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The Endless Mexican Revolution

One hundred years after it began, the revolution, some say, continues.

En español | It was the first revolution of the 20th century, the first to be captured on film — and the first to be mostly forgotten by the world at large. Yet at 100 years and counting, the Mexican Revolution still has not achieved closure, a point made with force and clarity by The Storm That Swept Mexico, a two-hour documentary PBS will broadcast on Sunday, May 15 at 10 p.m. Eastern time.

"I think Mexico is lost in the general consciousness and is taken for granted in the States," says Raymond Telles, the film's producer/director. "The reason we made this film is it's an important piece of history, unknown history, and we wanted to bring that to life and give some insight into U.S.-Mexican relations.

The Storm That Swept Mexico

— Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress

Told in straightforward documentary style, with talking heads, stills and some fabulous archival movie footage, The Storm That Swept Mexico efficiently describes how the 30 years of the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship produced a country infused with foreign — especially U.S. — capital and populated with a few haves and many have-nots. When, in 1908, Díaz declared that the country was ready for democracy, he opened the floodgates of disaffection. Almost immediately, Mexico was torn apart by a number of competing factions battling for control, but with differing agendas. Francisco Madero and Venustiano Carranza were reformers; Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata were true revolutionaries fighting for basic change that included land redistribution. In fact, it was "a revolution that turned into a civil war," says Telles. "Most of the leaders were from the ruling class. They wanted to change things, but they didn't want to change the basic structure, except for Villa and Zapata. And that's why it became a civil war."

The fighting itself was essentially over by the 1920s, with almost all the revolutionary leaders assassinated. And even though the 1934–40 presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas pursued land reform and nationalized the oil industry, the film claims that because of a nearly unbroken string of authoritarian leaders ever since, the basic tenets of the revolt — pan, tierra y libertad (bread, land and liberty) — remain unfulfilled.

"The tipping point came after the Cárdenas presidency," opines Telles. "The revolution had been a success, and everyone thought it was worthwhile. Then World War II came along, and Mexico was doing well, selling oil. But after that, presidents swung to the right, and they dragged Mexico back."

The Storm That Swept Mexico ends with footage of the protests following the disputed 2006 presidential election, a pointed way of saying that the corruption and chaos of the past is ever present. While the film notes that the Revolution was positive in a cultural sense, by encouraging truly indigenous art, it also links the Mexican diaspora that began in 1910 to economic conditions that continue into today. "The economy of Mexico as a result of the Revolution was beat up," says Telles, "And I think Mexico is still suffering from the Revolution; the country never really recovered."

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