Thursday, November 19, 2015

Emiliano Zapata, Hero of the Mexican Revolution

Emiliano Zapata takes time out from the Revolution for a portrait. November 20 is Revolution Day in Mexico, so I thought a posting on one of the most dashing and brilliant of the Revolutionary generals would be appropriate. Zapata was a handsome man and always a snappy dresser. He was very proud of his exuberant handlebar moustache and it became almost a trademark. No doubt many a señorita swooned as he passed on his prancing horse. And, speaking of horses, he was an expert, even in an era when most people still used horses for transportation. Like most foreigners, I initially knew little about this brooding man of principle. Outside Mexico, the name of Pancho Villa is much more famous, although Villa is known more as a caricature than for who he actually was. Among those unfamiliar with Mexican culture, Zapata stands even further back in the shadows of history. Hopefully, this posting will give you some understanding of one of Mexico's most remarkable figures.

The early years

A family portrait. Josefa Espejo (far left) stands next to her husband Emiliano (white sombrero). On the right are his older brother Eufemio (black sombrero) and Eufemio's wife, whose name I have not been able to discover. Emiliano Zapata was 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.

The principled social revolutionary

Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty) became Zapata's battle cry. The phrase was actually invented by Zapata's anarchist friend and advisor Ricardo Flores Magón. However, it has always been associated with Zapata and his single-minded campaign for land reform. His uncompromising stand was "la tierra es de quien la trabaja" (the land is for those who work it). Mexico's millions of small land holders were being increasingly squeezed by hacendados who rarely even visited their own huge properties. Instead, they lived in luxurious mansions in Mexico's great cities and left their properties in the day-to-day care of professional administrators called mayor domos

In fact, their great estates had often been pieced together over the centuries by means that were at least questionable, and often downright illegal. By the early 20th Century, vast acreages were planted with non-food cash crops. The small farmers, ranchers, and indigenous villagers struggled to feed their families from the tiny plots left to them. Even these small plots were under threat as Mexico modernised. Diaz sought foreign investments for railroads and port improvements so that cash crops like sugar and sisal (hemp) could be quickly transported to foreign markets in Europe and the US. With these vast new markets now opened to them, the hacendados' appetite for land was insatiable. They turned their greedy eyes toward lands still possessed by the small holders, even when those lands were only marginally fertile. 

Zapata was a man of deeply held convictions. He is quoted above saying "I would rather die a slave to principles than a slave to men." His beliefs were not theoretical or derived from some imported ideology. They were deeply rooted in his life experiences and particularly in the injustices he saw all about him. As mayor of Anenecuilco, Zapata attempted every legal means to protect his people's lands, but often the law was subverted or ignored by corrupt officials working hand-in-hand with local hacendados. Finally, he began to organize armed re-occupations of the lands illegally seized from his neighbours. These actions pre-dated the beginning of the 1910 Revolution and led to his rapid rise to its leadership in southern Mexico when the revolt against Porfirio Diaz exploded. 

Zapata's past experiences led him to be suspicious of anti-Diaz leaders like Francisco Madero, the scion of a family of extremely wealthy landowners from northern Mexico. Madero had run for President against Porfirio Diaz in 1910 and had been arrested on Diaz's orders during the election. He soon escaped to the US and announced the Plan of San Luis Potosí, which called for an armed revolt, as well as land reform. Madero sought support from whomever he could obtain it, including a Chihuahua bandit named Doroteo Arango, better known as Pancho Villa. In southern Mexico, Emiliano Zapata had already taken up arms and Madero stressed his land reform proposals when asking for his help. Zapata agreed, but kept his eyes wide open. He didn't trust the dreamy, politically inexperienced Madero, especially because of his background as a privileged landowner. But, at least until the ouster of Porfirio Diaz, they would be allies. So began the cataclysm known as the Mexican Revolution.

Zapata goes to war

General Zapata consults with a rifle-toting member of his peasant army. Zapata officially joined Madero's revolt when, on March 10, 1911, he and a group of other leaders in Morelos gathered 70 men to form the first guerrilla band. Francisco Madero had appointed Pablo Torres, another local leader, as head of the rebellion in Morelos. However, Torres was killed leading the assault on Jojutla, a town to the south of Cuernavaca. Zapata stepped forward to take command, a role that fit him like a glove.

