“IT IS REMARKABLE THAT THE PAST INFLUENCES MEXICO, MORE
THAN MANY OTHER PARTS OF THE WORLD”
An interview with Friedrich Katz
(*) By Eduardo Estala Rojas
Friedrich Katz (Vienna, Austria, 1927) is not only one of the most significant historians
and anthropologists in the second half of the twentieth century, but also one of the most
important archival researchers concerning the history of the Mexican Revolution.
Since he came to Mexico in 1940, he showed a special interest in the culture of Mexico,
its language, customs, and history. Although at first he did not speak Spanish, he rapidly
perceived the kind of situation that Mexico was living in those times, and realized what
his professional calling was going to be.
Even though he has resided in Europe and in the city of Chicago for most of his life, all
of his research has been related to different periods of Mexican history. He combines
broad interpretations with a meticulous attention to details.
Actually, Friedrich Katz is a Morton D. Hull Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Latin
American History at the University of Chicago. The “Katz Center for Mexican Studies”
at this university is an acknowledgment of his professional work.
A GREAT PASSION FOR “EL CENTAURO DEL NORTE”
Friedrich Katz’ historical passion has been without any doubt the great personality of
Doroteo Arango Arámbula, better known as Francisco Villa. His two-volumes book,
“Pancho Villa”, (Era Editions, 1998), is one of the best biographies written about this
historical and legendary figure of the twentieth century.
This research work on Francisco Villa also examined other great figures of the history of
Mexico such as Emiliano Zapata, Francisco I. Madero, and Porfirio Díaz.
During this interview, Dr. Friedrich Katz dealt with both Mexico’s history and his own
life. He also mentioned some of the reasons that led him became a historian and an
anthropologist of Mexico.
-Let’s talk about your arrival to Mexico in 1940 during the government of Lázaro
Cárdenas del Río. What was your first impression of the country?
My first impression… I was thirteen years old. I did not speak Spanish and had never
been in Mexico before. It seemed a completely strange country to me. I liked the palm
trees and the houses. People seemed friendly but at the same time reserved. I can say that
my first impression of the country was spontaneous and positive. Mexico was very
different from Europe and the United States. Thanks to my father and above all to our
Mexican friends who came to visit us, I very soon became fascinated by Mexico’s
One of my strongest impressions after I arrived in Mexico was the contrast between the
deep pessimism that pervaded war torn Europe, and the profound optimism that was the
hallmark of “Cardenista” Mexico. Lázaro Cárdenas had transformed and carried out
profound social changes such as land reform without any violence. He had challenged
some of the most powerful American business interests, its oil companies, and the U.S.
government had taken no drastic reprisals. In contrast to Europe, Mexico was at peace.
Although I was only thirteen years old and did not speak the language, I already shared
the same optimistic perception about the future of the country.
-How did your interest in the mystical personages of the Mexican Revolution, such as
Francisco Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Francisco I. Madero arise?
Let’s see. First, I would say that my interest in the Mexican Revolution arose very early.
In part, this was due to the fact that the generation that had participated in the revolution
was very much alive, and I met many of them. Many of its veterans were in their fifties.
Many of them had also participated in the “Cardenista” reform. People constantly wrote
about revolutionary Mexico.
A second and more personal aspect of my interest in Mexico was the fact that my parents
sent me to study at the “Liceo Franco-Mexicano” (a French-Mexican high school). We
had lived in France and they wanted to make my school transition easier. I did not know a
word in Spanish. French was spoken at this school, and we learned about France’s
history. During the three Spanish class hours, we studied Spain’s history. Mexico’s
history was not mentioned at all. I did not like that. I was opposed to it. This “feeling of
opposition” inside me made me more interested in Mexico. So, I started talking to
Mexicans about their history. I read whatever I could in regard the Mexican Revolution,
the history of Mexico, and also its pre-Hispanic roots. Interest for Mexico’s evolution and
its history played an increasing role in my life.
