Did Mexico truly have a revolution?

This is an essay I wrote for the course “Modern Mexico”, taught on Spring of 2021 by Prof. Matthew Vitz at UC San Diego.

The Mexican Revolution, understood as the series of transformations spanning from 1910 to 1940, drastically reshaped the nation’s social, economic, and political affairs. Military conflicts between revolutionary factions started in 1910 and ended in 1917, when a new and highly progressive Constitution laid the foundations necessary for a more just society. With legislation in place to address the primary grievances that led to tumult and chaos, Plutarco Elías Calles stated that the post-military challenge of the Revolution was “to institutionalize the politics of the country [and] once for all shift from our historical condition as a Nation of one man, to a Nation of institutions and laws” (El General, min 57). Unfortunately, the history of post-revolutionary Mexico demonstrates that, if the institutional transformation described by Calles ever happened, it didn’t last long. 

Plutarco Elías Calles (aka El jefe Máximo) may well be one of the most polarizing yet obscure figures in Modern Mexican History. We know he had a strong grip on power, but we don’t know precisely why or how he held on to it after leaving the presidency. Eventually, he was exiled by Lázaro Cárdenas and his memory partly washed away from National identity.

He founded the political establishment that would later control Mexican politics for 70+ years. He also gave great speeches and pressured his presidential successors to the point of making their work impossible. Nobody seems to know much about him as a person: in the documentary El General, his granddaughter dives into these and other mysteries.

Here I argue that the Mexican Revolution delivered the necessary elements for institutions to achieve even the most ambitious revolutionary ideals. To conciliate this view with Mexico’s more recent stories of tyranny, I propose that the attitude of Mexicans towards power did not change in concert with the power of institutions. Namely, popular forces could not keep up with increasing state capacities and allowed for clientelism and despotic practices to take root. Executive power was repeatedly misused to heighten one man above all else, thus enlarging the gap between society and the state. With the Mexican society perceiving itself as powerless in the face of a triumphant and invigorated state, civil liberties gained during the Revolution were slowly eroded. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, the civil liberties of Mexicans were fragile and uncertain. By 1910, Porfirio Díaz had served as president for 36 years, repeatedly challenging the Constitution of 1857, but invigorating the nation’s economy and its adoption of new technologies. Industry and agriculture produced great prosperity for the most privileged classes, whose fortunes were built at the expense of workers’ rights. Enrique Flores Magón described how workers were “sold” to plantation owners by enganchadores who had them sign labour contracts in which salaries and other terms were left blank to be later filled as needed (Jaffary et al, p. 265-268). Likewise, miners accused inhumane working conditions and privileged treatment of foreigners, who received higher wages for the same labour and often occupied management roles inaccessible to Mexicans (Jaffary et al, p. 271). 

Calling for change in the Mexican Executive, Francisco I. Madero denounced that “the division of powers […] and the rights of citizens exist only on paper.” Although Mexico had a Constitution and a justice system, they didn’t protect the weak but “merely (served) to legalize the plundering committed by the strong” (Jaffary et al, 295). These ideas resonated with military, social, and political leaders across the country, who quickly lined with Madero and forced Díaz into exile. Although Madero was elected President shortly thereafter, he was later executed and civil unrest continued for years as different factions could not agree on a solution to the Nation’s political problems (The storm that swept Mexico, min. 30-40). 

The Constitution of 1917 was the final agreement between revolutionary factions on what principles should reign Mexico’s future (Jaffary et al, p. 306-310). Article 27 gave ownership and management rights of all the Nation’s lands and waters to the Mexican state. Therefore, private citizens were able to acquire property and exploit its resources always subject to “limitations as public interest may demand,” including the possibility of state “appropriation in order to conserve [natural resources] in order to conserve them and to ensure a more equitable distribution of public wealth.” Meanwhile, Article 123 restricted labour contracts, stating that the “minimum wage […] will be sufficient […] to satisfy the basic necessities of a worker’s life, his education, and his honest pleasures, considering him as the head of the family.” Together, Articles 27 and 123 can prevent the sort of exploitation described by Flores Magón. With national land and its resources explicitly understood as means to achieve public welfare, this new legislation broke with the Porfiriato’s laissez-faire approach to industry in terms of both material and human resources (Jaffary et al, p. 256-259).

The long process that seeked to ensure the rights of oil workers (Art. 123) and culminated with the expropriation of foreign oil companies (Art. 27) by Lázaro Cárdenas exemplifies how post-1917 institutions, laws, and state power could in fact be used to increase public welfare. Likewise, Mexico’s Secretariat for Public Education (SEP) was founded to comply with the Constitution of 1917, bringing education to historically neglected groups and incorporating their heritage into the Nation’s cultural identity. While propaganda campaigns deployed by Cárdenas helped build support for expropriation, as well as strengthen and legitimize his government, they sometimes undermined democratic and constitutional principles: for instance, giant banners with the PRM logo and the faces of Cárdenas and Ávila Camacho hung from the front porch of Mexico City’s Cathedral in March of 1940 (González Salinas, fig. 3).

Although post-revolutionary state and civil institutions had popular prosperity as their core goals, clientelist politics clogged the pathways for Government action and citizen-state communication. Powerful figures sometimes appropriated systems for popular representation and therefore gave social-institutional weight to their own private wills. La Ley de Herodes tells the story of countless aspiring social leaders who, lacking routes to gain influence on social affairs, fell into some man’s powersphere and became corrupt. With power emanating from central authorities in both government and civil organizations, the broader Mexican society struggled to expand the practical limits of their liberty and actively shape their political destiny.  

In conclusion, it appears like the Mexican Revolution did provide the legislative and institutional changes necessary to “institutionalize the country’s politics.” However, it failed to transform the country’s political culture. This limited meaningful popular participation and allowed individuals, including Cárdenas, to unjustly embody the power of institutions, making México slide back into its “historical condition as a Nation of one man.” 


Jaffary, N. E., Osowski, E. W., & Porter, S. S. (2019). Mexican hisotry: A primary source reader. New York: Routledge.

Estrada, L. (1999). La ley de Herodes (No. Nd428). Twentieth Century Fox,.

Almada, N. (Ed.). (2009). El general. Women Make Movies.

Telles, R. (2011) The storm that swept Mexico. Paradigm Productions. 

González Salinas, O. F. (2016). El discurso patriótico y el aparato propagandístico que sustentaron a la expropiación petrolera durante el cardenismo. Estudios de historia moderna y contemporánea de México, (52), 88-107.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: