A Quick Tour of the Mexican Revolution: Background information when reading El Paso

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El Paso

by Winston Groom

El Paso by Winston Groom X
El Paso by Winston Groom
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2016, 496 pages
    Sep 2017, 496 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
A Quick Tour of the Mexican Revolution

Print Review

Pancho VillaMost of El Paso is set toward the tail end of the Mexican Revolution, which played out between 1910-1920. One of its primary players, General Pancho Villa, is a principal character in the novel.

The Mexican Revolution got its start during the rule of Porfirio Diaz, a dictator who perpetuated a feudal system in the country with just a few wealthy oligarchs owning and operating much of Mexico's assets and the rest toiling away for crumbs. At one point, in 1908, it seemed like Diaz softened his stance and suggested he might be open to the country's democratization. Seeing a chance, Francisco Madero jumped at the opportunity and decided to contest the dictatorship. A mock "election" was held after which Diaz declared himself the winner. But Madero was not one to go quietly into the night; he called for a revolution that was heeded by both the intelligentsia and the peasants but didn't really gather much steam.

Francisco MaderoHowever, the seeds had been sown and at least three different vigilantes took up the cause: Emiliano Zapata in the South, and Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco in the North. They attacked government garrisons and were, in general, sympathetic to socialist causes, trying to win rights for the poor and the indigenous. Eventually these revolutionaries managed to unseat Diaz and install Madero as president. Once there, Madero was beholden to the people who had brought him to power but Villa, Zapata and Orozco were not entirely satisfied with what they perceived as a slow pace of reforms. The American government also worried that Madero was too chummy with the revolutionaries and that a civil war might be brewing, threatening American properties and interests in the region. Meanwhile two other figures, Felix Diaz (the dictator Diaz's nephew) and Victoriano Huerta decided to stir the pot some more and launched an attack, unseating Madero and making Huerta president.

Revolutionary FightersThe elaborate game of seesaw was not done yet. Pancho Villa decided to join forces with two additional interested parties, Alvaro Obregon and Venustiano Carranza, and in the spring of 1914, they managed to run Huerta out of town and Carranza quickly made himself President. This too was only temporary, until he was unseated but not out of the picture completely. An ousted Carranza allied himself with his old pal Obregon and together they took on Pancho Villa. In fact, Villa was so thoroughly defeated that he was convinced that President Woodrow Wilson must have interfered with the clashes somehow and took vengeance by killing Americans in a raid on New Mexico. The United States was dragged into the mess briefly when President Wilson ordered General John Pershing to chase Pancho Villa back into the Mexican countryside. These clashes are extensively cataloged in the novel.

Carranza regained control of the Presidency after the dust settled, but democratic rule was far from the norm until much later in the 1930s when Lazaro Cardenas came into power.

Pancho Villa, courtesy of historytoday.com
Francisco Madero and his wife, Sara Pérez, courtesy of history today.com
Revolutionary Fighters led by Emiliano Zapata under the Plan de Ayala, drawn up in 1911, after Madero stalled on instituting land reform in Morelos

Article by Poornima Apte

This article was originally published in November 2016, and has been updated for the September 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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