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John Reed’s “What About Mexico?”: The United States and the Mexican Revolution

The Mexican Revolution of 1911 was not well understood in the United States, but it found a place in numerous American novels, short stories, and silent films—albeit a clichéd and stereotypical one in which Mexicans often played the villains vanquished by heroic American cowboys. Such stereotypes of Mexicans dominated U.S. films about Mexico for much of the 20th century. Despite these negative stereotypes, Francisco Villa, leader of the peasant uprisings in northern Mexico, exploited American interest in the revolution for his own ends. A contract with a U.S. newsreel company—he agreed to fight his battles primarily during the day so they could be filmed—earned him money to buy weapons. He also granted interviews to prominent journalists, including the socialist John Reed. Reed’s June 1914 article in the Masses, “What About Mexico?,” opposed U.S. intervention and countered the negative images of Mexicans by portraying their struggle as brave and heroic.

In the first place, let’s settle the question of whether or not the Mexican people are fighting just because they want to fight—or because they want something that they can get no other way.

It is of course to the interest of those who desire Intervention and Annexation of Mexico to spread the news that this is a “comic opera revolution.” If anybody wants to know the truth at first hand, he must do as I did—go through the country and especially through the Constitutionalist army, asking the people what they are fighting for and whether they like revolution as a way of living.

You will make the astonishing discovery that the peons are sick of war—that, curiously enough, they do not enjoy starvation, thirst, cold, nakedness, and wounds without pay for three years steady; that loss of their homes and years of ignorance as to whether their women and children are alive, does not appeal to them much.

But of course that argument by foreign holders of concessions is like that other which we are familiar with in this country: that the reason employers of labor down there don’t pay better wages is that the Mexicans would not know how to spend it, because their standard of living is so low. So you’ll find often, when you ask these people why they’re fighting, that “It’s more fun to fight than work in the mines or as slaves on the great haciendas.”

I have seen these mines, where the hovels of the workers are infinitely wretcheder than the slums of Mexican towns. For example, the American Smelting and Refining Company’s properties at Santa Eulalia, where they’ve built a church for the workers to keep them contented, though they crush strikes unmercifully and herd the poor devils into the filthiest huts; where such is the good feeling between miners and operators that the latter don’t dare go down into the village at night. And just to prove how different it can be, I’ve been to Magistral—where the National Mines and Smelters plant is situated—the happiest village I have seen in Mexico.

There the workmen, though not receiving much more pay than the others, live in their own houses; and hardly a night passes without a baile, at which the extremely popular officers of the company are always present. I haven’t time to go into the differences between Santa Eulalia and Magistral; but the point is, they are different. The miners at Santa Eulalia join the revolution simply to escape the mines; those at Magistral do not. And any people who would not rather fight than work in most American mines in Mexico are a degraded people.

There is only one book that gives the real facts about the Mexican revolution, and that is the recently published “The Mexican People. Their Struggle for Freedom,” by L. Gutierrez de Lara and Edgcumb Pinchon. If you can get hold of that absorbingly interesting book, read it. I am not going to paraphrase it in this article; but I just want to put in a few words the real character of this Revolution. In the first place, it is not a revolution of the middle class; it is a slowly-growing accumulation of grievances of the peons—the lowest class—that has finally burst definitely into expression. There is not one peon out of twenty who cannot tell you exactly what they are all fighting for: Land. In different ways they have been struggling for it for four hundred years, and most of the time, like all simple, half-primitive peoples, they haven’t even been able to express this desire consciously. But that they felt it deeply and strongly is shown by the fact that they rose in arms whenever anyone expressed it for them.

This is the strongest underlying cause of the Revolution. Little by little, the untaxed owners of big estates, originally created by Spanish land-grants, have absorbed the common lands of villages, the open ranges, and the small independent farms, leaving the people no choice but to become slaves on the great haciendas and no hope for the future at all. Sometimes it would be the granting of whole valleys as concessions to foreign capitalists by the National Government, or the declaration of areas thrown open to colonization with disregard for those who lived on them, like the lands of the Yaqui Indians in Sonora—an act that turned an agricultural race which had been at peace for three hundred years into a warring tribe that has resisted ever since.

The culmination of this process was the infamous land law of 1896, for which Porfirio Diaz is responsible. This law permitted denunciation of all lands in the Republic not secured by a legal title.

The cynical criminality of this piece of legislation only appears when you consider that three-fourths of the small independent farms and even city property were held by peons too ignorant to know what “title” meant, whose lands had been worked by their ancestors sometimes for four generations, and whose tenure the Government had never questioned. These are the people whom the great land-owners dispossessed of their homes, and turned out to starve or enter virtual slavery. And when they refused to move, regiments of Federal soldiers descended upon them and exterminated whole districts.

