La Revolución

[ Latin American Studies ]

La Revolución

Mexico's Great Revolution as Memory, Myth, and History

By Thomas Benjamin

This pathfinding book shows how Mexicans from 1910 through the 1950s interpreted the revolution, tried to make sense of it, and, through collective memory, myth-making, and history writing, invented an idea called "la Revolución."



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6 x 9 | 256 pp. | 11 b&w photos, 2 tables

ISBN: 978-0-292-70882-2

The 1910 Revolution is still tangibly present in Mexico in the festivals that celebrate its victories, on the monuments to its heroes, and, most important, in the stories and memories of the Mexican people. Yet there has never been general agreement on what the revolution meant, what its objectives were, and whether they have been accomplished.

This pathfinding book shows how Mexicans from 1910 through the 1950s interpreted the revolution, tried to make sense of it, and, through collective memory, myth-making, and history writing, invented an idea called "la Revolución." In part one, Thomas Benjamin follows the historical development of different and often opposing revolutionary traditions and the state's efforts to forge them into one unified and unifying narrative. In part two, he examines ways of remembering the past and making it relevant to the present through fiestas, monuments, and official history. This research clarifies how the revolution has served to authorize and legitimize political factions and particular regimes to the present day. Beyond the Mexican case, it demonstrates how history is used to serve the needs of the present.

  • Preface
  • The Pantheon of National Heroes
  • Chronology of Events, 1810-1910
  • Introduction: The Revolution with a Capital Letter
  • Chronology of Events, 1911-1928
  • Part One: Construction
    1. 1911-1913: Every Event's Name Is Itself an Interpretation
    2. 1913-1920: Warring Authorities Mean Warring Pasts
    3. 1920-1928: Political Domination Involves Historical Definition
    • Chronology of Events, 1928-1968
  • Part Two: Performance
    1. Festival: A Vigorous Mexico Arising
    2. Monument: From the Ruins of the Old Regime
    3. History: The Work of Concord and Unification
  • Chronology of Events, 1968-present
  • Conclusion: Affirming and Subverting the Revolution
  • Notes
  • Sources
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Photo section begins on p. 85

"We Mexicans make a distinction, one of Mexico's most well-known political leaders, Moisés Sáenz, explained in 1929, "between the Revolution with a capital and revolutions with a small letter.'' The Revolution with a capital letter, he intended to convey, was commendable and justified, almighty and all-encompassing. A chorus of voices agreed. During the preceding two decades scribblers, journalists, politicians, intellectuals, propagandists, and other insurgent spokesmen and women throughout Mexico, the so-called voceros de la Revolución, had invented and constructed the Revolution with a capital letter in their pamphlets, broadsides, proclamations, histories, articles, and editorials. During the two decades following Saenz's 1929 statement, the Mexican government learned how to exhibit, disseminate, and perform the Revolution with a capital through festivals, monuments, and official history and thus to educate and inspire its citizens. Mexicans invested a lot of meaning in their Revolution with a capital letter during this century and that process of investrnent is the subject of this book.

The World Has Jumbled Its Catalog

"These are times of chaos; opinions are a scramble, parties a jumble; the language of new ideas has not been created.... It is the problem of this time to classify things and men.... The world has jumbled its catalog." So wrote Lamartine in another revolutionary age. The Mexican troubles of the second decade of the twentieth century were similarly complex, confusing, and ambiguous. Following events from the White House, President Woodrow Wilson complained, "I was very much confused because the narratives did not tally." In 1916, Luis Cabrera admitted that the dominant impression regarding the "Mexican situation," not only abroad but in Mexico itself, "is of absolute chaos. The causes each Government, each caudillo, each conspirator, each politician, or each writer give as the reasons for the Mexican Revolution, are as numerous as they are diverse, some are immediate, others are remote, but it is almost impossible to understand." The tempest of events was accompanied by a torrent of words. These words mostly tried to make sense of the events and give them order, direction, and meaning, to reorder the catalogue. This ordering of the recent past was necessary, because, as Hans Kellner writes, "historical events do not represent themselves, they are represented, they do not speak, they are spoken for."

