By Debbi Stone Cassidy
I remember the day the revolution started for my family. My father, mother, and two younger brothers were resting on our mud-packed porch after our midday meal. Again, we ate corn, black beans and, thanks to our goats, a bit of fresh cheese. We had long forgotten the taste of meat, but we were still among the lucky: we had food and we had our land. It was 1908; we were in the second year of a drought. There were days I believed our small ranchero would be blown away by the ferocious winds that whipped through the state of Chihuahua. We were dry-land farmers, which meant for us that every sunrise was greeted with a prayer for rain.
It was late in the afternoon when I spotted a figure running toward us, waving something over his head. As he came closer, I saw that it was my best friend, Francisco Wong. He was shouting, but he had a smile on his face. I knew he would have entertaining news, always. Francisco’s father had come from China in 1892. He came to work as a railroad laborer, and his mother managed to come a year later when Mexico and China signed a treaty that included a “most favored nation” clause. Francisco was five months old when he arrived in Mexico. Allowing the Chinese to immigrate to Mexico was part of Porfirio Diaz’s plan to modernize. He thought the workers would be docile and knew China would look favorably on his generous offer to give the Chinese work after the US had stopped immigration with the Exclusion Act of 1882. As usual, it was a win-win situation for Diaz. It meant cheap labor, a potential for trade with China and of course, Diaz looked noble in the process.
As Francisco caught his breath, my mother went inside to get a pitcher of cool water. In his hand was an American magazine. My brothers and I crowded around him, waiting for him to share the contents of his treasure. Not only could Francisco read Spanish, he could also read English. His mother, who had been a school teacher in China, was very serious about the education of her children. The Wongs owned a small mercantile store in the pueblo, and the mornings were always taken up with lessons. I was proud to have such a smart friend; at the time I knew very few people who could read. The days when I finished my chores early, Francisco would give me lessons, drawing letters in the dirt or showing me old newspapers from the store. I learned to read even though I was only a girl.
Pearson’s Magazine had an interview with Diaz. In the interview, Diaz said that the Mexican people were finally ready for democracy and that he was willing to step down in the next election. Unbelievable! Diaz said, “I welcome an opposition party in the Mexican Republic…If it appears, I will regard it as a blessing, not an evil.”
We were silent for a moment. We wondered if the article was a joke. After thirty years of dictatorship, could Mexico dare to hope it would be free of the Porfiriato? Francisco read the entire article aloud. We howled with laughter at the description the American James Creelman gave of the President: “The master and hero of modern Mexico, the inscrutable leader in whose veins is blended the blood of the primitive Mixtecs with that of the invading Spaniards…the strong, soldierly head and commanding but sensitive countenance conveys an interest beyond what words can express.” The description was so silly. Creelman said nothing but flattering things about our President, and while Diaz might have been popular with Americans and the Hacendados, for the poor peons, the Indian tribes, and the small landowners, the name of Porfiro Diaz was associated only with misery and hatred.
So it was that the revolution started in our hearts on that hot day. We were hopeful and we were ready for a true leader, one that would make changes for the people, our people. When my brothers Jorge and Juan and my sister, Albertina, came back from their work at the Terrazas-Creel hacienda that evening, we told them the exciting news and celebrated. That night, we allowed ourselves to dream of the future.
We were not the only ones who read the article in Pearson’s magazine. Francisco Madero, a landowner with a social conscience, became a candidate for president in the election of 1910. He clearly saw the problems Mexico faced and offered democratic solutions. He sounded like a reasonable man. He was a reformer, and we believed he told the truth. As we suspected, Diaz behaved like a snake. Just before the June election, our hope was arrested. Madero was in jail when Diaz was “re-elected” in July. There was no opposition. We wept, more from anger than sadness. It seemed like there was no escape from the dictator.
As small land owners, we were in constant danger of losing what little land we had. My brothers and sister worked at the neighboring Terraza’s haciendo. Albertina worked as a weekend housekeeper and my brothers worked as field hands, hoping to one day become vaqueros. With a salary of 7 or 8 pesos a month, they dreamed of saving our parents from the drudgery of dry-land farming. They imagined having the luxury of paid hands to work the family land. As vaqueros, Jorge and Juan also believed they could provide security against the Tezzaza clan, who at any moment might petition for the expropriation of our ranchero. We had no papers, no proof of ownership, only generations of work, stories, and our word to show that the land was ours. According to Porfirio, our word meant nothing.
Our prayers were answered in that summer of 1910: it rained and we had a good harvest. We were able to pay our small debt at the Wongs’ mercantile store. The Wongs saved us from having to buy from the store at the Terrazza haciendo where the prices were outrageous and the food was often rotten. We remained free of debt to the haciendado. It was a miracle.
Madero escaped from prison in October. Again, we celebrated. While in prison, Madero devised the Plan of San Luiz Potosi. It called for democratization, economic independence and land reform. He also planned an armed insurrection for November 20th.