I was six years old when we had to leave Germany and escaped to France (I come from
Austria but lived in Germany in 1933). The police came to look for my father who had
written several articles against Hitler. The French government expelled us five years later
because we were refugees. After this, we came to the United States, but we only had a
temporary visa. In 1940 we arrived in Mexico, where my parents were granted political
asylum. Finally, we felt safe. It is thus not surprising that I developed a great affection for
All of these reasons led to my interest in Mexico and the great figures of its history.
There were two aspects that specifically caused my particular interest in Francisco Villa.
The first one is that Villa and Zapata were totally different from other important
revolutionaries of the twentieth century. Lenin, Mao Tse Tung, and Ho Chi Min were
intellectuals and leaders of political organizations. In contrast, Villa was semi-illiterate.
As far as I know, he never attended any elementary school. Nevertheless, he was able to
lead a sixty to eighty thousand-men army and also to transform his guerrilla army into a
regular army. He was also able to administer the state of Chihuahua, gain popular support
and the respect of the Wilson administration in the United States. How did this semi-
illiterate individual achieve such successes? It cannot be said that he had had intellectual
advisers that made all this possible. He did the most of it by himself.
The second reason for my interest in Villa is that he was the most controversial figure of
the Mexican Revolution, even more than Zapata. People, especially in Chihuahua, either
loved or hated him. There were very few neutrals. This fact also interested me. There is a
third aspect that fascinated me. This is the “legend of Villa”. His legend not only exists in
Mexico but also here in the United States. Villa is probably the best-known Mexican
besides Moctezuma and Benito Juárez. One of the greatest challenges I faced was to
separate history from legend. That was extremely difficult. On the one hand, Villa left no
archive and only some memoirs. On the other hand, he liked his own legend. He also
established a connection with Hollywood, which perpetuated these legends. This fact
enormously intrigued me. Finally, I was also interested in the complex agrarian situation
in Northern Mexico, which was intimately linked to the Villa movement.
-How did you organize your historical work about these persons and their lives? They
are very revealing indeed. You show in most of your books not only different stages of
the Mexican Revolution, but also compare them to historical processes in Latin
To better respond, I have to divide my answer in two parts: its general and theoretical
aspects, and the sources I utilized. First, it was necessary to properly analyze the social
problems that led to the revolution in a comparative perspective. I had to compare it to
other revolutionary movements, in order to find similarities and differences between
Secondly, I had to consider the international scenario that influenced the revolutionary
movement in Mexico. This was very important. For example, it can be said that the
greatest changes in Mexico took place when the United States were involved in conflicts
outside of the continent. Even when the United States were not directly involved in such
conflicts yet, they were already indirectly implicated in them. The “Cardenista” reforms
occurred when the Nazi menace was emerging in Europe. The government of the United
States was worried over Nazi influence in Latin America. At that time, Mexico was the
most anti-fascist country in Latin America, and Lázaro Cárdenas was its president. This
is one reason why during his administration, the United States tolerated Mexico’s
expropriation of United States oil companies. By looking at the international situation, it
is easier to us understand the internal development of the Mexican Revolution.
In this context, my aim was to examine both Mexican and international sources. Villa left
no papers, but a large part of his collaborators’ papers had been sold to libraries in the
United States. One such source was constituted by the papers of one of his most
important advisers and administrators, Silvestre Terrazas, which were sold to the
Bancroft Library at the University of California in Berkeley. I also had to examine both
reports from foreign diplomats and intelligence agents from the United States, France,
Great Britain, Spain, Austria, Germany, Cuba, and Japan which forced me to carry out
research in most of these countries.
-Mexican History is depicted in many novels. What do you think of them?
They are very important. Many of them such as the works of Carlos Fuentes and Mariano
Azuela present a wonderful and realistic image of the Mexican Revolution.
-How would you define the relationship between the past and present in the
historiography and social anthropology of Mexico?
It is remarkable that the past influences Mexico more than many other parts of the world
including the United States. This is due to the fact that many people, until a short while
ago, still continued to reside the same places where their families had lived. As a result,
there was a family and regional historical tradition that went far beyond the description of
the past in schools, books, movies, and the media. This family tradition is very important.
It passed from generation to generation. In the United States, people change their
residence every five or six years, moving from one place to another. Grandchildren have
far less contacts with their grandparents and extended families.
