The Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910 when the decades-old rule of President Porfirio Díaz was challenged by Francisco I. Madero, a reformist writer and politician. When Díaz refused to allow clean elections, Madero's calls for revolution were answered by Emiliano Zapata in the south and Pascual Orozco and Pancho Villa in the north.
Díaz was deposed in 1911, but the revolution was just beginning. By the time it was over, millions had died as rival politicians and warlords fought each other over the cities and regions of Mexico. By 1920, chick pea farmer and revolutionary general Alvaro Obregón had risen to the presidency, primarily by outliving his main rivals. Most historians feel that this event marks the end of the revolution, although the violence continued well into the 1920's.
Porfirio Díaz was President of Mexico from 1876 to 1880 and from 1884 to 1911, and was unofficial ruler from 1880 to 1884 as well. His time in power is referred to as the "Porfiriato." During his decades-long rule, Mexico modernized, building mines, plantations, telegraph lines and railroads which brought great wealth to the nation, but at the cost of repression and grinding debt peonage for the lower classes. Díaz' close circle of friends benefited greatly, and most of Mexico's vast wealth was in the hands of a few families.
Díaz ruthlessly clung to power for decades, but after the turn of the century his grip on the nation started to slip. The people were unhappy: an economic recession meant that many lost their jobs and people began calling for change. Díaz promised free elections in 1910.
Díaz and Madero
Díaz expected to win easily and legally, and was therefore shocked when it became evident that his opponent in the 1910 election, Francisco I. Madero, was likely to win. Madero, a reformist writer who came from a wealthy family, was an unlikely revolutionary: he was short and skinny, with a high-pitched voice which tended to become quite shrill when he was excited. A teetotaler and vegetarian, he also claimed to be able to speak to ghosts and spirits, including his dead brother and Benito Juárez. Madero didn't have any real plan for Mexico after Díaz: he simply felt that someone else should rule after decades of Don Porfirio.
Díaz fixed the elections, arresting Madero on false charges of plotting armed insurrection. Madero was bailed out of jail by his father and went to San Antonio, Texas, where he watched Díaz easily "win" re-election. Convinced that there was no other way to get Díaz to step down, Madero called for an armed rebellion, ironically the same charge that had been trumped-up against him. According to Madero's Plan of San Luis Potosi, November 20 was the date for the insurrection to start.
Orozco, Villa and Zapata
In the southern state of Morelos, Madero's call was answered by peasant leader Emiliano Zapata, who hoped a revolution would lead to land reform. In the north, muleteer Pascual Orozco and bandit chieftain Pancho Villa also took up arms. All three rallied thousands of men to their rebel armies.
In the south, Zapata attacked large ranches called haciendas, giving back land which had been illegally and systematically stolen from peasant villages by Díaz' cronies. In the north, Villa and Orozco's massive armies attacked federal garrisons wherever they found them, building up impressive arsenals and attracting thousands of new recruits. Villa truly believed in reform: he wanted to see a new, less crooked Mexico. Orozco was more of an opportunist who saw a chance to get in on the ground floor of a movement he was certain would succeed and secure a position of power for himself (such as state governor) with the new regime.
Orozco and Villa had great success against the federal forces and in February 1911 Madero returned and joined them in the north. As the three generals closed in on the capital, Díaz could see the writing on the wall. By May of 1911 it was clear that he could not win and he went into exile. In June, Madero entered the city in triumph.
The Rule of Madero
Madero barely had time to get comfortable in Mexico City before things got hot. He faced rebellion on all sides, as the remnants of Díaz' regime hated him and he broke all of his promises to those who had supported him. Orozco, sensing that Madero was not going to reward him for his role in the overthrow of Díaz, once again took up arms. Zapata, who had been instrumental in defeating Díaz, took to the field again when it became clear that Madero had no real interest in land reform. In November of 1911, Zapata wrote up his famous Plan of Ayala, which called for Madero's removal, demanded land reform, and named Orozco Chief of the Revolution. Félix Díaz, the former dictator's nephew, declared himself in open rebellion in Veracruz. By the middle of 1912, Villa was Madero's only remaining ally, although Madero did not realize it.
The greatest challenge to Madero was none of these men, however, but one much closer: General Victoriano Huerta, a ruthless, alcoholic soldier left over from the Díaz regime. Madero had sent Huerta to join forces with Villa and defeat Orozco. Huerta and Villa despised one another but managed to drive off Orozco, who fled to the United States. After returning to Mexico City, Huerta betrayed Madero during a standoff with forces loyal to Féliz Díaz. He ordered Madero arrested and executed and set himself up as President.