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date: 23 July 2017

Drought and the Origins of the Mexican Revolution

Summary and Keywords

What role did drought play in the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution of 1910? Although historians of the Mexican Revolution acknowledge that the effects of drought helped catalyze it, they have not explored in any depth what connects drought to revolution. Instead, they usually subsume it within a more general discussion of agricultural cycles to explain the conduct and fortunes of popular revolutionary armies. In particular, they reference the onset of drought between 1907 and 1909 as exacerbating an economic downturn induced by severe recession in the United States. By then, Mexico had become economically integrated with its northern neighbor through rapidly growing foreign investment, trade, and cross-border migration facilitated by the railroad transportation revolution. These socioeconomic and ecological factors together led to steep declines in wages and earnings, devastating crop failures, spikes in food prices (principally corn and beans), and even famine in the lower and middle classes.

Although suggestive, such passing references to drought in the historiography of the revolution do not furnish a clear picture of its effects and how they may have contributed to social and political conflict. In the 21st century, new technologies, methods, and sources—from historical meteorological reports and climate-related accounts gleaned from archival sources to modern historical climatological data reconstructions—facilitate doing more rigorous climate history. This article provides a sampling of these methods and sources on the role of drought in late 19th- and early 20th-century Mexico that can supplement, elucidate, and even revise our understanding of the origins of the Mexican Revolution.

Keywords: Mexico, Mexican Revolution, Chihuahua, Tomochi, Laguna, climate, weather, drought

Introduction

What role did drought play in the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution of 1910? Although historians of the revolution—the 20th century’s first social revolution with its explicit struggle over the unequal distribution of land1—acknowledge that the effects of drought helped catalyze it, they have not explored in any depth what connects drought to revolution. Instead, they usually subsume it within a more general discussion of agricultural cycles to explain the conduct and fortunes of popular revolutionary armies, especially those of Emiliano Zapata in the more agrarian center-south (Morelos) and Pancho Villa in the more agro-industrial north (Chihuahua and Durango). In particular, they reference the onset of drought between 1907 and 1909 as exacerbating an economic downturn induced by severe recession in the United States. By then, Mexico had become economically integrated with its northern neighbor through rapidly growing foreign investment, trade, and cross-border migration facilitated by the railroad transportation revolution. These socioeconomic and ecological factors together led to steep declines in wages and earnings, devastating crop failures, spikes in food prices (principally corn and beans), and even famine in the lower and middle classes.2

Although they are suggestive, such passing references to drought in the historiography of the revolution do not furnish a clear picture of its effects and how they may have contributed to social and political conflict. Today, new technologies, methods, and sources—from historical meteorological reports and climate-related accounts gleaned from archival sources to modern historical climatological data reconstructions—facilitate doing more rigorous climate history. This article provides a brief sampling of these methods and sources on the role of drought in late 19th and early 20th-century Mexico that can supplement, elucidate, and even revise our understanding of the origins of the Mexican Revolution.

Before discussing these methods and sources, two caveats are in order. First, it is important to heed historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s caution against climate determinism—the premise that historical events occur primarily because of climate events. He explains that “such a [climate] history is feasible, on condition that it frees itself … of anthropocentric prejudice” by using data that are “strictly climatic” and not merely proxies for it, such as migration, famine, or agricultural prices—all of which result from “extremely complex human motives and compulsions”—to infer climate causality.3 A feasible climate history would thereby inquire, for instance, how water availability (from rainfall, surface waters, reservoirs, groundwater, etc.), or lack thereof, may have influenced human action and behavior on a large-scale in conjunction with social, economic, and political factors that change over time.

Second, it is necessary to define drought, especially in the context of late 19th- and early 20th-century Mexico. Indeed, two-thirds of Mexico’s territory is arid or semi-arid (see Map 1).

Drought and the Origins of the Mexican RevolutionClick to view larger

Map 1: Climatic zones of Mexico.

Drought was thus a regular part of life for most Mexicans, who had to suffer through its devastating effects long before the 1910 revolution. Yet drought does not simply mean water deficiency. Rather, it is, as Enrique Florescano and Susan Swan succinctly define it in their brief history of drought in Mexico, the absence of moisture, especially owing to lack of rainfall. They qualify lack of rainfall as a necessary but insufficient condition once the impact on agriculture is taken into account. After all, with irrigation, agriculture can flourish in arid areas and survive extended periods without rainfall. Thus, they argue, it is more appropriate to understand drought as the near total lack of water, which, for a period, affects the development of plants and animals. This prolonged lack of water, in turn, affects humans by destroying basic sources of food and often causing social and political disorder.4 Mike Davis, in a review of the technical literature, further explains that drought is “the recurrent duel between natural rainfall variability and agriculture’s hydraulic defenses” and thus “always has a man-made dimension.” He distinguishes drought from hydrological drought, the latter occurring “when both natural [streams, lakes, and aquifers] and artificial [reservoirs, wells, and canals] water-storage systems lack accessible supplies to save crops.”5 The following sections explore through different historical sources and methods how the effects of drought, including how people perceived and understood it, may have influenced the origins of the Mexican Revolution.

