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Haefele on Mexican Revolution Exhibit

Off-Ramp literary commentator Marc Haefele, who is also an Argentinaphile, studies up during breakfast at Philippe's.
Off-Ramp literary commentator Marc Haefele, who is also an Argentinaphile, studies up during breakfast at Philippe's.
John Rabe

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Off-Ramp commentator Marc Haefele writes: The two decades of strife and misery that are generally called the Mexican Revolution were really Mexico’s Great Civil War. Nearly a million people died in the glorious ghastly years from 1910 to 1929 —about one eighth of the population of what was, for its time, a large nation. The vivid Getty-donated show at the Downtown Main Library functions not only as visual history of the Revolution, but as a display of its resonance from the 1960s to today.

It was probably the Mexican government’s 1968 mass murder of a still uncertain number of young demonstrators just a few days before the opening of the Mexico City Olympics that revived the Revolucion’s imagery in the late 20th Century. As the show demonstrates in photographs, posters and broadsides, to the Mexican Left, Emiliano Zapata, with his emblematic saber and carbine, became the central image and symbol of dissent against the oddly named Mexican political monopoly called the Institutional Revolutionary party.

Zapata’s ghost slipped across the border and was also incarnated by the rising Chicano movimiento of the Southeast US. In the `70s, he inspired the Zapatista movement in rural Chiapas, still a potent if elusive force in the area’s politics … Where his fundamental principal of giving the land to those who work it still retains a deep appeal … Even in a land where 87% of the population now works in manufacturing and service industries.

In his pictures, you sense Zapata’s power and grace, but also his innate sadness, as if he foresaw his coming fate via the assassins of another revolutionary hero, Venustiano Carranza. Eventually, nearly all these “Revolutionary” generals and presidents, who rose up against the 30-year foreign dominated dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, fell by one another’s hands. Only Zapata and Villa are remembered in this country. But it was the grim, toweringly humorless Carranza who presided over the creation of the 1917 Mexican Constitution that survives today. He has his own museum in Mexico City, but you’ll never see his face on the wall of any Southland taquerias.

Today, Mexico is beset by an insurrection unimaginable to Villa, Zapata, Obragon, and Carranza. Again we have the pointless mass murders, the vast quantities of money and arms flowing from the United States. But these bring no pretense of hope for the future. One who was there — the late mother of my friend and local broadcaster Luis Torres -- remembered the revolutionaries of 90 years ago as “stealing the chickens, stealing the horses, stealing the corn and stealing the beans. Robbing the people they were supposed to be fighting to protect.”

The Mexican Civil War was indeed terrible to the poor. But so is the Mexican present. Besides the 40,000 victims of narcoterrorism, the political opposition charges that the number of poor has grown in 5 years by more than 10 million, working income has dropped by a third, and 3 million more have become jobless. Opposition leader Lopez Obrador says, “the fight for equality is not even on the national agenda”—as it is now in the vast majority of Mexico’s Latin American neighbors. But the nation keeps getting richer, as its poverty rate approaches 50-percent.

Will Mexico again face a revolution turning into a vast Civil War? Of course that Civil War is already raging. But this time, unlike a hundred years ago, our nation is not able to stand on the sidelines.

(Commentary by Marc Haefele)