The rain came early in the morning and left the plaza with the sweet smell of wet mesquite and adobe. The damp stones the lined the dirt road made quiet slapping sounds as Carmen’s bare feet hit them. Carmen had arrived with her father and brothers early that morning to go to the market before the rally at the plaza. The whole village had been in an uproar over the governments’ new policies and many of the ranch owners were angry over their land being taken. Carmen’s family had been ranchers and land owners for generations, her only home was these hills and she couldn’t imagine living somewhere else. Night after night she heard her father talking with other vaqueros and ranch hands about the poor condition the country was in and how the government was taking land from citizens with no reason or right. From the crack in the door she could hear the men talk about taking action, grumbled words tinged with anger spoke of revolution, tyranny, treason. She didn’t know exactly what was happening, but she did know that as soon as the subject came up in conversation- she and the other children were ushered out of the room- and that meant only one thing… whatever they were talking about, was more 10 times more interesting than anything else.
In 1910 the Mexican revolution was just breaking out. The people had been mobilized. A large number of them had been on the fringes of politics, but this was an extreme case of explosion of political participation. The Mexican government and society was being turned upside down and even once it had been righted- it would never be the same again.
Porfino Diaz was the longstanding dictator of the country. Even though he came into power though a coup, he managed to create a somewhat stable political system. New money pouring into the economy increased foreign trade. Railways, mines and cash crops spans and flourished across the country. Larger cities could afford paved streets, electricity, trams and improved plumbing. The system was greatly flawed however, in that Diaz handed control of local lands, political seats and public order to powerful families, controlling elections and political opposition. Friends and family members were given prominent positions, many that they were not qualified for and in turn were allowing the lands and natural resources to degrade.
Emiliano Zapata was leading the Liberation Army of the South. He and Pancho Villa were two of the most famous and infamous men in Mexico. Zapata led the villagers of Morelos in an effort to recover lands lost to sugar cane fields. Lands that once belonged to native people, but were taken over and used for cash crops or mining. With this and many other battles under his belt
In 1910 Carmen was 8 years old and though she was the oldest girl of 10 children she had grown up on the back of a horse and was often called upon to help out at the ranch when extra people were needed. She loved the land her family owned, and looked forward to the day when she would be able to pass it down to her children.
The sun was high when the rally started. The heat had dried the mornings’ rain and dust had started fly and settle with the wind. The crowd was a throng of angry ranchers and land owners. Carmen didn’t realize how many men had lost their land, their livelihood, their hope. The men told of entire villages vanishing under sugar cane fields. Under Diaz’s rule the country had grown and progressed, but the great progress came at the expense of the poor. Old ancestral corn fields gave way to new crops, as the food became more and more scarce and prices rose the poor were out priced and quickly faced destitution. The speakers finished and soon a shush came over the large crowd. There upon the stage emerged one of the men she had heard so much about. Emiliano Zapata was as good looking as her older cousins had said he was. He was dressed as a charro; in silver buttoned trousers and a shirt and scarf in shades of pastel blue. He removed his matching sombrero before he spoke. He spoke gruffly almost harshly. Carmen seemed to think that he looked uncomfortable- that he didn’t want to be there. He was angry that though President Diaz was losing power- there was still so much that needed to be done. The Army was taking over native lands, ranches and farms were confiscated and their owners evicted. His words became more heated he raised his voice and the crowd cheered!
“Remember Madero! ‘Sufragio Efectivo, No Re-eleccion!’ (A Real Vote and No Boss Rule)” The crowd erupted in cheers again. Carmen dropped her mango paletas in surprise and sadly watched it melt in the heat of the day.
“Seek justice from tyrannical governments not with your hat in your hands but with a rifle in your fist!” Carmen looked up and saw that even her father, who was not one for showing emotion, was waving his hat in the air and cheering just as loudly as her older brothers standing beside her.
She pulled on her brother Manuel’s sleeve till he looked down at her. She put up her hands in a sign of help and he easily lifted her up onto his shoulders. She sat on his shoulders, her hands clasped under his chin; she could feel the stubble of his beard growing in. From her new perch she could see everything; the huge throng of people standing in the heat, women in their simple dress of colorful skirts and shawls over loose blouses, Men dressed in ranchers trousers and work shirts or charro scarves and shirts. Carmen couldn’t understand why some would get so dressed up just to stand in the heat and dust of the middle of the day. Featured prominently in front was the grand stand where the speakers had been standing and where the heads of the town had come out to introduce Senores Zapata. Over to one side she could see the women standing by their food stalls selling little tacos and tortas. The stalls were little more than open fires cooking a few vegetables and the most recent unlucky chicken, duck or pig. Carmen sniffed slow and deep as the wind blew the smoke from the fire her way. She could imagine a little torta to herself; the thin bread making a sandwich out of the pork, peppers and salty cheese she loved so much. Her mouth began to water and she wished that she had not spent the little money she had on the mango paleta that was now on the ground melting and attracting flies and ants. She made a mental note to tell Manuel about her dropped frozen treat; he would surely give her another coin to buy another.
Manuel doted on Carmen from the moment she was born. As a baby, he picked her up any time she cried, would sit and play with her and let her climb on him. He convinced his older brothers to let her play with them and often let her cheat. He taught her how to ride a horse, rope calves and to get back on if you fall off- and do not cry. She was easily his favorite, and he was her’s. Her hands caught in the dark tangles of his wavy hair, Carmen remembered the many times he would help her take a nap by letting her play with his hair till she fell asleep, the softness seemed to mesmerize her as she drifted off. She wondered how long it would be before he would be mesmerized by Zapata’s words and go off to fight in the revolution.
She was shaken from her reverie by the crowd shouting and cheering again. “I want to die a slave to principles, not to men.” Carmen stopped to listen.
”¡Prefiero morir de pie que vivir siempre arrodillado!” (It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.) Suddenly, she was things with new eyes. As she looked around she noticed so many of the people were thin, as if they had not eaten for days, though they wore their best clothes it hung on many of them like loose rags. Many of the families she grew up with were leaving or had left already. She noticed how small her town was getting, how destitute the situation. Carmen thought of all the times that she and her younger siblings would have to hide the still under the house when the federales came. For hours at a time she and her younger brothers and sisters would help dismantle and then hide the pieces of the still under the house to keep from getting g caught making pulque or illegal liquor. If hiding under the house wasn’t bad enough, it was cramped, in the warm months it was incredibly hot, and there were bugs, spiders and the occasional rat that would come and climb over you. And you better not make a sound! If the federales knew what were simply a few inches under their feet, the ranch would be taken and the family split up.! Carmen quickly understood the pain, frustration and anger the other people in the crowd were expressing. She was starting to feel it herself, too. The men up on the stage were bringing together this group of men and rallying their spirits. Encouraging them to take a stand and make something of themselves. For too many years the people in the fields and ranches and been taken advantage of and used. It was time for rebellion.
Not long after the rally Carmen spotted her brothers standing and talking to some of Zapata’s soldiers. The heat of the sun was nothing compared to the heat of the conversations coming from all around. On the ride home, Carmen could pick up little snippets of conversation over the noise of the wheels on the rutted road. Vincente, one of her older brothers was feverishly arguing with their father about whether or not it was the time to join with the revolution. Martin, their father was not only worried about the welfare of his sons but also the health of his wife Francesca- they had already lost two young sons; one in his infancy due to disease and the other as a young child due to a hard blow to the head resulting in brain hemorrhage. She had not recovered mentally form the death of two of their children a few years before would not fare well if another one of their children died.
That night through the crackle and pop of the fire Carmen could hear the quiet sobs of her mother; not only had Vincente decided to join the North Division; but also Martin Jr. the oldest son, and to Carmen’s despair- Manuel. The young men would be leaving the next day. Inspired by the impassioned arguments of Zapata many of the towns men- both young and old were leaving their families behind to fight for liberty. Her brothers left the next morning; she watched their shadows stretch along the dirt road as they disappeared over the hill to join with friends and neighbors.
