The caudillos of 19th-century Latin American history played an important part in the shaping and molding of Latin America into a state led by charismatic leaders who were able to assert their own considerable will over the people and enact social and governmental change. In the 19th century, the more iconic caudillos such as Simon Bolivar and Porfirio Diaz exerted tremendous energy and willpower to ensure that they shaped their respective countries in the ways they wanted. Even so, more modern revolutionary figures, even in their zeal to overthrow the classist politics of the caudillo, exerted a tremendous and earnest desire to improve the status of the common people, rather than become a dictator.
Figures like Che Guevara, Jose de San Martin and Eemiliano Zapata, while also becoming charismatic leaders, rebels and influential figures in Mexico and Argentina, started their rebellion from a desire to see the lower classes receive equality in the face of immense social stratification. This is most apparent in filmed representations of these figures, as the characters of Che (in The Motorcycle Diaries), San Martin (in Revolucion), and Zapata (in Viva Zapata!) are shown dealing with the origins of their revolutionary fervor, finding the personality and charisma within themselves to become caudillos in their own right, even as they fought against the entrenched patronage politics of the real caudillos.
Revolutionary Co-opting of Caudillos’ Charisma for Revolutionary Politics
When looking at the representations of Latin America as seen through the eyes of Che, San Martin and Zapata in their aforementioned films, a relatively consistent picture of South America is provided. Ruled by the caudillos, Mexico, Argentina and Chile (among others) are plunged into deep socioeconomic inequality thanks to charismatic leaders who use their power and influence to set up entire governments and systems of patronage around themselves. To that end, government becomes a self-perpetuating system of handouts and favors for those in the caudillos’ inner circle, leaving little for the impoverished and lower-class to live on. This is the kind of exploitation and inequality that revolutionary leaders fed on; sick of the inequalities and striving to find a better way to govern South America, figures like Che, Zapata and San Martin used roughly the same tactics as caudillos to gather people to their cause and make others want to follow them.
Chasteen and Wood cite caudillos as horse-bound, charismatic leaders who inspired the incredibly persona loyalty of their followers: “They had an army, we might say, with or without a general’s rank” (78). This loyalty was usually garnered through friends and family, building up an immense network of patronage that essentially culled favors from various individuals to fuel the revolutionary agenda of these individuals. In many ways, this sense of loyalty began to trump politics and freedom, as true privilege came from the entrenching of certain relationships and exchange of favors rather than a true sense of justice.
Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries
One of the most well-known and important revolutionary figures in Latin America is Che Guevara, who eventually became one of the Marxist leaders o the Cuban Revolution. Walter Salles’ film The Motorcycle Diaries chronicles young Ernesto Guevara’s (Gael Garcia Bernal) soul-searching road trip through South America to have fun and find himself. During his travels, the young medical student eventually comes to learn the plight of the impoverished people of South America, a world which he was shielded from before by his own privilege. This work in particular showcases his transformation from hedonistic member of the upper classes to someone distinctly tuned to the struggles of the worker, as evidenced through his experiences with the poor and sickly during his travels.
The culminating moment in which Ernesto becomes Che is found when he celebrates his birthday in a San Pablo leper colony in which he and his friend Granado find himself. The joyous dancing of everyone at his party as loud mambo music plays within the clinic Che has been working is contrasted with the dark lighting and depressing atmosphere of the leper colony, showcasing Che’s increasing discomfort with the revelry of the party compared to their patients’ suffering. Later, at his birthday toast, this recognition of the plight of the lepers he has been treating forces him to turn his toast into his very first political speech. Che begins to talk about how grateful he is that everyone would give so much to him despite having nothing, and that "our meager personalities prevent us from being spokesmen of your cause,” Che recognizing that he does not yet have the charisma of a caudillo. However, this would soon prove false, this speech providing an ironic piece of evidence that Che does indeed have the personality to galvanize those around him and drive them to action. The film choosing to focus on this first bit of revolutionary inspiration and evidence of Che’s leadership cements the film as an origin story of sorts for Che Guevara. The Motorcycle Diaries, in essence, is the tale of how Ernesto Guevara becomes “Che.”
Jose de San Martin in Revolucion: El cruce de los Andes
Jose de San Martin’s struggle to lead the people of Argentina to independence from Spain is chronicled in Revolucion: El cruce de los Andes, showcasing another man who struggles with the massive weight that is put on his shoulders by the leadership of his men. Instead of finding the origin of his revolutionary zeal, Revolucion cements him as leader from the beginning, the film acting as flashbacks to the Crossing of the Andes and the Battle of Chacabuco. Exploring San Martin’s desire to bring freedom to the Argentinians and Chileans, while also showcasing his doubts as a leader, the film demonstrates his need to become an equally charismatic leader to the caudillos, in order to successfully rebel against them.