Second, another fact that kept the memory of the revolution alive in people’s mind was
that until it lost the presidency, the ruling “Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI”,
considered the revolution a decisive part of its ideology. For example, every town has
avenues bearing the names of revolutionary leaders such as Francisco I. Madero, Porfirio
Díaz, or Francisco Villa. Their names have not being modified, or substituted by other
names such as Victoriano Huerta for example. In contrast, in the former Soviet Union
streets and cities named for revolutionary leaders were renamed. Two of the most
important political parties in Mexico, the “Partido de la Revolución Democrática, PRD”
and the “Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI”, keep affirming that they were the
ones who consolidated the Mexican Revolution. In other words, the Mexican Revolution
continues to envoy legitimacy in Mexico.
-Actually, Mexico is encountering different kind of problems (violence, drug
trafficking, kidnappings). Some of them are very similar to those that occurred one
hundred years ago, but within a cosmopolitan arena. What do you think of these
challenges and how can they be overcome in this new stage in the history of Mexico?
Well, this is a very difficult problem. Some of the challenges that existed in 1910 are
similar, while others are different. Unfortunately, two of them continue being the same.
These are poverty and social inequality. The Mexican Revolution allowed the country to
reach a period of stability that other Latin American countries did not have. Above all,
unlike Mexico, so many Latin American countries turned into military dictatorships. In
contrast to the situation that existed one hundred years ago, Mexico today is a democratic
country, so that, substantial changes can be achieved through democratic means.
In addition, in 1810 and in 1910, Mexico was essentially a rural country. One of the main
problems then was the political, economical, and personal power of the “latifundistas”, or
large landowners. This problem does not exist today as it did before. What it exists today
is a situation of misery and drug trafficking that did not exist before. These are very
serious problems. The international situation of Mexico is different from what it was of
one and two hundred years ago. During the nineteenth century, Mexico faced two major
armed interventions, the war against the United States, and the invasion by France.
Finally, Mexico’s educational level is far higher than it was one hundred years ago.
-In these moments, the festivities of the Centennial of the Mexican Revolution, and of
the Bi-Centennial of the Mexican Independence are being organized. What do these
celebrations mean to you?
As a historian, these festivities are of a tremendous importance for me due to the fact that
all of my academic life has been related to the history of Mexico. Both celebrations are
very significant for Mexico. In both cases, Mexico has a unique history. In South
America, the Independence movements were largely borne by the middle classes.
Obviously, in some places such as Venezuela, popular movements took place, but none
of them can be compared to the great popular revolution lead by Hidalgo and Morelos.
The Mexican Independence movement in 1810 was based on the popular classes and
served their interests. The Mexican Revolution in 1910 also showed a tremendous and
unusual participation of the popular classes. In my opinion, the main meaning of these
events for the popular classes in Mexico today is that they should be aware of their own
Through these celebrations, Mexican people should become more conscious of their own
history, and of what the popular classes can do to transform their own country. Like other
problems in Mexico, the tremendous poverty of so many people in Mexico played a
major role on the outbreak of both the Independence Movement and the Mexican
Revolution as well. Poverty continues to be a major problem for Mexico. This situation
has not been resolved.
-Finally, the Mexican Independence movement began in 1810, and the Mexican
Revolution in 1910. The Bi-Centennial celebration will be in 2010. It seems like every
one hundred years, radical changes occur in Mexico. What changes will take place in
One great advantage of being a historian and not a politician is that we are only
concerned about the past and do not have to predict the future. Mexico’s situation is very
difficult, not only because of the problems mentioned before –delinquency, drugs, and
social inequality- but also because of the global economical crisis that affects all
countries in the world. I can only hope that in spite of all these obstacles, Mexico can
progress and will resolve its greatest problem: its widespread poverty
(*) Eduardo Estala Rojas is a Mexican writer, poet, and cultural journalist. At the
present time, he works as Coordinator of Electronic Press Media Circulation for the
XX International Cervantino Colloquium, as well as Press Correspondent for
English Translation by Adriana Elizabeth Vera, from the Latin American History
Program, Department of History, University of Chicago. Associate Member of the
American Translators Association. Bachelor and Master Degree in Administration,