Zapata, seated in the center, interrupted a staff meeting to pose with his officers. Zapata's brother Eufemio, a general in the Zapatista Army, is seated to the left of Emiliano, with his arm resting on a battle map. This peasant army was rather informal and few wore uniforms, even among the officers. For them, as well as their men, it was a "come as you are" war. Nevertheless, Zapata's army was very effective, even against regular government troops. After several successful skirmishes against Diaz' federales, Zapata launched an assault on Cuautla, the gateway between southern Mexico and the Mexican highlands. It was a key target on the way to Mexico City. As such, it was defended by Diaz' elite 5th Regiment, known as the Regimento de Oro (Golden Regiment). On May 19, after six days of intense fighting, Cuautla fell. Since Cuernavaca had already been evacuated by the government, the road to the national capital was open. Ten days earlier, on May 9, Pancho Villa had captured the City of Juarez on the US border. Its capture ensured a steady flow of arms and supplies to Madero's forces. With the strategic loss of these two key cities, Porfirio Diaz read the writing on the wall. The erstwhile dictator fled to Vera Cruz and then to European exile. The 35-year-old Porfiriato had come to an end. As Diaz boarded his ship, he remarked that "Francisco Madero has unleashed a tiger. Let us see if he can control it." It was a prescient comment because, in fact, the real Revolution had just begun.

Zapata and his generals

The generals in Zapata's army had a high mortality rate. Aboveleft to right, are Generals Francisco Pacheco, Abraham Martinez, Emiliano Zapata, and Manuel Asunsolo. Next, are Licenciado Gabriel Lopez Dominguez, and General Eufemio Zapata. The two men on the far right are unidentified. General Pacheco was one of Zapata's officers. He was appointed Secretary of War in 1915 but was shot as a traitor by another of Zapata's generals in 1917. Abraham Martinez was Zapata's personal secretary who later became his chief of staff. He was killed by the the forces of General Victoriano Huerta in 1914. Zapata himself would be assassinated in 1919.  General Asúnsolo was a mine owner from Guerrero who had joined the Revolution. In 1911, shortly after Cuernavaca fell to the rebels, Asúnsolo was assassinated by Pablo Escandón, the son of Diaz' former governor of Morelos. Licenciado Gabriel Lopez Dominguez was an envoy from Francisco Madero who negotiated for the disarmament and disbanding of Zapata's army after the victory over Diaz. General Eufemio Zapata was a womanizer and a very heavy drinker, unlike his brother. In 1917, he was killed by one of Emiliano's other generals because Eufemio, in a drunken rage, had beaten and insulted the man's father. Note that every identified man in the photo died violently, except Dominguez. As someone once said, revolutions consume their children. 

The Zapatista Army

Heavily armed, but jovial, a group of Zapatistas raises a toast. The caption at the lower left says "Tuesday, 23 April, 1912." There are several interesting aspects to this old photo. Again, we see an army bereft of uniforms. Standing in the second row, third from the right, is a young man brandishing a violin. Armies on all sides appreciated music, especially the innumerable corridos, or ballads, sometimes created on the spot by a musician at a campfire. La Cucaracha became one of the most famous corridos, along with Adelita, a song about a soldadera or female soldier. And, speaking of soldaderas,  notice the two sitting in the front row. Both wear bandoliers (bullet belts) across their chests. The soldadera on the right wields a sword in her right hand, indicating that she may be an officer. 

Women served in the armies of all sides during the Revolution. However, most commanders accepted their presence with reluctance. Zapata, in contrast, welcomed the participation of women, and gave some the command of significant bodies of troops. One unit in his army was composed entirely of the widows, daughters and sisters of fallen soldiers. According to John Womak in "Zapata and the Mexican Revolution", their aim was to "seek vengeance for the dead." Sometimes dressed in rags, sometimes in finery captured from haciendas they overran, they were ferocious fighters and became the terror of their region. 


Two women carrying baskets of food trudge alongside a troop of mounted soldiers. While some women were fighters, and even officers, most carried out more prosaic duties such as scrounging for food, supplies, and firewood. They also prepared meals, and took care of the wounded. Because he was a talented horseman, Zapata realised the value of mounted troops. In the guerrilla war years of the Revolution, he was able to strike swiftly, then fade away into the mountains of southern Mexico. Rosa King was a British citizen running a hotel in Cuernavaca when Zapata's forces entered after the Battle of Cuautla. She described them as "not an army, but a people in arms...they were half-naked, clad in rags, but they rode their horses like conquerors."

Zapata would stand for no nonsense from his troops. Once, during the occupation of Cuernavaca, Mrs. King was treated insolently by one of Zapata's young soldiers. She promptly went to see the rebel general. Zapata listened quietly and then offered to have the man shot. Horrified, the hotelier declined. The young soldier then became her great admirer and would do anything for her. At a later point in the Revolution, the forces of Zapata and Villa jointly entered Mexico City. During that occupation, many people noticed a distinct difference in the behaviour of the two armies. Villa's men were wild, drunken, and prone to shooting off their weapons. By contrast, Zapata's men amazed the city's well-to-do residents when the soldiers knocked on their doors and politely asked for food.  

