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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 Dfaz 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 Dfaz 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 Dfaz 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—with-out 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 Magon. 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 Lazaro Cardenas’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.
- Brunk, Samuel. 1995. Emiliano Zapata: Revolution and Betrayal in Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
- 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.
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