Emiliano Zapata: The Iconic Mexican Revolutionary
Emiliano Zapata. Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Emiliano Zapata was a Mexican revolutionary, who was a leading figure in the decade-long Mexican revolution. He was the main leader of the people’s revolution in the Mexican state of Morelos, and the inspiration for the agrarian movement known as Zapatismo.
Emiliano Zapata was born on 8th August 1879 in the rural village of Anenecuilco in Morelos, to Cleofas Jertrudiz Salazar and Gabriel Zapata.
Zapata was the ninth child out of ten children, with six sisters and three brothers.
The Zapata family were fairly well-known in the village and were most likely Mexicans of Spanish and Nahua heritage, known as Mestizos.
Born into a family of farmers, Zapata grew up witnessing the dire conditions and difficulties faced by the peasants in the countryside, especially the landless peasants. He saw his village struggle to reclaim the land stolen from them by the ever-expanding haciendas owned by rich landlords.
Most peasants in his village were landless peasants, and although the legend of Zapata states that he too was a landless indigenous peasant, that is not exactly accurate. Zapata’s family was believed to have owned some land and were rather well-off compared to the other peasants in the village, never really suffering from poverty.
As far as formal education was concerned, Zapata had very little of it.
When Emiliano Zapata was 16 or 17 years old, his father died, forcing him to begin earning some money for his family.
Fortunately, Zapata turned out to have an entrepreneurial spirit that helped him to succeed in the various ventures he undertook. He bought a team of mules to haul maize from farms to the town and bricks to the hacienda of Chinameca.
By then he had also become a highly-skilled horseman who competed in races and rodeos and even in bullfighting from horseback. His skills as a horseman caught the attention of Ignacio de la Torre y Mier, who was the owner of a large sugar hacienda, and Mier hired him as a horse trainer.
Zapata was also a successful farmer of watermelons during this period.
Protesting Against the Local Haciendas
The local haciendas in the village continued to seize the land of the indigenous peasants in order to expand their landholdings. But the villagers protested against such land seizures and its leaders put forth the required documents proving their right and title to the seized lands.
Emiliano Zapata was one of the members of the community who sought redress against such land seizures. During one such meeting with President Porfirio Diaz, who had promised to give the villagers a fair hearing, Diaz had them arrested, and many of them were conscripted into the Mexican Federal Army.
Becoming the President of the Village Council
By the time Emiliano Zapata had turned 30 years old, he was already a well-respected member of the community.
Despite his relatively young age, he was appointed president of the village council and was trusted by the villagers to take over the leadership and responsibilities of the village.
Zapata had earned such respect from the old and young members of the village alike by leading a campaign in opposition to the candidate Diaz had chosen as governor. Even though the campaign was a failure, Zapata managed to build and cultivate relationships with political authorities that would greatly help him later on.
In this way, Zapata became a leading figure and representative of his village, where people affectionately called him Miliano. He preferred this nickname over the title Don, which was customary for someone of his status in the village.
The Onset of the Mexican Revolution
The need for major land reform and the rigged and flawed elections of 1910 were the primary reasons for the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in the year 1910.
Businessman and later Revolutionary Francisco Ignacio Madero became a candidate for the presidential elections, threatening the rule of President Diaz. Madero campaigned vigorously but was jailed before the elections by Diaz so as to ensure he would not win. The result of the rigged election was obvious. Diaz won comfortably by a landslide and was elected President for another term.
Madero managed to escape from jail and fled to San Antonio in Texas, from where he wrote a letter denouncing the election and Diaz’s presidency as illegal and calling for a popular armed revolution against Diaz’s government.
Madero and his men came to be known as constitutionalists, who supported land reform and other changes that were supposed to improve and change the situation of the great mass of disadvantaged Mexicans.
Emiliano Zapata, seeing an opportunity to advocate for radical land reform, joined forces with Madero to support him for the presidency. Along with Zapata, Madero gained support from other revolutionaries as well, such as Pancho Villa in the north and Pascual Orozco.
Madero was viewed by these revolutionary factions as someone who was capable of bringing genuine change in the country and helping out the poor peasants through land reform.
Without wasting much time, Zapata, whose main political aim was to achieve land reform, joined Madero’s military campaign against Diaz. In his first military campaign, Zapata and his men, known as Zapatistas, captured the hacienda of Chinameca. And in May 1911, the Zapatistas captured the city of Cuautla in Morelos after an intense six-day battle against the federal army of Diaz’s government.
On the sixth day of the battle, the federal army withdrew and Zapata took control of the town. Diaz soon realized that he could not hold his position for long and wisely signed the Treaty of Ciudad Juarez with Madero and resigned as President.
