How the Mexican Revolution Broke Out

The Mexican Revolution erupted in 1910, fueled by Porfirio Díaz's dictatorship. Francisco Madero's call for democracy was met with repression, sparking the heroic Serdán uprising. Carmen Serdán's vivid account reveals the fight's intensity, culminating in her brothers' tragic deaths.

How the Mexican Revolution Broke Out
House of Aquiles Serdán in the streets of Santa Clara, Puebla. Credit: INAH

In Mexico, the year 1910 buzzed not with the usual hum of life, but with a revolutionary fervor whispering promises of change. It was a change that would rattle the nation, overturning a decades-long dictatorship and reshaping the political landscape. And like all great upheavals, it wasn't sudden – it was a slow burn of frustration and hope, eventually erupting in the fiery Plan of San Luis.

At the heart of this maelstrom stood two men: Francisco I. Madero, the visionary anti-reelectionist, and Porfirio Díaz, the once-exalted general turned iron-fisted president. Díaz, an aging lion now clinging to power, had ruled Mexico for thirty years. Once considered a harbinger of progress after the chaos of foreign intervention, his regime had devolved into a 'velvet' dictatorship – soft on the surface, ruthless underneath.

Then came 1908, the year the dictator cracked the door open just a sliver. In a now-infamous interview with American journalist James Creelman, Díaz declared Mexico “ready for democracy.” Such words were akin to throwing gasoline on smoldering embers. The nation became a tinderbox of anti-reelectionists, spurred on by Madero, a man whose slight frame belied a revolutionary fire. His book, “The Presidential Succession,” had become a manifesto for change. Now, Díaz's offhand remark had given oxygen to their movement.

The anti-reelectionists held a convention, a grand spectacle of a new political dawn. Madero, their undisputed leader, stood shoulder to shoulder with José María Pino Suárez as nominated candidates for president and vice-president. They believed in the cause, perhaps naively so. Díaz and his machinery still had oil in their gears, after all.

Predictably, the 1910 elections reeked of fraud and farce. Of course Díaz had won! The lion might be old, but his claws were still sharp. Madero, the visionary idealist, found himself imprisoned in San Luis Potosí. Yet, prisons have been the birthing grounds of revolutions throughout history, and this one was no different. From his cell, Madero penned the Plan of San Luis – a call to arms, a declaration of rebellion echoing through the nation.

The plan crackled with urgency. November 20th, 6 p.m. was the hour revolt would explode like a hundred firecrackers across Mexico. A conspiracy was afoot. In Mexico City, a plot was foiled, but the spirit couldn't be crushed. In Puebla, the Serdán brothers died fighting, becoming martyrs to the cause. Madero, now a fugitive, prepared to take the reins of the rebellion himself.

The stage was set for a colossal clash of titans, the old guard versus the revolutionaries. But for Don Porfirio, time's arrow was not on his side. Soon enough, the dictator was fleeing Mexico on the ship Ipiranga, destined for exile and eventual death in Paris. The revolution, in a way, had devoured its father.

History, of course, did not stop there. The absurdities of Porfirio Díaz's rule had turned into a complex, often bloody, revolution that would rumble on for years. Yet, that fateful interview in 1908, the imprisonment of Madero, the crackle of the San Luis Plan – those were the sparks that ignited the flames.

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Pages of Pearson's Magazine where the interview with Porfirio Díaz by James Creelman was published.
Pages of Pearson's Magazine where the interview with Porfirio Díaz by James Creelman was published. Copyright © The Regents of the University of California

The Serdáns and their Doomed Stand

In the bustling heart of Puebla, Mexico, a modest house on Santa Clara Street would become the unlikely stage for a historic drama. It was here, within the walls of the Serdán family home, that the seeds of the Mexican Revolution were sown, forever changing the destiny of a nation.

Among the household was a fiery spirit named Carmen Serdán, a woman whose courage and unwavering resolve would earn her a place in the annals of revolutionary history. It is through her words that we witness the fateful events of November 18th, 1910, a day that would ignite a firestorm of rebellion against the iron-fisted rule of Porfirio Díaz.

Carmen Serdán recalls the mounting tension in the days leading up to the uprising. Her brother Aquiles, a fervent anti-reelectionist, was marked by the Díaz regime. His return from the United States, laden with smuggled weapons, set the stage for a confrontation that could not be delayed.

The Serdáns knew time was running out. News of a planned police raid shattered the illusion of secrecy, forcing them to move hastily. On the eve of November 18th, amidst hushed whispers and frantic preparations, Aquiles dispatched word to allies in the city, but fate would deal them a cruel hand – the message never reached its intended recipients.

Aquiles Serdán, portrait.
Aquiles Serdán, portrait. Credit: INAH

The Siege of Santa Clara Street

Dawn broke cold and bleak on November 18th. The first shots shattered the morning stillness as Police Chief Cabrera and his men stormed the Serdán house. Carmen vividly remembers Aquiles, his aim true, felling the Chief with a single shot from his carbine. The battle lines were drawn.

Their modest dwelling transformed into a fortress, Aquiles and his brother, Máximo, along with a handful of loyal companions, valiantly defended their home. Against overwhelming odds and a relentless barrage from federal forces, the small band of revolutionaries fought with the ferocity of cornered lions.

It was Carmen who rallied the spirits of the besieged. Fearless under fire, she emerged onto the balcony, her voice ringing out – “Come, we do it for you! Freedom is worth more than life. Long live non-reelection!” Yet, the people of Puebla, though sympathetic, remained hesitant, trapped by fear of reprisal. The tide of the battle was turning.

