12 Incredible Mexican Revolutionaries You've Probably Never Heard About

Mexico has a long history of political struggle, so they have a crazy high volume of heroic revolutionaries per capita. Beginning with the Mexican War of Independence (which was similar to our own Revolution) and the Mexican Revolution (which was like our Civil War but way more chaotic) the list of Mexican revolutionaries throughout history is as long as it is butt-kicking.

While the War of Independence was a revolt against imperial Spanish rule, the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, sparked by the ousting of longtime ruler Porfirio Diaz and the power struggle over filling this political vacuum.  The badass Mexican revolutionaries this lengthy conflict produced were not only ruthless and violent, but also fearless and patriotic.  During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, heroic Mexican revolutionaries expelled imperialists, toppled dictators, and even fought amongst themselves. So just how crazy were these heroes and rebels? Spoiler alert: pretty freakin' bonkers.  

  • Pancho Villa
    Photo: Public Domain / wikimedia commons

    Jose Arango Arambula, AKA Pancho Villa, came from humble beginnings. Born in the northern Mexican state of Durango, Villa spent his youth as a sharecropper and bandit, involved in at least one serious scrape with the law. At the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, Villa, aged 32, sided with Francisco Madero and was involved in regional warfare that ultimately brought Madero into power.

    But, like many of his fellow rebels, Villa was dissatisfied with Madero's refusal to divide land and break up Mexico's entrenched status quo. Villa would eventually break with Madero and support General Victoriano Huerta. Huerta, however, was less than welcoming. He feared Villa and ultimately found an excuse to humiliate and call for his execution. Villa was saved from execution by President Madero (you know, that dude he abandoned earlier) who merely ordered his imprisonment.

    Villa eventually escaped from prison and fled to the United States. Huerta led a coup against Madero, assassinating him and seizing power. It was during this time period that Villa became famous outside of Mexico as a charismatic military leader with bandito charisma. He raised money for his army, El Division Del Norte, by robbing trains and extorting wealthy hacienda owners. Kind of like a Mexican Robin Hood.

    He defeated Huerta at Zacatecas in June, 1914, forcing the dictator to flee Mexico. Chaos and US interference would force Villa into a guerrilla war against the Carranza government (if you're not getting it, Villa really didn't get along with "the man"). He responded by leading an actual invasion of the US at Columbus, New Mexico on March 9, 1916.  Eighteen Americans were killed and the town was burnt to the ground. 

    This prompted Woodrow Wilson to react totally reasonably and send five thousand American soldiers to unsuccessfully pursue Villa throughout the Mexican interior. From this point on Villa was relatively ineffectual from a military perspective.  He officially retired from combat in 1920 but was assassinated in 1923, most likely by the Obregon regime, but he pissed off enough people during his wild and rebellious life that it could have been basically anyone.

  • Emiliano Zapata, Popular Hero and Revolutionary Martyr
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    Emiliano Zapata got involved in the the Mexican Revolution over the issue of land reform. The son of a lower middle class rancher and farmer, he observed his peasant neighbors being squeezed out of their property by the proprietors of the large haciendas, typically through illegitimate means. He joined the revolt against the Diaz government, but like many of the supporters of the subsequent president (Francisco Madero) he became disillusioned with the lack of any real change (sound familiar?).  

    He announced his Plan de Ayala, a manifesto of revolution and land reform. He would eventually take up arms against the Madero regime as one of the elements that eventually deposed the government. Zapata was even more opposed to Madero's succsor, Victoriano Huerta. Along with Villa, Carranza, and Obregon, Zapata ousted Huerta after only sixteen months in power. Zapata then allied with Villa against Carranza, but was perceived as too radical to the US who recognized Carranza as a more palatable and stable political leader. Carranza would eventually defeat Villa and minimize Zapata's military power to the point where Zapata only remained influential in his home state of Morelos.  

    By 1919, he was reduced to virtual guerrilla warfare and in an effort to acquire arms and alliances was lured into a trap at a hacienda in Chinameca, Ayala where he was assassinated by Carrancita soldiers. Zapata remains a popular Mexican political hero and a revolutionary martyr whose ideals still are influential in modern Mexican politics.  He is also known as the man who once said, "It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees."

  • Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, "The Father of His Country"
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    Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla was a major figure in the Mexican War of Independence, the revolt against local imperial rule that began in 1810. "Badass" may not be an appropriate term for Hidalgo y Costilla, a college professor and Catholic priest, but he was a fearless pioneer for the cause of the Mexican revolution and social justice. When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain and deposed the Spanish King Ferdinand VII in 1808, many Mexicans became opposed to the ruling imperial government in Mexico.  

    Hidalgo belonged to one of the many secret independence groups plotting an uprising in 1810. Betrayed to the Spanish, several rebels were arrested and Hidalgo was encouraged to go into hiding. Instead he rang the church bells of Dolores (now Dolores Hidalgo), summoning the people and announced a revolution against the government and a demand for economic equality and land redistribution.

    This famous speech became known as the "Grito de Dolores" (Cry of Dolores). Hidalgo rode a ground swell of peasant and indigenous support in a spontaneous military expedition that was intent on seizing Mexico City. By the time, Hidalgo (now officially the "Generalissimo"of a 100,000 man army) reached the capital the royalist forces had prepared for a battle that would be savage.  Hidalgo understood that his army would suffer heavy casualties against a well-trained military force which he attempted to avoid. He instead headed north intent on Guadalajara. His undisciplined group of poorly armed and barely trained men began to desert and the Royalist force launched a counterattack on Guadalajara, Jalisco which precipitated the battle of Calderon Bridge.  

    Despite its massive size of close to 100,000 troops, the insurgents were no match for the professional soldiers of the royalist force. Hidalgo was routed and his army collapsed. He attempted to flee northward to the United States but was captured, excommunicated, and executed by firing squad in Guanajuato. For ten years, the royalists hung his and his fellow officers' decapitated heads from a prominent building as a warning to other rebels.

  • Vicente Guerrero, Revolutionary General Who Abolished Slavery
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    Vicente Guerrero was the son of a wealthy businessman who became involved in the opposition to the Spanish imperial government and fought as an insurgent general in the Mexican War of Independence. Guerrero enlisted in 1810 in the rebel army of the south and distinguished himself in battle, earning numerous promotions. The initial successes of the insurgents gave way to defeat and Guerrero and other rebels were reduced to guerilla warfare by 1815. By 1816, Guerrero was the only major insurgent commander left opposing the government but he refused offers of amnesty and continued fighting.

    Guerrero then defeated the royalist government's most able general, Agustin de Iturbide. Iturbide and Guerrero negotiated an agreement which ultimately installed Iturbide as "Emperor of Mexico" but also granted many liberal reforms, including the abolition of Mexican racial class systems. This was a firm demand of Guerrero, himself the son of a Mexican-African father and an indigenous mother. Mexico would continue to experience political turmoil, especially when Iturbide began to evince despotic behavior (leading his deposition).

    In 1828, Guerrero was elected president, and he abolished slavery and banned official capital punishment. Other political factions, led chiefly by Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, ousted Guerrero in December of 1830. Although he fled to the relative security of southern Mexico, he was eventually kidnapped and transported to Oaxaca and court-martialed for attempting to foment a southern rebellion. He was executed on February 14, 1831.

    Guerrero is considered the first political leader of African descent in the western hemisphere. He abolished slavery more than twenty years before the US did the same. His quotation "My motherland comes first," is the motto of the current Mexican state of Guerrero.