The twists and turns of the Revolution 

Francisco Madero stands by the Presidential Chair. Following Diaz' departure, an interim president held office until new elections could be organized. Madero won an overwhelming victory in Mexico's first fair election in 35 years. However, Zapata's suspicions proved correct. Madero failed to follow through with his promises for land reform. "Stability" was his watchword, which meant "don't rock the boat" by angering his fellow hacendados. By this time, Zapata had disbanded his army, but he reformed it and launched a new revolt, based upon the land reform principles embodied in his Plan of Ayala. Madero, he felt, was as a traitor to the goals of the Revolution. There were a number of other revolts by other Revolutionary leaders with similar concerns during this time . Having alienated Zapata and the others, Madero made a second crucial mistake by installing Victoriano Huerta, formerly one of Diaz' generals, as the head of the federal army. 

In 1913, Huerta conspired with US Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson to depose Madero, who was viewed as weak both by Mexican conservatives and the US Government under Howard Taft. Huerta was a brutal thug and, in the coup d'etat he launched, Francisco Madero and his Vice President José Piño Suarez were both murdered. These events came to be known as the Ten Tragic Days. Over the next year, an alliance composed of Zapata, Pancho Villa, Venustiano Carranza, and Álvaro Obregón defeated Huerta in the series of battles. In the end, he fled the country like Diaz, his former boss. At a peace convention in Aguascalientes, representatives of the various Revolutionary factions tried to hammer out a settlement. However, Carranza refused to abide by the result. Supported by Obregón,  he declared himself President. Zapata and Villa allied with other "Conventionistas" to fight what they saw as the new usurper. They initially defeated Carranza and Obregón and forced them to flee to Vera Cruz. The stage was set for Zapata and Villa's triumphal entry into the nation's capital at the end of 1914.

Zapata and Pancho Villa

Side by side, Zapata and Villa ride into Mexico City. The two had met for the first time three days previously and decided to jointly occupy the capital. Villa is in the dark uniform in the center of the line of riders. Zapata rides to the left of him, wearing his usual broad sombrero. They were the Mexican Revolution's two foremost social revolutionaries. Most of the other major leaders were opportunists who fought for personal power and cynically used the issues of the people as vehicles for obtaining it. For the most part, the opportunists came from wealthy or at least relatively well-to-do families. Zapata and Villa came from very different backgrounds from the other top leaders. In fact, their personal histories were similar in many ways. Both were born in rural areas and came from relatively poor families. Both had conflicts with hacendados early in their lives. In Villa's case, a hacendado raped his sister. Villa hunted the man down and killed him, afterward escaping to the mountains to become a bandit. Both were renowned horsemen, and Villa's nickname was "the Centaur of the North." Both possessed a natural, unschooled, military genius. When the Revolution began in 1910, both were already being hunted by Diaz' government. Zapata was wanted for his armed seizures of disputed land in Morelos. Villa was pursued as the chieftain of a bandit gang in Chihuahua. 

Villa and Zapata in the Presidential Palace, December 7, 1914. Villa is sitting in the ornate Presidential chair. When they had approached it, Villa joked that they should take turns sitting in it. Zapata declined, saying "I didn't fight for that. We should burn the chair to end all ambitions." This was classic Zapata. The difference in the two men can be seen in the photo. Villa is ebullient and jolly, while Zapata stares at the camera with brooding intensity. Villa is dressed in his natty new uniform, adorned with gold braid. Zapata wears his typical charro outfit with the short, tight-fitting jacket and slender pants adorned with silver buckles down the legs. Neither man wanted to be President of Mexico, even though--at this moment--they shared the power to make it happen. Both men probably knew that they were unqualified for the job, given their limited educations. Both men were pushing programs of social reform, particularly land redistribution. However, Zapata's Plan of Ayala was well-developed and he had already put some of it into practice in Morelos. Villa's proposals were more general and little came of them.   

Defeat, assassination, and the birth of a myth

Weary Zapatistas in retreat. The soldiers trudge past a field of ripe maiz. The soldaderas, non-combatants in this picture, walk beside the men, lugging heavy sacks of provisions. Zapata and Villa failed to dislodge Carranza and Obregón's forces, called the "Constitutionalistas", from the crucial Caribbean port of Vera Cruz. By controlling this major port, the Constitutionalistas could receive weapons and supplies from Europe and the US. Better yet, they could use the funds from the customs duties paid by incoming ships to pay for it all. As Carranza and Orbregón's strength grew, that of Zapata and Villa waned. Mexico City's public resented the depredations committed by Villa's unruly troops. Zapata's troops wanted to return to their farms and families. All of this, along with the growing strength of the Constitutionalistas, meant that continuing the occupation of the capital was untenable. 

