The early years
born August 8, 1879 to Gabriel Zapata and Clefs Salazar. They lived in the tiny pueblo of Anenecuico, located in the southern Mexico state of Morelos. The Zapata family were mestizos--a mix of Nahua and Spanish. Emiliano grew up speaking both languages fluently. He was the 9th of 10 children and, as you can see above, was shorter and darker than his brother Eufemio. His education was limited, although it was probably superior to that of many of his contemporaries. In addition to reading and writing, he knew the rudiments of accounting. The Zapata family had few resources but, even so, were not among the poorest families because they owned a rancho where they raised horses. Emiliano was forced to grow up quickly. His mother died when he was 16 years old and, only 11 months later, his father followed her to the grave.
The young ranchero grew up witnessing at firsthand abuses committed by hacienda owners, known as hacendados. These big property owners of Morelos wanted additional land and water to expand their sugar cane operations. To obtain these, they encroached upon and sometimes illegally seized the lands and water sources of the indigenous villages as well as those of the mestizo owners of small farms and ranches. In one case, when a village objected to the theft of its land, the hacendado ordered the whole pueblo torched. The youthful Zapata joined his neighbours in protesting to the authorities, but with little success. The hacendados were strongly supported by corrupt officials appointed by Mexico's dictator, Porfirio Diaz, who ruled from 1876 to 1911.
Diaz considered the hacendado class to be one of the pillars of his regime and viewed small land holders as obstacles to progress. The local hacendados saw Emiliano as a trouble maker and pulled strings to get him drafted into the army. He only spent 6 months in uniform before his skill with horses was recognised by a wealthy man named Ignacio de la Torre. He pulled his own strings and Zapata was soon released from the army to work as a horse groomer for de la Torre. However, Zapata soon managed to return to Anenecuilco. Even though he was still a young man of 30, his neighbours respected his leadership and willingness to fight for them. They promptly elected Zapata mayor.