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Borderlands: El Paso Played Important Role in the Mexican Revolution 21 (2002-2003)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

El Paso Played Important Role in the Mexican Revolution

Article first published in Vol. 21 (2002-2003)

By Emilia Granados, Martha Espinoza, Claudia Cox, Jezabel Torres, Jessica Rayas, Janel Yvette Rivera, Adriana Martinez, and Veronica Villanueva

In 1911, El Pasoans perched on their rooftops to watch the Battle of Juárez. Little did the spectators know they were witnessing the spark that ignited the fire of the Mexican Revolution.

Porfírio Díaz led Mexico as president between 1876 and 1910, except for four years during which he ruled through a trusted general. During Díaz's next term, he managed to change the constitution to allow multiple terms.


Image caption: Newspaper correspondents and revolutionaries gather on a hill overlooking Juárez.  Courtesy of El Paso Historical Society

Díaz surrounded himself with European-educated intellectuals known as "cientificos," conservatives who believed in rapid growth for Mexico regardless of the effect it had on the ordinary people. With these aristocratic elites by his side, Díaz ruled Mexico for the next 30 years.

While in office, Díaz emphasized order and progress, and he lowered the crime rate, built a strong military, established the first railroad in Mexico and brought in foreign investors. He created solid banking and effective tax collection systems and paid off Mexico's creditors. In 1894, he balanced the national budget for the first time in Mexican history.

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Many of Díaz's international investors were from the United States, and Díaz and American President William Howard Taft met in El Paso on October 16, 1909.  

Government policies intended to modernize Mexico led to tragic results for the majority of the population, especially the peasants. Under the dictator's new laws, only farmers who had formal legal titles to their land could keep it. Native Indians lost their land to the wealthy. By 1910, five percent of the country's population owned all of the land. A powerful upper class had formed at the expense of the poor.

In an interview in 1908, Díaz made the mistake of saying that Mexico would be ready for free elections by 1910. Upon hearing this, Francisco I. Madero began to recruit support to run against Díaz. Madero was educated in France and the United States, where he experienced democracy for the first time. The Mexicans were ready for a rebellion.

In 1909, Madero published "The Presidential Succession of 1910: The Democratic Party," opposing presidential reelection. He became the leader of the Anti-reelectionist party and decided to run for president in 1910.

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During the election, Díaz had Madero arrested and, through fraudulent means, Díaz became president again. Madero fled to El Paso and then to San Antonio, Texas, where he drew up "The Plan of San Luis Potosí," outlining his revolt.

Madero reentered Mexico in February 1911 to lead a rebellion against Díaz. He gathered a small guerilla band of 200 men and the support of Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco in the north and Emiliano Zapata in the south. Together, with a dream of democracy in common, they changed Mexican history forever.

Madero understood the geographical and political significance of the El Paso/Juárez border, knowing that whoever controlled Juárez controlled Northern Mexico. El Paso's direct railroad line to Mexico City would be used to transport rebel troops and horses as well as equipment and munitions purchased in El Paso.

By 1906, El Paso had already become an intellectual center for political opposition in Mexico. Here Ricardo Flores Magón, a law student and leader of the Partido Liberal Mexicano (Mexican Liberal Party), and his brother Jesus published a newspaper called Regeneracíon, one of many radical publications during this time.

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In January 1911, another revolutionary, Abraham Gonzalez, established a rebel center in the Caples Building, enlisting soldiers and arranging the purchase of arms for the Chihuahuan fighters. In February, Madero settled in a small adobe house across from ASARCO. Journalists from all over the nation took special interest in the revolution. Correspondents and Secret Service agents gathered in the Sheldon Hotel as plans to invade Juárez intensified.

However, Madero decided that it would be best not to attack Juárez for fear stray bullets would hit El Pasoans, and he wanted to avoid problems with the United States. Madero's fear would not stop Orozco and Villa, though, and the Battle of Juárez began on May 8, 1911.

In a great strategic move, Orozco told his troops to fight with their backs towards El Paso. Federal troops, under Gen. Juan J. Navarro, then had to worry about stray bullets entering the United States. C. L. Sonnichsen explains that a perplexed Madero observed the fighting from a post on the western outskirts of town.

Rebel snipers hid on the rooftops waiting for federal troops while other guerillas progressed through the city by knocking holes in walls between houses. On the second night of battle, Madero's men had captured most of the city except the bullring, barracks and the old church.

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Historian Mardee Belding de Wetter explains that as captured federal soldiers were taken to be shot, they shouted "Viva Don Porfírio Díaz!" Fatalities included 15 revolutionaries and 50 federal soldiers, counting one Colonel Tamborrel who had called the rebels names the night before. On the third day, Navarro hung out the white flag, surrendering with 500 of his men.


Image caption: View taken Feb. 7, 1911, 2:30 P.M. about 1/2 hour before the "Battle of Smelter View".  Orozco's "Army" was camped at the foot of the mountain in the distance.  El  Paso & Juárez are to the left, down the river.   Photo courtesy of Tandy Y. Cook ;  originally owned by her grandfather, William Hough Cook, Sr., who was an eyewitness and may have assisted the photographer.

El Pasoans sympathized with the ideas and the claims of the revolutionaries. Residents walked across the dry Rio Grande to take pictures with the revolutionaries or to sell them clothing and food. Others would throw treats and silver dollars across the river for them. Dr. Ira Bush, an El Paso surgeon, served as rebel doctor, establishing a provisional hospital on Campbell Street.

According to the El Paso Times, a wild bullet did kill 20-year-old Vicente Paredes while he read a paper at his home on the corner of Santa Fe and Fifth Streets. Stray bullets killed a total of five El Pasoans and wounded fifteen, some while they watched the fighting.

El Paso became a military city with thousands of troops from Fort Bliss and San Antonio, the Texas National Guard, local law enforcement and even Texas Rangers guarding the border and the international bridge.

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Some Juárez banks moved to El Paso so they could continue doing business. The smelter closed down for a while since Mexico wasn't producing much ore during the war. And thousands of Mexicans began streaming into El Paso, some to begin a new life, some to find temporary refuge.

On May 11, 1911, Madero officially named Ciudad Juárez the provisional capital. His cabinet choices sparked Madero's first serious conflict with his followers. Orozco and Villa made three demands of Madero. First, they wanted General Navarro to be tried as a war criminal; second, they wanted Madero to replace his cabinet with rebels who had fought the war; and third, they wanted their soldiers to be paid. Madero fulfilled only the last demand.

General Navarro gave Madero his word of honor to return to Mexico and stand trial. However, Leon Metz says that Navarro was taken to El Paso and hidden in the Chinaware department of the Popular Dry Goods Store. The general then entered Hotel Dieu Hospital for a time and later returned to Mexico.

Madero's leaders and Díaz representatives met in "Peace Grove," a grassy area of cottonwoods near the Hacienda Café, on May 15, 1911. Díaz resigned on May 17, 1911, with Madero becoming President of Mexico in November 1911.

Madero soon realized the revolutionaries weren't as united as he had believed. The first to revolt was Emilio Zapata in the south, a poor peasant farmer with a powerful guerilla force. Next was Orozco.

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Madero had named Orozco the Commander of the Rurales. Upon the realization that most of Madero's family was now in the government of Mexico, Orozco resigned from his appointment and refused to associate himself with Madero. He would turn against Madero's government in 1912 and give birth to the Orozquistas' rebellion.

Orozco drew up a plan for socioeconomic reform including 10-hour working days, minimum wages and land reforms that would give land back to the people. The new revolution against Madero's government had begun.

Fearing Orozco's popularity, on March 14, 1912, American President William Taft imposed an embargo denying ammunition and weapons to the rebels.

Madero placed Díaz's military leader, Victoriano Huerta, in charge of the military, a huge political mistake. Madero called on Huerta to oppose the Orozquistas. Huerta defeated Orozco's forces at every turn and forced him into exile in the United States.

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Realizing Huerta opposed him and his government, Madero relieved Huerta from his post. The angry Huerta set his plan in motion to overthrow Madero.

The "Decena trágica," the tragic 10 days, occurred in February 1913. Armed with thousands of men, Huerta laid siege on the Mexican capital. On the tenth day, Huerta captured Madero and had him killed.

Huerta had achieved his dream of power and was named president through the Pact of the Embassy, signed among others by U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, who had disliked Madero because the Revolution had disrupted business between the two countries.

Orozco now joined Huerta to put down new rebellions. Orozco ceased to be the hero and leader of the north. He was considered to be a traitor even by Zapata and Villa, who continued attacking the government from two directions. Huerta tried to become allies with the United States. W. H. Timmons writes that President Wilson "denounced the Mexican President as immoral, dictatorial and counter-revolutionary, and therefore refused to extend diplomatic recognition to his government." Wilson lifted the Taft embargo on weapons sold to the rebels and the revolutionaries advanced to the north.

Historian Allen Knight explains that "American companies ran Mexico's railroads and owned three-quarters of its mines and more that half of its oilfields." After Huerta kept valuable oil contracts out of American hands, Wilson found an excuse to intervene and sent troops to Mexico. On April 23, 1914, a bloody battle took place in Veracruz, which left 200 Mexicans and 19 Americans dead.

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Military, diplomatic and economic pressure caused Huerta to resign on July 8, 1914, and he fled into exile in Spain. Huerta learned that a group of Mexican exiles in the United States were planning to launch a movement from Texas to overthrow Madero. Orozco would assume the military leadership of the movement, but the exiles needed a strong political figure to rally around. Huerta decided to return to the United States.

Huerta landed in New York City and boarded a train telling reporters he was going to San Francisco. Instead, on June 27, 1915, Huerta got off the train at Newman, Texas, located sixteen miles north of El Paso off Highway 54, where he met Orozco. The two began plotting a new revolution in Mexico. But officials arrested and charged the two with conspiracy to violate U. S. neutrality laws and took them to Fort Bliss.

Mayor Tom Lea was the attorney for Huerta and Orozco. Both men were freed on bonds and were placed under house arrest because of the border's proximity.

While under house arrest at his sister's closely guarded house in Sunset Heights, Orozco managed to escape with four companions. A posse rode out after him and killed him in the Van Horn Mountains. Three thousand people attended Pascual Orozco's funeral in El Paso at Concordia Cemetery on September 3, 1915. He was buried in the uniform of division general of the Mexican army, and a Mexican flag covered his coffin.

The news of Orozco's death troubled Huerta. His drinking and marijuana smoking increased. In 1916, Dr. M. P. Schuster detected cirrhosis of the liver in Huerta, an alcoholic. He died at 415 West Boulevard (now Yandell) on January 13, 1916.

Victoriano Huerta was buried next to Pascual Orozco in a vault in Concordia Cemetery. In 1923, Orozco was named a hero and his remains were moved to Chihuahua. Huerta's body was transferred to Evergreen Cemetery in El Paso. The vault where the two men were originally buried still stands in Concordia Cemetery. Many still consider Huerta a traitor to Mexico.

The first battle for Juárez excited El Pasoans, but the effects of the Mexican Revolution on this border city were just beginning. Pancho Villa and other rebels waged war for years, and Villa even attacked the United States. Juárez would change hands six times during the Revolution. Three-fourths of the Juárez population moved to El Paso. Mexican migration to the United States between 1910 and 1929 totaled almost 700,000. Some refugees returned to Juárez or to other cities after the Revolution ended, but most stayed in El Paso to build and form El Paso's Hispanic heritage.

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