Zapata, Emiliano (1879–1919)

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Zapata, Emiliano (1879–1919)

Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary, was born August 8, 1879, and raised in his native village of Anenecuilco in the small south-central state of Morelos. In 1911 Zapata took up arms against the regime of long-time president Porfirio Díaz, and quickly became one of the most prominent leaders of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920). He is most often remembered for voicing rural demands for land and local liberties.

Zapata was the ninth of ten children of a campesino (peasant) family. He received little schooling, though he did learn to read and write. During his early years, the centuries-long struggle between Morelian villages and haciendas for land and water was becoming increasingly tense as the haciendas sought to expand. Like other young men raised in this environment, Zapata had trouble with the law from an early age: In 1897 he fled Morelos to avoid arrest for a minor infraction at a fiesta. By 1906 he was helping to defend Anenecuilco's land in the courts, and in 1909 he was elected president of the village council.

Meanwhile, national politics were becoming unsettled. In 1910, after an aborted campaign for the presidency, Francisco Madero called for a revolution against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. In March 1911 Zapata responded by helping form a small guerrilla band. He soon attained leadership of this group, which grew large enough by May to capture the regional center of Cuautla, Morelos. The taking of Cuautla, only about fifty miles south of Mexico City, was an important factor in forcing Díaz from power.

Zapata soon discovered, however, that the new national leadership was more dedicated to democracy than to land reform. The large landowners of Morelos immediately maneuvered to preserve their power in the state, and it gradually became clear that Madero, a hacienda owner himself, identified with them. Zapata was attacked by the conservative Mexico City press, which began calling him the "Attila of the South" for the real and imagined atrocities committed by his followers. Under these circumstances he was reluctant to disarm his forces. After weeks of negotiations, in August 1911 troops were sent against him under the command of General Victoriano Huerta. Zapata returned to the mountains, now to fight an ostensibly revolutionary regime.

To explain their cause to the nation, Zapata and a local schoolmaster named Otilio Montaño composed the Plan of Ayala in November. This document was a remarkable expression of the goals of many of Mexico's peasant rebels. It clarified Zapata's demands for land, calling not only for the return of lands the haciendas had stolen, but for the expropriation of one third of all hacienda holdings for villages without land titles, and the confiscation of the property of those who opposed Zapata's rebellion. It also insisted on the rule of law and the right of the people to choose their own leaders. These proposals were among the most radical social and economic ideas advocated by leading figures of the 1910 Revolution.

The struggle against Madero lasted until Huerta deposed and assassinated him in a February 1913 coup. Huerta sought to make peace with Zapata, but Zapata did not trust his promises, and the fighting continued. Zapatismo grew as peasants from Morelos, Mexico State, the Federal District, Puebla, Guerrero, and farther afield joined Zapata against the new and in some ways more oppressive regime. As the movement expanded it became more heterogeneous, and it was Zapata's task to discipline it enough to make it a force on the national scene. One measure of his success was that by the summer of 1914 he controlled Morelos and large parts of neighboring states, and threatened Mexico City.

In July 1914 Huerta followed Díaz into exile, and Zapata's forces soon came into contact with the troops of two northern revolutionaries who had also opposed Huerta: Venustiano Carranza and Francisco "Pancho" Villa. Zapata was now confronted with a crucial decision about what kind of alliances, if any, would be most useful to the pursuit of his agenda. Consulting closely with Manuel Palafox, his most prominent intellectual adviser at the time, he eventually sided with the popular Chihuahuan rebel Villa against Carranza, a hacienda owner like Madero who gave little indication that he favored land reform.

By November 1914 the war started again. On December 4 Zapata and Villa met at Xochimilco in the Federal District to firm up their alliance. Two days later they made their official entry into Mexico City, which the Zapatistas had actually occupied in late November. When Zapata captured Puebla on December 16, it looked as though he and Villa would quickly defeat Carranza, but a series of assassinations in the capital strained relations between the two leaders. Moreover, there was conflict among the urban intellectuals they had put in charge of their national government.

Just before Christmas, Zapata returned to Morelos. With the aid of Palafox, who was minister of agriculture in the new government, he began to carry out the land reform he had promised. In some respects 1915 was a utopian period in Morelos, a time in which Zapata helped the campesinos act on their hopes for change in a way that they have seldom been able to do in Mexican history. But internal tensions limited what Zapata could accomplish. Neighboring villages often fought over land and other resources, and differences between Zapatista guerrillas and the civilian population were becoming more evident.

In mid-1915 Villa lost the biggest battles of the revolution to Carrancista general Álvaro Obregón. In early August Zapata's army was driven out of Mexico City, and in the spring of 1916 Carranza's troops invaded Morelos. There was no longer any realistic hope that Zapata might defeat the forces arrayed against him. Some historians contend that this failure was inevitable given the nature of the various revolutionary factions; others have argued that Zapata might have better supported Villa's military effort or that he might have negotiated a more successful national alliance. In any event, Zapatismo now entered a long decline.

Still Zapata did not give up. With the help of a new chief adviser, Gildardo Magaña, he began to seek alliances with anyone who might help him fight Carranza. But conflict within Zapatismo now reached its highest level, and several prominent leaders defected. The most striking case was that of Otilio Montaño, coauthor of the Plan of Ayala, who was implicated in an uprising against Zapata in May 1917. Zapata ordered Montaño executed to send a message to other would-be traitors, but there was no way to counter the centrifugal forces at work. Zapata's efforts to lure supporters from other revolutionary camps thus became increasingly desperate. Finally, he invited a supposedly disaffected Carrancista colonel named Jesús Guajardo to join him. After exchanging a few letters, on April 10, 1919, Guajardo and Zapata met at a place called Chinameca. With a handful of men Zapata rode through the gate of the hacienda there and Guajardo's troops, assembled as if to give him military honors, shot him dead.

Zapata left a deep mark on Mexican life. Some in Morelos still claim that he is not dead, that a man who looked like him took his place at Chinameca and Zapata is hiding in the mountains until the people need him again. Meanwhile, for both the government and many of those who opposed that government prior to 2000, the figure of Zapata has become an enduring symbol of rural Mexico's struggle for justice. The most notable contemporary example of his symbolic influence was the guerrilla rebellion in the heart of Chiapas in January, 1994. Know as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), or more commonly, the Zapatistas, these largely indigenous rural peasants led a movement against the government of Carlos Salinas (president 1988–1994), who had instituted an agrarian reform that dispensed with the longstanding ejido program, which granted land and use rights to individual villages, but not legal ownership to the villagers. An advocate of economic neoliberalism and a regional economic treaty with the United States and Canada, Salinas hoped to improve rural development through market capitalism. The rise of the Zapatistas, although readily oppressed by government forces, contributed significantly to the decline of the Institutional Revolutionary Party's control. Thus to this day Zapata continues to symbolize, for many Mexicans, a figure who did not compromise on his principles.

See alsoCarranza, Venustiano; Colombia, Political Parties: Liberal Party; Díaz, Porfirio; Huerta, Victoriano; Madero, Francisco Indalecio; Mexico, Political Parties: Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI); Mexico, Wars and Revolutions: Mexican Revolution; Mexico, Zapatista Army of National Liberation; Mosquera, Tomás Cipriano de; Neoliberalism; Obregón Salido, Álvaro; Plan of Ayala; Salinas de Gortari, Carlos; Villa, Francisco "Pancho".


Avila Espinosa, Felipe Arturo. Los orígenes de zapatismo. Mexico: El Colegio de México, Centro de Estudios Históricos, 2001.

Brunk, Samuel. Emiliano Zapata: Revolution and Betrayal in Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.

Espejel, Laura, Alicia Olivera, and Salvador Rueda, eds. Emiliano Zapata: Antología. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Estudios Históricos de la Revolución Mexicana, 1988.

Hernández, Alicia. Anenecuilco: Memoria y vida de un pueblo, 2nd edition. Mexico City: Colegio de México, Fideicomiso Historia de las Américas, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1993.

McLynn, Frank. Villa and Zapata: A Biography of the Mexican Revolution. London: Jonathan Cape, 2000.

Millon, Robert P. Zapata: The Ideology of a Peasant Revolutionary, 2nd edition. New York: International Publishers, 1995.

Sotelo Inclan, Jesús. Raíz y razón de Zapata. 2nd edition. Mexico: Editorial CFE, 1970.

Warman, Arturo. "We Come to Object": The Peasants of Morelos and the National State. Translated by Stephen K. Ault. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Womack, Jr., John. Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1968.

                                   Roderic Ai Camp

                                     Samuel Brunk