Salvador Alvarado, one of the great statesmen of the Mexican Revolution

09/08/2020

Salvador Alvarado was born in Culiacán, Sinaloa. Enthusiastic of the liberal thought, of the anarchist, and later of the socialism, he had outstanding participation in the Revolution. When the rupture between the revolutionary currents occurred, Alvarado remained within the constitutionalist ranks, and by 1915 he served as governor and military commander of Yucatan, where he carried out one of the most important economic, political and social transformations of the Mexican Revolution: he reorganized the production and commercialization of henequen, the main product of the peninsula.

Mexican General Salvador Alvarado, 1917
Mexican General Salvador Alvarado, 1917

For this purpose, he promoted the organization of workers and rural laborers, and established conciliation and arbitration boards. In addition, he gave a great impulse to public education by establishing schools with a rationalist pedagogical orientation and more than 600 rural schools. He collaborated with the struggle for women's emancipation by convening the First National Feminist Congress. His experiences and proposals for the Yucatan were expressed in his texts Letter to the People of Yucatan and My Dream (Carta al pueblo de Yucatán y Mi sueño), of 1916.

A dreamer and a man of action is born

Salvador Alvarado was born in Culiacán, Sinaloa, on September 16, 1880. His father was originally from Tepic and a dyer by trade; he showed up with the child a few days old at the Civil Registry offices, without mentioning who the mother was.

Alvarado's childhood is not known. It is only known that he settled with his father in Potam, a Sonoran town on the banks of the Yaqui River. As a teenager, he moved to Morelia, Michoacán, where he studied pharmacy at the University of San Nicolás. He then lived for a while in the port of Guaymas, where he worked as an employee in a pharmacy. The experience he acquired made him decide to set up his own business in Pótam and later in Cananea, a town located in the northern part of Sonora.

His spirit was eager for knowledge. He himself says that seeing the usefulness of the English language he subscribed to foreign newspapers in order to become fluent. He also read with intensity the works of authors concerned with making life more just and less unequal among men. These readings were linked to Salvador Alvarado's observations of the environment around him. He saw the situation of misery that prevailed among the peasants and the population in general, while many people in charge of the Porfirian public administration did not fulfill their duty and took advantage of their positions to make personal businesses flourish. That is why, from a very young age, he dreamed of a profound change that would improve the lives of most Mexicans.

He was restless and possessed a great will. So what he set out to do, he wanted to see it become a reality as quickly as possible. These traits of Alvarado's character can be seen in every act of his life, both as a revolutionary in Sonora and as a governor in the Yucatan. His subordinates relate that he confronted them with complete firmness, saying, "If this can be done in a month, I don't consent to any more time being wasted".

Reality turns him into a revolutionary

In 1906, he was named a constituent in the voting that was to take place in Sonora, his adopted state, since he spent most of his life there. That appointment marked in a decisive way his opinion about the political situation of the country, since he personally verified how the votes were handled to favor the official candidate. On that occasion, the vote of Alvarado and other voters mysteriously disappeared because they were proposing a different person for the vice presidency of the Republic than the one proposed by the Porfirian government. That's why Salvador Alvarado wrote a few years later: "How many millions of young Mexicans would have been killed in the same way!"

The disappointment was so great that from that time on Salvador combined his work at the Cananea pharmacy with agitation against Porfirio. In that same year of 1906, he joined the Mexican Liberal Party, which was against the government, and when in 1910 the opposition already had a broad organization, he joined the National Anti-Reelection Party, in which the figure of Francisco I. Madero stood out.

Immediately Alvarado became involved with people like José María Maytorena and Juan Cabral, who believed that an armed movement to overthrow the Porfirian regime would be the first step towards solving the nation's problems. And before November 20, 1910, the date Madero pointed out to begin the struggle, several Sonorans were already on the warpath, among them Alvarado.

In May 1911 he participated under the orders of Cabral in the taking of Cananea and Agua Prieta, which earned him the rank of major within the revolutionary army and the appointment of chief of the Auxiliary Body of the State of Sonora, formed mainly by Yaqui indigenous people who joined the revolution with the hope of recovering the lands that had been taken from them.

During Madero's presidency, Alvarado remained in his state as a support to the government to achieve total pacification. For that reason, when in 1912 Pascual Orozco's rebellion penetrated Sonora, Salvador Alvarado fought alongside other military men, among whom Alvaro Obregon was beginning to stand out.

In February 1913 a group of the army rose up in Mexico City against the government of President Francisco I. Madero and Vice President Jose Maria Pino Suarez; things got worse when General Victoriano Huerta, who Madero had charged with defending the city, joined the rebel group. Madero and Pino Suarez were overthrown and killed and Huerta became president.