The Conventionista army broke up, with Villa retreating to the north and Zapata heading south. 
Their fortunes revived, Carranza and Obregón returned to the capital and Carranza took up the reins of government, with Obregón as his military chief. Álvaro Obregón, formerly a prosperous chick-pea farmer, was another of the war's self-taught military prodigies. World War I had begun in 1914 and he studied its lessons carefully. A war of movement spear-headed by slashing cavalry attacks had characterized the first phase of the Revolution. However, machine guns, barbed wire, and long range artillery were the new methods of industrial warfare and they required new tactics. Both Zapata and Villa were experts in the tactics of a war of movement, but the usefulness of those tactics in the face of the new weapons was coming to an end. In addition, industrial warfare required vast resources they didn't possess, particularly since the US had thrown its support to Carranza. 

Obregón became an expert in the new tactics and, as a result, Villa's and Zapata's forces experienced repeated defeats. In 1915, Pancho Villa was decisively beaten in the Battle of Celaya and his fortunes went downhill from there. In the meantime, Zapata struggled to maintain the Convenionista alliance. However, many of his former allies saw the Constitutionalistas as the winning side and they began to defect. Zapata was forced back into his mountain strongholds in Morelos. He could not be beaten entirely, but he was increasingly contained.

The body of Emiliano Zapata was displayed in Cuautla after his assassination. Although Carranza had contained Zapata, and peeled away much of his support outside Morelos, he was unable to end the insurgency.  Zapata's long history as a champion of the rural poor, and his reputation as a man of principle, provided him with deep and heartfelt support among the people of southern Mexico. Carranza became frustrated and ordered his generals to find a way to rid him of this troublesome rebel. Treachery seemed to provide the best route.

The man in charge of defeating Zapata was General Pablo González. With his subordinate, Colonel Jesús Guajardo, he concocted an astonishingly cynical plot to assassinate the elusive rebel commander. Col. Guajardo pretended a desire to defect to Zapata's side, bringing troops and ammunition. To make the defection seem real, Guajardo staged an attack on some of his own men, killing 57 of them. This convinced Zapata, who rode with a small party to a local hacienda for a meeting. When he arrived on April 10, 1919, he was greeted with a hail of bullets. Zapata was instantly killed, along with a several of his men. So ended the career of this principled social revolutionary. So began the legend of Zapata, one that persists into the 21st century.

"I would rather die on my feet than always live on my knees." So goes one of the most famous of Emiliano Zapata's quotes. The sentiment has inspired generations of activists to fight against tyranny and to win social and economic justice. It is said that you can kill the man, but you can't kill the idea. This proved true in Zapata's case. Zapata's body was publicly displayed and photographed to ensure that everyone knew he was dead. In spite of this, legends grew that he had outwitted his attackers and escaped back into the mountains. His people refused to believe that their hero was gone. People claimed to have seen him riding in the distance. 

Following the assassination, most the Zapatista leaders made peace with Carranza. In return, they were given important posts in Morelos and elsewhere. Some continued to fight for land reform, using legal rather than violent methods. Parts of Zapata's Plan of Ayala reforms had made their way into Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution of 1917, prior to Zapata's death. In the mid-1930s, a former Revolutionary general named Lázaro Cádenas won the presidency and, using Article 27, finally broke up the hacienda system. He implemented large-scale land redistribution and other reforms that Zapata would have appreciated. The name Emiliano Zapata is still revered throughout Mexico, especially in the poorer indigenous areas of Southern Mexico. On January 1, 1994, a social revolt erupted in Chiapas under the leadership of a group called the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). They opposed the newly implemented North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and promoted a policy of land reform and autonomy for indigenous communities. The EZLN are still active today, 22 years after their uprising and 97 years after Zapata's death.

I hope you enjoyed this window into Mexican history and the life of an extraordinary man. Perhaps it will give you a bit of understanding about the importance of November 20, Revolution Day, in Mexico. If you have a comment or question, you can either leave it in the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Gracias, Jim. Timely, informative, well written with excellent illustrations. Much appreciated! --Tom

  2. All Of my Mexican Country people should be educated firsthand in these beautiful pieces of real Mexican history.
    Thank you so much for taking your time !!


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim