landholders across the country. Taking sides in a long-standing struggle between hacendados and pueblos, Díaz allowed hacendados and local authorities to strip pueblos of communal land and water rights. When pueblo leaders protested, he often had them arrested, conscripted into the army, or sent to labor camps in Yucatán.
Díaz's approach was not entirely new. Mexican elites pursuing modernization had tried to privatize and commercialize the land of the communalist Indian and mestizo pueblos since the mid-nineteenth century. Liberal ideas of progress included the belief that communal landholding retarded Mexican national development and needed to be turned into private property, with individuals producing for a profit. Even though it was a foreign concept derived from outside experiences from other countries and represented a doctrine totally antithetical to the historical development of rural Mexico, the Liberals imagined that private property would stimulate a productive class of independent yeoman farmers that would provide the basis for individual initiative and the new mentality they believed necessary for national progress. Laws were passed creating the mechanisms necessary to carry out the transformation, including opening up communal pastures and woodlands and declaring them vacant lands. Díaz intensified the process. First, he followed through on a land law of 1875 that allowed surveying companies to survey "vacant" lands and granted the companies one-third of the land surveyed as payment. Another law, passed in 1883, followed when Díaz's associate, General Manuel González, served as President of Mexico. The law forced people to prove legal title to the land on which they lived. Small landholders and communal pueblos often lacked documentation, though, or could not afford drawn-out legal proceedings and lost their land. As a result, foreign surveying, railroad, timber and mining companies, wealthy landowners with good lawyers, and Díaz's political allies and associates came into possession of vast amounts of territory, much of it claimed by others and some of it already occupied.
During the Porfiriato, land became concentrated in fewer and fewer hands so that by 1910, the amount held by communal villages had shrunk from 25 percent of landholdings to only 2 percent. It was a dismal statistic that reflected not only changes in land ownership, but a concerted assault on a way of life. Communal landholding provided the foundation on which a self-sufficient, locally controlled agricultural lifestyle had been built in Mexico. The communal pueblo provided the main social unit for centuries, and the Spanish Crown had recognized indigenous rights to their pueblos through fundo legal, a concept and tradition which provided common access to land, water, woods, and pasture in order to provide for the survival and natural growth of a community. The assault on what remained of community lands was especially noteworthy in areas producing cash crops, such as Emiliano Zapata's home state of Morelos, the heart of the Mexican sugar industry at the time. Much of the more wide-open North, where Francisco (Pancho) Villa recruited his famous División del Norte, was simply declared vacant, and the government began to sell and give away large chunks of it as "terrenos baldios" (uncultivated land). Like other modernizing Mexican elites before him, Díaz hoped the land privatization program would lead to greater productivity based on export-led growth. The approach worked for a time, and it led to fantastic profits for a few Mexicans and foreigners, but it caused widespread resentment in the countryside.
While the government failed to address the needs of Mexico's impoverished and politically excluded rural population, workers objected to the lopsided benefits of industrialization. Mexicans working in foreign-owned enterprises chafed at living in segregated company towns, receiving lower wages than foreign workers, and being excluded from positions in management. Widespread child labor helped keep wages low. Making matters worse, Díaz repressed independent labor unions, and many felt he allowed foreign companies to treat Mexicans like second-class citizens in their own country.
Beyond worker and peasant resentment, which is common in the harsh early phases of industrialization no matter where it occurs, Díaz had another problem. Some Mexican businessmen began to feel that foreign capital received preferential treatment over domestic firms. Díaz lavished tax breaks on foreign companies and offered massive land grants to an array of American companies that, amazingly, often also included the subsoil rights. Responding to those inducements, foreigners, mainly Americans, came to acquire over 25 percent of the land in the country. Foreign interests also owned much of the best agricultural, timber, and mineral-rich land, and all of the oil by 1910; this alienated elements of the bourgeoisie, who felt they were being disadvantaged by their own government favoring foreign firms. But because the Díaz regime amounted to a dictatorship, limited opportunities existed to effect change. Eventually, disgruntled citizens of all classes began to object to the antidemocratic nature of their government. Foreign investors, on the other hand, who profited from low-wage Mexican labor, minimal taxes, government grants, and a labor movement under the dictator's control, held up Porfirian Mexico as a model for other developing nations to follow.