I know of one case where 400 families were literally massacred, so that one man who already owned 15,000,000 acres of land might add a few hundred more to his estate. De Lara tells of many more horrible ones.

And the result was that by 1910 the big haciendas touched each other’s borders all across the North of Mexico, and the agricultural population were chained to particular haciendas by debt, religious superstition, or the most cunningly calculated mental debauchery. Education was at a standstill; or worse, it was just what the hacendados wanted it to be. Public schools could not be established there, because the law said that haciendas were “private property.”

But the people, scattered, unable to communicate with one another, deliberately sunk in content and ignorance by their employers, hopeless of change, still nourished a dream.

I have said that the Mexicans are normally an agricultural people. They are more than that. Like all other people, nothing spurs them so much to live as personal ownership of their homes and tools. The peons on the haciendas dreamed of the farms that their grandfathers used to own, and that they themselves desired. Indeed, so strong was this instinct, that the land-owners themselves gave each peon his own little field which he could work Sundays. And so, under such tremendous handicaps, the strange thing is not that the peons rose in such numbers; it is remarkable that they rose at all.

For there is another lie that those interested will tell you—that a very small per cent of the Mexican people are fighting in the Revolution—that out of a population of seventeen million, only some four hundred thousand have been engaged on both sides in the last three years.

It is true that those who originally revolted in 1910 were a small percentage of the people—but that is because news and ideas spread very slowly through the Republic.

Every day more people join the revolution—every day to more and more distant villages far removed from the lines of communication comes the astonishing word that there is hope for the peons. Every state in the Republic is now in revolt, reporting to Carranza at least weekly—and in all these states the revolution steadily gains. The Constitutionalist army in the North now amounts to over fifty thousand men, and a conservative guess at the revolutionists' strength in the rest of the Republic would give them over two hundred thousand in all.

Not all of these are fighting men—yet. But even the pacificos, the peons one finds tilling the fields and tending the cattle in the villages and haciendas of the country, are all in favor of the Constitutionalists.

They welcome the rebel entry into their towns; they hate the Federals. Often I asked them why they did not fight.

“They do not need us,” came the reply. “The Revolution is going well. When it goes badly and they call to us, then the whole country will rise. But if we fight now, who will raise corn for the army and cattle for the soldiers? And who will make babies that can grow up to be soldiers?”

That is how deep their faith is. They look forward possibly to many years of fighting still, and see the necessity for a growing race of young soldiers to carry on the Revolution.

Zapata was the first leader of the peons in the present revolution to call them to arms for the settlement of the land question. Almost a year afterward Madero issued his famous Plan of San Luis Potosi, which inflamed the people chiefly because it promised a distribution of the great estates among the poor. Zapata joined him, too, nor did he abandon Madero until the latter showed himself unable to settle the question. The rich land-owners bribed Orozco then to start a counter-revolution to embarrass Madero, but the only way Orozco could raise the people was by promising them free farms. And when they discovered that he really did not propose to give them land at all, they deserted Orozco and went back to their homes. At the death of Madero, Carranza took the field, endorsing vaguely the principles of Madero’s plan, but placing all the emphasis upon the restoration of constitutionalist government. Zapata denounced Carranza, who refused to commit himself on the land question, but endorsed Villa, because the latter has gone ahead confiscating the great estates and dividing them gratis among the poor. And on that point, I think, the split between Carranza and his General will come—because the Mexican Revolution will not be won until the peons get their land.

And don’t let anybody tell you that there are no losses to speak of in a Mexican battle—that the whole affair is a joke, or that Mexicans are not brave. They are perhaps the most recklessly brave people in the world. I saw them charge on foot up a hill two hundred and fifty feet high in the face of artillery—saw them do it seven times, and get absolutely massacred every time. I saw them on foot again, armed only with handbombs, rush a corral defended by twelve hundred men shooting through loopholes and five machine guns—eight times they did it, and hardly one of them came back from each charge. And about the sparsity of dead in Mexican battles, let me add that about three thousand of Villa’s army were killed and wounded in the first five days' fighting at Torreon; and remember, there have been hundreds of battles in the three years.

