Álvaro Obregón

(1880 - 1928)

Álvaro Obregón was a Mexican farmer-turned-general. Born in the State of Sonora in 1880, he would become president as the bloodiest years of the revolution came to an end. Obregón was a study in contradictions and ever-changing loyalties. He was one of the greatest generals of the revolution, but he never considered himself a military man. Although he admired President Francisco Madero, he did not choose to join the Maderista forces as they fought to end the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. Instead, he joined the military later, in order to fight to keep Madero in office, against the rebellion staged by Pascual Orozco, a disenchanted former Maderista.

Thus, Obregón would begin his military career fighting under a man he would later oppose and work to overthrow, General Victoriano Huerta. Although Huerta was successful in staving off Orozco’s rebellion, he would soon hatch a plot against President Madero. In February, 1913, Huerta staged a coup, supported by the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson. Huerta overthrew Madero, arranging for him and his vice-president, Pino Suarez, to be executed. This coup would serve as a "wake up call," and like other federal generals, including Felipe Ángeles, Obregón switched sides, joining Venustiano Carranza’s "Constitutionalists" to defeat Huerta and drive him from office. After a 17-month campaign, which also included decisive victories by General Francisco Villa, the Constitutionalists finally succeeded in overthrowing Huerta. In July, 1914, just weeks before World War I broke out in Europe, Carranza and Obregón rode into Mexico City, triumphant. While Carranza became the de facto president, Obregón maintained the military and strategic muscle to keep Carranza in power.

By the fall of 1914, Carranza had disappointed various important military factions. Zapata turned against him, as did Francisco Villa. In October, a summit of military leaders met in the town of Aguas Calientes to decide the future of Mexican politics. Carranza did not attend, but Obregón did. The convention at Aguas Calientes created a split between the Constitutionalists (whom Obregón represented in Carranza’s absence), and the so-called Conventionalists, led by Villa. (Zapata did not attend but sent his emissaries).

It quickly became clear that the Conventionalists were the favorites of the Aguas Calientes participants. Although Obregón had comrades on both sides, he had to make a choice. He chose to remain loyal to Carranza. In December, 1914, Zapata and Villa met in Xochimilco, rode into Mexico City, and for a few months took control of the government, as Carranza escaped to Veracruz in order not to confront them.

As Carranza’s top general, Obregón focused his energies on eliminating Francisco Villa. Carranza had long felt Villa was a crude, low-class annoyance. But Villa and his men were still strong and popular, in both Mexico and the U.S. In a series of battles throughout 1915, Obregón pursued Villa and his elite soldiers, the dorados. For the first time, Villa found himself on the losing side, as Obregón borrowed military techniques being developed in the war in Europe, including the use of barbed wire, entrenchments, and new-technology machine guns. Villa continued to fight using 19th century cavalry strategies – essentially men on horseback expecting face-to-face combat.

In four battles fought very close in time and geography, collectively known as the Battle of Celaya (April 1915), the Villistas charged Obregón’s trenches again and again, but were massacred by machine guns, and impaled on barbed wire before they could ever reach Obregón’s protected troops. It was one of the bloodiest battles in the history of Mexico. Villa narrowly escaped, but lost 4,000 men, while another 6,000 were taken prisoner by Obregón’s forces. He also lost a tremendous amount of his armaments and horses, thus crippling his ability to fight. Obregón lost an arm. After the battle, Obregón attempted to commit suicide, only to be thwarted by a loyal soldier. Mexican history would have been very different if he had succeeded.

General Carranza called for a constitutional convention in 1917. But the constitution that was ultimately adopted was significantly more radical and more progressive than Carranza had hoped for. Although Carranza was disappointed with the outcome, Obregón sided with the radicals. This drove a wedge between Carranza, the conservative Constitutionalist, and Obregón, who believed in true reform. In 1917, Carranza was officially elected President of Mexico, and served for another three years. During that time, he engineered the assassinations of Emiliano Zapata and of Villa’s compatriot, Felipe Ángeles. But soon it was Carranza’s turn.

When Carranza was assassinated in 1920, Obregón saw his chance. He ran for president, and became one of the most popular candidates in all of Mexican history. With the support of the labor unions, as well as broad popular support, he easily won. Under his presidency, Mexicans began the task of putting the bloodshed behind them and rebuilding the country. Although he was one of the caudillos, the military generals who often abused their power, he had a true vision for the future of Mexico. Obregón moved toward fulfilling the precepts of the 1917 Constitution. One of Obregón’s biggest contributions as president, one which would have a lasting effect, was that he created the Ministry of Public Education and appointed José Vasconcelos to run it. The Ministry of Public Education expanded literacy campaigns into the rural sections of Mexico, and used the arts as a way to help establish a Mexican cultural identity and re-establish Mexican pride. The Ministry’s support of education, literature and the arts would have far-reaching effects, resulting in murals and paintings by such luminaries as Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Frieda Kahlo; music by Carlos Chavez and Silvestre Revueltas, and literature by Martín Luis Guzmán, Mariano Azuela, Nellie Campobello, and others.

Obregón served as president from 1920 to 1924. In 1923, finally seeing his chance to eliminate his old foe once and for all, he helped arrange for the assassination of Francisco Villa. In 1924, although still popular, Obregón was forced by constitutional law to cede power, and the presidency fell to his former compatriot on the battlefield, Plutarco Elias Calles. Although Calles continued Obregón’s educational initiatives, and instituted some agrarian reform, he was not a friend of the common man. Obregón was easily re-elected in 1928.

But before he could take office, Obregón was assassinated at a banquet held in his honor. He was shot by a man posing as a caricaturist, reported in the press as a Cristero soldier disenchanted with Obregón’s subjugation of the Catholic church.