Francisco Villa lead the Madero revolt in Chihuahua. His friends called him “Pancho,” the “Robin Hood of Mexico.” He was the hero of my family. My older brothers could not wait to join up with him, even Albertina was anxious to become part of his army. My sister, the Soldadera. She pictured herself as a spy, but I believed she wanted to be a comfort girl (at 20 she still didn’t have a husband).
Pancho was been a bandit and a Muleteer. His battle strategies were brilliant. He was a brave man, a romantic, but uneducated. I kept my feelings about “Pancho” to myself. My family only saw the best in him. I knew he was dangerous. He was sloppy and crass, a barbarian – and most important to me, he hated the Chinese in Mexico.
I will admit I was surprised by Villa’s success, even though he had widespread support and easy access to arms because we were very close to the US border. I didn’t believe his army could pressure Porfirio Diaz to resign, but it happened, and Madero won the 1911 presidential election. We thought we had lived through the worst and that Mexico was on the right path to democracy and land reform.
We were mistaken. Two years later, Madero’s supposedly loyal general, Victoriano Huerte, staged a coup and Madero and his Vice President Suarez were murdered.
Mexico saw Huerte for what he was: an illegitimate dictator, a jackal. He had no intention of governing democratically. Then it seemed that it was one battle after another. The new man, Carranza, called for the restoration of the constitutional government. He gave himself the title of “First chief of the Constitutionalist Army.” The next thing we knew Huerte was out and Carranza was in. Initially Villa supported Carranza, but it became evident that Carranza was too conservative, too much like Diaz. A split occurred between the two men and the real trouble for my family began.
Zapata (Villa’s rival revolutionary) and Villa joined forces against the Carranza-Obregon Constitutionalists. My brothers and sister again joined the fight. This time my younger brother Manuel joined Villa’s army. When one is fourteen, life is a big adventure. He died in the battle of Celaya.
The Civil War was unimaginably brutal. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican citizens lost their lives. The Conventionalists lost the war. Obregon was too sophisticated. He called it modern warfare tactics; I called it barbarism. Obregon lost his arm in the battle. Bueno! Where was the solidarity between the revolutionaries, I wondered? With US support perhaps the outcome could be no other way. I only know that while I stayed home to care for my parents, Mexico changed. Maybe Porfirio was right when he said, “The individual Mexican as a rule thinks much about his own rights and is always ready to assert them…Capacity for self-restraint is possible only to those who recognize the rights of their neighbors.”
In my opinion the problem with the entire revolution was that each group had its own agenda. Everyone strutted like peacocks: Villa bettering Zapata, Obregon muscling Carranza. If only time had stopped in 1912 when Madero became president, Mexico may have seen peace and prosperity and saved almost two million lives.
The Constitution of 1917 sounded good: it addressed workers rights, land reform, nationalized industry and said there would be no re-election, but how could it be trusted? Carranza was conservative and cautious. When support shifted for Obregon, Carranza retreated, but was discovered by the Obregonistas. The story is told that he died in the confusion of discovery. I have my doubts. Obregon became president in 1920.
We still have our land, but little has changed in Santa Rita. The dust still blows on years where there is a drought. We were able to buy a few cattle and we no longer fear that our ranchero will be taken by the Terraza clan. But we no longer believe in promises.
In 1918, I married Francisco Wong, who is known to you as baba. The anti-Chinese sentiment has been steadily growing for the last 10 years. Villa fueled the fire with claims that the Chinese were taking work and Mexican women from Mexicans. I was arrested for shooting at the men who attempted to burn down our mercantile store. They dragged Francisco out, threatening to string him up. He was breaking the anti-miscegenation law: Chinese men are forbidden to marry or live with Mexican women. You, my children, are “Chinos,” my husband is a “Chino,” and I am now considered a traitor to my nation and my race. I shot at those men to save our lives, but the laws are different for me.
It is 1923. As I wait for my trial, Maria Lopez Wong vs Mexico, I am writing in my journal in the hope that my story will be carried to the next generation through you, and in the hope that wherever you may live, you will remember that Mexico is your first home.
People ask me about the revolution. Was it a good thing? Are you better off? There is no simple answer. The poor are still desperate, they blame the Chinese, the slow process of land reform, the US, and Porfirio Diaz. The people worship the memories of Zapata and Villa; the identities of the revolutionaries have become intertwined with the identity of the Mexican people. They find it difficult to move on. Yes, the industries are ours now, and we are stronger, but we are still at the beginning. It is yet to be seen whether Mexico will survive as a democracy dedicated to serving the people rather than exploiting them. As to whether the revolution was a good thing, I still feel the sting of loss. Loss of my brother, my hopes, and my innocence. Will I be deported with my husband and children to a land we have never seen? Will I be jailed, leaving my children without a mother? I await my punishment. When people ask if we are better off, I say we must leave that question in the hands of our children to answer.
Debbi Stone Cassidy has studied creative writing at the University of Oregon and the Rainier Writers Workshop. Her maternal grandmother was born in Hermosillo, Mexico in 1912. She currently lives among the tall trees and wildlife in Eugene, Oregon.