One of the favorite themes of Chicano and Chicana muralists has been the Mexican Revolution; Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata are probably on more walls in the United States than in their native country. The strange thing is that not too many in the Mexican American communities seem to remember, let alone celebrate, the Day of the Revolution: November 20. Unlike the other three anointed Mexican ethnic celebrations: Cinco de Mayo, Mexican Independence Day, and Día de los Muertos, that have been indelibly ingrained in the collective cultural unconscious of the United States, when it comes to the Mexican Revolution there is a loud silence.
In Mexico, Day of the Revolution has been a prominent patriotic event since the 1920s but, unfortunately, even there this fiesta has slowly faded with the onset of the new millennium.
I remember how growing up as a child in Copándaro, Michoacán, “el 20 de noviembre” was a major event where the local primary school students paraded military style around town, then gathered in front of la jefatura–the local government office–with a crowd of townspeople looking on as we performed poetry recitals and folkloric dances; the teachers gave their hyper-patriotic speeches praising los heroes de La Revolución and properly followed the political rituals to assure that the Partido Revolucionario Institucional maintained the spirit of its cheap nationalism and legitimated its hold on power. It was a nationalistic mass where we all communed together and reasserted our faith in the tenets of the 1917 Constitution. The campesinos ate it all up, especially the part about Land Reform: “Tierra y libertad,” supposedly proclaimed by Emiliano Zapata.
But by the time I witness these nationalistic shows some campesinos were aware that the paltry piece of land they had received through land reform was hugely problematic. In 1953, Juan Rulfo had already lampooned the government’s efforts in his short story, “Nos han dado la tierra,” where campesinos who fought in the revolution walk through a hardened, dry and arid land thirsty for water, a promised land which is now theirs. They realize that their future will be the same as before the Revolution: the land reform will keep them chained to poverty since sorely lacking in the government’s revolutionary rhetoric is the infrastructure to make the arid land productive. Thus Rulfo’s story reminds us of the emptiness in the slogan, “Tierra y libertad.”
As rural people understood better the predicament in which they found themselves, they latched on to the “libertad” offered in the slogan, not the liberty that the revolutionaries had anticipated but the freedom to pick up and leave the dreary life in the countryside and head for the cities to find a more humane way of living, as many a peasant did. Yet other country folk left the unproductive agricultural fields and headed north to the USA, where they eventually settled and brought their families to live with them. The irony is that most these campesinos ended up working as field hands in the American agribusiness that in many ways resembled the large haciendas which had been broken up and from which the peasants had been freed by the Revolution, so they could eventually move to the United States.
Ah yes, the Mexican Revolution. And there it was on the walls of buildings, freeway underpasses, and Mexican tienditas, in California and other Southwestern states where many of us arrived in the 1970s and 1980s. The Chicana and Chicano artist were painting and expressing their cultural and historical roots without realizing that the Mexican paisas buying their groceries in those mom and pop stores were the uprooted, the disenchanted diaspora of the Revolution, a revolution that was quickly losing its allure over the Mexican people, both in Mexico and the United States. That part didn’t make it onto the colorful murals only idealistic portrayals of Villa and Zapata.
Recently, a close friend and I made a trip to Ex Hacienda de Chinameca in Morelos where Zapata was assassinated in 1919. I had previously been there as a graduate student in the early 1990s to see where the Revolution had died. I was full of expectations once more, hopeful that I might find the fire still burning or at least some embers, especially in these troubled times Mexico is experiencing. For this reason, it was devastating to see the onsite Museo del Agrarismo empty of visitors. Besides my friend and I, there were two other visitors strolling in silence in that big hollow building. Outside, a few locals hung around without paying attention to us. I tried in vain to figure out where Zapata had been riddled with bullets and left with swirling images in my head of Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn in Elia Kazan’s film, Viva Zapata!
Be that as it may, in the United States Zapata continues to mesmerize the new generations, his memory kept alive by the Zapatista Movement, which in Mexico has fallen silent and almost forgotten, overwhelmed by the din of the Drug Wars. Villa still shows up here and there, though his star has also begun to descend now that his ethnic cleansing atrocities against the Chinese immigrants in Mexico have become known.
I haven’t been to any Day of the Revolution celebrations in many years. I’m told that in my hometown it’s still celebrated in what we could call a transnational fashion. Everyone that has attended tells me about the great fiesta that it still organized; they tell me about the soccer team that travels from Oxnard, California (where half of my hometown resides since the diaspora of the 1970s) to play in a match against the Copándaro squad; they tell me about the toros and the bull-riding; they tell about the famous banda that plays at the dance; they tell me about all the drinking and eating; but no one ever tells me anything about La Revolución. I know it’s there somewhere, way in the background with its parade and poetry and speeches. But if I were there today, when one of my teacher friends finished off the show with the ringing choruses of “viva” (long live), I would be ready to answer him: ¡Viva Francisco Villa! Sí, the one who massacred Chinese immigrants! ¡Viva Venustiano Carranza! Sí, the one who had Zapata killed! ¡Viva Álvaro Obregón! Sí, the one who assassinated Carranza and Villa!
It’s time we admit it: La Revolución Mexicana has been dead for almost 100 years. Ironically, changes in our societies came about not because of programs such as the highly touted land reform, but because of its unintended consequence. For example, the campesinos that were forced to move had enormous success in the United States due to the resounding failure of land distribution in Mexico. These peasants then transformed the countryside into a web of transnational communities with people that are urban American and rural Mexican at the same time.
The Mexican urban population also doesn’t have much use for the revolution. This past weekend, instead of making preparations to celebrate “el 20 de noviembre,” they were probably more concerned with the purchases they would make during “El Buen Fin,” the Mexican version of Black Friday where they do their best imitation of the American modern consumerist life.
Yes, for many of us La Revolución is dead. May it rest soundly in peace.