AUGUST 26, 2017
SOON AFTER MY HUSBAND and I moved to Houston in 1978, we discovered a great little Mexican restaurant a few blocks from our house called, quite simply, Leo’s Mexican Restaurant. At the entrance was a photograph showing Pancho Villa, the former cattle rustler turned Revolutionary general, sitting in the presidential chair in Mexico City and, to his left, the great populist theorist of the Revolution, Emiliano Zapata. La silla del águila — the chair with its gold eagle and rays of light — epitomizes presidential power in Mexico, but the group surrounding Villa and Zapata is hardly made up of the men who would normally have stood behind the president. Instead, we see a random mixture of fellows — soldiers (a wounded hero on the front row), campesinos with their sombreros, and functionaries with their suits, dark ties, and starched collars. They are clearly caught up in the excitement of the moment, and they know exactly what is going on. Villa and Zapata are thumbing their nose at the political establishment, showing the world just who’s sitting in the catbird’s seat now, and they are doing so in ways that had already radically changed the political landscape in Mexico by 1914, when the picture was taken. A new national constitution would have to be written, as it was in 1917, although violence would continue for another decade as more as caudillos (strong men, political bosses) vied for power.
The photograph at Leo’s Mexican Restaurant is one of hundreds taken by Agustín Víctor Casasola and other photojournalists whose photos of the Revolution were collected by Casasola’s news agency. These images are known to virtually all Mexicans. Put another way, they have become part of the Mexican imaginary: boy recruits, women called Adelitas who followed the volunteer troops as they ranged over the countryside, men lined up against a wall, some blindfolded, minutes away from the explosion of the firing squad, and the troops themselves, riding their horses on dusty roads or seated on the cow catcher of a steam engine, rifles in hand. Google Casasola and you’ll find plenty of amazing “action” photos, now tinged with nostalgia but at the time, cruel, chaotic, and terribly sad. Before it is over, the Revolution will have cost the country one million lives.
The waitress at Leo’s Mexican Restaurant saw us looking, and she proudly pointed to the round face of a boy in the photo, eyes closed and grinning, who is peering over Zapata’s left shoulder. That, she said, is Leo. She signaled toward the back of the restaurant, and there indeed was Leo, an old man but still quite recognizable as the boy in this now-mythic photograph. The picture was posted at the entrance in such a way as to make clear that this was Leo’s 15 minutes of fame — 15 minutes that had lasted more than five decades and counting. Leo’s last name was Reynosa, his first name Aurelio — Leo for short — and his trajectory from that chaotic day in the Presidential Palace in Mexico City in December 1914 to the back of his restaurant on South Shepherd Street in Houston in 1978 is the story of hundreds of other boys and men who had nothing better to do than join one of the various factions fighting each other and the government in what is now called the Mexican Revolution.
The Revolution is better understood as a civil war impelled by deep economic and social differences than as a coherent uprising against the political establishment, though it was at the beginning, before splintering into armed “divisions” fighting for their own interests or, perhaps like Leo, not quite sure what they were fighting for. Rebel leaders become “generals” not by governmental appointment but by charisma, that is, according to their ability to recruit troops and win battles. Some self-appointed rebel leaders like Zapata were impelled by ideas, in his case agrarian reform, fighting against government troops known as federales (federalists). When rebel leaders succeeded in disrupting existing political structures, some would become federales themselves, so to speak, that is, take government positions. Victorious revolutionary generals would be Mexico’s presidents without exception until 1946.
The first was Venustiano Carranza, who became president in 1915, oversaw the writing of the Constitution of 1917, and under the terms of the new constitution, served as president of Mexico until 1920. When his term ended, he tried to manipulate the most basic tenet of the new Constitution: term limits. “No reelección” became a battle cry after the 27-year dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, and was the straw that ignited the Revolution in 1910. So, in 1920, when Carranza attempted to install a puppet president, a powerful group of Revolutionary generals in the north opposed him. He was assassinated that same year. The power struggles continued through the 1920s and into the 1930s, but the Constitution of 1917 held fast.
I’ll return to the endurance and adaptability of the Constitution in a moment, but here, let’s go back to South Shepherd Street in Houston, and Leo Reynosa.
We know a lot about Leo’s trajectory thanks to a detailed interview by the Houston Oral History Project of the Houston Public Library. We know that Leo rode with Villa but left the fighting in 1915 to return home to Aguascalientes, where he found work, and then, like so many others, found his way north. In Aguascalientes, he got a job as a mechanic’s apprentice in a railroad yard, and when he was laid off there in 1918, his employer gave him immigration papers and a train ticket. He chose to go to Houston, again worked as a mechanic, and took opportunities where he found them. He opened his diner in 1942, which evolved into Leo’s Mexican Restaurant on South Shepherd in the ’70s. After his death, it moved to another location, and closed in 2001.
