Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919) was a village leader, farmer and horseman who became an important leader in the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). He was instrumental in bringing down the corrupt dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz in 1911 and joined forces with other revolutionary generals to defeat Victoriano Huerta in 1914. Zapata commanded an imposing army, but he rarely sallied forth, preferring to stay on his home turf of Morelos. Zapata was idealistic and his insistence on land reform became one of the pillars of the Revolution. He was assassinated in 1919.
Life Before the Mexican Revolution:
Before the Revolution, Zapata was a young peasant like many others in his home state of Morelos. His family was fairly well off in the sense that they had their own land and were not debt peons (essentially slaves) on one of the large sugarcane plantations. Zapata was a dandy and a well-known horseman and bullfighter. He was elected mayor of the tiny town of Anenecuilco in 1909 and began defending his neighbors’ land from greedy landowners. When the legal system failed him, he rounded up some armed peasants and began taking stolen land back by force.
Zapata and Díaz:
In 1910, President Porfirio Díaz had his hands full with Francisco Madero, who ran against him in a national election. Díaz won by rigging the results, and Madero was forced into exile. From safety in the United States, Madero called for Revolution. In the north, his call was answered by Pascual Orozco and Pancho Villa, who soon put large armies into the field. In the south, Zapata saw this as an opportunity for change. He, too, raised an army and began fighting federal forces in southern states. When Zapata captured Cuautla in May of 1911, Díaz knew his time was up and went into exile.
Zapata and Madero:
The alliance between Zapata and Madero did not last very long. Madero did not really believe in land reform, which was all that Zapata cared about. When Madero’s promises failed to come true, Zapata took to the field against his onetime ally. 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. Zapata fought federal forces in the south and near Mexico City. Before he could overthrow Madero, General Victoriano Huerta beat him to it in February of 1913, ordering Madero arrested and executed.
Zapata and Huerta:
If there was anyone that Zapata hated more than Díaz and Madero, it was Victoriano Huerta, the bitter, violent alcoholic who had been responsible for many atrocities in southern Mexico while trying to end the rebellion. Zapata was not alone: in the north, Pancho Villa, who had supported Madero, immediately took to the field against Huerta. He was joined by two newcomers to the Revolution, Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregón, who raised large armies in Coahuila and Sonora respectively. Together they made short work of Huerta, who resigned and fled in June of 1914 after repeated military losses to the “Big Four.”
Zapata in the Carranza/Villa Conflict:
With Huerta gone, the Big Four almost immediately began fighting among themselves. Villa and Carranza, who despised one another, almost began shooting before Huerta was even removed. Obregón, who considered Villa a loose cannon, reluctantly backed Carranza, who named himself provisional president of Mexico. Zapata didn’t like Carranza, so he sided with Villa (to an extent). He mainly stayed on the sidelines of the Villa/Carranza conflict, attacking anyone who came onto his turf in the south but rarely sallying forth. Obregón defeated Villa over the course of 1915, allowing Carranza to turn his attention to Zapata.
Zapata’s army was unique in that he allowed women to join the ranks and serve as combatants. Although other revolutionary armies had many women followers, in general they did not fight (although there were exceptions). Only in Zapata’s army were there large numbers of women combatants: some were even officers. Some modern Mexican feminists point to the historical importance of these “soldaderas” as a milestone in women’s rights.
Death of Zapata:
In early 1916 Carranza sent Pablo González, his most ruthless general, to track down and stamp out Zapata once and for all. González employed a no-tolerance, scorched earth policy: he destroyed villages, executing all those he suspected of supporting Zapata. Although Zapata was able to drive the federales out for a while in 1917-8, they returned to continue the fight. Carranza soon told González to finish Zapata by any means necessary, and on April 10, 1919, Zapata was double-crossed, ambushed and killed by Colonel Jesús Guajardo, one of González’ officers who had pretended to want to switch sides.
Zapata’s supporters were stunned by his sudden death and many refused to believe it, preferring to think he had gotten away, perhaps by sending a double in his place. Without him, however, the rebellion in the south soon fizzled. In the short run, Zapata’s death put an end to his ideals of land reform and fair treatment for Mexico’s poor farmers.
In the long run, however, he has done more for his ideals in death than he did in life. Like many charismatic idealists, Zapata became a martyr after his treacherous murder. Even though Mexico still has not implemented the sort of land reform he wanted, he is remembered as a visionary who fought for his countrymen.
In early 1994, a group of armed guerrillas attacked several towns in southern Mexico. The rebels call themselves the EZLN, or Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (National Zapatist Liberation Army). They chose the name, they say, because even though the Revolution “triumphed,” Zapata’s vision had not yet come to pass. This was a major slap in the face to the ruling PRI party, which traces its roots to the Revolution and supposedly is the guardian of the Revolution’s ideals. The EZLN, after making its initial statement with weapons and violence, almost immediately switched to modern battlefields of the internet and world media. These cyber-guerrillas picked up where Zapata left off seventy-five years before: the Tiger of Morelos would have approved.
Source: McLynn, Frank. Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000.