Emiliano Zapata has the distinction of being the first of the major figures in the Mexican Revolution to take to the field. In 1910, when Francisco Madero was cheated in a national election, he fled to the United States and called for revolution. In the dry, dusty north his call was answered by opportunistic muleteer Pascual Orozco and bandit Pancho Villa, who both put major armies into the field. In the south, Madero’s call was answered by Zapata, who had already been fighting wealthy landowners since 1909.
Zapata was an important figure in Morelos. He had been elected mayor of Anenecuilco, the tiny town where he had been born. Sugarcane plantations in the area had been blatantly stealing land from the community for years, and Zapata put a stop to it. He showed the title deeds to the state governor, who waffled. Zapata took things into his own hands, rounding up armed peasants and forcefully taking back the land in question. The people of Morelos were more than ready to join him: after decades of debt peonage (a sort of thinly-veiled slavery in which wages do not keep up with debts incurred at the “company store”) on the plantations, they were hungry for blood.
A desperate President Porfirio Díaz, figuring he could deal with Zapata later, demanded that the landowners return all of the stolen land. He hoped to placate Zapata long enough to be able to deal with Madero. The return of the land made Zapata a hero. Emboldened by his success, he began fighting for other villages who had also been victimized by Díaz’ cronies. Around the end of 1910 and beginning of 1911, Zapata’s fame and reputation grew. Peasants flocked to join him and he attacked plantations and small towns all over Morelos and sometimes in neighboring states.
On May 13, 1911, he launched his largest attack, hurling 4,000 men armed with muskets and machetes against the town of Cuautla, where some 400 well-armed and trained federal forces of the elite Fifth Cavalry Unit were waiting for them. The Battle of Cuautla was a brutal affair, fought out in the streets for six days. On May 19th, the battered remnants of the Fifth Cavalry pulled out, and Zapata had a huge victory. The Battle of Cuautla made Zapata famous and announced to all of Mexico that he would be a major player in the Revolution to come.
Harried on all sides, President Díaz was forced to resign and flee. He left Mexico at the end of May and on June 7, Francisco Madero triumphantly entered Mexico City.
Although he had supported Madero against Díaz, Zapata was wary of Mexico’s new president. Madero had secured Zapata’s cooperation with vague promises about land reform – the only issue that Zapata truly cared about – but once he was in office he stalled. Madero was not a true revolutionary. He had originally run against Díaz not because he had any new ideas for Mexico, but simply because he felt it was time for someone else to have a turn. Zapata eventually sensed that Madero had no real interest in land reform.
Disappointed, Zapata took to the field again, this time to bring down Madero, who he felt had betrayed him. In November of 1911, he wrote his famous Plan of Ayala, which declared Madero a traitor, named Pascual Orozco head of the Revolution, and outlined a plan for true land reform. Madero sent General Victoriano Huerta to control the situation but Zapata and his men, fighting on their home turf, ran circles around him, executing lightning-fast raids on villages in Mexico State just a few miles from Mexico City.
Meanwhile, Madero’s enemies were multiplying. In the north, Pascual Orozco had again taken up arms, irritated that an ungrateful Madero had not given him a lucrative position as governor after Díaz had been ousted. Félix Díaz, the dictator’s nephew, also rose up in arms. In February of 1913 Huerta, who had returned to Mexico City after his failed attempt to corral Zapata, turned on Madero, ordering him arrested and shot. Huerta then set himself up as President. Zapata, who hated Huerta as much or more than he hated Madero, vowed to remove the new president.
Source: McLynn, Frank. Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000.