Hand color tinted photo of Emiliano Zapata Salazar
Emiliano Zapata Salazar (August 8, 1879 – April 10, 1919) was a leading figure in the Mexican Revolution, which broke out in 1910, and which was initially directed against the president Porfirio Díaz. He formed and commanded an important revolutionary force, the Liberation Army of the South, during the Mexican Revolution.
Emiliano Zapata was born to Gabriel Zapata, a peasant who trained and sold horses, and Cleofas Salazar in Zacatecas. Zapata’s family were Mestizos, being of mixed Nahua and Spanish ancestry; Emiliano was the ninth of ten children. A peasant since childhood, he gained insight into the severe difficulties of the countryside. He received a limited education from his teacher, Emilio Vara. He had to care for his family because his father died when Zapata was 17. Around the turn of the 20th century Anenecuilco was an indigenous Nahuatl speaking community; there exist eyewitness accounts stating that Emiliano Zapata spoke Nahuatl fluently.
At that time, Mexico was ruled by Porfirio Díaz, who rose to power in 1876. The social system of the time was a sort of proto-capitalist feudal system, with large landed estates (haciendas) controlling more and more of the land and squeezing out the independent communities of the indigenous who were subsequently forced into debt slavery (peonaje) on the haciendas. Díaz ran local elections to pacify the people and run a government that they could argue was self-imposed. Under Díaz, close confidants and associates were given offices in districts throughout Mexico. These officials became enforcers of “land reforms” that drove the haciendas into the hands of progressively fewer and wealthier landowners.
Zapata came from a middle class family who were able to avoid peonage and to maintain their own land (rancho). In fact, the family had been porfiristas: supporters of Porfirio Díaz. Zapata had the reputation of a dandy, appearing at bullfights and rodeos in his elaborate charro (cowboy) outfit. In 1906, he attended a meeting in Cuautla to discuss a way to defend the land of the people, on which he had worked as a farmhand. In 1908, due to his first acts of rebellion, he was drafted into the Ninth Regiment and sent to Cuernavaca. However, because of his skill with horses, he remained a soldier for only six months. At the request of Ignacio de la Torre, who employed him as a groom, he left for Mexico City. Though his gaudy attire might have suggested an affiliation with the rich hacendados who controlled the lands, he retained the admiration of the people of his village, Anenecuilco.
In 1909 an important meeting was called by the elders of Anenecuilco. At that time, José Merino was the chief elder of the village and was well respected by all. He called the meeting to publicly resign from his position due to his old age and limited abilities to continue the fight for the land rights of the village. The meeting was used as a time for discussion and nomination of individuals as a replacement for Merino as the president of the village council. The elders on the council were so well respected by the village men that no one would dare to override their nominations or overtake the vote for an individual against the advice of the current council. The nominations made were: Modesto Gonzales, Bartolo Parral, and Emiliano Zapata. After the completion of nominations, a vote was taken and Zapata became the new council president without contest.
Although Zapata had turned 30 only a month before, the voters knew that it was necessary to elect an individual who would be responsible for the village and who was well respected by the village people. Even though he was young, the village was ready to hand over the controlling force to him without any worry of failure. Before he was elected he had shown the village his nature by helping to head up a campaign in opposition to a candidate for governor. Even though his efforts and his cause failed greatly, he was able to create and cultivate relationships with political authority figures that would prove useful for him.
Zapata became a leading figure in the village of Anenecuilco, where his family had lived for many generations, and he became involved in struggles for the rights of the campesinos of Morelos. He was able to oversee the redistribution of the land from some haciendas peacefully, but had problems with others. He observed numerous conflicts between villagers and hacendados, or landowners, over the constant theft of village land, and in one instance, saw the hacendados torch an entire village.
For many years, he campaigned steadfastly for the rights of the villagers, first establishing via ancient title deeds their claims to disputed land, and then pressing the recalcitrant governor of Morelos into action. Finally, disgusted with the slow response from the government and the overt bias towards the wealthy plantation owners, Zapata began making use of armed force, simply taking over the land in dispute.
The 1910 Revolution
At this time, Porfirio Díaz was being threatened by the candidacy of Francisco I. Madero. Zapata made quiet alliances with Madero, whom he perceived to be the best chance for genuine change in the country.
In 1910, Zapata quickly took an important role, becoming the general of an army that formed in Morelos – the Ejército Libertador del Sur (Liberation Army of the South).
Zapata joined Madero’s campaign against President Diaz. With the support of Pancho Villa, Pascual Orozco, Emiliano Zapata, and rebellious peasants, Madero overthrew Díaz in May 1911 in the battle at Ciudad Juárez. A provisional government was formed under Francisco León de la Barra. Under Madero, some new land reforms were carried out and elections were to be ensured. However, Zapata was dissatisfied with Madero’s stance on land reform, and was unable, despite repeated efforts, to make him understand the importance of the issue or to get him to act on it.