Contemporaries told stories, drew comparisons, and made arguments about recent events in particular ways to justify their actions, to condemn their enemies, to win converts, and to do much more. Their talking, singing, drawing, painting, and writing invented la Revolución: a name transformed into what appeared to be a natural and self-evident part of reality and history. This talking and writing was also part of an older, larger, and greater project of forjando patria, forging a nation, inventing a country, imagining a community across time and space called Mexico. La Revolución became part of the master narrative—the "stream of tradition" as Isaiah Berlin calls it—that created, shaped, and is the nation of Mexico.

What is a nation? It is a large-scale solidarity, Ernest Renan said in 1882. A century later the term was updated by Benedict Anderson to "an imagined community." According to Renan and Anderson, it is not ethnicity, religion, material interest, language, military necessity, or geography that comprise the fundamental and indispensable forces creating and maintaining that solidarity. The key is memory, myth, and history, organized remembering and deliberate forgetting. For Renan it is "a rich legacy of memories... the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form." For Anderson it is "the expression of an historical tradition of serial continuity." When we say "national identity," Jean Meyer writes, "we are also saying 'history.'" And even then the nation is still only a "problematic, protean and artificial construct."

A basic "story line," the master narrative, "is culturally constructed and provides the group members vvith a general notion of their shared past." It contributes to the formation of a nation by "portraying it as a unified group moving through history.'' Poets, journalists, teachers, politicians, and writers are often more influential in composing the master narrative than are professional historians. The master narrative is collective memory, national mythology, offficial and unofficial, formal and folk history all rolled into one, promoting national fraternity and solidarity among citizens. For nearly two centuries Mexicans have been preoccupied by the transcendent struggle to define and construct that solidarity. No one has ever doubted its necessity. Regarding Mexico's perilous national cohesion, Lord Acton wrote in 1862:

The vanity and peril of national claims founded on no political tradition, but on race alone, appear in Mexico. There the races are divided by blood, without being grouped together in different regions. It is, therefore, neither possible to unite them nor to convert them into the elements of an organized State. They are fluid, shapeless, and unconnected, and cannot be precipitated, or formed into the basis of political institutions.

Mexico, in fact, did found its national claim on a political tradition, a master narrative. We must first look to national history in order to better understand the invention, construction, and significance of la Revolución.

Narrating the Nation

The first national historians of the nineteenth century looked for the origins and nature of Mexico in the contrasting interpretations of the sixteenth-century conquerors, chroniclers, and missionaries. Traditionalist hispanophile conservatives were influenced by the original imperial school of history. Hernán Cortés, in his letters to Emperor Charles V, and the chronicles by Gonzalo Fernéndez de Oviedo, Francisco López de Gómara, Bernal Díaz de Castillo, and Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, justified and glorified the military conquest of the Aztec empire. The Spanish chroniclers emphasized individual heroism but displayed a messianic sense of history They generally denigrated native culture, characterized it as brutal and savage, and particularly condemned its idolatrous and "satanic" nature Mneteenth-century conservatives accordingly interpreted the conquest as the birth of the Mexican nation, Cortés as its founding father, and the apparition of the Virgin Mary, as the Virgin of Guadalupe (only ten years following the conquest), as its christening.

