Book Report

Villa and Zapata, a history of the Mexican Revolution, by Frank McLynn.

Villa and Zapata, a history of the Mexican Revolution, by Frank McLynn. Published by Basic books. 2000. 459 pages, $19.95.

This book, read cover to cover, becomes a comprehensive course in turn of the century Mexican history; and I’ve struggled to digest enough sophisticated facts and players and dates, to then be able to choose the parts that most intrigue me, and hopefully will also interest readers. It is a book to refer to, again and again. The author is a researcher who has written 16 other books about historical events, and also biographies of Jung, Napoleon, and Robert Louis Stevenson among others.

Reading about Zapata and Villa, I soon realized I’d never remember or have room to describe all of the facts, and so this report focuses on the two men in the title; their similarities, differences, and their roles, and the effect they had on Mexico of that time, and, of changes in Mexico today. This is a book to read, and to keep as a resource, pulling out facts, dates, and people as you wish. Hopefully, each time I refer to it, I will learn and understand a bit more.

The eight pages of black and white photos from those years of the Revolution, might have come from my grandmother’s photo album. The photos are almost entirely of men with huge mustaches, but there are also two photos of soldaderas, the women of the Revolution. Little is written about them, but they had important roles which are described in the book.

The book describes Mexico the way it was in 1910, in the world of Porfirio Diaz.

I could write so much about this book! There are facts, dates, and battles, and also personal and political information and anecdotes, all here. It was hard to keep to my focus. I skimmed the book, and then zeroed in on the two men in the title,  Villa and Zapata. The complete book is well researched and documented (with pages and pages of sources), and can be used as a total bank of information about the Mexican Revolution.

Finally,(starting on page 33), we come to the many chapters about the personalities, and the rise and twilight of Zapata and Villa. The author writes these descriptions almost poetically. We think of these two men as polar opposites, and in many ways they were. Villa followed impulses, acted without thinking, and had a volatile temper. He bragged that he first became an outlaw when he was only 16. He liked to see himself as a Robin Hood, taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Villa was barely literate, and was proud to be classed as a social bandit. He became a folk hero to many of the poorest people. On the eve of the Revolution, Villa was 32, very muscular, and he had a huge black mustache that didn’t quite cover his protruding lower jaw. Villa didn’t smoke or drink, and he liked to sing and dance. His emotions could change in seconds. He also loved publicity and being in films.

In some ways, Zapata had many similarities. Both men were born only a little more than a year apart. Both were excellent horsemen (Villa was called Centaur, because he seemed half man, and half horse). And, both were promiscuous, and had many women, (Villa humored his women with fake marriage ceremonies). Also, both men had already been in trouble with authorities. And of course, they both lived in very violent times. Also, Villa and Zapata were both said to have hypnotic brown eyes, that mesmerized and held attention.

But there were also big differences in the two men.

Zapata was a deep thinker, thinking through possibilities and consequences., and was reactive, while Villa was impulsive, often a hothead, and an opportunist. They were sometimes rivals, sometimes comrades. Emiliano Zapata, a mestizo of mixed white and Indian parents, was part of a troubled culture in a troubled land, where whiteness reigned supreme. In his small birth state of Morelos, most of the conflicts were between owners of large haciendas, and villagers who were also small farmers. Losing their tiny land plots could mean starvation to the villagers, and Zapata took this as his main cause. He went to an elementary school and studied bookkeeping along with reading and writing. He was also a dandy who wore fancy churro clothes. And most importantly, he respected, and had a spiritual feeling about the land.

The author writes of the end of the Revolution as a “dance of death” for all those who were important players; Madera, Huerta, Villa, Zapata, Carranza, and Obergon, among so many others. None of these men died with their boots on, and all were betrayed and assassinated.

So, how did this bloody war change Mexico? Mostly it was in the popular attitudes of the people and the world, but many things did not change.The very poor did get a glimpse of possibilities, and some of Zapata’s desire for land reform began to slowly happen. But the human price of the ten years of violence, added up to 350,000, or perhaps even a million deaths. No one knows for sure.

Using this book as a valuable source, you may also want to read personal writings, (with magical realism), about other families living in that time, who tried to escape the violence. Rain of Gold, by Victor Villasenor is the first to come to mind , and Hummingbird’s Daughter is another.

You can purchase these books at my book store, El Caballo Blanco, in Loreto, So many books to read, so little time...