Madero was not ready to create a radical change in the manner that agrarian relations operated during this time. Some other individuals, called “anarcho-syndicalist agitators”, had made promises to take things back to the way that they had been done previously. The major method of agrarian relations had been that of communal lands, called “ejidos”. Although some believed that this could be the best course of action, Madero simply demanded that “Public servants act ‘morally’ in enforcing the law…”. Upon seeing the response by villagers, Madero offered formal justice in courts to individuals who had been wronged by others with regard to agrarian politics. Zapata decided that on the surface it seemed as though Madero was doing good things for the people of Mexico, but Zapata did not know the level of sincerity in Madero’s actions and thus did not know if he should support him completely.
Madero and Zapata’s relations worsened during the summer of 1911 as Madero appointed a governor who supported plantation owners and refused to meet Zapata’s agrarian goals. Compromises between the two failed in November 1911, days after Madero appointed himself President, and Zapata and Montaño fled to the mountains of southwest Puebla. There they formed the most radical reform plan in Mexico; the Plan de Ayala.
Zapata was partly influenced by an anarchist from Oaxaca named Ricardo Flores Magón. The influence of Flores Magón on Zapata can be seen in the Zapatistas’ Plan de Ayala, but even more noticeably in their slogan (this slogan was never used by Zapata) “Tierra y libertad” or “land and liberty”, the title and maxim of Flores Magón’s most famous work. Zapata’s introduction to anarchism came via a local schoolteacher, Otilio Montaño Sánchez – later a general in Zapata’s army, executed on 17 May 1917 – who exposed Zapata to the works of Peter Kropotkin and Flores Magón at the same time as Zapata was observing and beginning to participate in the struggles of the peasants for the land.
The plan proclaimed the Zapatista demands for “Reforma, Libertad Ley y Justicia” (Reform, Freedom, Law and justice) Zapata also declared the Maderistas as a counter-revolution and denounced Madero. Zapata mobilized his Liberation Army and allied with former Maderistas Pascual Orozco and Emiliano Vázquez Gómez. Orozco was from Chihuahua, near the U.S. border, and thus was able to aid the Zapatistas with a supply of arms.
In the following weeks, the development of military operations “betray(ed) good evidence of clear and intelligent planning.” In the original design of the armed force, Zapata was a mere colonel among several others. However, the true plan that came about though this organization lent itself to Zapata. Zapata believed that the best route of attack would be to center the fighting and action in Cuautla. If this political location could be overthrown, the army would have enough power to “veto anyone else’s control of the state, negotiate for Cuernavaca or attack it directly, and maintain independent access to Mexico City as well as escape routes to the southern hills.” However, in order to gain this great success, Zapata realized that his men needed to be better armed and trained.
The first line of action demanded that Zapata and his men “control the area behind and below a line from Jojutla to Yecapixtla.” When this was accomplished it gave the army the ability to complete raids as well as wait. As the opposition of the federal army and police detachments slowly dissipated, the army would be able to eventually gain powerful control over key locations in the Interoceanic Railway from Puebla City to Cuautla. If these feats could be completed, it would gain access to Cuautla directly and the city would fall.
The plan of action was carried out and saw amazing success in Jojutla. However, Torres Burgos, the commander of the operation, did not understand how the army could have disobeyed his orders against looting and ransacking. The army took complete control of the area and it seemed as though Torres Burgos lost any type of control that he believed he had over his forces prior to this event. Shortly after, Burgos called a meeting and resigned from his position. Upon leaving Jojutla with his two sons, Burgos was surprised by a federal police patrol who subsequently shot all three of the men on the spot. This seemed to some to be an ending blow to the movement because Burgos had not selected a successor for his position; however, Zapata was ready to take up where Burgos had left off.
Shortly after Burgos’ death a party of rebels elected Zapata as “Supreme Chief of the Revolutionary Movement of the South” (Womack, p. 78). This seemed to be the fix to all of the problems that had just arisen, but other individuals wanted to replace Zapata as well. Due to this new conflict, the individual who would come out on top would have to do so by “convincing his peers he deserved their backing.”
Zapata finally did gain the support necessary by his peers and was considered a “singularly qualified candidate”. This decision to make Zapata the true leader of the revolution did not occur all at once, nor did it ever reach a true definitive level of recognition. In order to succeed, Zapata needed a strong financial backing for the battles to come. This came in the form of 10,000 pesos delivered by Rodolfo from the Tacubayans. Due to this amazing sum of money Zapata’s group of rebels became one of the strongest in the state financially.