Falling Out with Madero
Although Madero had made vague promises of land reforms that had won him the support of peasants, he was unwilling to implement any radical changes once he gained power. He merely demanded that public servants act morally in enforcing the law.
Looking at this change in Madero’s policies and his hesitation to carry out widespread land reform, Emiliano Zapata grew skeptical of Madero and his intentions.
Negotiations between the two failed in November 1911, just days after Madero was elected President. After failing to reach a compromise with Madero, Zapata and his men fled to the mountains of southwest Puebla, where Zapata and his general Otilio Sanchez drafted a radical land reform plan in their document titled Plan of Ayala. In it, Zapata also denounced Madero for betraying the ideals of the revolution, which Madero had laid down in his Plan of San Luis Potosi.
The plan drawn up by Zapata called Madero a traitor to the revolution and demanded all village lands seized under Diaz be immediately returned to the peasants. It also demanded that large plantations owned by a single family or person should have one-third of their land nationalized and redistributed to the peasants, and if any plantation owner resisted the reform, the other two-thirds would be confiscated as well. The plan also called for rural cooperatives to be formed and for measures to be put in place to prevent such seizure of land in the future.
Zapata had grown disillusioned with Madero’s vision of democracy built on ideals such as the freedom of the press, free elections, and other vague guarantees. He believed these freedoms and guarantees were meaningless to peasants who could neither read nor write and who were usually not even aware of the candidates standing for elections.
Continuing the Revolution
After the revolutionaries declared Madero a traitor to the revolution, Pascual Orozco was named the head of the revolution.
Orozco was ready to truly carry out land reforms that would return village lands to the peasants. A new rebellion began against Madero under the leadership of Orozco, with Emiliano Zapata serving as a colonel in the revolutionary army.
However, Zapata’s leadership began to stand out soon enough and his strategies gained recognition and force among the rebel leaders. Zapata proposed to center the fighting in the city of Cuautla as he believed it to be an ideal strategic position.
In order to achieve this goal, the Zapatistas had to control the area behind and below a line from Jojutla to Yecapixtla, and their plan of action was successfully executed in Jojutla.
But the revolution would soon suffer a major setback.
Becoming the Leader of the Revolution in Morelos
As Jojutla fell under the rebel army, the commander of the operation, Pablo Torres Burgos, resigned after losing control over his forces, who went ahead and looted and ransacked the area against his orders.
As Burgos left Jojutla with his two sons, a federal police patrol stopped them on the way and shot all three of them. The movement in the south was now left without a commander and the rebels elected Zapata as Supreme Chief of the Revolutionary Movement of the South.
However, things were not as black and white in the rebel army. There were others in the army who were vying for Zapata’s position. In fact, Zapata’s position as leader of the revolution in the south never even reached a true definitive level of recognition.
But Zapata managed to obtain 10,000 pesos from the inhabitants of Tacubaya, giving him strong financial backing for the battles to come and making his group the most financially strong group in the state of Morelos.
As Zapata became the leader of his strategic zone, his authority and influence in Morelos grew exponentially and his control now extended to several individual groups of rebels across the state.
After a meeting with another rebel leader, Ambrosio Figueroa, the two agreed to have joint power over the operations in Morelos.
Fight Against Huerta
In February of 1913, Madero was overthrown by a right-wing military coup led by General Victoriano Huerta, who was responsible for several atrocities and terrible crimes in southern Mexico while trying to put an end to the rebellion.
Zapata despised Huerta and Huerta now became Zapata’s main enemy. Zapata went into battle against Huerta along with Pancho Villa in the north. He also revised the Plan of Ayala to name himself as the leader of the revolution in the south.
Soon Zapata and Villa were joined by Alvaro Obregon and Venustiano Carranza, both of whom had raised large armies in Sonora and Coahuila respectively, in their fight against Huerta. Together, they were too strong for Huerta, who resigned and fled in June 1914.
As the rebels took over the territories previously under the control of the federal army, many soldiers of the federal army joined the rebels and the rebels also managed to capture guns and ammunition.
By mid-1915, the Zapatistas had taken the southern edge of the Federal District and were preparing to advance into the capital. In mid-July, Huerta was again forced to flee as a constitutionalist force under Carranza, Villa, and Obregon took control of the Federal District.
For Zapata, the problem of Huerta had been solved but a new problem emerged in Carranza.
Carranza Assumes Leadership
As soon as the rebels took over the Federal District and Huerta fled, the constitutionalists entered into a peace treaty declaring Carranza as the First Authority of the Nation by passing over Zapata and Villa.
