Alvaro Obregon: Taking the Edge Off
In July of 1920, Alvaro Obregon, veteran of the Mexican revolution whose missing arm became a physical representation of his sacrifice for his nation, wins the first national election after the assassination of Venustiano Carranza. Becoming the president of Mexico after nearly a decade of fighting a bitter revolution based on the unanswered call for needed social change, Obregon faced the particularly daunting task of rehabilitating a severely fractionalized Mexico. “In 1920, at the age of forty, he faced the formidable, some might say impossible, task of rebuilding a war-torn economy and reinventing the Mexican state.” (Gonzales pg. 182) To this end, Obregon undertook a series of economic policies designed to revitalize the Mexican economy, and introduced social programs intended not only to educate the nation, but to shape the public perception of the revolution, create a new sense of Mexican culture and nationalism, and alleviate tensions that led to the revolution.
Mexico’s economy had faced disastrous regression throughout the revolution. Faced with the burden of resolving the problem, Obregon’s government sought to increase petroleum exports while securing a larger share of profits, a task made altogether more difficult by the pervasiveness of foreign investment in the industry. Foreign nations controlled roughly 58% of Mexican oil at the outbreak of the revolution. With World War 1 propelling Mexico to the world’s second leading producer of oil, investors fought to protect their stake in the industry.
A major hurdle Obregon faced was disrupted relations with the United States. Throughout the course of the revolution, the relationship between the two nations had been strained in a myriad of ways. American interests in the Mexican conflict led to intense scrutiny of the revolution, manifesting in some form of US intervention on multiple occasions. For Obregon, the largest issue came from a provision within Carranza’s 1917 Constitution which proclaimed national ownership of subsoil rights. Most important to American business was a clause specifically targeting petroleum, of which the United States was heavily invested. Uncertainty about the practical application of the article, and fears of expropriation, created a reluctance of the Wilson and Harding Administration’s recognition of the new government.
The fears of the United States’ were somewhat assuaged by the 1923 Bucareli Agreements, which stated: “Paragraph IV of Article 27 of the Constitution of 1917 is not retroactive in respect to all persons who have performed, prior to the promulgation of said Constitution, some positive act which would manifest the intention of the owner of the surface or of the persons entitled to exercise his rights to the oil under the surface to make use of our obtain the oil under the surface” (wasserman 149) With the continued exploitation of oil on behalf of US citizens, relations between the two nations remained intact. Although the oil industry would remain a point of contention in the years to come, the concessions of the Bucareli Agreement were enough to earn the United State’s recognition of Obregon’s Administration days after the agreement was signed. This action spelled economic stability for the post revolutionary state.
Meanwhile, to address the economic woes stemming from internal issues such as labor, Obregon turned to the Confederacion Regional de Obreros Mexicanos (CROM), a collection of labor unions ranging from urban industrial workers to rural agriculturalists. By offering the organization and its leader, Luis Morones, political influence through a secret pact, Obregon incentivized the administration of the organization to quell labor disputes. “Strike activity declined in direct proportion to Morones’s ascendancy within the administrations of Obregon” (Wasserman 186)
Economic rehabilitation was a crucial step in alleviating the social tensions of post revolutionary Mexico. While Obregon’s administration still dealt with the issues of political consolidation and agrarian reform, it chose to work to unite the then fractured social cohesion of the nation. Obregon established the Ministry of Public Education on October 3, 1921 with the goal of promoting national culture. Under the leadership of Jose Vasconcelos, the government authority promoted the construction of thousands of rural schools across Mexico, organized a legion of teachers to teach adults to read and write, and started national beautification projects all aimed at enriching Mexico’s citizenship.
Whether a true act of social betterment, or an attempt to sidestep traditional issues of social discontent, Obregon’s administration invested heavily in education. Prior to the revolution, nearly 3/4 of Mexicans, an estimated 9,000,000–12,000,000 people, were illiterate. Within the first years of Obregon’s presidency, more than a 1,200 rural schools had been established, and over 1,000,000 adults taught to read and write. This expanse in public education laid the groundwork for the creation of a Mexican cultural ideology promoted by the state. By controlling the realm of public education, the Obregon administration was able to shape the social perception of the revolution moving forward.
To further add to the educating of Mexico, Obregon commissioned murals around the nation to show the masses the story of the revolution and the history of Mexico. Mexican muralists, such as David Siqueiros, Jose Clemente Orozco, and Diego Rivera helped create a national mythology surrounding the revolution and elevated key players to national heroes. Speaking about his art as his contribution to the revolution, Diego Rivera once said:
“All art is propaganda. …The only difference is the kind of propaganda. Since art is essential for human life, it can’t just belong to the few. Art is the universal language, and it belongs to all mankind…Every strong artist has been a propagandist. I want to be a propagandist and I want to be nothing else. … I want to use my art as a weapon.”
Below is a series of works by the “big three”, the most influential Mexican Muralists.