Zapata, Emiliano 1879–1919
Leader of the Mexican Revolution of the early twentieth century, Emiliano Zapata was born on August 8, 1879, in Anencuilco in the southern state of Morelos and died in an ambush on April 10, 1919. Zapata was the revolution’s leading advocate of agrarian issues and one of Mexico’s most renowned and mythological heroes. The iconic image of Zapata dressed in a broad sombrero with a black mustache and cartridge belts across his chest appears commonly across Mexico. Contemporaries and subsequent scholars have alternatively interpreted Zapata as a bandit or a social revolutionary. The division between rural supporters who viewed Zapata as their champion and urban dwellers who denounced him as the Attila of the South points to persistent social divisions that run through the country.
The Zapata family had long been privileged leaders of their community, but under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz they had begun to lose their lands and their class status eroded. Recognizing Zapata’s organizing skills, his community elected him to a leadership position in 1909. When legal negotiations for land titles with landowners collapsed, Zapata led community members to occupy haciendas. He had become an armed revolutionary, and his followers were known as Zapatistas.
Zapata initially joined forces with Francisco Madero, who launched a revolution against Díaz in 1910. When Madero disposed the dictator in 1911, Zapata asked the new president to return communal lands. Madero, however, insisted on following institutional procedures and demanded that Zapata’s Liberation Army of the South disarm. Zapata refused, arguing that they could gain their goals only through the pressure of armed force. This led Zapata to break from Madero and demand more radical reforms. On November 25, 1911, Zapata issued his Plan of Ayala (named after his local municipality), which denounced Madero as a tyrant and dictator worse than Díaz unwilling to make the necessary deep-seated changes that the revolutionaries demanded. Zapata called for a continued revolution to overthrow Madero.
The Plan of Ayala’s most important thrust was a demand for agrarian reform, including a return of communal lands and expropriation of hacienda lands—without payment if the owners refused to accept the plan. The plan led to Zapata’s most famous slogan “Tierra y Libertad” (Land and Liberty), which was borrowed from and reflected the ideological influence of the anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón. Over the next decade the plan became the guiding principle for Zapata’s forces.
In February 1913, when General Victoriano Huerta assassinated Madero in a military coup, Zapata allied with Venustiano Carranza’s Constitutionalist Army to defeat the new dictator. After Huerta’s disposal, Zapata unified forces with Pancho Villa at a convention in Aguascalientes to continue the battle against the more moderate Carranza. Together, Zapata and Villa occupied Mexico City. Zapata, however, was more interested in local issues in Morelos than governing the country. His alliance with Villa quickly broke down, and Carranza recaptured the capital. Carranza convoked a constitutional assembly that elected him president. Even though he did not invite Zapata to the assembly, the latter’s Plan of Ayala influenced Article 27 of the progressive 1917 constitution that codified an agrarian reform program. No significant distribution of land occurred, however, until Lázaro Cárdenas’s populist government in the 1930s.
Zapata fought on despite overwhelming odds. With his prospects for victory declining and desperately short of weapons, Zapata was lured into an ambush on April 10, 1919, at the Chinameca hacienda in Morelos. Revealing their fear of Zapata’s leadership and symbolism, government troops riddled his body with bullets and then dumped his corpse in Cuautla’s town square. Supporters refused to accept Zapata’s death, claiming that someone else had taken his place and that he had escaped to the mountains. With Zapata gone, the Liberation Army of the South began to fall apart.
After his martyrdom Zapata was incorporated into the pantheon of Mexican revolutionary leaders, even though he most certainly would oppose the policies of many subsequent political leaders. Although over the years Zapata’s name was invoked for a variety of political causes, his name and image gained renewed interest in 1994 with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) uprising in Chiapas. Although Chiapas was isolated from the Mexican Revolution and Zapata never organized in that area, the neo-Zapatistas fought for many of the same issues that their namesake had almost a century earlier. Paralleling the situation in Morelos, indigenous communities in Chiapas had lost their lands to large landowners and faced a corrupt and repressive regime with a political stranglehold on local communities. Zapata’s slogan “Land and Liberty” summarized their ongoing struggle and pointed to how few of Zapata’s dreams had been realized.
