Emiliano ZapataEmiliano Zapata
Father of the Zapatista Movement

The Mexican Revolution

Born on August 8, 1879, in the village of Anenecuilco, Morelos (Mexico), Emiliano Zapata was of mestizo heritage and the son of a peasant medier, (a sharecropper or owner of a small plot of land).[1]. From the age of eighteen, after the death of his father, he had to support his mother and three sisters and managed to do so very successfully. The little farm prospered enough to allow Zapata to augment the already respectable status he had in his native village. In September of 1909, the residents of Anenecuilco elected Emiliano Zapata president of the village's "defense committee," an age-old group charged with defending the community's interests. In this position, it was Zapata's duty to represent his village's rights before the president-dictator of Mexico, Porfirio Díaz, and the governor of Morelos, Pablo Escandón. During the 1880s, Mexico had experienced a boom in sugar cane production, a development that led to the acquisition of more and more land by the hacienderos or plantation owners. Their plantations grew while whole villages disappeared and more and more medieros and other peasants lost their livelihoods or were forced to work on the haciendas. It was under these conditions that a plantation called El Hospital neighboring Zapata's village began encroaching more and more upon the small farmers' lands. This was the first conflict in which Emiliano Zapata established his reputation as a fighter and leader. He led various peaceful occupations and re-divisions of land, increasing his status and his fame to give him regional recognition.

In 1910, Francisco Madero, a son of wealthy plantation owners, instigated a revolution against the government of president Díaz. Even though most of his motives were political (institute effective suffrage and disallow reelections of presidents), Madero's revolutionary plan included provisions for returning seized lands to peasant farmers. The latter became a rallying cry for the peasantry and Zapata began organizing locals into revolutionary bands, riding from village to village, tearing down hacienda fences and opposing the landed elite's encroachment into their villages. On November 18, the federal government began rounding up Maderistas (the followers of Francisco Madero), and only forty-eight hours later, the first shots of the Mexican Revolution were fired. While the government was confident that the revolution would be crushed in a matter of days, the Maderista Movement kept gaining in strength and by the end of November, Emiliano Zapata had fully joined its ranks. Zapata, a rather cautious, soft-spoken man, had become a revolutionary.

During the first weeks of 1911, Zapata continued to build his organization in Morelos, training and equipping his men and consolidating his authority as their leader. Soon, Zapata's band of revolutionaries, poised to change their tactics and take the offensive, were known as Zapatistas. On February 14, Francisco Madero, who had escaped the authorities to New Orleans, returned to Mexico, knowing that it was time to restart his revolution with an all-out offensive. Less than a month later, on March 11, 1911, "a hot, sticky Saturday night,"[2], the bloody phase of the Mexican Revolution began at Villa de Ayala. There was no resistance from the villagers, who were mostly sympathetic to the revolution, being sharecroppers or hacienda workers themselves, and the local police were disarmed quickly. Not all battles that followed were this quick, however. The revolution took its bloody course with the legendary Pancho Villa fighting in the northern part of Mexico, while Zapata remained mainly south of Mexico City. On May 19, after a week of extremely fierce fighting with government troops, the Zapatistas took the town of Cuautla. Only forty-eight hours later, Francisco Madero and the Mexican government signed the Treaty of Ciudad Juárez, which ended the presidency of Porfirio Díaz and named Francisco León de la Barra, former ambassador to Washington, as interim president.

Under different circumstances, this could have meant the end of the Mexican Revolution. Madero's most important demands had been met, Díaz was out of office, and regular elections were to be held to determine his successor. León de la Barra, however, was not a president to Zapata's liking. While of great personal integrity, his political skills were lacking. The new president could not assuage the peasants, especially since his allegiance was clearly with the rich planters who were trying to regain control of Mexico, aided by the conditions of the Treaty of Ciudad Juárez. Even though Zapata had been ordered to cease all hostilities, he and 5,000 men entered and captured Cuernavaca, the capital of his native state of Morelos.

Zapata riding a horseIn 1911, Madero was elected president of Mexico, and Zapata met with him to discuss the demands of the peasantry. The meeting was fruitless and the former allies parted in anger. The only joy those days held for the thirty-one-year-old Zapata was his marriage to his bride Josefa, only six days after the ill-fated meeting with the president. Officially, the Zapatistas were disbanded and Zapata himself was in retirement. The police forces, in disarray after fighting the revolutionary forces, were no match for the new wave of bandits that were now roaming the land. The situation in Mexico deteriorated, assassination plots against the new president surfaced, renewed fighting between government and revolutionary forces ensued, and the smell of revolution was once again hanging over the cities of Mexico. In the "Plan of Ayala" (the city of his forced retirement), Zapata declared Madero incapable of fulfilling the goals of the revolution and promised to appoint another provisional president, once his revolution succeeded, until elections could be held. As part of his plan, a third of all land owned by the hacienderos was to be confiscated, with compensation, and redistributed to the peasantry. Any plantation owner who refused to cede his land would have it taken from him without compensation. The revolution was once again in full swing, and it was in these days that Zapata first used his now famous slogan of Tierra y Libertad or Land and Liberty.[3]