Zapata and Villa were mainly ignored because Carranza was a wealthy aristocrat with important political connections and US backing, while they came from poor, lower-status backgrounds with progressive ideologies that were not favored by the elite of Mexican society.
Carranza also disliked the Zapatistas as he considered them to be uncultured savages.
Alliance with Pancho Villa
As Carranza assumed leadership of the country without the consent of the two main rebel leaders, Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, Villa split from Carranza to form a popular front against him.
Villa’s departure forced Carranza to work diplomatically with Zapata to convince him to recognize his rule. A compromise with Zapata would allow him to concentrate on defeating Villa and not worry about his southern flank.
However, Zapata and Carranza failed to reach an agreement after Zapata demanded to have veto power over Carranza’s decisions. Of course, Carranza could not agree to that and the negotiations came to an end.
The constitutionalists were now divided along ideological lines with Carranza and Obregon leading the conservative faction, and Zapata and Villa leading the progressive rebellion against Carranza.
Zapata and Villa met to negotiate an alliance and decide on a strategy to overthrow Carranza. It was decided that Zapata would work on securing the area east of Morelos from Puebla toward Veracruz.
But when the campaign in Puebla was underway, Villa did not adequately support Zapata with weapons and transportation as had been agreed upon in their meeting. Zapata was disappointed by Villa’s lack of support, leaving him disillusioned with the alliance.
The Zapatistas took Puebla and left a couple of garrisons there. But Emiliano Zapata had decided not to support Pancho Villa anymore against Carranza and Obregon.
Instead, Zapata turned his attention toward rebuilding Morelos, which was in terrible shape after the battle against the forces of Huerta.
Throughout the year 1915, Zapata and his men went about reshaping and reorganizing Morelos as per the Plan de Ayala. They delegated authority to the village councils to run their own local affair, and they redistributed the hacienda lands to the peasants.
The peasants began growing subsistence crops such as beans, vegetables, and corn, instead of cash crops. Due to this, the peasants of Morelos had more to eat at a much lower price than they had had before the start of the revolution.
The Zapatistas also implemented democratic reforms and legislation to keep the people of Morelos safe from abuses by soldiers.
1915 was a year of relative peace and prosperity for the people of Morelos. But things would not remain the same for long.
Back to War
The forces of Pancho Villa, who were fighting Carranza’s forces, were now on retreat after losing the Battle of Celaya in 1915.
But Emiliano Zapata did not take any action until Carranza’s forces were set to move into Morelos. It was only then that Zapata began attacking the positions held by Carranza’s forces. Even though the Zapatistas were able to take over many such important positions, they were unable to hold them for long.
Meanwhile, in Toluca, Villa’s forces suffered a major defeat, after which Carranza was recognized by US President Woodrow Wilson as the Head of State of Mexico.
Zapata continued to attack Carranza’s forces from Hidalgo to Oaxaca, and he even tried to gather support against the owners of haciendas. But all this was of no use, for the hacienda owners had already lost power throughout the country.
Zapata also undertook several low-scale attacks on the forces of General Pablo Gonzalez Garza which drove Gonzalez and his forces out of Morelos by the end of 1916.
By 1917, Carranza mounted national elections in all state capitals except Cuernavaca and also promulgated the 1917 constitution which included elements of the Plan de Ayala.
In the meanwhile, the revolution outside of Morelos was disintegrating. The revolutionary forces began disbanding and many joined Carranza or went into banditry.
Many leaders such as General Domingo Arenas joined Carranza, thereby securing peace for his region while also remaining in control there. This changed the attitude of many revolutionaries who began thinking that it was time to look for a peaceful resolution with Carranza.
Zapata was now under pressure as people in his rank and file, such as longtime adviser Otilio Montano and General Vasquez, began a movement within Zapata’s army demanding that Zapata surrenders to Carranza. For this, Zapata reluctantly had Montano tried for treason and executed.
In the fall of 1917, Carranza’s forces, led by Gonzalez and former Zapatista Sidronio Camacho (who had killed Zapata’s elder brother Eufemio), moved into the eastern part of Morelos and took over Cuautla, Zacualpan, and Jonacatepec.
In the meanwhile, Emiliano Zapata tried to unite the national anti-Carranza movement by seeking alliances with the northern revolutionaries and the southern Felicistas led by the liberalist Felix Diaz.
To make matters worse, the following year saw the onset of the deadly Spanish flu in Morelos, which resulted in the death of a quarter of the state’s population. This was a major setback to the revolution in the south.