SEE ALSO Chiapas; Mexican Revolution (1910–1920); Villa, Francisco (Pancho)
McLynn, Frank. 2001. Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution. New York: Carroll and Graf.
Womack, John, Jr. 1968. Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. New York: Knopf.
Emiliano Zapata (ca. 1879-1919), Mexican agrarian leader and guerrilla fighter, was the symbol of the agrarian revolution.
Emiliano Zapata was born in Anenecuilco, Morelos, to a landless, but not poor, family which dealt in livestock. Orphaned at 16, he sharecropped and traded horses in his birth-place. During the closing years of the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship Zapata took part in local opposition politics, with a 6-month interruption while he served as a soldier.
In September 1909 Zapata was elected president of the group in Anenecuilco designated to reclaim the community's ejidal lands. He backed the unsuccessful opposition gubernatorial candidacy of Patricio Leyva. In March 1911, after several months of contact with the maderistas, Zapata joined the rebellion against Diaz. The major effort of the zapatistas was an attack on Cuautla.
With the fall of the Diaz regime Zapata initiated his recurring demands—land for the peasants, removal of federal troops from Morelos, and designation of an acceptable commander of state forces. The efforts of the interim De la Barra regime, endorsed by Francisco Madero, to discharge the revolutionary forces irritated Zapata, who became incensed when during the Madero's pacification efforts Francisco de la Barra ordered Victoriano Huerta to march into Morelos in August 1911.
Zapata's view of revolutionary goals was quite parochial, and he was unwilling to await patiently the results of Madero's dreamed-of democratic processes to effect land reform. Nineteen days after Madero assumed the presidency, Zapata revolted under the Plan of Ayala. Waging guerrilla warfare, as he had before and would again, Zapata began distribution of ejidal lands in Puebla in April 1912 and followed with other distributions in Morelos and Tlaxcala. Agricultural students were employed in the formation of agrarian commissions. Program and strategy for the moustached and almost illiterate Zapata were formulated by a group of intellectuals, including Antonio Diaz Soto y Gama and schoolteacher Otilio Montaño.
After Madero's death, Zapata joined with Pancho Villa and Venustiano Carranza in an uneasy alliance to defeat Huerta. However, it was the carrancistas who occupied Mexico City, and the First Chief (Carranza) sought to control the situation through the Convention of Generals. Villista and zapatista opposition forced removal of the gathering to Aguascalientes, where the representatives of Zapata had the first public and national hearing of their cause.
The Plan of Ayala was accepted in principle, and the convention government was established, resting on the armed support of Villa and Zapata. Their joint armies occupied the Mexican capital in December 1914. However, cooperation in subsequent military operations was another matter. As Álvaro Obregón led his Constitutionalist army back toward Mexico City, Villa withdrew to the north and Zapata turned back southward into Morelos.
From 1915 on Zapata waged defensive guerrilla warfare against the Constitutionalist. Forces under Gen. Pablo González sought, as others before, to wipe out the zapatistas without success. Finally, González sent Col. Jesús Guajardo to trick Zapata into receiving him as an ally. Zapata was ambushed and killed at Chinameca on April 10, 1919. However, there were those who insisted that he was not dead, that he had been seen riding his horse in the sierra watching out for his peasants. A little more than a year later the demands of the zapatistas were being met by the Obregón government.
The excellent, scholarly work by John Womack, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution (1969), catches the essence of Zapata and the spirit of zapatismo. Edgecumb Pinchon, Zapata: The Unconquerable (1941), is a romanticized study, and H. H. Dunn, The Crimson Jester: Zapata of Mexico (1933), is a more sketchy and less sympathetic account. Ronald Atkin's competent review of the factors that contributed to the uprising, Revolution: Mexico, 1910-20 (1970), contains a good portrait of Zapata and of other major figures of the time. Robert P. Millon, Zapata: The Ideology of a Peasant Revolutionary (1969), is a Marxist interpretation. Also useful are Frank Tannenbaum, The Mexican Agrarian Revolution (1929), and Eyler N. Simpson, The Ejido (1937). □