Enticed by the land concessions from the Mexican government and the vast mineral wealth of Mexico, American railroad companies built tracks that stretched from the Pacific port of Guaymas, Sonora, to Nogales, Arizona, and another from El Paso, Texas, to Mexico City. British and French investors financed a line from Laredo, Texas, to the Mexican capital. These railroads provided access to the natural resources of the Mexican interior and linked them to American markets. Land values near the railroads shot up as a result, and as the land along the rail lines became more valuable, foreigners and wealthy Mexicans acquired it, diverting water from streams and rivers and setting off a series of community revolts against the land usurpations.
Invited in by Díaz, foreign mining companies drilled, dug, and blasted out Mexico's mineral wealth and shipped it to American smelters in Texas, Arizona, and Colorado on the newly laid rail network. The advent of electricity made copper increasingly valuable, and American copper companies made fortunes while boomtowns teeming with Mexican miners rose out of the desert. One of the largest copper mining concerns was the American-owned Cananea Consolidated Copper Company in Sonora, which employed about four thousand Mexican workers and ran a segregated company town. Along the Gulf Coast, discoveries in Mexican oil fields attracted American and British capitalists who took over the Mexican oil industry just as petroleum became the world's most important source of energy. French capital led the way in textile production. Americans dominated the railroads and extractive industries, while Mexican capitalists invested in new soap, cement, beer, and cigarette factories, especially in Mexico City and Monterrey. Taken together, all these new industries fed a major process of internal migration within Mexico as they attracted newly landless laborers driven from the countryside. Manufactured American imports arriving from the United States by train further dislodged skilled artisans from their livelihoods. The uprooted and occupationally displaced became industrial workers in modernizing Mexico. Once on the move, many crossed the border seeking seasonal work and higher wages in Texas and other border states.
Across the country, but especially in the North, agricultural production shifted to provide crops and beef to feed workers in the mines, railheads, and industrial centers and the cities growing around them. Cotton production increased to feed the textile mills. The railroad, irrigation projects, and a dramatic increase in cotton production transformed the Laguna area of north-central Mexico. Well-funded enterprises took over the best and most well-watered land as locals relocated to scratch out a living on the margins. The rise in cotton production created a migrant, floating rural population as forty thousand cotton pickers looking for work descended on the Laguna area with each harvest.
The cattle industry in Chihuahua grew with the railroad, sending cattle to the expanding cities of northern Mexico and to the United States. In the South, the sugar industry in Morelos exploded as well, as haciendas encroached onto pueblo lands as profits from sugar soared. By 1910, large agribusinesses accounted for 70 percent of all landholdings in Mexico. The rapid commercialization of agriculture came at the expense of a wide array of rural people, including Indian and mestizo villagers, communal landholders, and small-scale farmers. The census of 1910 recorded between nine and ten million landless peasants out of a population of about fifteen million people. It was not just an economic process. The Mexican army violently removed the Yaqui Indians from the Yaqui River valley to make way for commercial agriculture and firms such as the Richardson Construction Company of Los Angeles, which acquired 993, 650 acres in the valley, and the Wheeler Land Company from Phoenix, which bought 1,450,000 next to it. Powerful northern elites allied with Díaz also created vast empires. The most obvious came to be that of the Luis Terrazas family of Chihuahua, who controlled millions of acres, employed over eight thousand people on their many haciendas, and had 40 percent of the industrial workers in the state working for their businesses. Needless to say, that kind of control limited competition, and those not allied with Terrazas and Díaz faced an unfair situation.
Traditional communities resisted the rapid change underway because it threatened their economic and cultural independence. Many did not wish to trade in their lives as pueblo citizens with guaranteed rights to communal land inherited from their ancestors for the uncertainties of wage labor. The new agricultural enterprises needed workers though, and they resorted to a variety of machinations to get them. One of the most common was the "enganche," or forwarding of cash and transportation costs to a worker to get him to go to an hacienda or mine. Once on site, however, people found themselves having to pay exorbitant prices to rent shabby lodging, and then got gouged at company stores for food and tools as they became tied to the employer by debt. Tying labor down through debt, especially on haciendas in parts of the underpopulated and removed North, became one tactic for maintaining a labor supply. Another method of securing workers in mines and to pick crops at harvest time involved the promise of high pay. Haciendas in Morelos kept impoverished permanent workers year around, housing them in dirt-floored huts of thatch and wood, and then hired seasonal workers at good wages when the sugar harvest depended on an intense period of around-the-clock labor. But because of its seasonal nature, the system offered little security and left people scrounging for work half of the year.
Excerpted from War Along the Border by Arnoldo De León. Copyright © 2012 University of Houstonâ"Center for Mexican American Studies. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
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