Alvarado, military constitutionalist

Huerta's betrayal caused a major shock to the entire country. Especially the governors of the northern states opposed his government and responded by taking up arms in a movement that has been called the Constitutionalist Revolution, because they considered Huerta's rise to power to be against the Constitution. Venustiano Carranza, governor of Coahuila, was at the head of that struggle.

General Obregon was in command of the army of Sonora, which was divided into three sections: the north, under the orders of Juan Cabral, the south, led by General Benjamin Hill, and the section of the center commanded by Salvador Alvarado, who by this time had become a colonel.

During 1913 and 1914, the Sonoran military fought against the Huerta regime until it was completely defeated. Alvarado stood out in the seizures of Cananea, Naco, and, above all, in the battles of Santa Rosa and Santa María, for which he was promoted to brigadier general. He was also in charge of the siege of Guaymas, a very difficult task that took him almost a year.

When Huerta fell, the revolutionary forces in the country were divided because they did not share the same idea of how the country should be organized. Three groups stood out in this conflict: Carrancistas, Villistas, and Zapatistas. Around Venustiano Carranza, the idea of unity predominated, although the reforms came little by little. In contrast, the followers of Francisco Villa and, mainly, Emiliano Zapata, sought immediate change, especially in terms of distributing land to the peasants. These differences created new conflicts and in them, Salvador Alvarado remained faithful to Don Venustiano, which brought him problems with José María Maytorena, governor of Sonora and Villa's supporter.

On August 8, Alvarado was apprehended and taken to Hermosillo prison, where he remained for two months. Maytorena took as a pretext that a group of men had deserted within General Alvarado's regiment. This situation of soldiers who deserted was not new since in the face of such a hard and prolonged struggle, and the lack of resources to keep them in good condition, many abandoned the army. On more than one occasion Alvarado expressed his opinion to Maytorena:

Mr. Governor, if you want the troops to be happy, you have to guarantee them their pay and keep them well fed. Otherwise, we risk desertion.

Upon leaving the prison, in October 1914 he went to Mexico City to meet with Carranza, who appointed him as commander of the plaza. Shortly thereafter he left for Puebla where he took the city from the Zapatistas.

In January 1915, they murdered Don Venustiano's brother, General Jesús Carranza, military commander of the Southeast, which covered the territory of Quintana Roo and the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, and Yucatan. In his place was appointed Salvador Alvarado, and a few days later he also became governor of Yucatan.

Life in Yucatan

Thanks to its remoteness, Yucatan had not suffered the war in such an intense and direct way, so that its economic activity was not interrupted by the fighting. The main Yucatan production was henequen, also called "green gold". With this plant, an enormous variety of ropes were manufactured for many uses. That is why in Yucatan the lands that in the colonial era were used to grow corn or to raise cattle were sown with henequen, since abroad there was a great demand for this product.

During the Revolution, the exploitation of henequen was not suspended, and when the constitutionalists succeeded in overthrowing Huerta, they continued to finance the struggle to pacify the country with the resources obtained from the henequen trade in Yucatan. The Yucatan had contributed so much that people said, "Sonora, Chihuahua, Guanajuato, are the states that have given a lot of blood to the Revolution. The Yucatan has given a lot of money". But who made it possible for the immense henequen business to move? On the one hand, the owners of the sisal shop and on the other hand, the workers.

It was a proven fact that the great businessmen, the rich of the region, were dedicated to henequen-related activities: they either owned haciendas for its cultivation or shredding machines or companies that were in charge of transporting the product out of Yucatan and selling it. But in front of the great fortunes that arose around the henequen, there was also a situation of extreme misery in the Yucatan, in which they were submerged, from the pawns of the henequen haciendas, to the workers in charge of defibrating, storing or loading the product in the railroad cars or in the ships that left the port of Progreso to different points of the world.

In Yucatan, the system of debt bondage was absolutely true. Since the salary paid to the head of the household was always less than what was needed to live, the laborers had to apply for continuous loans. The bosses would grant them, but in exchange, the worker would get deeper and deeper into debt, which would make him lose his freedom and he and his children would be tied to the hacienda for life because of the debts they had incurred.

The changes

In March 1915 Salvador Alvarado arrived in Yucatan, where seven governors had been in power since 1912. The last one was General Abel Ortiz Argumedo, who with the support of the rich and powerful men of Yucatan took up arms to prevent the region from falling under Carranza's control. This group wanted to keep the state away from all the issues that were happening in the Republic, but after several years of struggle the time had come to achieve unity and peace in the country, and Yucatan could not be left out. The arguments resisted, but Alvarado was undoubtedly a military man with a lot of experience, which he had accumulated in the northern combats and which he demonstrated once again in Yucatan.

