You Gotta Know These Mexican Leaders

  • Montezuma II (c. 1466–1520) was one of the last rulers of the Aztec empire. In 1519 Montezuma allowed armed forces led by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés to enter the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. Several months later, the Spanish imprisoned Montezuma within his own palace. After the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado took advantage of Montezuma’s captivity to massacre peaceful celebrants at a religious festival, the Aztecs selected a new ruler named Cuitláhuac, and the city erupted into conflicts that led to Montezuma’s death. The Spanish then fled during an escape that is called the “Noche Triste,” or “Sad Night” because many conquistadors died while crossing the causeways that connected the island city of Tenochtitlán to the shores of Lake Texcoco. By 1521, the ravages of smallpox and the help of indigenous Tlaxcalan allies allowed Cortés to conquer Tenochtitlán and to capture Cuauhtémoc, the final Aztec emperor.
  • Miguel Hidalgo (1753–1811) was a parish priest who became the leader of Mexico’s first independence movement. After Napoleon invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 1808 and ousted the Spanish king Ferdinand VII, political movements advocating Enlightenment ideas of representative government and local self-determination sprung up in many of Spain’s American colonies. Hidalgo belonged to one such group, which officials in the viceroyalty of New Spain attempted to suppress. In response, Hidalgo called his congregation together and issued a call for revolt known as the “Grito de Dolores,” or “Cry of Dolores” on September 16, 1810. The rebels captured the cities of Guanajuato and Guadalajara, but were unable to take Mexico City. In 1811, Hidalgo was captured and executed by the colonial regime. The leadership of the independence movement then fell to another priest named José María Morelos, who was himself executed in 1815. Although Hidalgo’s movement was unsuccessful, September 16 is still celebrated as Mexico’s official Day of Independence.
  • Agustín de Iturbide (1783–1824) was a royalist general who changed his allegiances to become the first ruler of independent Mexico. Like many Creoles, or people of European descent born in the Americas, Iturbide feared that the insurgency would upset colonial hierarchies of race and class. In 1820, however, a liberal revolution in Spain caused conservative Mexican elites to reconsider the benefits of independence. Iturbide reached out to the insurgent leader Vicente Guerrero, and agreed to endorse legal racial equality in exchange for Guerrero’s military support. Early in 1821 Iturbide released the Plan of Iguala, which is also known as the “Plan of the Three Guarantees” or “Plan Trigarante” because it called for Mexican independence, a wholly Catholic state, and the equality of all races. Iturbide’s Army of the Three Guarantees soon forced Juan O’Donoju, the last viceroy of New Spain, to acknowledge Mexican independence in the Treaty of Córdoba. In 1822 Iturbide became the first emperor of Mexico, but a revolt led by Antonio López de Santa Anna forced Iturbide into exile in 1823. When Iturbide returned to Mexico in 1824, he was quickly executed.
  • Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794–1876) was a general who served as president of Mexico 11 different times between 1833 and 1855. After gaining independence, many Latin American nations fell under the rule of caudillos, or charismatic leaders who exercised both military and political power. As one of these figures, Santa Anna cultivated an image of himself as a savior of the Mexican nation, and even held an elaborate funeral for the leg that he lost during a conflict with France known as the “Pastry War.” However, Santa Anna proved unable to prevent the loss of Mexico’s northern territories. Despite routing the defenders of the Alamo, Santa Anna was defeated by the forces of Sam Houston at the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto, and was forced to recognize Texan independence. A little more than a decade later, Santa Anna seized control of the government during the Mexican-American War, only to lose major battles at Cerro Gordo and Chapultepec, and be forced into exile. He returned to Mexico in 1853 and tried to establish a permanent dictatorship, but was challenged by the Liberal Plan of Ayutla, and was driven from power in 1855.
