Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Mexican Revolution through the Eyes of Foreigners

Today is the last of the Days of the Dead; if you haven't done so, make a point of stopping in at a cemetery to see the transformation of the last 24 hours; be sure to take your camera.  Once Days of the Dead is behind us, the media, government, and commercial enterprises will shift gears and bombard us, not with Thanksgiving, but with the centennial anniversary of the beginning days of the Revolution of 1910.   

Interestingly, four outstanding authors who wrote about the Revolution are English-speaking foreigners.  John Womack, Jr.'s, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution is considered, both in Mexico and around the world, the definitive history of the Revolution. Describing the social upheaval as it affected central Mexico, Zapata is a fascinating weave of Emiliano Zapata's motivation and his leadership role in the social upheaval.  With facts and figures Womack gives us cultural and socio-economic information to help us understand the motivation and point of view of the various groups in society.  You will want to read this book with map in hand as he takes you through the state of Morelos and occasionally into Puebla, Guerrero, and Mexico City.  Womack, a U.S. academic, writes in a well-documented, footnoted, style.  

Englishwoman, Rosa King doesn't have a single footnote in Tempest Over Mexico (available free at <tempestovermexico.com/download.html>).  In contrast to Womack's statistics, Mrs. King poignantly narrates the pain, suffering, and death  she witnesses, involving people from every social class, many of whom she knew personally. From the vantage point of her little English tea shop on Cuernavaca’s main square, Mrs. King seems to see it all.  The powerful came through her front door, the poor through the kitchen.  From her you receive a visceral 'feeling' for the social conflicts of the Revolution.   Most every landmark she mentions still stands open for visiting.      

Mrs. King empathized with the peasants and the conditions leading to the Revolution.  Nonetheless, when the war began she found herself caught in the middle, dependent upon government forces to make the grueling, tragically costly, evacuation from Cuernavaca. 

Mrs. King, like many of the readers of this newspaper, held the citizenship of a country in which she was not born and never lived for extended periods of time.  Some of us are travelers vacationing in Mexico, some are here temporarily on business, some  self-proclaimed “expats,” have moved from abroad and intend to stay and make our residence here. There are even some of us, an unusual lot, who live in Mexico but may never have lived in our country of nationality.

Journalist John Reed, author of Insurgent Mexico, covered the Mexican Revolution for Metropolitan Magazine, at a time when the U.S. was considering intervention and annexation.  Reed traveled with Pancho Villa’s army, shared their deprivation, and came to understand the motivations of these peasant soldiers.  Reed deeply sympathized with the peons and vehemently opposed the U.S. intervention that began after he left.  Insurgent Mexico is the compilation of his war correspondent stories, many of them so timeless they could have appeared in yesterday’s paper.

In contrast to Rosa King’s personal narrative,  John Womack’s academic masterpiece, and John Reed’s intense journalism, is John Steinbeck’s "Viva Zapata!", starring Marlon Brando, 1952.  A  dramatization of the revolution through the eyes of General Emiliano Zapata, it was nominated for multiple Oscars. What most people don’t know is that Steinbeck lived for some time in Mexico, loved this country, and, in preparation for writing the script, was a student of the conditions that led to the Revolution.  Zapata, a hard to find, but excellent, book includes the background information and narrative he used in writing the script for "Viva Zapata!", and also two quite different versions of the familiar script. 

All four of these books (and the movie too) are excellent and may help readers to a better understanding of why revolutionary ideals are considered sacred to so many in this country.   Next week will be an excursion through the rich revolutionary geography of Morelos with ideas for trips one might enjoy.    

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