Meteorology: Porfirian Government Reports and Newspapers versus Modern Historical Climatological Data Reconstructions

What was the state of climatological knowledge in Mexico during the prerevolutionary Porfiriato, or rule of Porfirio Díaz, from 1876 to 1911? One useful overview is a report published in 1906 by the Central Meteorological Observatory and the Meteorological Service of Mexico, both housed within the Ministry of Development.6 The report’s author, engineer Manuel E. Pastrana, chronicled the history of the service since its founding in 1877. Soon after its founding, the service established forty-six meteorological offices around the country on the Pacific and Gulf ports and in state capitals. The Central Observatory sent these offices directives on how to make meteorological observations based on instructions from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. The service then expanded to seventeen state and nine private colleges and institutes, and for the next twenty-three years this number stayed consistent. However, while the number of observations they made increased, the kinds of observations they collected were of limited use for the study of “dynamic meteorology” essential for forecasting temperature. As a result, in 1901 the service began improving observational methods, including the creation of weather maps. It published 266 copies of the maps daily for rapid distribution around the country through the telegraph service, but even this feat remained insufficient for Pastrana, who emphasized that the “great desideratum of meteorology” should be to predict “hail, ice, snow, drought, rainfall and all local phenomena.”7 He thus began a two-pronged push to streamline the service and expand observation offices throughout the entire country, supplying them with the instruments they needed for meteorological calculations. The new instruments enabled them to observe evaporation in the shade and in sunlight; ozone levels; ground temperatures; surface water temperatures on seashores, lakeshores, and river banks; and atmospheric electricity and terrestrial magnetism.

Echoing the longstanding goals of the Díaz regime, Pastrana cited a “torrent of immigration” as one important reason for improving “knowledge of the climatology of our land, so rich in products from all climates.” Armed with such knowledge, immigrants would “come assured that the place selected for [them] to farm or to establish their businesses has the right mix of temperature, humidity, sunshine and cloudiness that their crops or businesses require.”8 When he wrote this in 1906, Pastrana acknowledged that Mexico was still a long way from acquiring and disseminating more advanced climatological knowledge, but he hoped that continued federate-state cooperation would achieve this goal in subsequent years.9

The goal was only partially achieved, however, as the Mexican Revolution stymied federal government investment in basic services and infrastructure from 1910 to 1920. As a report in 1941 published by the Ministry of Agriculture and Development (SAF) retrospectively described,

The Revolution, as it occupied areas and cut off communications between the capital and entire states, damaged our already weak climatological infrastructure. In 1916, there were not even 15 [weather] stations remaining. But from this year forward the SAF painstakingly took charge of the reorganization of distinct observatories and stations: in the years 1917, 1918, and 1919 it operationalized thirty-five observatories; between 1920 and 1924, 190; in 1925, 296, increasing to 620 by 1929.10

Despite these infrastructural limitations during the Porfiriato, Mexican newspapers regularly reported on weather-related phenomena, especially as it affected agriculture. A keyword search for “sequía” (drought) in the Hemeroteca Nacional Digital (National Digital Newspaper Repository) reveals the serious concerns that Mexicans had about the effect of inclement weather conditions on social and economic life in the decades prior to the revolution. On June 15, 1892, for example, El Monitor Républicano headlined an article “La Sequia en Toda La Republica” (The drought all over the republic), which graphically described its effects:

All over the Republic people are complaining about the harm to livestock and agriculture that the drought this year, more prolonged than others, is causing. The resulting death of cattle is such that there are even places where an unbearable stench from their decomposed corpses wafts from far away. Cereal crops are being lost everywhere. All these calamities together will necessarily cause hunger and misery.

The editors then quoted from another prominent newspaper, El Nacional:

What this means for agriculture is incalculable. Another year of lost crops will be ruinous for Mexico … If the current drought persists and the corn crop is lost, we won’t have hunger like in Russia … but indeed something similar. Although we have abundant natural resources in Mexico … two consecutive years of drought will bring about … a serious imbalance between public needs and basic maintenance.11

Still another report described people making pilgrimages to the Virgen de los Remedios to pray for rain to end the drought that had brought “unbearable heat, loss of crops in the fields, scarcity of flowers and who knows how many more disgraces.”12