Rationalist hispanophobe liberals imagined a very different Mexico, one that was derived from very different and more complicated traditions. Their condemnation and rejection of the conquest was based on the chronicles and histories of Bartolomé de las Casas, Jerónimo de Mendieta, and Agustín Dávila Padilla. Their appreciation, even glorification, of the ancient Mexicans was based on the early Franciscan ethnologies of Toribio de Benavente (Motolinia) and Bernardo de Sahagún and the later elaborations of Carlos de Sigüenza y Gongora and Francisco Xavier Clavijero. A sophisticated anti-Spanish Creole patriotism was forged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and it interpreted the conquest as the beginning not of the nation but of hundreds of years of colonial captivity and exploitation tempered by valiant evangelization. The Mexican nation from this perspective arose from an ancient indigenous past, was brought to the Christian faith originally by the apostle St. Thomas and later by saintly missionaries, and was blessed by the Virgin of Guadalupe. This providential nation, the new Jerusalem in Anahuac, was awakened to freedom by Father Miguel Hidalgo's Grito de Dolores—his declaration of independence and call for revolution—in 1810 and shepherded to independence by Agustín de Iturbide in 1821.

National historical writing began with the revolution for independence of 1810-11, which came to be known as the Insurgency. Fray José Servando Teresa de Mier (La Historia de la Revolución de Nueva España antiguamente Anahuac, 1813) and Carlos María de Bustamante (Cuadro histórico de la revolución de la America mexicana, 1823-32) provided historical justification for the Insurgency and the rebirth of the Mexican nation. In exalting the last Aztec emperor Cuauhtémoc and the Insurgency's leaders Hidalgo and Jose María Morelos, they tried to give the infant country the prepackaged heritage found in Creole patriotism. Liberal ideologues and part-time historians, Jose María Luis Mora (México y su revoluciones, 1836) and Lorenzo de Zavala (Ensayo histórico de las revoluciones de México, 1831) could not accept the fundamental premise of Creole patriotism, that is, Mexico's providential history. Their anti-Spanish interpretation emphasized condemnation of the Church—which had itself condemned the Insurgency—as part and parcel of three centuries of Spanish colonialism. Thereafter, anticlericalism would be the touchstone of liberal ideology and historiography.

During the first decades following national independence no one faction or ideology dominated politics and the state. The historical vision of Mexico advanced by an emerging liberal tradition was contested by an emerging conservative one as represented by Lucas Alaman (Disertaciones sobre la historia de la República mejicana, 1844-49, and Historia de Méjico, 1849-52). Alaman argued that the Church was Spain's premier gift to Mexico and the core of Mexican nationality. The liberator was not Hidalgo, the excommunicated rebel priest who was defeated and executed in 1811, but the former royalist soldier Agustín de Iturbide, who achieved national independence with a guarantee to maintain the Catholic religion.

The first great non-Mexican contribution to Mexican historiography, William H. Prescott's romantic epic, The History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843), affirmed the conservative tradition even though it came from the pen of a New England Protestant. (This was no coincidence, since the Yankee historian was favored by the collegial advice and assistance of Alamán and Joaquín García Icazbalceta.) Prescott's disdain for the "barbaric" Indians concurred with the conservative vision of the nation founded by Hernan Cortés, the Conquistador.

These two opposing, nearly contradictory visions of the Mexican past, present, and desired future inspired almost perpetual political conflict. The liberal revolution in the 1850s called the Reform and the subsequent liberal victories in the War of the Reform (1859-61), as well as the French Intervention in the 1860s, roundly defeated and thoroughly discredited the conservative cause in Mexico. Liberals officially proclaimed their cause to be the cause of the nation, their heroes to be Mexico's heroes, their enemies Mexico's enemies, and their interpretation of national history to be the history of Mexico. This vision was reinforced in the 1860s and 1870s by the essays and orations of Ignacio Ramírez and Ignacio Manuel Altamirano, which adopted the indigenism of Creole patriotism (and the Black Legend of Bartolomé de las Casas for good measure), but which replaced its providential view of history with a quasihistoricist evolutionary one and its mystical Catholicism with radical anti-clerical hispanophobia. Naturally, they glorified the Insurgency and its sequel, the Reform. Mexico at last possessed a master narrative that found its expression and glorification in official histories, school textbooks, commemorative monuments, and patriotic orations.

