When we think of the Mexican Revolution, many of us probably conjure up images of Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata, two of the most well-known figures from the ten-year civil war (1910-1920) that raged across Mexico during the early years of the twentieth century. The exhibition A Nation Emerges: The Mexican Revolution Revealed, which opened at the Getty Gallery at the Los Angeles Central Library yesterday, includes photographs of people and events that will probably be familiar to you—but it also features lesser-known images both of Mexico’s revolutionary leaders and of everyday people whose names and roles remain unknown.
The exhibition, selected from the Getty Research Institute’s collections of photographs, postcards, and broadsides related to this period in Mexico’s history, was organized as part of Los Angeles’s celebration of the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence and the centennial of the Mexican Revolution. A selection of 20th- and 21st-century posters from the Center for the Study of Political Graphics that reference the Mexican Revolution is also included.
This portrait of Pancho Villa posed on a white horse was taken by D.W. Hoffman, an El Paso photographer who documented many of the revolutionary events that took place in Ciudad Juárez and northern Chihuahua state. When this portrait was made, the general already had a larger-than-life reputation and was on his way to becoming the dominant revolutionary force in northern Mexico. This image was widely circulated as a photographic postcard (a real photograph printed on a postcard backing).
In the popular mind’s-eye, Pancho Villa (known as “el centauro del norte,” the centaur of the north) still cuts a dashing figure on horseback. But the revolutionary leader was in fact entranced by fast, modern modes of transportation. He loved cars and trains—which he saw as a means of modernizing his army—and motorcycles. In this 1914 photograph, known mostly to motorcycle enthusiasts, Villa poses with the latest Indian motorcycle model, the Hadsee Special.
Villa’s canny understanding of these machines kept the U.S. Army at bay when it used Harley Davidson motorcycles equipped with machine guns in its unsuccessful year-long quest to hunt him down after his 1916 raid on Columbus, New Mexico. Modern transportation, however, ultimately led to Villa’s demise. In 1923, three years after “retiring” from the revolution, he was gunned down while driving in his Dodge roadster home from the town of Parral, where he had attended a baptism.
Unless you hail from the state of Guerrero, Mexico, you might not have heard of General Adrián Castrejón. In this professional studio portrait we see him seated with his rifle across his lap, flanked by his officers.
Castrejón enlisted in Emiliano Zapata’s forces as a common soldier in 1911, when he was 17 years old. He advanced quickly through the ranks, becoming the youngest general of the Mexican Revolution at age 21. He was a leading commander of the Zapatista forces, eventually rising to the rank of brigadier general, and is reputed to have been with Zapata when he was assassinated in 1919.
Unlike many generals, Castrejón survived the revolution, going on to serve as governor of Guerrero from 1929 to 1933. This photograph was taken by Sara Castrejón Reza, who became the first female photographer to record the Mexican Revolution when she captured images of Francisco Madero’s assault on Teloloapan, Guerrero, on April 26, 1911.
We are fortunate to know the names of the two generals pictured above—one of international stature, the other an important regional figure. This woman on horseback, flanked by several soldiers and civilians, is only known to us from the caption on the postcard as “mujer valiente” (brave woman).
What is her name? What was her role in the revolution? Was she one of the soldaderas, or women soldiers, who commanded a regiment of revolutionary troops? The men grouped around her might suggest this. Was she known for a particular act of bravery, or was she just an everyday hero?
While for the moment these answers elude us, perhaps as research continues, we will come to know more about many of the men, women, and children represented in the exhibition.