I follow Leo’s story because it contains in miniature several of the on-going narratives of the Mexican Revolution, and by extension, the Constitution of 1917. Main boulevards of Mexico City are named Revolución, Insurgentes, Reforma, Division del Norte (Northern Division, Villa’s army), Constituyentes, 20 de noviembre, one of the several streets named for important dates of the Revolution, November 20 being the date it started. This urban homage suggests the continuing importance of the Revolution to Mexico’s sense of its national identity, and Leo’s interview and his photo with Villa and Zapata make clear how important the Revolution was to his identity, his future, his place in the universe, as Octavio Paz would say.
So, too, the artistic outpouring that followed the Revolution, much of which was dedicated to consolidating the gains of the Revolution. One of the most notable gains is the art itself: the muralist movement and easel painting, film and photography. Already in the 1920s, Mexico began to recognize itself as a nation; it had been a state since independence from Spain in 1821, but the Revolution redefined Mexico’s identity as a nation whose newness could be represented. The Constitution of 1917 foregrounds in its first articles the multicultural and multiethnic identity of Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos, (The United Mexican States, “one and indivisible”) and specifies the equal protection of all of its citizens, with emphasis on indigenous peoples in its first “chapter.” The Constitution reflects the lessons of the Revolution: Mexico is no longer Spanish or indigenous but both, and powerfully so — la raza cósmica, as the post-Revolutionary cultural visionary José Vasconcelos proclaimed. Indigenous cultures, past and present, become central to national self-representation, as does the mixture of cultures and ethnicities. A Mexican friend puts it this way: “With the Revolution, we looked in the mirror and recognized ourselves.”
The current “blockbuster” exhibition, Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950, inaugurated in Philadelphia last fall, moved to Mexico City this spring, and now at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, celebrates the relation of the Revolution to the art and artists who lived it, and painted it. This exhibition and its excellent catalog, published by the Philadelphia Art Museum and the Museo de Bellas Artes in conjunction with Yale University, fully captures Mexico’s post-Revolutionary artistic exuberance.
Twentieth-century Mexican music, dance, and poetry also lit up the sky in post-Revolutionary Mexico, as did “novels of the Revolution.” This uniquely Mexican genre began in 1916 with Mariano Azuela’s Los de abajo (translated as The Underdogs), continued with Martín Luis Guzmán’s La sombra del caudillo (The Shadow of the Caudillo) in 1929, followed by many more during the 1930s. The common structure is a struggle that becomes senseless, leaders both official and self-appointed who betray their ideals and drag victims in their wake. As Greek tragedy is a response to the will of the gods, so these Mexican novels seem to respond to the need for communal expiation. They recognize high intentions, and dramatize the road to hell. Despite these novels’ focus on its failures, the Revolution remains a historical and cultural linchpin for contemporary Mexicans, the starting point of modern Mexico.
The genre has a second phase, beginning in 1958 with Carlos Fuentes’s La region más transparente (translated as Where the Air is Clear) and La muerte de Artemio Cruz (The Death of Artemio Cruz, 1962), both of which show the institutionalization of the Revolution after the fighting has ended, and the abuses generated in the process. Fuentes can’t resist the portrayal of power gone amok. As late as 2002, he wrote yet another novel closely related to the earlier two titled La silla del águila, literally “The Chair of the Eagle,” the same presidential chair that we see in Leo’s photo.
In 1964, the wonderful Mexican satirist Jorge Ibargüengoitia offered a hilarious send-up of the egotism and disorganization of the Revolution and its leaders. In Relámpagos de agosto (The Lightning of August), Ibargüengoitia’s generals are Mexican Laurel and Hardys, and the trains that played such an important part in the Revolution now careen along the tracks without any strategy or cargo, and sometimes without troops or an engineer. This short novel seems to me to be somewhat related in tone to Casasola’s photo, with that pretender Pancho Villa in the presidential chair, strutting his stuff, enjoying his performance, seizing the moment before it seizes him (which it did; he was assassinated in 1923). Even Leo, with his scrunched-up eyes and fabricated grin, mugging for the photographer, is related to Ibargüengoitia’s satire of Revolutionary ideals. In fact, Leo’s job as a mechanic in a railroad yard in Aguascalientes two years after the photo is taken is significant: the Revolution was fought on trains, not on horseback.