After some time Zapata became the leader of his “strategic zone.” This gave him tremendous power and control over the actions of many more individual rebel groups and thus increased his margin of success greatly. “Among revolutionaries in other districts of the state, however, Zapata’s authority was more tenuous.” After a meeting with Zapata and Ambrosio Figueroa in Jolalpan, it was decided that Zapata would have joint power with Figueroa with regard to operations in Morelos. This was a turning point in the level of authority and influence that Zapata had gained and proved useful in the direct overthrow of Morelos.
Zapata immediately began to use his newly-found power and began to overthrow city after city with gaining momentum. Madero, alarmed, asked Zapata to disarm and demobilize. Zapata responded that, if the people could not win their rights now, when they were armed, they would have no chance once they were unarmed and helpless. Madero sent several generals in an attempt to deal with Zapata, but these efforts had little success. It seemed as though Zapata would shortly be able to overthrow Morelos, but then the Treaty of Ciudad Juarez was signed. This officially and formally ended the civil war.
Although this may have caused individuals to believe that the revolution was over, it was not. The battle continued for years to come over the fact that Mexican individuals did not have agrarian rights that were fair, nor did they have the protection necessary to fight against those who pushed such exploitation upon them.
Although government forces could never completely defeat Zapata in battle, in 1919, he fell victim to a carefully staged ambush by Gen. Pablo González and his lieutenant, Col. Jesús Guajardo who were supporters of the Mexican president, Venustiano Carranza. Guajardo proposed González feign a defection to Zapata’s forces. González agreed, and to make the defection appear sincere, he arranged for Guajardo to attack a Federal column, killing 57 soldiers. Zapata subsequently agreed to receive a messenger from Guajardo, to arrange a meeting to speak about Guajardo’s defection.
On April 10, 1919, Guajardo invited Zapata to a meeting, intimating that he intended to defect to the revolutionaries. However, when Zapata arrived at the Hacienda de San Juan, in Chinameca, Ayala municipality, Guajardo’s men riddled him with bullets. They then took his body to Cuautla to claim the bounty, where they are reputed to have been given only half of what was promised.
Following Zapata’s death, the Liberation Army of the South slowly fell apart, although Zapata’s heir apparent Gildardo Magaña and many other Zapata adherents went on to political careers as representatives of Zapatista causes and positions in the Mexican army and government. Some of his former generals like Genovevo de la O allied with Obregón while others eventually disappeared after Carranza was deposed.
Zapata’s influence lasts to this day, particularly in revolutionary tendencies in south Mexico. There are controversies on the portrayal of Emiliano Zapata and his followers, on whether they were bandits or revolutionaries. But in modern times, Zapata is one of the most revered national heroes of Mexico: to many Mexicans, specifically the peasant and indigenous citizens, Zapata was a practical revolutionary who sought the implementation of liberties and agrarian rights outlined in the Plan of Ayala. He was a realist with the goal of achieving political and economic emancipation of the peasants in southern Mexico, and leading them out of severe poverty.
Many popular organizations take their name from Zapata, most notably the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional or EZLN in Spanish), the revolutionary movement of indigenous peoples that emerged in the state of Chiapas in 1994 and is colloquially known as “the Zapatistas”. Towns, streets, and housing developments called “Emiliano Zapata” are common across the country and he has, at times, been depicted on Mexican banknotes.
Modern activists in Mexico frequently make reference to Zapata in their campaigns, his image is commonly seen on banners and many chants invoke his name: Si Zapata viviera con nosotros anduviera, “If Zapata lived, he would walk with us.” Zapata vive, la lucha sigue, “Zapata lives; the struggle continues.”
In the folklore of the people of Morelos, there is a widespread belief that Zapata did not die. The corpse purported to be his was that of a friend posing as Zapata,because there was something on Zapata’s chest that the dead body didn’t have and that Zapata himself fled to some obscure rural locale.
Zapata has in the last few decades been recast as a quasi-religious icon as well, mostly within indigenous or the newer “Zapatista”(EZLN/Mayan) communities, where he is called “Votán Zapata”. Votán (Wotán in modern Mayan spelling) is a Mayan god, who with his twin brother Ik’al was said to have descended from the mountains to teach the people to defend themselves. A part of Our Word is Our Weapon by Subcomandante Marcos of the EZLN is dedicated to Votán Zapata.
In 1969 students from the Black Student Council and Mexican-American Youth Association of the University of California San Diego formed Lumumba-Zapata College, now known as Thurgood Marshall College. Additionally, Stanford University in California is home to ‘Casa Zapata’, a Latin American-themed dorm located in Lucie Stern Hall.
In popular culture
Zapata has been depicted in movies, comics, books, music, and clothing popular with teenagers and young adults. For example, there is a Zapata (1980) stage musical written by Harry Nilsson and Perry Botkin which ran for 16 weeks at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. A movie called “Zapata: El Sueño De Un Heroe” (Zapata: A Hero’s Dream) was produced in 2004, starring Mexican actors Alejandro Fernandez, Jaime Camil, and Lucero.