  • Benito Juárez (1806–1872) was a Liberal lawyer who became the first indigenous president of Mexico, and who led the opposition to the French-backed empire of Maximilian von Habsburg. Born to a Zapotec family in the state of Oaxaca, Juárez became a key figure in the Liberal movement that deposed Santa Anna, and which initiated legal and social changes known as La Reforma (“the Reform”). An 1855 law named after Juárez sought to eliminate special privileges given to members of the church and military, and was incorporated into a new constitution ratified in 1857. Conservative backlash soon led to the War of the Reform, which lasted from 1857 to 1861, and left the victorious Liberals with little money in the national treasury. France’s emperor Napoleon III then used Mexico’s foreign debts to as a pretense for an invasion known as the “French Intervention,” which briefly imposed the Austrian archduke Maximilian as Mexico’s second emperor. As the elected president of Mexico, Juárez evaded capture by French and imperial troops while rallying Republican forces. After the departure of the French, Liberal troops captured and executed Maximilian on the Hill of the Bells in the city of Querétaro. Juárez returned to Mexico City, and remained president until his death.
  • Porfirio Díaz (1830–1915) was a Liberal general who established a long-lasting dictatorship that eventually led to the Mexican Revolution. In 1876 Díaz issued the Plan of Tuxtepec and seized power from the Liberal president Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada. Díaz then dominated Mexican politics for the next 35 years, and served as president continuously between 1884 and 1911 despite his earlier use of the slogan “Effective Suffrage and No Re-Election.” While in office, Díaz skillfully manipulated federal, state, and local politics, suppressed dissent, tamed the fractious Mexican army, opened Mexico to foreign investment, and oversaw the beginnings of the country’s industrial development. His supporters praised him as a brilliant statesman who had ended the upheavals of the mid-nineteenth century; his detractors stressed the inequality, corruption, and systematic brutality of the political and economic systems fostered by Díaz and his positivist advisors, who were known as Científicos. In 1908 Díaz discussed the possibility of his resignation during an interview with the American journalist James Creelman, which helped open the door to electoral mobilization, and eventually to armed rebellion. The Anti-Reelectionist forces of Francisco Madero revolted in 1910 and won their first victories in 1911, sparking uprisings elsewhere in the country. Díaz promptly resigned under terms stipulated in the Treaty of Ciudad Juárez, and spent the last years of his life in comfortable European exile.
  • Francisco Madero (1873–1913) led the 1910 revolution against Porfirio Díaz, and served as president of Mexico from 1911 to 1913. As the idealistic son of a wealthy Coahuilan family, Madero was in some ways an unlikely revolutionary. However, Madero’s idealism allowed him to challenge Díaz with a boldness that more powerful politicians and generals had lacked. After the Creelman interview was released, Madero wrote a book titled The Presidential Succession in 1910, which argued that it was time for Díaz to be replaced, and which revived Díaz’s former slogan of “Effective Suffrage and No Re-Election.” Madero then ran for president, but was arrested before the election. After escaping from prison, Madero issued the Plan of San Luis Potosí, which called for a general revolt in November 1910. Dissatisfaction with the Díaz regime coalesced around Madero, who unseated the dictator and took power after democratic elections were held in the fall of 1911. However, Madero was unable to satisfy the far-reaching demands of the diverse coalition that had brought him to power. Madero was also disliked by the American ambassador Henry Lane Wilson and by former supporters of the Díaz regime, many of whom retained their positions in the government and army. In February 1913, Wilson encouraged General Victoriano Huerta to participate in a coup against Madero. After a period of fighting within Mexico City that is known as the Decena Trágica, or Tragic Ten Days, Madero was forced to resign. Huerta became president, and Madero was murdered a few days later.