During the Restored Republic (1867-76), the first period of relative tranquillity after the Reform, at all levels of instruction national history acquired a significance never before seen. New manuals of history and school texts appeared that possessed one fundamental purpose: "to create the myths that sustained nationality and the heroes that it symbolized; and above all to pUt forward an analysis conforming to the dominant political ideology.''

Conservative historians in the age of liberal ascendancy did not disappear but performed other duties—preserving historical documents and manuscripts and publishing impressive documentary collections. Manuel Orozco y Berra, director of the national archives and the national museum, Joaquín García Icazbalceta, Francisco Pimentel, Francisco del Paso y Troncoso, and Carlos Pereyra published thick volumes of colonial documents and brought out new editions of classic colonial ethnologies and chronicles. José Fernandez Ramírez, a liberal, spent a lifetime collecting historical documents and books and became perhaps the most respected historian of his time. These men were talented scholars, not dabblers in history. Although they contributed little directly to the master narrative, they were giants of colonial historiography. Twentieth-century historians have come to depend on their scholarship.

Mexico's first offficial history, the five-volume México a través de los siglos (1887-89), was the most ambitious and successful national history of the nineteenth century. Its many reprints can be found yet today in most bookstores and in many homes. Vicente Riva Palacio and three prominent liberal intellectuals integrated what had been different, neglected, and often opposed pasts into one conciliatory national history. They structured national history into five epochs, one per volume: the ancient Mexican civilizations, colonial New Spain, the Insurgency, independent Mexico, and the Reform. A little more than a decade later, Justo Sierra and the leading lights of the next generation of liberals produced a similar monumental of ficial history, México, su evolución social (1900-02). Sierra's history, unlike its predecessor organized thematically, was politically sycophantic toward the current regime of General Porfirio Díaz, hero of the war against the French, seeing it as the triumphant culmination of a long struggle against the dark forces of colonialism, clericalism, and conservatism. It was also self-consciously scientific in its social Darwinist conception of Mexico as an organism that had evolved from both Indian and Spanish roots to create a new mestizo people and nation. Together these bibliographic monuments created what Edmundo O'Gorman has termed the liberal synthesis in Mexican historiography. The liberal synthesis, together with a reverence for national heroes and celebration of patriotic holidays, in turn, was the core of whatJusto Sierra called "the Religion of the Patria."

The liberal synthesis survived well into the twentieth century. Generations of Mexican schoolchildren learned Mexican history from the multiple editions of Justo Sierra's textbooks (Catecismo de Historia Patria, 1894; Veinticuatro cuadros de historia patria, 1907; and Elementos de Historia Patria, 1894, 1904, 1916, and 1922, in use until 1958). Félix F. Palavicini after the Second World War attempted to update the liberal synthesis in the style of Vicente Riva Palacio and Justo Sierra with his multiauthor and multivolume México, Historia de su evolución constructiva (1945). The works of Fernando Iturribarria, Jesús Silva Herzog, and particularly Jesús Reyes Heroles (El liberalismo mexicano, 1957-61) argued again that the liberal cause more broadly redefined was and is the cause of Mexico. "Liberalism," Iturribarria wrote, "that is, social democracy has triumphed at last, with the program of the Mexican Revolution."

The turmoil of the second and third decades of the twentieth century interrupted the master narrative at this point. Events needed explaining and naturally observers interpreted them on their own terms and in relation to the master narrative, the liberal synthesis.

Remembering the Revolution

La Revolución was a product of collective memory, mythmaking, and history writing. Maurice Halbwachs, the first theorist of collective memory, argued that while it is individuals who remember, social groups determine what is memorable and how it will be remembered. Collective memory, then, is the name generally given to "what is remembered by the dominant civic culture." But collective memory, like individual memory, is never a faithful retrieval or reclamation of the past. It does not just happen. As Leon Wieseltier explains, "the memory of an event is an interpretation of an event."

