Elizabeth A. Henson
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.
On September 23, 1965, several years of protest, including land invasions, strikes, sit-ins, and cross-country marches, culminated in the armed attack on an army base in the remote town of Madera, Chihuahua in northern Mexico. Protesters had demanded that the State comply with land reform guaranteed by the constitution; students from the normal schools joined in and raised their own demands. Instead of negotiating partial reforms, the state governor called out troops, to burnish his reputation as an anti-communist crusader. Nominally organized in the Unión General de Obreros y Campesinos de México, movement leaders broke with national directives and encouraged direct action and illegal occupations, while the normalistas acted within an educational tradition rooted in the Marxism of the 1930s. Agrarian demands came from landless workers in an agricultural valley planted in cotton, whose fortunes were linked to the world market, and from dispossessed smallholders in the mountainous backlands now claimed by timber export companies. This mid-century modernization of land use had its counterpart in the protestors’ emulation of the Cuban Revolution and their attempt to apply Che’s theory of guerrilla warfare. As the governor’s recalcitrance radicalized the movement, small groups undertook sporadic armed actions in the mountains, disarming forces sent after them. Other leaders moved to Mexico City to avoid arrest, undergo military training, and attempt to gather support; they returned to Chihuahua with the plan to attack the army base. Despite its spectacular failure, the event has been hailed as Mexico’s first socialist guerrilla struggle and served as inspiration for the Dirty War of the 1970s, when armed revolutionaries fought the armed power of the state. Attention to its armed component has eclipsed the movement’s underlying phase, which was equally innovative and had lasting influence.