  • Venustiano Carranza (1859–1920) was the “First Chief” of the Constitutionalist army during the Mexican Revolution, and president of Mexico from 1917 to 1920. After the death of Madero, Carranza issued the Plan of Guadalupe, and became the nucleus of opposition to Huerta’s regime. Carranza’s movement was supported by the generals Pablo González, álvaro Obregón, and Pancho Villa, who assembled armies in northern Mexico and pushed south to the capital. The southern general Emiliano Zapata also allied with Carranza to remove Huerta from power. After Huerta was forced to resign in 1914, members of Carranza’s movement held a convention in the city of Aguascalientes. The convention formed a new government that was supported by Villa and Zapata, but opposed by González and Obregón. Constitutionalist and Convention forces battled until 1915, when Carranza’s adherents gained the upper hand and the Convention split into separate factions, some of which continued to fight the Constitutionalists for years. Carranza went on to call for a new constitution, to be based on the Liberal Constitution of 1857. The ensuing Constitution of 1917 went far beyond the minor reforms that Carranza had envisioned, and promoted land redistribution, workers’ rights, anticlericalism, and national ownership of Mexico’s natural resources. Over the next several years, Carranza proved reluctant to enact the 1917 constitution’s more radical provisions, or to give up control of the government. Obregón forced Carranza to flee the capital in 1920, and likely had a role in Carranza’s subsequent assassination.
  • Emiliano Zapata (1879–1919) and Pancho Villa (born Doroteo Arango) (1878–1923) were both early supporters of Madero, opponents of Huerta, and leaders of the Convention forces during the Mexican Revolution. Villa chiefly operated in northern Mexico, while Zapata was based in his home state of Morelos, to the south of Mexico City. In 1911 Villa and Pascual Orozco led Maderista forces at the Battle of Ciudad Juárez, while Zapata issued the Plan of Ayala, which called for the breakup of large haciendas and the restoration of communal lands known as ejidos. During Madero’s presidency Villa was imprisoned by Victoriano Huerta, who also conducted a brutal military campaign against the peasant supporters of Zapata. After Madero’s death, Villa joined Carranza’s army as the leader of the División del Norte, or Division of the North, and Zapata established himself as the central leader of the various southern guerrilla movements. At the Convention of Aguascalientes, Villa’s supporters sought to promote the rights of peasants and workers; Zapatistas took a less active role at the meeting, but were willing to support the Convention government in opposition to Carranza. In the subsequent fighting, Zapatista soldiers took the capital several times but were unable to hold it after 1915, the same year that Villa suffered defeats at the battles of Celaya and Agua Prieta. Zapata retreated to Morelos and carried out local land reforms as the Constitutionalists focused on defeating Villa, who sought to obtain supplies by carrying out a 1916 raid on the American town of Columbus, New Mexico. In response to this incursion, the U.S. sent a “punitive expedition” led by General John J. Pershing to (unsuccessfully) pursue Villa across northern Mexico. The influence of Villa and Zapata declined, and both were eventually assassinated. However, the two men remain symbols of the Revolution’s popular aspirations. Zapata in particular has served as an inspiration to later movements such as the Chiapas-based EZLN, or Zapatista Army of National Liberation.
  • Lázaro Cárdenas (1895–1970) was a revolutionary general who served as president from 1934 to 1940, and who worked to fulfill the Constitution of 1917’s promises of land reform and nationalization of key resources. After Carranza’s death, Mexico was ruled by the “Sonoran dynasty” of álvaro Obregón and Plutarco Elías Calles, who stabilized the country and implemented limited reforms. Calles also founded a forerunner of the PRI, or Institutional Party of the Revolution, which dominated Mexican politics throughout the 20th century. After stepping down as president, Calles continued to control Mexican politics from 1928 to 1934 during a period known as the “Maximato.” However, Cárdenas surprised Calles by turning against him, and forcing him into exile. As president, Cárdenas also broke up large estates into communal ejidos, promoted organized labor, and expropriated foreign-owned oil fields in 1938 to form the national oil company Pemex, or Petróleos Mexicanos. These actions made Cárdenas very popular, but once he left office the Mexican government’s commitment to economic redistribution soon waned. In 1988 Lázaro’s son Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas challenged PRI control of politics by running for president as the candidate of the PRD, or Party of the Democratic Revolution. Although electoral fraud prevented Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas from winning, his challenge helped to bring about political changes that eventually led Vicente Fox of the PAN, or National Action Party, to be elected president in 2000.

This article was contributed by NAQT editor Larissa Kelly.

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