La Revolución, then, was remembered by revolutionary voceros and their heirs, often in ideal and mythic ways. "Myth" is defined in modern positivist thought as fictitious or unreliable history, and thus those who came up with the term "myth of the Mexican Revolution" wanted to discredit part or all of la Revolución. But "a myth is not an erroneous picture of the world," Stephen Ausband explains, "it is just a picture." William McNeil maintains that truth resides in myth, albeit a simplified and idealized truth and one that often helps to make the complex world intelligible, meaningful, and reassuring. Mythmaking in Mexico, like remembering, involved the reconstruction of the past in the light of the present, and particularly in light of the political necessities of the present. "As do individuals, nations feed on myths, and political systems that come into being through revolution—as happened in America, in France, in Russia—are especially dependent on the creation and maintenance of myths to bolster their legitimacy."

La Revolución was also fashioned by would-be, mostly amateur, historians. Halbwachs made an important distinction between collective memory, which he viewed as "merely" a social construct, and written history, which he considered to be objective knowledge. This distinction today we know is unfounded: "both memory and history look like heavily constructed narratives." Carl Becker long ago characterized "history as the artificial extension of social memory." Although it was formerly considered to be impure, Francois Hartog writes that "memory is becoming part of the stuff of history: there is now a history of memory." The early history of revolutionary history writing in Mexico supports Philippe Aries's contention that history emerges out of collective memory and is barely distinguishable from myth.

La Revolución, however, was not remembered, mythologized, and rendered as history the same way by everyone in the early days. The revolutionary mobilization of the 1910s produced several armed factions and political movements that were often in conflict with one another. Given the complexity of any society, there is rarely one collective memory of an event or era; revolutionary Mexico certainly saw several different and competing constructions of its recent past. The past, as well as power, is contested in politics, war, and revolution. In the course of any struggle, the more powerful favor certain memories and myths over others and seek to create an offficial (and in aspiration dominant or national) memory in order to legitimize existing political authority. The development of an offficial memory, however, generally does not crowd out or incorporate all other collective memories. Those that resist and withstand the offficial version, called counter-memories here, may be marginalized or may persist to challenge and pressure the dominant construction. The criteria of success, of course, are not those of truth: "dominant representations may be those that are most ideological, most obviously conforming to the flattened stereotypes of myth."

La Revolución emerged as successive official memories in a process not unlike geologic formation: an uneven sedimentation of memory, myth, and history. It was named, historicized, and reified quite early on. As the postrevolutionary state tried to consolidate power and authority in the 1920s, however, the existence of different, partisan revolutionary collective memories and myths—codified in time into competing revolutionary traditions, each with their own heroes and villains, sacred and bitter anniversaries, myths and symbols—retarded the process. Wounds of memory did not create but rather exacerbated more serious and immediate power struggles. During the 1920s, la Revolución was further made permanent and ongoing and all (or nearly all) factions past and present were unified in a Revolutionary Family. Onto this basic construction leaders and regimes could hang their special attributes, from democracy to nationalism, anticlericalism to socialism.

Since to govern is ultimately to make believe ("It is therefore on opinion only that government is founded," wrote David Hume), the postrevolutionary Mexican state sought and built political consensus sacralized by a civil religion to underwrite the new status quo. Healing the wounds of memory was part of the state rebuilding process that in Mexico was called the institutionalization of the revolution. Forging one offficial, dominant yet fraternal Revolutionary Tradition would help revolutionaries accomplish the goals that tradition is designed to accomplish: to disseminate la Revolución in the present and transmit la Revolución to succeeding generations, in the process to inculcate beliefs, legitimize institutions, and promote social cohesion. The Revolutionary Tradition, however, was intended first and foremost to reinforce elite and thus national political unity, to establish a solid historical foundation upon which to unify all revolutionary factions past and present.

If, as Michael Walzer writes, "the union of men can only be symbolized," the Revolutionary Tradition—the public face of la Revolución—was crucial to forging harmony within the Revolutionary Family and the memory-nation.

