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Hidalgo, Santa Anna and War
Napoleon Bonaparte occupies Spain, deposes the monarchy, and installs his brother, Joseph, as head of state. The ensuing Peninsular War between Spain (backed by Britain) and France will lead almost directly to the Mexican war for independence, as the colonial government in New Spain falls into disarray and its opponents begin to gain momentum.
September 16, 1810
In the midst of factional struggles within the colonial government, Father Manuel Hidalgo, a priest in the small village of Dolores, issues his famous call for Mexican independence. El grito de Dolores set off a flurry of revolutionary action by thousands of natives and mestizos, who banded together to capture Guanajuato and other major cities west of Mexico City. Despite its initial success, the Hidalgo rebellion loses steam and is defeated quickly, and the priest is captured and killed at Chihuahua in 1811. His name lives on in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, however, and September 16, 1810, is still celebrated as Mexico’s Independence Day.
Another priest, Jose Morelos, succeeds Hidalgo as leader of Mexico’s independence movement and proclaims a Mexican republic. He is defeated by the royalist forces of the mestizo general Agustín de Iturbide, and the revolutionary banner passes to Vicente Guerrero.
After revolt in Spain ushers in a new era of liberal reforms there, conservative Mexican leaders begin plans to end the viceregal system and separate their country from the mother land on their own terms. On their behalf, Iturbide meets with Guerrero and issues the Plan of Iguala, by which Mexico would become an independent country ruled as a limited monarchy, with the Roman Catholic Church as the official state church and equal rights and upper-class status for the Spanish and mestizo populations, as opposed to the majority of the population, which was of Native American or African descent, or mulato (mixed). In August 1821, the last Spanish viceroy is forced to sign the Treaty of Córdoba, marking the official beginning of Mexican independence.
Iturbide, who earlier declared himself emperor of the new Mexican state, is deposed by his former aide, General Antonio López de Santa Anna, who declares a Mexican republic. Guadalupe Victoria becomes Mexico’s first elected president, and during his tenure Iturbide is executed, and a bitter struggle begins between Centralist, or conservative, and Federalist, or liberal, elements of the Mexican government that will continue for the next several decades.
Santa Anna himself becomes president after leading the successful resistance against Spain’s attempt to recapture Mexico in 1829. His strong Centralist policies encourage the increasing ire of residents of Texas, then still part of Mexico, who declare their independence in 1836. After attempting to quell the rebellion in Texas, Santa Anna’s forces are decisively defeated by those of rebel leader Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto in April 1936. Humbled, he is forced to resign power by 1844.
May 12, 1846
As a result of the continuing dispute over Texas, frictions between the U.S. and Mexican residents of the region, and a desire to acquire land in New Mexico and California, the U.S. declares war on Mexico. The U.S. quickly smother their enemy with superior force, launching an invasion of northern Mexico led by General Zachary Taylor while simultaneously invading New Mexico and California and blockading both of Mexico’s coasts. Despite a series of U.S. victories (including a hard-won victory over Santa Anna’s men at Buena Vista in February 1847) and the success of the blockade, Mexico refuses to admit defeat, and in the spring of 1847 the U.S. sends forces under General Winfield Scott to capture Mexico City. Scott’s men accomplish this on September 14, and a formal peace is reached in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848. By its terms, the Rio Grande becomes the southern boundary of Texas, and California and New Mexico are ceded to the U.S. The U.S. agrees to pay $15 million as compensation for the seized land, which amounts to half of Mexico’s territory.
Defeat in the war against the United States serves as a catalyst for a new era of reform in Mexico. Regional resistance to the strict centralized regime of the aging Santa Anna leads to guerrilla warfare and eventually to the general’s forced exile and the rise to power of rebel leader Juan Álvarez. He and his liberal cabinet, including Benito Júarez, institute a series of reforms, culminating in 1857 in the form of a new constitution establishing a federal as opposed to centralized form of government and guaranteeing freedom of speech and universal male suffrage, among other civil liberties. Other reforms focus on curtailing the power and wealth of the Catholic Church. Conservative groups bitterly oppose the new constitution, and in 1858 a three-year-long civil war begins that will devastate an already weakened Mexico.
Road to Revolution
Benito Júarez, a Zapotec Indian, emerges from the War of the Reform as the champion of the victorious liberals. One of Júarez’s first acts as president is to suspend payment on all of Mexico’s debts to foreign governments. In an operation spearheaded by France’s Napoleon III, France, Great Britain and Spain intervene to protect their investments in Mexico, occupying Veracruz. The British and Spanish soon withdraw, but Napoleon III sends his troops to occupy Mexico City, forcing Júarez and his government to flee in June 1863. Napoleon III installs Maximilian, archduke of Austria, on the throne of a Mexican Empire.