The year during which they reported on this prolonged drought, 1892, is significant for understanding the origins of the Mexican Revolution. That year, the village of Tomóchi in the western part of Chihuahua suffered its fourth consecutive year of drought. In December 1891, a group of Tomóchi villagers rebelled against state and federal authorities, and for nearly a year they fended off several attempts by the government to suppress them. Only in October 1892 did some one hundred armed villagers finally succumb to a vastly larger and better armed force of 1,200 state and federal troops. The Tomóchi villagers fought remarkably well, killing nearly half of the government troops, but, when the battle was over, the government succeeded in brutally exterminating virtually the entire village, including women and children. Historian Paul Vanderwood identifies disputes over land and employment, state and municipal governance, and the villagers’ religious fervor as the principal causes of the rebellion. Yet it was the prolonged drought, the effects of which devastated crops and sent corn and bean prices soaring, that was the fuel that turned smoldering resentments into a conflagration.13

Friedrich Katz, a leading historian of the Mexican Revolution and Villismo in Chihuahua, considers Tomóchi and the surrounding region, where numerous other rebellions occurred, the “cradle of the 1910 Revolution.”14 It thus raises the question of why the partially drought-induced Tomóchi rebellion of 1891–1892 did not lead to a generalized national revolution like in 1910–1911. In Katz’s explanation, the rebels remained largely isolated from the rest of Chihuahuan society, particularly the middle and industrial working classes, who in the early 1890s still generally benefitted from Díaz’s economic policies and enjoyed some political clout. They therefore did not generally support violent opposition to either the state or federal government at the time.15 It is important to add to Katz’s explanation that the rebellious villagers of Tomóchi, and others inspired by them in the following years, likely suffered more from the effects of drought than the urbanized and industrialized workers of Chihuahua and elsewhere in Mexico whose support was essential for a generalized revolt. Indeed, they were on the front line of inclement weather patterns, serving as the canary in the coal mine of the rapidly polarizing Porfirian society. The data that Florescano and Swan provide for the years 1888–1892, culled mainly from agricultural newsletters, indicate that while drought was more regionally delimited in 1888 and 1889, it became more severe and persistent by 1890, affecting “nearly” the entire country in 1891 and then the entire country in 1892—thus attracting a great deal of attention in those years.16

Since 2005, NASA has compiled global historical climatological data using more consistent and systematic scientific measurements than those which Florescano and Swan drew upon a decade before in the early 1990s. The online database, known as the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI), provides a monthly global data set from 1870 to 2005 “using historical observed surface air temperature and precipitation data for global land areas, except Antarctica and Greenland, on a 2.5 x 2.5 degree grid.” It is thus climate-specific within areas approximately seventy miles longitude by approximately sixty miles latitude, or 4,144 square miles. Although the index overall “incorporates antecedent precipitation, moisture supply, and moisture demand into a hydrological accounting system,” it has a number of important limitations.17

The PDSI data for the 4,144 square mile region in which Tomóchi is located indicate that that there was some drought in 1888 and 1889, but it lasted no more than a month or two at a time. Only beginning in 1890 did drought become prolonged, persisting through the end of 1892, although never reaching the level of more than “moderately severe” (−2) (see table 1 below). Although the contemporary climatological data reconstruction of the PDSI and the historical climatological data culled by Florescano and Swan do not completely correspond, they both indicate various degrees of prolonged drought, especially from 1890 to 1892. Different methods surely explain much of the discrepancy between the two, but so too do different perceptions of what constitutes drought. In the 1880s and 1890s, communications, transportation, irrigation, and disaster relief systems were far less developed than they are today, and, as we have seen, climatological knowledge was scant, so that what might be thought of as a mild drought by present-day standards was likely for rural Mexicans of the time a more severe, calamitous event.

Table 1. Drought in Tomóchi from 1888 to 1892 according to the Palmer Drought Severity Index (negative numbers indicate drought; the larger the number, the more severe the drought: 0 indicates no drought, while −5 indicates extremely severe drought).

1888 Aug.(−1), Sept. (−1)

1889 Aug. (−1), Dec. (−1)

1890 Jan. (−1), Feb. (−1), Mar. (−1), Apr. (−1), May (−2), June (−2), July (−2), Aug. (−1), Sept. (−1), Oct. (−1), Nov. (−1), Dec. (−1).

1891 Jan. (−1), Feb. (−1), July(−1), Aug.(−2), Sept.(−2), Oct.(−2), Nov.(−2), Dec.(−2)

1892 Jan. (−2), Feb. (−2), Mar. (−1), Apr. (−1), May (−1), June (−2), July (−2), Aug. (−2), Sept. (−2), Oct. (−3), Nov. (−2), Dec. (−2).

The Drought Shortly Preceding the Revolution as Catalyst for Rebellion

Some fifteen years later, in 1906, Mexico had experienced significant social and economic change. Continued economic growth and foreign investment created great wealth, which further increased the ranks of the burgeoning working and middle classes, but most wealth was still concentrated in a small upper class. By then Díaz had built an elaborate system of patronage, rewarding loyal members of the upper classes with political posts or favorable economic concessions for their businesses while alienating those who he deemed unreliable or overly critical of his regime. The latter had grown more numerous and vocal as Díaz’s autocratic rule of nearly three decades wore thinner and thinner on them.

Díaz seemed to understand this weariness, for in 1908 he granted an interview to the American journalist James Creelman in which he announced that he would retire after his last term and hold free elections. He ultimately reneged on that promise, which drove Francisco I. Madero, a disaffected member of the upper class who hailed from the cotton-rich Laguna region of Coahuila, to call for an armed revolution against him in November 1910. Madero did so from the United States after escaping from jail for protesting the rigged election of June 1910 that allowed Díaz to serve a seventh term. The revolution initially appeared to be a failure, for Díaz successfully foiled most of the Maderista revolutionary plots against him that month, but in the following months a principally Chihuahua-based multi-class revolutionary army, including a contingent led by Pancho Villa, defeated Díaz’s forces and compelled him to resign and go into exile in May 1911. The nation held a free election in September, which Madero easily won, ushering in the first truly liberal democratic regime in Mexican history.

Numerous factors made 1910 the year of revolution in Mexico. Politically, it made sense that the octogenarian Díaz, who had reneged on his promise of democracy after more than three decades in power, fell to an armed opposition fighting to force him to make good on that promise. Socially and economically, a financial panic in the United States in 1907 led to a deep recession throughout Mexico, but especially the north, due to its heightened dependence on trade, investment, and remittances from the United States. Although the rural majority had seen little to no wealth trickle down to it throughout Diaz’s rule, the working and middle classes had benefitted to varying degrees (as we have seen, in 1892 they were unwilling to revolt when the effects of drought exacerbated grievances in and around Tomóchi). In 1910, however, they no longer enjoyed the social and economic benefits they once had, and many defied Díaz and cast their lot with Madero. But what role did drought play in the lead-up to revolution from 1907 to 1909? Was it more severe than in 1890–1892? If so, did its effects exacerbate an already explosive political situation in Mexico, serving as the straw that broke the camel’s back in ways that it did not in 1890–1892?

The economist Melissa Dell quantified rainfall level and insurgent activity in municipalities throughout Mexico using a dataset she created from the government publications Atlas termopluviometrica and the Encyclopedia of Mexican Municipalities along with regional histories for the years 1906–1910. She argues that the dataset shows a “strong correlation between drought severity and insurgency.”18 Not surprisingly, the areas with the least rainfall on the maps of her dataset are primarily located in the north, including but not exclusively Chihuahua and the Laguna. Likewise, the areas with the greatest concentration of insurgent activity are also located in the north, although not all areas with severe drought experienced the same level of insurgency. Indeed, a few areas with lower levels of drought saw more insurgent activity than those that experienced severe drought and vice-versa. This suggests a strong general, but not perfect, correlation between drought and insurgency according to her data. (See figures 1 and 2, reproduced with permission from Melissa Dell.)

Drought and the Origins of the Mexican RevolutionClick to view larger

Figure 1. Drought Severity.

Courtesy of Melissa Dell.

Notes: 1906–1910 precipitation as a percentage of long-run average precipitation is plotted, following the scheme given in the legend. State boundaries are in black.

Drought and the Origins of the Mexican RevolutionClick to view larger

Figure 2. Insurgency.

Courtesy of Melissa Dell.

Notes: Insurgency during 1910–1918 is plotted, following the scheme given in the legend. State boundaries are in black.

If we examine Florescano and Swan’s more qualitative data from January 1907 through the end of 1909, we find no generalized drought throughout the country, not even in the arid and semi-arid north-central areas. Rather, there are regional pockets of severe drought at limited times, such as in September of 1908, when it did not rain in Chihuahua, or June 1909, when deficient rainfall in the state led to the death of thirty thousand head of cattle. The neighboring state of Coahuila experienced drought as well, especially the town of Matamoros in the Laguna region. By August 1909, it had suffered three consecutive years of drought, leading to the loss of 80 percent of its crop production and prompting outmigration of 50 percent of its population. Interestingly, the PDSI does not indicate any drought at all in the Tomóchi region of western Chihuahua from January 1907 to October 1910, in contrast to Dell’s dataset, which shows less than 60 percent normal rainfall cumulatively from 1906 to 1910. In the Laguna region, however, the PDSI indicates moderate to moderately severe drought for six months of 1908 and the same during all of 1909 and 1910 (see table 2 below).

Extrapolating from the PDSI, the effects of drought appear to have influenced people’s decision to revolt in the Laguna in November 1910, but not initially in western Chihuahua, where Tómochi is located. Rather, Tómochi joined the Maderista revolution only after it had spread there from eastern Chihuahua. Whereas there was no drought in western Chihuahua according to the PDSI, in eastern Chihuahua, where the first village to rebel, Cuchillo Parado, is located, there was mild drought from September to December 1908, moderate drought from January to May and then September to November 1909, and moderately severe to severe drought for much of 1910, especially from June to November leading up to the start of the revolution. It appears that the effects of drought in eastern Chihuahua helped to catalyze a generalized revolt in support of revolution throughout the state in ways that it did not in drought-stricken western Chihuahua in 1891. The difference between the two is that, unlike in 1891, the effects of drought in 1910 may have increased the resentment of middle-class sectors toward their political disenfranchisement under the late Porfirian regime. Combined with a serious economic recession that threw many of them out of work, this likely pushed them to the breaking point.