Nation and Revolution Are One

What made la Revolución so affective and effective, powerful and enduring was its seamless integration into Mexico's "religion of the patria." In post-revolutionary Mexico, very much like the French Third Republic described by Pierra Nora, "history, memory, and the nation enjoyed an unusually intimate communion." It is difficult to tell where the older liberal synthesis ends and la Revolución begins. "Nation and revolution are indissolubly one,"John Gunther recognized in 1940. This is in large part because, as Samuel Inman had written two years earlier, "the Revolution has become a religion." That religion, the religion of the patria, was the reverence of Mexico's struggle for nationhood in three successive revolutions.

In the updated master narrative, the regime of Porfirio Díaz was transformed from the apotheosis of liberal evolution to yet another dark period of reactionary ascendancy similar to the centuries of Spanish colonialism, the decades of conservative misrule after 1821, and the few years of the French-imposed reign of Maximilian in the 1860s. La Revolución, naturally, took its former exalted place. It became the third revolution after the Insurgency and the Reform that created and shaped the nation. It became the apotheosis of liberal evolution and popular revolution: national history led inexorably to this glorious age. La Revolución, however, did not bring an end to history. Its reforms remain unfinished, its objectives not yet met. The Reaction within Mexico and imperialism without, although defeated, are not extinguished. The struggle, therefore, will continue, La Revolución must continue. And the nation shall continue to progress and unite.

How did this happen? We return to the issue that opened this introduction: Mexicans invested a lot of meaning in their Revolution with a capital letter. Part One of this book narrates the construction of la Revolución in memory, myth, and history from 1911 to 1928 in three chapters. How la Revolución first took shape is considered. The development of different and often opposing revolutionary traditions in the 1910s and the early efforts taken in the 1920s to forge one unified and unifying narrative of the Revolution is then addressed. The assassination in 1928 of Mexico's strong man, Álvaro Obregón, marks the acceleration of the "institutionalization of the revolution," a process of political consolidation and unification that included the formation and dissemination of a Revolutionary Tradition.

Part Two analyzes the Revolutionary Tradition in three different incarnations or performances: as an annual festival, a commemorative monument, and offficial history. These incarnations represent different forms of organized remembering and different ways to represent and broadcast the past, to make it relevant and alive in the present. Chapter Four looks at the history of national festivals and the rise of Mexico's official Revolution Day, the twentieth of November. Chapter Five studies the history of revolutionary monuments and the construction of the greatest of them all, the Monument to the Revolution. Chapter Six considers the appearance of revolutionary historiography and the development of official histories of the revolution The Conclusion analyzes how in recent decades various political groups and governments have both afffirmed and subverted the Revolutionary Tradition and, therefore, La Revolución itself.

The Mexican political system during most of the twentieth century has based its legitimacy largely on la Revolución. The state and the dominant party, accordingly, are the culmination and continuation of the Mexican revolution. La Revolución is identified with the most sacred values and the highest principles of the Republic, as well as the greatest needs and aspirations of its people. The revolutionary origins of the political system and that system's faithful adherence to la Revolución have justified the existence of the system, the hegemony of the offficial party, and the authority of the successive regimes that take power every six years. This pattern for support is changing, however. The system has deviated from its founding principles as Mexican civil society has changed and awakened. Opponents of the government have embraced la Revolución and are making it their own. The Revolutionary Tradition will surely survive the downfall of the postrevolutionary political system just as the older Liberal Tradition survived the downfall of the Porfirian political system. Long will Mexicans proclaim, ¡Viva La Revolución!


By Thomas Benjamin

Thomas Benjamin is Professor of Latin American History at Central Michigan University.

"There is no hotter topic than how we construct our historical memory. The Mexican Revolution offers an exemplary myth to explore. Thomas Benjamin has examined the construction of the Mexican memory and the myth of the Revolution with wit and grace.... I believe this book will find a considerable market among students and scholars."

—Mark Wasserman, Professor of History, Rutgers University