Fighting became fierce in the spring of 1911 throughout central Mexico. Many of Carmen’s friends disappeared with their families as they evacuated the village and moved north to safer ground. Carmen herself was being sent north to Cananea with her mother and some of her siblings. As they arrived at the train depot Carmen realized that the train itself was packed full of soldiers. Though they had managed to purchase tickets, the soldiers had commandeered the train and were not allowing any civilians to board. Carmen’s mother, having noticed that other people were climbing to the top of the train, gathered her children and the few belongings they had brought with them and started toward the top of the train. Along with their few bags of clothes and household keepsakes, Carmen’s mother insisted on taking her precious treadle sewing machine. This large piece of furniture would prove to be Carmen’s saving grace. As they started to board the top of the train, people with small children were being turned away as the train roof was unsafe for them. Carmen’s mother would not be deterred. She insisted they hoist and tie the sewing machine to the roof of the train. She sat Carmen on the foot peddle of the machine and with the last bit of rope, tied her to it. The train departed with Carmen tied to a sewing machine, tied to a train.
In 1914 the revolution had come full circle. Zapata and his army had fought to change the regime and bring about the return of the land to the native peoples and to establish a new presidency. But the horizon seemed limited for Zapata. Many people considered him to be ill-educated and wedded to a traditional way of life that was on its way out. His deep roots kept him a man of the people- he was in fact, not interested in holding the presidency himself. Even when the army was occupying the Presidential Palace in Mexico City, Zapata simply slunk off to a seedy motel by the train station. He never occupied the presidential chair; he never much wanted to.
The revolution took its toll and Carmen couldn’t help but see it all. Men would return home with horrific injuries, many of them with emotional scars that would be just as crippling. Rationing and regulating of everything from fuel to apricots affected every day goings on as well as any celebration, festival or holiday that occurred. Carmen went without her favorite pan dulce treats for her birthday just to save up the flour to make 3 Kings Bread for New Years. The dress she had loved and held onto for years would become two new dresses for her younger sisters.
Carmen only received a few letters from Manuel. Many of the letters were scrawled out on scraps of paper and with such horrible handwriting that Carmen imagined her brother was actually riding his horse at a full gallop while writing to her. He wrote of the glory of the revolution and the pain of watching friends die in his arms. He wrote of missing the smell of ox tail soup and the sound of the hills as they woke with the dawn. In December, Carmen finally received a nice long letter from Manuel. Zapata and Villa had at long last met in Mexico City. Though the two of them had been working cooperatively for years- they had not actually fought side by side. Manuel wrote of the vast differences of appearance between the two men. Zapata dark skinned and thin, dressed in his charro scarf and shirt- Manuel said that he looked dandified. Villa, tall and barrel chested, his skin was pale and he was dressed in traditional western khaki pants and riding boots. The meeting of the two men was surrounded with awkwardness and long moments of silence.
“They eyed each other coyly- like two country sweet hearts” He wrote. “When Zapata, who liked his drink, ordered cognac, Villa, who does not take hard liquor, drank only to oblige, choked and called for water.!”
Carmen would hold on to this letter for years, reading it over and over again… giggling at the thought of the two men looking at each other in such a way.
In 1915 the fighting came to an incredible climax. The North Division was harshly defeated and both Martin Jr and Vincente were killed. Their bodies were returned home and what was left of Carmen’s family gathered to bury them. Manuel returned home with broken bones and scars. Though he returned in one piece, Carmen recognized a change in him. His smile seemed tinged with sadness and the normally boisterous and playful boy had come home a quiet and subdued man. Time would serve as a great healer. Manuel would meet the girl of his heart and together they would start a family of their own.
Carmen would never live to see her land returned to her father. She would not witness the return of land to anyone in her village. The federales came, invaded her families land, took what they wanted and destroyed what they did not need. Many men died trying to defend their land and their families. Zapata’s Plan of Ayala called for the return of the land to the indigenous people, but very few of those lands would be returned. Zapata, Villa and others helped to lead a bloody but ultimately successful revolution. Some, but not all of the land was returned to the native people- it came nothing close to the complete and total return of lands that Zapata envisioned.
Carmen grew up, married and started a family. My family.