Table 2. Drought in the Laguna region of southwest Coahuila and northeast Durango from 1907 to 1911 according to the Palmer Drought Severity Index (negative numbers indicate drought; the larger the number, the more severe the drought: 0 indicates no drought, while −5 indicates extremely severe drought).

1908 June (−1), July (−1), Sept. (−1), Oct. (−2), Nov. (−2)

1909 Jan. (−2), Feb. (−2), Mar. (−2), Apr. (−2), May (−3), July (−2), Aug. (−2)., Sept. (−3), Oct. (−3), Nov. (−3), Dec. (−3)

1910 Jan. (−3), Feb. (−2), Mar. (−2), Apr. (−1), May (−2), June (−2), July (−3), Aug. (−3), Sept. (−3), Oct. (−3), Nov. (−3), Dec. (−3)

Another important, but partial, source of information on drought at the time is U.S. consular reports, which another leading historian of the Mexican Revolution, Alan Knight, has used extensively. These reports reveal how much American diplomats and observers attributed revolutionary activity to climate-related factors. They also found a strong correlation between drought-stricken areas and insurgent activity. For example, in a report filed from Durango between March 21 and May 4, 1912, during the presidency of Madero, who after his election soon faced another, more radical revolution against him, the author remarks:

The most serious factor in the present situation is the almost complete failure of the corn crop in the eastern part of the [Durango] State, due to the prolonged drought of last SUMMER. The ranch workers who are dependent upon the corn crop for their very existence have starvation facing them, unless the Government comes to their assistance. This, in my opinion, more than any other one thing, has caused the laborers to join the ranks of the revoltosos and to adopt a program which calls for nothing further than plunder and loot. As the next corn harvest is nearly a year away, there would appear to be no immediate help for present conditions. It is a noticeable fact that in the western portion of the State where the corn harvest was a normal one that there has been to date scarcely any disaffection. A judicious distribution of corn among the disaffected ones on the part of the Government would perhaps be more effective than ammunition in putting an end to the revolt.

These reports also provide a window into the unique, historically specific ideas elites from the United States and Mexico had about climate as constitutive of progress. Indeed, in their authors’ minds, short-term changes in climate could spark a revolution not only because it deprived the discontented masses of food but also because of the long-term influence of climate upon the perceived “backwardness” of those same masses. For instance, a report from the same consulate from October 8 to November 5, 1913, in which the author describes Díaz as a “benevolent despot” uplifting his “bastard race,” states:

Northern Mexico was the natural theater for staging the revolt against Díaz, it having advanced in intelligence and wealth out of proportion to the rest of the Republic. Three plain causes stand out as responsible for this unequal development of the northern Mexican states; 1) Climate, 2) Contiguity to the United States, 3) Presence of Americans in large numbers.

Here, the report was not citing climate to reference fluctuating weather patterns as a cause of revolt. Rather, the author was referencing the then popular, pseudo-scientific, and racist notion that as civilizations approached a northern, “cooler” latitude, they became smarter and more diligent in their work. Hence, northern Mexico, as the most “advanced” region (and the closest to the United States), was the most likely to lead a revolt against Mexico City.19

Although some U.S. consulate officials judged the effects of drought as a cause of, or at least a major contributing factor to, the 1910 revolution, they also deemed it an impediment to further “revolutions” after the overthrow of Madero in 1913 and the renewal of a much more violent civil war among rival revolutionary factions. According to a report filed in 1916, the return of rain slaked thirsty fields and replenished crops, prompting Mexican businessmen from Saltillo and Monterrey to “suggest that it will be much easier to start and carry on new revolutions than during past period of drought when there was no food for the men and no grass for the horses.” He further noted that it “is well known that revolutions in some parts of Mexico have been starved out during the past year on account of the general prevailing drought.”20

The Laguna region of Coahuila and Durango appears to fit this description. Particularly in the cotton industry, years of drought exacerbated social and economic conditions for farmers and workers, creating a strong regional political base for Madero. In the Laguna, concerns about drought focused less on rainfall than on the lack of flow from the Nazas River on which its vast irrigation network of thousands of miles of diversion dams and canals depended.21 The creators of the PDSI state that streamflow corresponds well to overall drought conditions and thus can be used as a rough proxy in the absence of other data, such as soil moisture. Years before the creation of the PDSI, Laguna historian William K. Meyers showed how, according to his research in U.S. consular and other records produced during the revolutionary fighting in the region from 1910 to 1916, in low-flow seasons unemployed migrants were ideal recruits for revolutionary armies, whereas in high-flow seasons there was sufficient employment to keep the economy running and revolutionaries supplied with necessary provisions. Since the fickle behavior of the Nazas had a direct impact on the profitability of cotton production, Meyers argues that its irregularity was a “determining” factor in the shifting fortunes of the various factions alternately led by Madero, Villa, Victoriano Huerta, and Venustiano Carranza that occupied the Laguna during the revolution.22