As is clear by now, the novel of the Revolution, like the Revolution itself, is largely a male monopoly. There are, however, two exceptions, both of whom resist the conventions of the genre (caudillos, political power, betrayal, et cetera) and in so doing, amplify its reach enormously. Nellie Campobello wrote Cartucho in 1931, translated belatedly into English in 1988 under the same title, which means “cartridge.” Instead of featuring the leaders of the Revolution, she offers 56 short descriptions of boys and men caught up in the chaos, and she does so from a little girl’s perspective that reflects her own experience growing up in a northern Mexican town during the Revolution. The short descriptions — half a page, a page, rarely more — could be Casasola photographs, the action and characters seemingly frozen in a telling moment that contains the experience of countless others. Sometimes Campobello gives the soldier’s name, sometimes she does not; sometimes we know how the fellow dies, sometimes we don’t, and sometimes there are snapshots of groups: “The Women of the North,” “The Lookouts,” et cetera. The narrator is especially drawn to the youngest of the soldiers, and once again, now in a tragic mode, we see the outlines of young Leo Reynosa. Leo survived the Revolution as thousands did not, and as most of Campobello’s characters do not. What a triumph: a diner on South Shepherd in Houston, Texas.
Along with Cartucho, the other brilliant exception is Elena Garro’s Los recuerdos del porvenir (translated as Recollections of Things to Come, 1963). Garro’s novel takes place in what is now a ghost town, no longer inhabited but remembered by means of a dual narrative structure, the mythic voice of the promontory upon which the town once stood and the communal voice of the pueblo, both of which narrate the town’s experience during the Cristero Rebellion during the 1920s. This “rebellion” was in fact a counterrevolution, an armed protest against the anticlerical agenda of the Constitution of 1917. The Constitution goes well beyond the principle of separation of church and state, allowing for state regulation of religious institutions and practices, control of church property, prohibition of religious orders, and other repressive measures that the authors of the Constitution deemed necessary to modernize Mexico. The soldiers who fought in the Cristero Rebellion rode into battle shouting, “Viva Cristo Rey,” thus earning for themselves the name cristeros. This Rebellion lasted intermittently for 18 years, and cost Mexico another 200,000 lives.
Elena Garro’s prose is lyrical, her townspeople affecting, and their response to the suppression of the Catholic Church treated sympathetically. You may recall that Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory (1940) is also set in Mexico during the Cristero Rebellion. Greene’s gritty realism is completely different from Garro’s magical realism, but both novels capture the political and cultural ironies of the time, which continue today. Mexico remains a deeply Catholic country, but it was only in 1992 that the Mexican government reestablished official relations with the Vatican. When Pope Francis visited Mexico last year, he and President Enrique Peña Nieto met at the National Palace as heads of state — Pope Francis as head of the Vatican state, not as head of the Catholic Church.
So we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Constitution of 1917. It is often cited as the culmination of the Revolution because it strengthened the social, economic, cultural, and political principles for which the liberal factions were fighting. Some of its principles did not go uncontested, as Elena Garro dramatizes, nor did violence stop when the document was signed. Nonetheless, the Constitution gave the Revolution meaning, and provided the possibility, if not the immediate reality, of social and political order. It is unquestionably the foundation of modern Mexico, and it has been flexible enough to accommodate a century of changing needs and demands, respecting differences while defining rights and responsibilities. It is an enlightened social and political document that addresses past abuses even as it envisions a modern society with legal protections.
There is much still to do, of course, and here I mention a final irony. Donald Trump’s discourse about Mexico has been uniformly scurrilous since the early days of his campaign, but this discourse is having a positive effect in Mexico. No matter what one thinks about “fixing” US immigration and trade policies, it’s undeniable that the threats and insults aimed at Mexico and Mexicans have been constant and humiliating. Never has the much-quoted statement of Porfirio Díaz seemed more true: “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.”
But to counter one bon mot with another, “There’s no ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody good.” Mexican officials have risen to the occasion, not in kind but rather by asserting their importance economically, politically, culturally, and in the broadest humanitarian terms. Over the past several months, the country has united in standing up to the bullying and has, in the process, recognized its own power. Mexico’s status as a virtual satellite of the United States is over. Its leaders have reached out to leaders in Europe and Latin America, and to new trading partners and investors. Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel’s recent visit to Mexico speaks volumes. It’s as if Mexico’s communal consciousness has been raised by this “ill wind” blowing from the north, as it was by the Revolution a century ago for different reasons. Whatever the shortcomings of Mexico’s current President Enrique Peña Nieto, he has effectively asserted Mexico’s economic and political power as the third-largest trading partner of the United States, as a vast consumer of US agricultural products, a major manufacturer of goods essential to US consumers, from pacemakers to automobiles, not to mention the cultural and familial currents that flow so profoundly from south to north and back again.
Speaking of human currents, I think once again of Leo Reynosa. I wonder if he looked back at the outcome of the Revolution in which he fought, and the Constitution that was passed just one year before he headed to Houston. He surely must have, over the years. I think I see him now, grinning again, this time with his eyes wide open, looking straight at the camera.