Have you ever heard one of your fellow-countrymen talk about the “damned little Greasers,” to the effect that “one American was worth twenty Mexicans,” or perhaps that they are “a dirty, ignorant, treacherous, cowardly, immoral race”? I was two weeks marching with one hundred ex-bandits, perhaps the most disreputable company in the entire Constitutionalist army—Gringo-haters, too. Not only did they not steal anything from me—these wretchedly poor, unclothed, unpaid, immoral rascals, but they refused to allow me to buy food or even tobacco. They gave me their horses to ride. They gave me their blankets to sleep in.

Mexicans are notoriously the most warm-hearted and generous of peoples. They are big men, too—good riders, good shots, good dancers and singers. They endure daily what would drive an American soldier to desert. And they never complain. And let me tell you this: Except in times of war it is almost unknown that foreigners should be killed or even held up in Mexico! As for outrages to foreigners, they think nothing of killing a Greaser on the American side of the Texas border. There have been enough wanton outrages to Mexican citizens in Texas and California in the last ten years to have justified armed intervention by the Mexican army fifty times. A list will be furnished on request.

And yet the Texan is not a particularly bad man. He’s just like all the rest of the Americans—he doesn’t understand the Mexican temperament and doesn’t want to; but the Texans come into direct contact with Mexicans, and so they are a little more uncivilized than the rest of us farther north. If you will trace the pedigree of Intervention Shouters, you will find that they are either Texans, or somebody with large interests in Mexico, or somebody who hopes to acquire large interests there under the Dear Old Flag. Or perhaps he might be an American Business Man in Mexico, and that is the worst of all.

For American Business Men in Mexico are a degraded race. They have a deep-seated contempt for the Mexicans, because they are different from themselves. They prate of our grand old democratic institutions, and then declare in the same breath that the peons ought to be driven to work for them with rifles. They boast in private of the superiority of American courage over Mexican, and then sneakingly buckle to whatever party is in power.

The other foreigners in Mexico usually stand firm on the side of the oppressor, but the American can be found hat in hand in the audience room of the Palace at all seasons of the year, so long as there is some hope of protecting his little investment. And it is for the benefit of these men—who admittedly make forty or fifty per cent on their money, because they say they are taking a “gambler’s chance,” and then squeal when they lose—that the United States has been pushed to the very brink of conquest.

If you interest yourself much in Mexican affairs you will meet many people who know all about it, because they have “been there for fifteen, or twenty, or thirty years.” Do not let them bully you. They know nothing about Mexico at all—no more than the Capitalist who has “employed men for twenty years” knows about Labor.

Whenever you hear anyone refer to Porfirio Diaz as the “Great Educator” or the “Warrior-Statesman,” you may know that you have before you one who has “been in Mexico fifteen years,” and if you have anything to do, go away and do it. First remarking, however, that the test of Diaz' barbarous regime was that it failed—and that there is no big South American Republic which did not progress more in every way than Mexico during Diaz' beneficent rule. You may know, too, that this person is probably the owner of a share of stock or so in some concession that Diaz sold for bribes.

At the present time Villa has wisely and calmly refused to say the word which would raise the North against our legions occupying Vera Cruz. He has the promise of the President of the United States that we are not making war against the Mexican people—that we intend to withdraw from Mexico as soon as reparation is made, and he will undoubtedly stick to his neutrality and make half of Mexico stick, too—which he can do with a word—unless we break our promise. The pressure upon President Wilson to force him to break it is fearfully strong. And you may depend upon it that the Border is trying every means in its power to provoke the Mexicans to some act of aggression. I will not dwell upon Mr. Hearst; because of course you remember when he said a few years ago that he intended to invest his family fortunes in Mexico, so as to provide largely and surely for his children.

But if we are forced over the Border—if in any way we inject ourselves into Mexican politics—it will mean the end of the Revolution. For we could never recognize a government there unsuited to the European Powers—indeed, I don’t see how we can now; and a government suited to the European Powers would mean the confirmation of foreign concessions, the establishment of the “respectable” element in power, and the subsequent checking of anything like a radical distribution of lands among the peons. We could not sanction a government really elected by the peons, because they would elect a government which would give them what they have been fighting for so long. And that means Confiscation—which the merest school-child knows to be a worse crime than the robbery of peons!

So I think that the United States Government is really headed toward the policy of “civilizing 'em with a Krag”—a process which consists in forcing upon alien races with alien temperaments our own Grand Democratic Institutions: I refer to Trust Government, Unemployment, and Wage Slavery.

Source: John Reed, “What About Mexico?” Masses, June 1914.

See Also:The United States and the Mexican Revolution: "A Danger for All Latin American Countries," Letters from Venustiano Carranza
"Avoid the Use of the Word Intervention": Wilson and Lansing on the U.S. Invasion of Mexico