“What are we celebrating? The battle against the French in Puebla, right?”
This was from a real conversation I overheard between two well-dressed businessmen in Mexico City last year around this time.
I get it; it is hard to keep up with all the history-related holidays in Mexico. But really? The Battle of Puebla? The same battle that is better known as the Battle of Cinco de Mayo?
A simple search of the internet would have shown these two gentlemen that every February 5 Mexico celebrates the anniversary of the establishment of its constitution.
For some reason this holiday is not very popular in Mexico, and the case of the uninformed businessmen is not an isolated case. It might be because the concept of writing and enacting a constitution sounds too governmental, a bunch of boring bureaucrats signing documents into law.
In general, people tend to believe that the establishment of the Mexican constitution was an insipid period in Mexican history, a period with no heroes wearing sombreros and riding horses as in the Mexican Revolution or during Mexico’s War of Independence.
But these notions about February 5 could not be any further from reality. The history of how the Mexican constitution was established is as thrilling as it gets. The current constitution was adopted in the middle of the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution.
It was a period with a hero called Venustiano Carranza, villains like Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata and Álvaro Obregón, and a tragic and passionate end (just like a good Mexican telenovela or norteño song).
This is how it happened:
After the assassination in 1913 of the first revolutionary president, Francisco Madero, Carranza became one of the strongest revolutionary figures. He was the only leader able to reconcile the conflicting interests of the diverse groups of revolutionaries. Carranza’s ability to bring these rivals together earned him the nickname of “El primer Jefe.”
In July 1914, Carranza, in his attempt to legitimize his authority, called for a revolutionary convention in Aguascalientes, but Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, fearing the birth of a new dictatorship, disagreed and distanced themselves from Carranza’s movement.
Having lost the support of the two most popular heroes of the revolution, Carranza found refuge in Veracruz while Villa and Zapata’s troops took Mexico City and imposed a series of interim presidents in the following years (neither Villa nor Zapata wanted to become president of Mexico).
That same year, Carranza launched an offensive against Villa and Zapata and managed to recover Mexico City. Once in power again, Carranza called for a constitutional convention and after many months of deliberation, drafting, and lobbying for support, a new Mexican constitution was adopted on February 5, 1917. Three months later, Carranza was elected the first president of the United States of Mexico (the official name since that year).
Some months after the ratification and adoption of the new constitution, United States of America President Woodrow Wilson recognized Carranza as the legitimate president of Mexico. Following the example of the U.S., other foreign governments recognized him as well. For the first time since the start of the revolution, Mexico had a president legitimized by the international community.
Things were looking good for Carranza up to that point, but then came the moment when his fate turned towards a tragic ending. During his term in office, his efforts were focused mainly on the reconstruction and reconciliation of Mexico, a titanic task that he would never fully accomplish.
The discontent of the different revolutionary factions kept growing and was harder to contain without the use of force. Then in 1919, the alleged involvement of Carranza’s allies in the assassination of Zapata in Morelos triggered a series of events that ended with a coup d’etat led by his own minister of war, Álvaro Obregón, in 1920.
Carranza had seen the writing on the wall and had begun the process of moving his government headquarters to Veracruz, where he could regroup and fight back. But on May 21, 1920, his luck ran out, and he was assassinated in Puebla before he could reach his base in Veracruz.
Carranza’s death brought about another long period of instability and chaos that needs more than a few paragraphs to be told. The Mexican constitution of 1917, Carranza’s enduring legacy, survived the anarchy of the Mexican Revolution and civil wars and remains the pillar of Mexico’s contemporary government.
If you made it this far into my column, you already know more than the two businessmen in Mexico City.
Enjoy your weekend, and if you happen to be in Mexico City, swing by the Casa Carranza museum on Rio Lerma street #35. There, original pieces connected to the drafting of the Mexican constitution of 1917 and personal belongings of Carranza can be seen in the permanent exhibitions.
Alvaro Amador Muniz hails from Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, is an honorary Tennessean and an avid basketball player currently living in Mexico City. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.