Under pressure from the United States, which has continued to recognize Júarez as the legitimate leader of Mexico, France withdraws its troops from Mexico. After Mexican troops under General Porfirio Díaz occupy Mexico City, Maximilian is forced to surrender and is executed after a court-martial. Reinstated as president, Júarez immediately causes controversy by proposing further changes to the constitution that would strengthen executive power. In the 1871 elections, he narrowly wins reelection over a slate of candidates including Porfirio Díaz, who leads an unsuccessful revolt in protest. Júarez dies of a heart attack in 1872.
After another revolt--this time successful--against Júarez’s successor Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, Porfirio Díaz takes control of Mexico. Except for one four-year stretch from 1880 to 1884, Díaz will rule essentially as a dictator until 1911. During this period, Mexico undergoes tremendous commercial and economic development, based largely on Díaz’s encouragement of foreign investment in the country. By 1910, most of the largest businesses in Mexico are owned by foreign nationals, mostly American or British. The modernizing reforms made by the Díaz government turn Mexico City into a bustling metropolis, but they largely benefit the country’s upper classes, not its poor majority. The fundamental inequality of Mexico’s political and economic system breeds growing discontent, which will lead to revolution.
Francisco Madero, a landowning lawyer and a member of Mexico’s liberal, educated class, unsuccessfully opposes Díaz in the year’s presidential elections. He also publishes a book calling for free and democratic elections and an end to the Díaz regime. Although fully 90 percent of the Mexican population at the time is illiterate, Madero’s message spreads throughout the country, sparking increasing calls for change, and Madero himself becomes the acknowledged leader of a popular revolution.
November 20, 1910
The Mexican Revolution begins when Madero issues the Plan of San Luis Potosí, promising democracy, federalism, agrarian reform and worker’s rights and declaring war on the Díaz regime. By 1911, Díaz is forced to step aside and Madero is elected president, but conflict and violence continue for the better part of the next decade. Popular leaders like Emiliano Zapata in southern Mexico and Pancho Villa in the north emerge as the champions of the peasant and working class, refusing to submit to presidential authority.
In the wake of a series of bloody riots in the streets of Mexico City in February 1913, Madero is overthrown by a coup led by his own military chief, General Victoriano Huerta. Huerta declares himself dictator and has Madero murdered, but opposition from the supporters of Villa, Zapata and the former Díaz ally (but political moderate) Venustiano Carranza drive Huerta to resign by 1914. Carranza takes power, and Zapata and Villa continue waging war against him. Various invasions by the United States--nervous about their unruly neighbor--further complicates matters, as Carranza struggles to hold power. Government forces led by General Álvaro Obregón finally defeat Villa’s northern guerrilla forces, leaving the rebel leader wounded but alive.
Mexico remains neutral throughout World War I, despite efforts by Germany to enlist the country as an ally. Despite the warring factions in Mexico, Carranza is able to oversee the creation of a new liberal Mexican constitution in 1917. In his efforts to maintain power, however, Carranza grows increasingly reactionary, ordering the ambush and murder of Zapata in 1919. Some of Zapata’s followers refuse to believe their hero is dead, and his legend lives on to inspire many generations of social reformers. The following year, Obregón is overthrown and killed by a group of his more radical generals. They are led by Obregón, who is elected president and faces the task of reforming Mexico after ten years of devastating revolution. By this time, nearly 900,000 Mexicans have emigrated to the United States since 1910, both to escape the violence and to find greater opportunities for work.
After three years, the U.S. recognizes the Obregón government, only after the Mexican leader promises not to seize the holdings of American oil companies in Mexico. In domestic affairs, Obregón puts into place a serious of agrarian reforms, and gave official sanction to organizations of peasants and laborers. He also institutes a sweeping educational reform led by Jose Vasconcelos, enabling the Mexican cultural revolution that begins during this period--including astonishing work by such artists as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, the photographer Tina Modotti, the composer Carlos Chávez and the writers Martín Luis Guzmán and Juan Rulfo--to extend from the richest to the poorest segments of the population. After stepping down in 1924 to make way for another former general, Plutarco Calles, Obregón is reelected in 1928, but is killed this same year by a religious fanatic.
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