It was in February of 1913, after almost three years of violent struggle, that the formerly loyal federal General Victoriano Huerta murdered Madero, and the Zapatistas reached the outskirts of Mexico City. Huerta offered to unite his and Zapata's troops in a combined assault on the city, but Zapata declined. Even though Huerta eventually was declared the new president, after a sham of an election, he was forced to abandon the country in 1914, after yet another revolutionary faction, under "constitutionalist" Venustiano Carranza, forced his ouster. At this point there were three major revolutionary powers in Mexico, the army of Pancho Villa to the north (the Villistas), the "Constitutionalist Army" of Carranza, and the Zapatistas to the south.[4] In an attempt to consolidate these forces and become their supreme commander, Carranza arranged a meeting, which was held at Aguascalientes, in which the Zapatistas and the Villistas -- a majority at the meeting -- agreed to a new provisional president, a choice which Carranza rejected. War broke out between Carranza's moderates and the more radical Zapatistas and Villistas.

On November 24, Emiliano Zapata ordered the Liberation Army of the South (the new name for his fighting force of over 25,000 men) to occupy Mexico City. Eventually, Villa and Zapata held a meeting at the national palace and agreed to install a civilian in the presidency. The war had not ceased, however, and Carranza, whose government operated from Veracruz, held a constitutional convention, naturally without inviting Zapata or Villa. After the convention, Carranza's forces managed to defeat Pancho Villa and isolate Zapata in Morelos. "Zapata ruled Morelos; but Carranza ruled Mexico. Morelos could never survive indefinitely alone..."[5] The federal powers under Carranza (a government now officially recognized by the Wilson Administration) and the Zapatistas in Morelos seemed at a permanent stalemate. Carranza knew that he could never fully take Mexico while Zapata was still alive and in charge of his army. To rid himself of his enemy, Carranza devised a trap. A letter had been intercepted in which Zapata invited a colonel of the Mexican army who had shown leanings toward his cause to meet and join forces. This colonel, Jesús Guajardo, under the threat of being executed as a traitor, pretended to agree to meet Zapata and defect to his side. On Thursday, April 10, 1919, Zapata walked into Carranza's trap as he met with Guajardo in the town of Chinameca. There, at 2:10 PM, Zapata was shot and killed by federal soldiers, and as the man Zapata hit the ground, dead instantly, the legend of Zapata reached its climax. Carranza did not achieve his goal by killing Zapata. On the contrary, in May of 1920, Álvaro Obregón, one of Zapata's right-hand men, entered the capital with a large fighting force of Zapatistas, and after Carranza had fled, formed the seventy-third government in Mexico's history of independence. In this government, the Zapatistas played an important role, especially in the Department of Agriculture. Mexico was finally at peace.

Zapata's Ideology

Zapata's revolution was first and foremost an agrarian one. It would in no way be fair to call Zapata a communist, even though his revolution fits into nearly the same time frame as that in Russia. Nevertheless, all throughout Zapata's speeches and writings, a few socialist themes keep recurring, such as agrarian reform in favor of giving some of the lands of the haciendas to the peasants. One of the more "socialist" ideas in Zapata's ideology is the re-establishment of ejidas or communally owned lands with shared use rights -- a system common among the Mexican indios. This was, however, not a contradiction to private property. One might choose to argue that even that attitude was not truly socialist, since Zapata was fighting for the restoration of titles that had been usurped by the planters and not necessarily a full, sweeping redistribution of all hacienda lands. One of the best documents describing Zapata's positions, which have been described as "bourgeois-democratic and anti-imperialist as well as ... anti-feudal"[6], is the 1917 Manifesto of the People. The revolutionary Zapata sounds very conciliatory in this statement of principles:

Zapata's main goal was the political and economic emancipation of Mexico's peasantry. Land reform was not an end in itself but a means to achieve this popular independence. Doubtlessly, Zapata argued for the destruction of the reigning feudal system which kept the sharecroppers and small-time farmers in perpetual poverty. Nonetheless, Zapata was, as always, cautious and prudent in not arguing for the dismantling of all haciendas but rather for a kind of coexistence between an empowered peasant population and a number of larger plantation owners. Throughout Zapata's writings, terms such as "economic liberty" and even "growth and prosperity" point out that a Marxist interpretation of the original Zapatista movement would be out of place.

As mentioned before, Zapata's ideology can be described with such inventive terms as "liberal-bourgeois," a very conservative-sounding ideology indeed. According to biographer and political scientist Robert Millon, such a liberal-bourgeois society would be a democracy in which small property owners hold the majority of land, and the government is responsible for preventing foreign imperialism (in the sense of imposition of economic or political control)[8]. The anti-imperialist stance, seen before in Zapata's Manifesto when he proclaimed that the revolution must "emancipate the country from the economic domination of the foreigner," allows for a more modern interpretation of Zapata's ideology, that of the dependency theorists. Simplified, dependency theory states that a nation cannot fully develop economically and socially as long as it remains dependent on or under the control of the "First World" -- in Mexico's case under the influence of its big brother north of the border.

In a chapter called "Misconceptions Concerning Zapatista Ideology," the aforementioned author, Robert Millon, debunks some of the myths surrounding Zapata's beliefs and those of his followers. Many biographers of Zapata as well as chroniclers of the Mexican Revolution explain the Zapatista ideology as "Indianist," socialist, or even anarchist. As mentioned before, there are socialist elements, but they are by no means predominant. As far as "Indianist" ideology is concerned, it would be hard to argue that Zapata, a mestizo who always donned the garb of a small-time farmer and not the traditional white breeches of the Indians, was a racial purist. On the contrary, Zapata's ideology was quite inclusionary, trying to create a feeling of local and national identity among all racial groups. Zapata was, if nothing else, a realist. He certainly read and studied much about communism, calling it a "good and humane" ideology, but ultimately turned away from it, regarding Marxism as "impractical."[9].

Overall, it would be incorrect to state that Zapata had no socialist or communist leanings and did not attempt to implement any of the goals of those ideologies. It would, however, be an equally specious and rather tendentious description of Zapata to paint him as a communist, bent on destroying private property and seeking supremacy for those of pure Indian blood. The Mexican Revolution was in no way a communist one, unlike the Russian revolution that occurred almost simultaneously. Emiliano Zapata was a highly intelligent, rational leader, trying to lead the people of southern Mexico out of extreme poverty. He was a realist who knew when to fight and when to play politics. His legacy lives on today in the contemporary Zapatista Rebels of Chiapas. Their view of Zapata is decidedly different from the one presented here and their ideology differs significantly from that of Zapata himself. Nevertheless, they are attempting to achieve the same goal as Zapata, to lead their people out of despair and into a fair, equal future, free from oppression.

The Myth of Zapata

Throughout history, political and revolutionary leaders have been glorified by their followers in life as well as in death. Few in modern history, however, have experienced the apotheosis that has been bestowed upon Emiliano Zapata. It is no exaggeration to equate the veneration of Zapata with that of a religious figure. Naturally, there is a multitude of poems and songs written about the Mexican Revolution, some dealing with the swashbuckling and ruggedly romantic Pancho Villa, but many more commemorating the heroic life of martyr Emiliano Zapata. Marlon Brando portrayed him on the silver screen in Viva Zapata!, less than forty years after his death. Many revolutionary songs speak of Zapata and of his death (see La Muerte de Zapata from Alberto Mesta's page on Corridos Mexicanos or Mexican Folk Songs).

Even during his lifetime, Zapata was portrayed as a rather bloodthirsty, ham-fisted, and undereducated peasant, hell-bent on finishing his revolution, no matter what the cost. As so often happens, fiction and fact do not correlate very well. The popular image of Zapata, most likely propagated by his enemies, is far from the truth. Zapata led his men into battle only when it was the logical military choice and when he realistically foresaw a victory. When Zapata's forces occupied Mexico City, the infamy that had preceded him caused many of the city's inhabitants to quake with fear, fully expecting to be brutalized or killed by the savage peasants from the south. Many were surprised (and indubitably very relieved) when Zapatista peasants went door to door, merely asking for some food to aid the under-supplied and under-fed forces.

The deification of Zapata is a more recent phenomenon than that of his vilification. It is not at all unusual to find contemporary poetry and literature, especially among the new Zapatistas, that elevate Zapata to a Christ-like state.

As is evident in these words, there is a cult of personality that lives on after Zapata's physical death. Emiliano Zapata has certainly become a messianic figure for Mexico. The modern Zapatistas draw strength from this myth, and they claim to be the true heirs to the tradition started by a peasant revolutionary with a vision of social justice.

[1] Sources for the account of Zapata's life, the Mexican Revolution, and the Zapatista ideology are Millon, Parkinson, and Womack, and from the on-line edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Photograph of Zapata on this page taken from Womack.

[2] Parkinson, page 51.

[3] Painting of Emiliano Zapata taken from: Emiliano Zapata y el Plan de Ayala, available on Mexico's PixelNet.

[4] A map of Mexico is available.

[5] Parkinson, p. 227.

[6] Millon, p. 78

[7] quoted in ibid., p. 78f

[8] ibid., p. 63

[9] ibid., p. 94

[10] Both citations from "Emiliano Zapata" a web page maintained by Glenn Welker.