In the scene leading up to the Battle of Chacabuco, San Martin gives an impassioned speech on horseback, showing the charisma and leadership skills needed to become a successful revolutionary leader. Warning his men of the dangers they face, he nonetheless tells them that they are the “hope of South America,” and that they all carry the freedom necessary to make a country in which their children can grow and prosper irrespective of their race, origin, or color – “Or any bullshit!” This scene plays out like many other ‘inspiring speech on a horse’ moments in films like Braveheart and Lord of the Rings, giving it a somewhat more conventional take on the typical revolutionary struggle. However, this is also due to showing San Martin at the height of his power and charisma, unlike in Motorcycle Diaries when Che is at the beginning of his own discoveries as a leader. Here, San Martin has become full caudillo, galvanizing his men and spurring them to battle for a greater cause.
Zapata in Viva Zapata!
Marlon Brando’s Emiliano Zapata in Viva Zapata! Provides a fascinating middle ground between the charismatic military leadership of San Martin and the uncertainty and self-doubt of Che. Brando’s Zapata is at once a compelling leader and someone unwilling to take on the massive responsibilities of representing his people in revolution. At one point, he says to another character, “I don’t want to be the conscience of the world. I don’t want to be the conscience of anybody.” Here, Zapata’s drive to violent conflict is borne of necessity, having the peaceful drive of Che but being forced to represent his people through violence. This lends him an intriguing moral dimension that separates him from the selfish focus of the caudillo. Despite his desires to hang up his hat and stop leading his people, he remain steadfast in his goals in order to remain loyal to them.
The film itself demonstrates the failings of caudillos such as President Porfirio Diaz, showing the ornamentation and ostentation of his palace and the toiling women who celebrating him even after he is killed. He pays lip service to Zapata’s pleas to bring democracy to the people, but it is clear in the film that Diaz is not interested in pursuing anything other than the self-interest that comes from the patronage that his rule over Mexico provides. By contrasting Diaz’s selfishness with Zapata’s selflessness, the essential difference between caudillos and revolutionary leaders is made clear – the era of the caudillo violated the people and resources of South America, calling for other, more magnanimous leaders to restore the balance and bring the people the democratic country they desire through violent revolution.
Zapata and the Mexican Revolution
In addition to Viva Zapata!, the unique tale of Zapata’s rise to leadership against Porfirio Diaz is outlined in John Womack, Jr.’s Zapata and the Mexican Revolution (Random House, 1970). The book itself explores in great detail the social and political conditions in the early 1900s that led to Zapata’s revolution, showcasing the last years of Diaz’s regime and the effects that Zapata and the revolution had on Mexico (as well as the work that still needs to be done). Of particular interest is Zapata’s rise to power, which begins in Anenecuilco in 1909, with village elections. Zapata’s election clearly came about because of his youth and vigor, something which not only contrasts the frailty and advanced age of the village elder, but matches the charismatic qualities of the caudillos they must fight against. Many qualities of Zapata are outlined for his suitability as pueblo leader, from the fact that he is “a man with pants on” to his comparative worldliness and his work among the wealthy stable owners in Mexico City (Womack 9). Not only that, but Zapata is said to have a long history of revolutionaries in his family, as his ancestors had fought for independence long ago.
After Zapata accepts his lot as revolutionary leader, he learns to cultivate his own charismatic skills through experience and seeking advice from others. Womack’s book weaves an intricate series of conversations into a portrait of the building of a revolutionary; in one chapter, Zapata meets Pancho Villa himself and complains about politicians, centering his own desire to separate himself from the political gamesmanship that caudillos typically play (Womack 205-206). Zapata’s whirlwind meeting of a vast number of people of varying levels of importance cements his desire to speak with people of all classes and levels of notoriety, a characteristic must unlike the entrenched, insular nature of the caudillo and hacienda classes.