What about Morelos, the central-southern state that gave rise to Emiliano Zapata, Mexico’s preeminent agrarian revolutionary? Unlike Chihuahua, Durango, and Coahuila, Morelos is a state with a varied but generally semi-humid climate and abundant water resources where rain-fed agriculture predominated. Yet, according to historian Alejandro Tortolero-Villaseñor, lucrative sugar production, which required irrigation in the dry season due to its water intensity, expanded rapidly during the Porfiriato at the expense of rain-fed agriculture in communal villages.23 As a result, Morelos was also vulnerable to hydrological drought. According to Dell’s cumulative four-year dataset, two-thirds of insurgent areas of Morelos experienced mild drought, whereas according to the PDSI, though the state as a whole did not suffer drought in 1907 and 1908, it suffered more severe drought than in the north during the second half of 1909 (see Table 3).

Table 3. Drought in Morelos from 1907 to 1909 according to the Palmer Drought Severity Index (negative numbers indicate drought; the larger the number, the more severe the drought: 0 indicates no drought, while −5 indicates extremely severe drought).

1907 no drought

1908 no drought

1909 March (−1), June (−1), July (−3), August (−4), September (−4), October (−4), November (−4), December (−4).

Like other seminal works, in his classic Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, originally published in 1968, John Womack indirectly describes the effects of drought in 1909 on the rise of Emiliano Zapata to national prominence. He argues Zapata’s emergence as a political and revolutionary figure began when he spoke for his village of Anenecuilco near Cuatla, Morelos, in a legal dispute with the nearby Hospital hacienda over former village land that Zapata forcibly took and redistributed to villagers. Zapata explained to the jefe (local political boss) that “bad weather had caused a bad harvest and there was no produce or money to pay with.” In response, “Hospital insisted that the Anenecuilcans sell their cows or work the sum out in day labor in the fields, but the jefe finally decided in favor of the villagers. They would pay no rent at all for 1910, and only what they could in 1911.”24 Zapata’s defiant act established his reputation in Morelos as a popular agrarian leader; it was the first in a series of complex events and processes leading to the Plan of Ayala of November 1911—the Zapatista magna carta of agrarianism—that turned the Mexican Revolution into a true social revolution.

Discussion of the Literature

There are very few works that examine drought and the Mexican Revolution, much less climate and social conflict more generally in Latin American history. One of the few is historical geographer Georgina Endfield’s Climate and Society in Colonial Mexico: A Study in Vulnerability, which examines the impact of various climate phenomena, especially droughts and floods, on colonial New Spain.25 Drawing on a wealth of primary documentation that she consulted in colonial archives, Endfield analyzes how resilient colonial society was, with a view to providing historical lessons in the present age of anthropogenic climate change. Her temporal and spatial purviews, however, do not extend either into the national period or into regions most responsible for the origins of the Mexican Revolution discussed in this article. By contrast, Enrique Florescano’s and Susan Swan’s Breve Historia de la Sequia en México, which I draw on extensively for this article, uses a variety of primary sources to survey drought from the colonial era to the 1990s in Mexican history and provides useful lists of droughts and their effects, as well as descriptions of their impacts on such major historical processes as Mexican Independence and the revolution. (For discussion of the seminal works on the Mexican Revolution that reference drought indirectly, see note 2.)

Beyond Mexico, there are a number of works on the impact of climate phenomena in other countries of Latin America. For hurricanes in the Caribbean, see the article by Sherry Johnson in this ORE collection. For the social, cultural, and political impact of melting glaciers in the Peruvian Andes during the late 20th century, see Mark Carey, In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Climate Change and Andean Society, as well as his numerous articles on the social and environmental history of glaciology globally.26

Primary Sources

There are a variety of primary sources for doing a climate history of social and political conflict such as that which catalyzed the Mexican Revolution. As discussed in this article, published government meteorological reports describe in detail the state of climatological knowledge in a country and editorialize about it, furnishing a lens into attitudes toward climate, fear of its effects, and hopes for some predictive power over it. Newspapers also offer a wealth of insight into not only how they conveyed climatological knowledge to literate citizens but also how citizens may have perceived and tried to make sense of climate-related phenomena such as drought from the stories they read. Today, many newspapers are easily accessible in online digital archives known as “hemerotecas digitales,” such as the Hemeroteca Digital Nacional (HDN) provided by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). UNAM’s HDN is free, while others may charge fees for access.