Carmen Serdán, participant in the revolution, portrait.
Carmen Serdán, participant in the revolution, portrait. Credit: INAH

A Family's Sacrifice

With each passing hour, the Serdán's desperate struggle grew more bleak. One by one, their comrades fell, leaving Máximo as a lone defender perched high among the rooftops. Carmen, frantically supplying her brothers with ammunition, pleaded with him to retreat. “No, Carmela,” he laughed, firing resolutely. “We can still hold on here for a little while.”

Tragedy struck with brutal force as Máximo, the last sentinel on the roof, was killed in a hail of gunfire. The shock rippled through the house. Aquiles, his spirit all but broken, knew the end was near. With the haunting foresight of a doomed man, he asked Carmen if she saw an officer among the surrounding troops. Her negative answer sealed his fate.

He uttered words that echoed with both despair and pragmatism: “Those men have mothers, wives, children, or sisters. If I knew that with his death we would triumph, I would kill them all, but we are lost anyway.”

Máximo Serdán, portrait.
Máximo Serdán, portrait. Credit: INAH

The Fall of an Idealist

In a desperate act borne of duty, Aquiles resolved to escape and continue the fight in the shadows. Carmen urged him to fall in battle, but duty to his cause outweighed his desire for a martyr's death. He shed his coat, filled his pockets with cartridges, and prepared to slip away under the cover of darkness.

Fate, however, would not grant Aquiles Serdán his last wish. His escape plan was dashed when a relentless illness, a cruel twist of misfortune, betrayed him. In the cold confines of a hidden basement, Aquiles succumbed to the throes of pneumonia. His ragged coughs led federal soldiers to his hiding place, ending his life in a hail of bullets.

It seemed the spirit of rebellion had died with Aquiles Serdán on that fateful day, but destiny held a different course. Though the uprising in Puebla was crushed, Carmen's words, and her brothers' sacrifice became a rallying cry. Two days later, the flame ignited across Mexico, and the decades-long dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz began to crumble.

The story of the Serdán family is a vivid reminder that revolutions are not solely born in grand gestures or sweeping battlefields; they are forged in the hearts of ordinary people like Carmen Serdán, who dared to fight for an ideal, even in the face of certain defeat.

The place where Aquiles Serdán hid and died.
The place where Aquiles Serdán hid and died. Credit: INAH

Art, Dissent, and the Fall of a Dictator

History speaks of revolutions in terms of battles and bold generals. And while the armed struggle is a vital part of any upheaval, the Mexican Revolution burned just as brightly on the pages of newspapers and in the heart of a defiant engraver. Before the rifles, there were the pens – a motley collection of journalists, thinkers, and artists whose work laid the tinder for a nation on the verge of fiery transformation.

The Porfiriato, that glittering epoch of progress and oppression under the iron fist of President Porfirio Díaz, produced cracks along with its splendid boulevards. Beneath the sheen of economic modernization lay a society simmering with injustice. This is where men like Juan Sarabia, Ricardo Flores Magón, and the others found their battleground – in the columns of newspapers like El Hijo del Ahuizote or the incendiary Regeneración. Theirs were words of fire, scorching critiques of the corrupt regime that landed them, again and again, behind bars.

It was a time when brave voices were few and far between, but even from within prison cells, the Flores Magón brothers fanned the flames of revolution. Their words became rallying cries, echoing a discontent too long suppressed. Then came John Kenneth Turner, a foreign voice lending weight to Mexico's internal struggle. His book Barbarous Mexico tore the veil of progress away, laying bare the cruelty and exploitation that fueled the Porfirian machine. Turner's work was not just a report; it was a plea to the world, a warning to the powerful north: a revolution is coming, and its cause is righteous.

But revolutions are as much about spirit as they are about strategy. That indomitable Mexican spirit found its embodiment in an unlikely champion – José Guadalupe Posada. His wasn't the art of grand murals or heroic sculptures. Instead, his engravings hummed with the pulse of ordinary people: their struggles, loves, and the ever-present spectre of death. His iconic “calaveras,” the skeletal figures, danced with a macabre humor that reflected Mexico's unique relationship with mortality and injustice.

Posada's art wasn't just pretty pictures; it was social commentary delivered with a bite. And in it, as the poet Carlos Pellicer so aptly recognized, was the seed of what would later bloom into the spectacular Mexican muralist movement. His scenes of ordinary life, tinged with playful darkness, formed a visual narrative of the Mexican spirit—defiant, enduring, and unafraid.

It was this complex mixture of dissent, courage, and artistry that began to unravel the façade of the Porfiriato. The Aquiles Serdán brothers, the Flores Magón siblings, and so many others whose names echo faintly to us today – their pens, brushes, and indomitable wills poked holes in the dictator's armor. When the armed revolt finally exploded, it rode on a tide of anger and defiance that had been building for decades.

The eventual fall of Díaz was inevitable, the culmination of armed uprisings and the slow, persistent erosion of his legitimacy. Yet, let us not forget the heroes who tilled the ground for the seeds of revolt: the journalists hounded and imprisoned, the defiant engraver giving form to a nation's soul, and the foreign author who became a voice for the voiceless.

Theirs was a softer revolution, but a crucial one. Their battlefields were newspapers and canvases, their weapons ink and imagination. They were the ones who made the fight not just possible, but justified. There is still a long way to go, the foundations laid, but with spirits this strong, the edifice of a better Mexico grows closer.

Roof of the house of Aquiles Serdán's house.
Roof of the house of Aquiles Serdán's house. Credit: INAH

In-text Citation: (Hernández Muñoz, 2000, pp. 14-18)