Zapata’s one brush with official recognition came when he allowed his followers (the Zapatistas) to attach themselves to the revolution of Francisco Madero in the north. This was a tremendous boon for Zapata and his kin, as it allowed them to have official status in the more comprehensive revolution against President Diaz; however, this did come with a price, as Madero disavowed the Zapatistas as soon as he became president of Mexico after the fall of Diaz. In this way, Madero himself became the caudillo that Zapata would never dream of becoming; while he himself was a charismatic leader, Madero showed himself to be more committed to the patronage politics that Zapata and the people detested in Diaz. To that end, Zapata had to turn his energies to Madero, galvanizing the people against him.
One of the most fascinating attributes of the book is the contrast between how Zapata thought of himself and the commoditizing of him and his status among other revolutionary figures. As Zapata and Pancho Villa began to have more of a rapport, other figures such as certain spokesmen for the Carrancista tried to steer Zapata away from Villa in order to get him to ally more fervently with their camp (Womack 197). This example and more showcases Mexican leaders’ desire to utilize Zapata’s charisma and leadership as an iconic means of galvanizing others to their cause, or using him to gain more popularity among the people. Instead, however, Zapata reacted to this courting by posting propaganda against Carranza and his own aspirations toward the presidency, consistently fighting for a Mexico free of war (even as his own people began to starve). Zapata himself would no longer receive official governmental support, and neither would his men, until Carranza’s resignation was forced by Obregon in 1920 (one year after the murder of Zapata himself).
Womack’s book begins and ends with the true focus of Zapata’s efforts and concerns – the village of Anenecuilco, where Zapata himself was born. In amongst the political infighting, carefully crafted strategies and alliances, Womack’s primary focus is the same as Zapata’s: to improve the welfare of this small pueblo village, the same one that handpicked Zapata as the natural leader for the revolution. In doing so, they helped to cement the qualities that make the perfect movement to fight the caudillos, including the charisma and cult of personality that caudillos used to get into power (but without the selfish greed and patronage that would follow). Zapata’s story, while admirable, is ultimately a tragic one, as he is murdered, the Zapatistas make only marginal progress after the fact, and Womack’s book ends with Anenecuilco still being poor and destitute.
In the end, Zapata’s role as a leader is shown to be a reluctant one, but one he took on for the sake of his people, and to dismantle the horrifying caudillo system of patronage and systemic inequality throughout Mexico. His status and constant commodifying as a leader evinces the same focus on charisma and iconic status as the caudillos, but Zapata managed to maintain a clear, consistent sense of ethics and morals as the Zapatistas fought for the people against regime after regime. Even as other revolutionaries like Madero betrayed Zapata and removed any sense of governmental legitimacy from him, Zapata himself maintained his dedication to the cause. In this respect, the moral rigidity of revolutionaries like Zapata make them much more consistent and laudable than the selfishness and opportunism of the caudillos and revolutionaries who wished to be like them.
Through the filmed representations of Che, San Martin and Zapata in their respective films (and the book Zapata and the Mexican Revolution), the heavy burden of resisting the caudillo systems in place throughout Latin America is shown. Whether these figures come from immense privilege or start out as a peasant, the grief and despair they feel at the plight of the poor inspires them to revolutionary action. Throughout the films themselves, we see these main characters discover the qualities that made them such charismatic leaders, inspiring people to join their cause and bring about tremendous revolutionary change in Mexico and Argentina. Different stages of these revolutionaries’ stories are shown, particularly in the case of Jose de San Martin, whose Revolucion is seen in retrospect and in its highest moments, rather than at the figure’s humble beginnings.
In many ways, these revolutionaries had to adopt many of the attributes of caudillos in order to effectively fight them – building an army out of the poor through their charisma, while ostensibly still fighting for peasants’ rights, creates a complex relationship between the rebels and those they fight. While Che, San Martin, and Zapata all work to fight the caudillos, their own Marxist zeal forced them to become caudillo-like themselves. Through the attractive appeal of the caudillo and those who fought them, Latin America proved itself to be a nation led by great men, whether they served the people or simply served themselves.
Chasteen, John Charles, and James A. Wood. Problems in Modern Latin American History:
Sources and Interpretations. Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.
Ipin, Leandro (dir.). Revolucion: El cruce de los Andes. Perf. Rodrigo de la Serna, Juan Ciancio,
Leon Dogodny. Canal 7, 2010. Film.
Kazan, Elia. (dir.). Viva Zapata! Perf. Marlon Brando, Jean Peters, Anthony Quinn. 20th Century
Fox, 1952. Film.
Salles, Walter. (dir). The Motorcycle Diaries. Perf. Gael Garcia Bernal, Rodrigo de la Sena.
Focus Features, 2004.
Womack, John. Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. New York: Random House, 1970.