The Palmer Drought Severity Index, which this article uses in tandem with contemporary sources, is one of several digital historical tools that draw on more precise scientific methods for understanding historical climatology. These can be supplemented with Mexican sources such as Atlas Termopluviometrica and Encyclopedia of Mexican Municipalities, from which the economist Melissa Dell created a dataset to quantify the relationship of drought severity between 1906 and 1910 with insurgency from 1910 to 1918.

U.S. consular reports furnish a wealth of information on Mexico (and many other countries), although, as we have seen above, they must be used with caution. Consular officials brought their cultural and ideological baggage—packed full of racial and ethnic prejudices—with them to the countries in which they were stationed. These reports are available on microfilm at libraries and increasingly online(though often not without access privileges usually provided by universities).

The Comisión Nacional del Agua’s Archivo Histórico del Agua (AHA) has many useful documents pertaining to climate and weather, particularly as they affected water use and infrastructure. The AHA together with the Servicio Nacional Metereológico (SNM) published the history of the SNM in 2012, which draws in part on previous SNM reports such as that which engineer Manuel E. Pastrana wrote in 1906 quoted in this article.27 The SNM is currently located in the same building as the Instituto Panamericano de Geografia y Historia and the Mapoteca Manuel Orozco y Berra in Mexico City, all of which have archives or document collections related to weather and climate.

There are many other sources to explore, including travel accounts, local archival sources, private and company archives (in agro-industry, irrigation, etc.), photographs, and others.

Further Reading

Carey, Mark. In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Climate Change and Andean Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Comisión Nacional del Agua. Servicio Meteorológico Nacional: 135 años de historia en México. Mexico City: Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, 2012.Find this resource:

Davis, Mike. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. London: Verso, 2001.Find this resource:

Dell, Melissa. “Path Dependence in Development: Evidence from the Mexican Revolution.” Working Paper, October 2012.Find this resource:

Florescano, Enrique, and Susan Swan. Breve historia de la sequía en México. Xalapa, Mexico: Universidad Veracruzana, Dirección Editorial, 1995.Find this resource:

Johnson, Sherry. “The History and Science of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History, 2015.Find this resource:

Katz, Friedrich. The Secret War in Mexico: Europe, the United States, and the Mexican Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.Find this resource:

Katz, Friedrich, ed. Riot, Rebellion, and Revolution: Rural Social Conflict in Mexico. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Knight, Alan. The Mexican Revolution. Vol. 1, Porfirians, Liberals and Peasants. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Ladurie, Emmanuel Le Roy. Times of Feast, Times of Famine: A History of Climate since the Year 1000. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.Find this resource:

Meyers, William K. “Seasons of Rebellion: Nature, Organisation of Cotton Production and the Dynamics of Revolution in La Laguna, Mexico, 1910–1916.” Journal of Latin American Studies 30.1 (1998): 63–94.Find this resource:

Tortolero Villaseñor, Alejandro. “Water and Revolution in Morelos, 1850–1915.” In A Land between Waters: Environmental Histories of Modern Mexico. Edited by Christopher Boyer. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Tutino, John. From Insurrection to Revolution in Mexico: Social Bases of Agrarian Violence, 1750–1940. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.Find this resource:

Vanderwood, Paul. The Power of God against the Guns of Government: Religious Upheaval in Mexico at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Wolfe, Mikael D.Watering the Revolution: An Environmental and Technological History of Agrarian Reform in Mexico. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017.Find this resource:

Womack, John. Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1970.Find this resource:

Notes:

(1.) There is much debate in the historiography of the Mexican Revolution as to what kind of revolution, and how popular, it was on a continuum between elite-led and mass-manipulated at one end to radically democratic and participatory at the other. Wherever along the definitional continuum one pinpoints the revolution, one thing is clear: agrarian reform was the central revolutionary demand in an eminently agrarian country beset with highly unequal land distribution, which the effects of drought often exacerbated. It is in this sense that this article follows Alan Knight’s view that the Mexican Revolution was “a popular, agrarian movement—the precursor, the necessary precursor, of the étatiste ‘revolution’ of post-1920.” Alan Knight, The Mexican Revolution, vol. 1, Porfirians, Liberals and Peasants (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), xi.

(2.) Knight, Mexican Revolution, 11, 90, 91, 93, 96, 97, 102; Hart, Revolutionary Mexico: The Coming and Process of the Mexican Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 99, 164, 165; Friedrich Katz, The Secret War in Mexico: Europe, the United States, and the Mexican Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 15, 30; Friedrich Katz, ed., Riot, Rebellion, and Revolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), 460, 553; Friedrich Katz, The Life and Times of Pancho Villa (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), 49; and John Tutino, From Insurrection to Revolution in Mexico: Social Bases of Agrarian Violence, 1750–1940 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 336.

(3.) Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Times of Feast, Times of Famine: A History of Climate since the Year 1000 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971), 17. The general coordinator of Mexico’s National Meteorological Service, Felipe Adrián Vázquez Gálvez, in a prologue to a history of the service published by climate historians of Mexico, similarly opined: “It seems arrogant to me to even insinuate that drought could have been the cause of the social movement such as that which defined the Mexican Revolution. It is the task of historians and sociologists to determine to what degree climatic variations could have been responsible for social and political movements in a country that was predominantly rural.” Comisión Nacional del Agua, Servicio Meteorológico Nacional: 135 años de historia en México (Mexico City: Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, 2012), 5.