In December of the same year, Carranza’s forces attacked Morelos with a greater offensive, taking over most of the state and forcing Zapata to retreat. While in retreat, Zapata urged Carranza through an open letter to resign his leadership for the sake of the country to Vasquez Gomez, who had by then become the main rallying point of the anti-constitutionalist movement.
Needless to say, Carranza did not listen.
Getting rid of Emiliano Zapata now became Carranza’s top priority. Carranza wanted to prove to Mexican aristocrats and elites and to American interests that he was the only safe alternative to radicalism and anarchism.
What would ensue was nothing short of a dramatic movie script.
In March 1919, General Gonzalez ordered his subordinate Jesus Guajardo to begin operations against the Zapatistas in the mountains around Huautla. But shortly thereafter, Gonzalez found Guajardo carousing in a cantina and had him arrested. A public scandal erupted.
Seeing an opportunity to get Guajardo on his side, Zapata tried to smuggle in a note for him, inviting him to switch to the side of the revolutionaries. Unfortunately, the note ended up on Gonzalez’s desk and never reached Guajardo. Taking advantage of the situation, Gonzalez falsely accused Guajardo of being a traitor as well and explained to him that if he wished to redeem himself, he must feign a defection to Zapata.
Guajardo agreed and wrote to Zapata that if his terms were met, he would bring over his men and supplies to Zapata’s side. Zapata agreed to all his terms and suggested a meeting. He also ordered Guajardo to attack the Federal garrison at Jonacatepec. Guajardo agreed.
Gonzalez and Guajardo then informed the garrison of the attack ahead of time, and a fake battle was staged on 9th April 1919. At the end of the fake battle, the former Zapatistas who were in the garrison were arrested and shot dead.
Zapata was now convinced that Guajardo was sincere, and he agreed to a final meeting where Guajardo would defect and join the rebel forces. Guajardo invited Zapata to a meeting at the Hacienda de San Juan in Chinameca on 10th April. When Zapata arrived there, he was shot dead by Guajardo’s men.
Aftermath of Zapata’s Assassination
After the assassination of Emiliano Zapata, the Zapatistas, though weakened now, continued to fight against Carranza.
Even though Zapata’s death rid Carranza and Gonzalez of a serious threat, they lost all worker and peasant support for the upcoming 1920 election campaign.
The people of Morelos continued to support the Zapatista movement by providing them with supplies, weapons, and protection. However, several Zapatista generals began surrendering to Carranza in exchange for amnesties and for positions of local authority.
In the meanwhile, Obregon turned against Carranza and Gonzalez and aligned himself more with the Zapatista movement along with several former constitutionalists.
In May 1920, Carranza fled Mexico City, and Obregon and Genevevo de la O entered the capital in triumph. Zapatistas were given important posts in the interim government and then subsequently in the government led by Obregon.
The Zapatistas were also given complete control of Morelos, where they successfully carried out a program of agrarian reforms and land redistribution with the support of the government based on the Plan of Ayala.
Since his death, Emiliano Zapata has become one of the most iconic and revered national heroes of Mexico. He is also regarded as one of the greatest revolutionaries in history.
Zapata was a common man who stood up and fought for the rights of the poor peasants and workers of southern Mexico. He dedicated his life to achieving economic, political, and social emancipation of the peasants and workers who were wronged and who lived in severe poverty. He stood for their rights and he stood for justice.
Zapata’s influence still reigns to this day in Mexico, especially in southern Mexico where the Zapatista movement still goes on, albeit on a very low scale. Revolutionary tendencies still exist and thrive there with Zapata as their source of inspiration. In the south of Mexico, there are territories and communities that are under the control of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.
Zapata’s Plan of Ayala sought to implement radical land reforms and liberties, which unfortunately have still not been implemented in the way and to the extent he wanted. For that, he is often referred to as a visionary who thought ahead of his time.
Even though Article 27 of the 1917 Mexican Constitution (influenced by the Plan of Ayala) was enacted on the scale imagined by Zapata, a great and significant process of land distribution was undertaken under President Lazaro Cardenas, who took office in 1934.
Being the charismatic revolutionary leader that he was, Zapata’s life and death have now assumed mythical and legendary proportions in Mexican history, folklore, and consciousness. Upon his death, he became a martyr and an inspiration to the masses and to countless revolutionaries across the world.
Organizations, streets, towns, stations, housing developments, etc., have been named after him. Statues have been erected in his honor, and his name and visage have frequently been used in political and revolutionary campaigns, even to this day. He has been depicted in books, music, movies, clothing, comics, musicals, plays, art, etc.
Zapata’s work still continues through his people and through his influence over modern Mexico. He was a leader of the masses, an iconic figure of modern history, and a symbol of justice and revolution.