February 5 – Constitution Day commemorates the 1917 signing of Mexico’s second constitution. It is celebrated on the first Monday of February and when combined with the Federal school holiday that happens the last Friday of every month, makes for a four-day holiday weekend all around Mexico. The 1917 Constitution institutionalizes democracy, land reform, labor reform, economic nationalism, term limits for Presidents and limitations on the Catholic Church. The events leading up to and subsequent to its signing describe a period of Mexican history filled with revolutionary struggle, deception and sacrifice that led to the deaths of 1.5 million people and 200,000 refugees seeking asylum in the United States.
It all started back in 1911 when the 35-year dictator President of México, Porfirio Díaz, jailed the rightful winner of the presidential election, Francisco Madera. Madera escaped and fled to San Antonio, Texas. Constitutionalist allies who supported Madera in the north were led by Venustiano Carranza and in the south, by Emiliano Zapata. These generals were joined by the irregular army of Pancho Villa in the fight against Diaz’s General Victoriano Huerta. The Conservative Party, also called Porfirians, represented the Church, wealthy landowners and foreign capitalists; the Constitutionalists were primarily peasants. After the fighting subsided, Díaz escaped to France and Madera became President but was assassinated in 1913. Huerta became President largely due to the assistance of US Ambassador to Mexico Henry Lane Wilson who feared Madero as a Leftist and felt he needed to protect US Oil interests. Wilson had been conspiring with Huerta’s Porfirians to overthrow Madera for some time and purportedly had a hand in arranging Madero’s death. When the newly elected US President Woodrow Wilson learned of Henry Wilson’s involvement with Huerta’s coup de tat, he removed him from his post and placed an arms embargo on Mexico. The arrest of eight American sailors in Tampico set off a chain of events that ended with Wilson sending 3000 troops and five warships. When the American sailors were released up in Tampico, the Mexicans failed to deliver a promised 21-gun salute as the US ship sailed away. This caused Wilson to intercept a shipment of arms headed for Vera Cruz and order the Vera Cruz Customs House be seized. The arms shipment had been initiated by an American Financier intending to support Huerta and consisted of American-made Remington rifles among other arms. The first troops landed on the wharf at Vera Cruz unopposed. Huerta’s army immediately retreated but then the Constitutionalists took exception to the presence of American troops on their soil and mustering the cadets and instructors at the nearby Naval Academy, repulsed the handful of US Marines. This action is commemorated every April 21 as the Heroic Defense of Vera Cruz. The US sent in more troops and after street fighting, secured the Customs House, rail yards and other objectives. Hoping to end the fight there, the American commander could find no one with whom to negotiate a truce. More troops led by Colonel John A. Lejeune and including a young officer named Douglas MacArthur, were sent in later that night and with the backing of naval artillery, took and occupied the city. Basically, the US occupation of Vera Cruz infuriated both the Constitutionalists and the Conservatives but they were so involved with fighting each other, neither could muster the force to dislodge the Americans. US troops occupied Vera Cruz for 8 months until Huerta was forced to step down by Carranza’s Constitutionalists. The US was able to withdraw its forces only with the assistance of Argentina, Brazil and Chile, the “ABC” Powers of the Day who negotiated a Peace treaty, avoiding another Mexican-American War. But then Civil War broke out between former allies Carranza and Zapata who was backed by Pancho Villa. General Álvaro Obregón, a staunch Constitutionalist from Sinaloa, stepped in to defeat them. Zapata withdrew to his power base in southern Mexico and Villa withdrew to far northern Mexico. Carranza spent the next two years consolidating power and became President in 1915. When Pancho Villa attacked Columbus, New Mexico, Wilson sent in WWI General JJ “Black Jack” Pershing to capture him, President Carranza took a dim view of US forces coursing about at will and refused to allow Pershing access to Mexican railroads. Pershing’s 10,000 men had pushed 350 miles into Mexican territory routing Villa’s forces but failing to capture Villa himself. The US forces sustained casualties numbering about 500 men and Pershing was forced to withdraw due to lack of supplies.
A interesting side note is the term “gringo” to describe Americans had its beginnings here. Gringo is a Spanish/Romano word rooted in the word “griego”, meaning “Greek”, used in the context of “it’s Greek to me!”, indicating misunderstanding. It’s also used to indicate someone who speaks Spanish badly. Now imagine bivouacs of American foot soldiers gathered around campfires deep in Mexican territory, singing at the top of their lungs “Green Grow the Lilacs, all Sparkling with Dew”, a popular song of the day. From a distance, “green grow” could easily be mistaken for “gringo”. It seemed a fitting nickname. Whatever the origin of the word, the label gringo has stuck. Remember though, it remains a derogatory term.
The following year, 1917, the Mexican Constitution was formally signed and Carranza finished consolidating his power. Emiliano Zapata was killed in ambush in 1919 while leading a guerrilla insurgency against Carranza. But in the 1920 elections, both General Obregón and General Huerta opposed the civilian successor that President Carranza had decided upon and took up arms again. Carranza tried to flee but was assassinated and General Obregón assumed the Presidency. He implemented educational reform, some moderate land reform, instituted labor laws and limited US Oil interests in Mexico. He ruled with an iron fist though. In 1923, Pancho Villa was assassinated when he tried to re-enter the political scene and launch a Presidential candidate to oppose Obregón. Late in his presidency, Obregón’s Finance Minister Adolfo de la Huerta (no relation to Victoriano Huerta) launched an armed rebellion against Obregón in an effort to oppose newly reinstated US Oil rights in Mexico. Once again, President Wilson backed Obregón sending US arms and 17 US war planes that bombed de la Huerta’s supporters. In the 1924 elections, Obregón’s hand-picked successor, Plutarco Elías Calles was elected. Calles managed to change the Constitution to allow multiple terms for Presidents. So in 1928, once again, Obregón was elected President but was assassinated soon after.
So the next time you are driving around Mazatlán, look for landmarks illustrating Mexico’s rich but violent history; Avenida Obregón and Avenida 5 de febrero are two examples.