The first battles took place in Campeche and after some difficulties and the loss of the gunboat "Progreso", General Alvarado was able to advance towards Merida. The people of Argumedo had spread the word that the Carrancistas led by Alvarado would destroy everything in their path, which raised a tremendous panic. Seeing the lost cause, Argumedo and several of his men, as well as the Yucatecan owners of large fortunes, whom Alvarado called "the divine caste," embarked with what they could gather from their belongings and money to Cuba and other places. For his part, Alvarado's advance could not be stopped and the battles of Blanca Flor, Poc Boc, and Halachó were his great victories.

Once in power, General Alvarado immediately began a program of reforms as broad and as deep as had never been seen in such a short time, not only in Yucatan but in the rest of the country. And to the surprise of the inhabitants of Yucatan, the military man proposed rapid improvements for the majority of the population, which provoked many comments:

This man is very strange. His soldiers' rifles are still not cold and he is already talking about founding schools, raising the price of henequen, and lowering the cost of basic foodstuffs.

He had such a powerful will that some compared it to a burning iron piercing an ice floe. After so many years in the campaign, he had a strong desire to put into practice a number of ideas from his youthful readings, because he felt that they would make the Yucatan a place where exaggerated inequality could disappear. And he set to work, working tirelessly and with a foolproof morality to achieve his dream:

I dream of a free, powerful, widely civilized and happy homeland, and I am convinced that if Mexico has, as it should, the help of all its children, the dream will soon become a dazzling reality, the one I want to have its beginning in Yucatan.

Alvarado's government in Yucatan lasted from March 19, 1915, to February 1, 1918, and the same day he entered the Government Palace in Merida he gathered bankers, merchants, and landowners and told them: "I sincerely invite you to collaborate with me, but I ask you not to come with gifts because I do not sell myself to anyone". They all left without knowing if those words were true, but time would confirm them.

During those years the organization of the state of Yucatan changed in every way. Since Yucatan's wealth came from the henequen, it had to be used in such a way that its benefits were shared by the whole state and also served to give economic support to the government of the Republic. The governor created the Henequen Regulatory Commission, in charge of buying the fiber from the producer and then selling it abroad. Higher prices were set so that profits would be greater for the Yucatan and, consequently, for the entire country. Of course, the big companies protested, but they had to submit to the determination of Alvarado, who with the profits was able to undertake many social welfare works, especially those related to land distribution and education.

Land and books

The Agrarian Law issued by Salvador Alvarado included a prohibition for anyone who wanted to have personal control over water use, and wide distribution of land for communities and individual owners. On this issue, the governor had warmly declared: "Nobody is the exclusive owner of the land like nobody is the owner of the light or the air".

In addition to the concern for the land, Alvarado was very interested in educational tasks. During his term of office, the schools multiplied, creating mostly schools in remote locations. He founded the schools of Agriculture and Fine Arts and twice brought together the teachers of the state in the Pedagogical Congresses, in order to draw up together a plan to improve the instruction of the inhabitants. Such was his conviction for teaching that many temples were transformed into schools.

There was a project to which he put a lot of effort: the School City of the Mayas, which began to function in the town of Itzimná and which consisted of providing a very broad education: learning to read and write, cultivating the land, mastering a trade and raising livestock. In addition to gaining knowledge in all of the above, this School City would have a place for artistic activities, its library, and its own newspaper. With such an education the students would be prepared to face life with very good instruments.

But for Alvarado, education did not end at the schools. It was necessary to inculcate in the citizens a civic spirit and love for the country. In this regard, a very illustrative story is told: Alvarado knew that a wealthy man in the city would not stand up when he heard the national anthem. The fines had been worthless. The general indicated that he should be imprisoned and sent for a brass band to play the hymn at the door of his cell. He ended the order with these words: -Don't stop playing until he learns it!

A dignified job and humane treatment

The workers on the henequen farms and the Yucatecan workers, in general, were exploited by the bosses because there were no laws to protect them and they had not tried to organize themselves to demand better living conditions. Alvarado immediately understood the problem and in a short time managed to change the situation by means of a Labor Law, which established eight hours of work, higher wages, and insurance against accidents. He also put an end to debt bondage and all the corporal punishment that was very common before the Revolution.

Through the laws, the government was able to intervene directly on behalf of the workers to resolve conflicts and humanize the employers. All this work was complemented by a series of measures that sought to moralize the population, such as the decrees that closed down the cantinas and prohibited all types of gambling houses, cockfights, and bullfights.

For Alvarado, a happy society was one that dedicated itself with all its energy to honest work. As for entertainment, the people had to be re-educated to spend their free time in healthy activities. Salvador Alvarado was also concerned about improving the condition of women and supported the organization of the First Feminist Congress that was held in our country.

As you can see, General Alvarado was a man who, in addition to the merits accumulated during his time as a soldier in the Mexican Revolution, took on the enormous task of changing the structure of a state like Yucatan, creating laws that would make it a modern example of how a more prepared and just society should function.

By Aurora Cano Andaluz, Source: Secretary of Culture, National Institute of Historical Studies of the Mexican Revolutions