(4.) Enrique Florescano and Susan Swan, Breve historia de la sequía en México (Xalapa, Mexico: Universidad Veracruzana, Dirección Editorial, 1995), 13.

(5.) Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2001), 18–19. In a more technical study, the U.S. National Drought Mitigation Center found more than 150 known definitions of drought that reflected global geographic and climatic diversity on a continuum between very arid and very humid. They synthesized and grouped the definitions into four broad types: meteorological, agricultural, hydrological, and socioeconomic drought. Although all these can overlap, each type represents a progressively greater degree of water deficiency, in the aforementioned order, as meteorological drought persists with correspondingly more severe impacts on people, plants, and animals.

(6.) Manuel E. Pastrana, El Servicio Meteorológico de la República Mexicana, 1906.

(7.) Ibid., 9.

(8.) Ibid., 13. European immigrants did not arrive in large numbers, to the disappointment of the Porfirian elite. There was substantial Mexican-American colonization of border areas, however. See José Angel Hernández, Mexican-American Colonization during the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

(9.) Pastrana, El Servicio Meteorológico: Historia de su Desarrollo y Organización (México: Imprenta y Fototipía de la Secretaría de Fomento), 20.

(10.) Comisión Nacional del Agua, Servicio Meteorológico Nacional, 45.

(11.) “La Sequia en Toda La Republica,” El Monitor Republicano, June 15, 1892.

(12.) “Pequeña Crónica,” El Partido Liberal, June 19, 1892. See also “Gacetilla: El Santuario de los Remedios,” El Universal, June 18, 1892.

(13.) Paul Vanderwood, The Power of God against the Guns of Government: Religious Upheaval in Mexico at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 285, 321.

(14.) Katz, The Life and Times of Pancho Villa, 21–26.

(15.) Ibid., 26.

(16.) Florescano and Swan, Breve historia de la sequía, 201–202.

(17.) Aiguo Dai, Kevin E. Trenberth, and Taotao Qian, “A Global Dataset of Palmer Drought Severity Index for 1870–2002: Relationship with Soil Moisture and Effects of Surface Warming,” Journal of Hydrometereology 5 (December 2004), 1112–1113. First, as the index relies on imperfect and fragmentary historical data, the authors are keen to highlight that the index is only “an approximate measure of the cumulative effect of atmospheric moisture supply and demand (i.e., meteorological droughts) in these situations.” Second, the weakness of the PDSI is that it is geographically limited to regions where data are available, which covers only parts of Mexico. Third, the grid’s low resolution “does not resolve small scale variations such as those over mountains.” Fourth, the index is also imprecise in treating all precipitation as immediately available rainfall (as opposed to snow accumulation on the ground). Lastly, other significant factors affecting the index’s accuracy include the effects of vegetation on surface evapotranspiration, changes in surface solar radiation due to changes in cloudiness or aerosol concentrations, and changes in soil moisture conditions when the soil is frozen or when snow accumulates and melts (1118).

(18.) Melissa Dell, “Path Dependence in Development: Evidence from the Mexican Revolution” (working paper, Harvard Scholar), 1, 8–9.

(19.) See Elsworth Huntington, Civilization and Climate, for a contemporary example of racist climate determinism in academic guise.

(20.) Central File: Decimal File 812.00, Internal Affairs of States, Mexico, Political Affairs, September 9, 1916–October 14, 1916, Records of the U.S. State Department Relating to Internal Affairs of Mexico, 1910–1929, U.S. National Archives, Archives Unbound, August 30, 2015, 177.

(21.) See Mikael D. Wolfe, Watering the Revolution: An Environmental and Technological History of Agrarian Reform in Mexico (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), especially chapter 1, for a detailed history of Laguna irrigation.

(22.) William K. Meyers, “Seasons of Rebellion: Nature, Organisation of Cotton Production and the Dynamics of Revolution in La Laguna, Mexico, 1910–1916,” Journal of Latin American Studies 30.1 (1998): 63–94.

(23.) Alejandro Tortolero-Villaseñor, “Water and Revolution in Morelos, 1850–1915,” in A Land between Waters: Environmental Histories of Modern Mexico, ed. Christopher Boyer (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012), 129–130, 144.

(24.) John Womack, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1970), 64. See also Samuel Brunk, Emiliano Zapata: Revolution and Betrayal in Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995), 28.

(25.) Georgina Endfield, Climate and Society in Colonial Mexico: A Study in Vulnerability (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2008).

(26.) Mark Carey, In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Climate Change and Andean Society (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

(27.) Comisión Nacional del Agua, Servicio Meteorológico Nacional.