Emiliano Zapata was one of the key figures in carrying forward the Mexican Revolution that started off in 1910. Zapata formed his army and commanded it to fight against the repression by autocracy. He is regarded as one of Mexico’s greatest revolutionary heroes. Zapata created his revolutionary force, the Liberation Army of the South, during the Mexican Revolution. His name features in history and is often taken up by present day Mexican revolutionary organizations. Zapata’s quest was carried forward by other individuals and groups in the Mexican Revolution against Mexican President Porfirio Díaz. Zapata was a leader of the oppressed who fought for common’s man’s fundamental rights. To Mexicans, Zapata was a popular mass figure who fought and sought to implement liberties and agrarian rights for the farmers and indigenous citizens. Such is the impact of the man that even today there are towns, streets, and housing developments called “Emiliano Zapata”. Certain revolutionary movements carried out in the recent tomes by Mexican natives have been named as “the Zapatistas”.
Emiliano Zapata Childhood & Early Years
Emiliano Zapata was born on 8 August 1879 to Gabriel Zapata and Cleofas Salazar of Zacatepillo. His family was of mixed origin, having European and Native American descent. Zapata family was a typical Mestizo family and Emiliano Zapata’s family especially belonged to Nahua and Spanish ancestry. Zapata had nine siblings and he was the ninth among 10 children in his family. Zapata spent a hard and poor childhood having been born to a peasant family. He witnessed severities rampant in his nation since his childhood. Zapata was tutored by his teacher, Emilio Vara and so he had limited education. He had to take responsibilities of his family at a very young age as his father had died when he was 17.
In 1876 Mexico came under the rule of Porfirio Díaz who had risen to power during this time. Mexico had a social and economic system that followed proto-capitalist feudal order. This kind of a social set up had large estates controlling major land areas which resulted in crushing independent land ownership and people’s communities thus leading to common people being thrown into debt slavery in the estates. Diaz ran people’s elections to keep his countrymen pacified. It was under Diaz’s administration that offices in districts throughout Mexico were handed out to Diaz’s personal acquaintances and associates. These district officers enforced land reforms to suit themselves which made the estates go into the hands of wealthy landowners.
Early Years of Revolution
Zapata’s family supported the rule of Porfirio Díaz. They somehow avoided peonage and were able to maintain their own land. As a young boy Zapata was known to meddle in bullfights and rodeos in his elaborate charro (cowboy) outfit. It was in 1906 that Zapata went to a meeting in Cuautla which discussed about the possible ways to defend the lands of the common people. Zapata had worked as a farmhand while taking part in the meeting. Zapata started acting as a rebel and in 1908 his initial acts of rebellion got noticed and he was sent to Cuernavaca after being drafted into the Ninth Regiment. Zapata was a shard horse rider and so he was appointed as a soldier and he remained so only for 6 months before leaving for Mexico City on Ignacio de la Torre’s requiest who had hired Zapata as his groom previously.
In 1909 Zapata’s village Anenecuilco called an important meeting to decide on the next President of the village council as the chief elder of the council, José Merino was resigning from his position due to his old age and growing inabilities to fight for the village people’s land rights. Nominations bore names of Modesto Gonzales, Bartolo Parral, and Emiliano Zapata and after the nominations completed, a single vote (council elders were regarded and respected without any opposition) made Zapata the new council president. Zapata soon became a leading figure in the village of Anenecuilco which was his root. From here Zapata started his struggles for the rights of the campesinos of Morelos. Zapata worked hard to grow important relations with political authority figures. He campaigned for the basic rights of villagers for several years before taking upon armed forces. His campaigns went in vain as the government was slow in response and had strong biases for wealthy plantation owners which led Zapata to take arms and take over the lands in dispute.
It was in and around 1910 that Mexican President Porfirio Díaz’s government was threatened by rising candidacy of Francisco I. Madero. Zapata quietly allied with Madero who was rated by Zapata as the only chance to save Mexico and bring in new and real changes within the nation. In 1910 itself Zapata made himself the general of an army which had formed in Morelos called as the “Ejército Libertador del Sur” (Liberation Army of the South). This was a quick move by Zapata that went on to start a great revolution in the coming years.
Zapata became a part of Madero’s campaign against President Diaz. It was with the strong support and assistance of Pancho Villa, Pascual Orozco, Emiliano Zapata and several other rebel farmers that Madero soon overthrew Díaz in May 1911 with the Battle of Ciudad Juárez. After Diaz was cast away a provisional government was formed under Francisco León de la Barra. Madero came to power with promises to start land reforms to which he failed. Zapata was disgusted and utterly dissatisfied with Madero’s inadequacies in implementing land reform in spite of several efforts by Zapata to make Madero understand the importance of the issue and the urgency to act on it.
Zapata started becoming unsure of Madero’s motives as the latter did not implement any radical changes in the agrarian set up during the time. Although Madero did things like giving formal justice in courts to individuals wronged due to oppression is respect to agrarian politics, it was Zapata’s growing worries that Madero was only apparently doing good things for Mexican people and not from within. Zapata increasingly grew suspicious of Madero’s sincerity towards Mexico and for this reason Zapata distanced himself from blindly supporting Madero.
In 1911 Zapata’s doubts and suspicions were confirmed with Madero deciding to appoint a governor to support plantation owners leaving aside Zapata’s persistent pleas to achieve agrarian goals. Madero’s move brought an end to good relation between him and his very trusted Zapata. In November 1911 all moves on compromises failed between Zapata and Madero. Days after the failure Madero chose himself as the President, and Zapata and Montano fled to the mountains of southwest Puebla. Together Zapata and Montano formed the most radical reform plan in Mexico; the Plan de Ayala on 25 November 1911.
Zapata was heavily influenced by anarchist politics. His main source of inspiration came from Ricardo Flores Magón who was a notable anarchist from Oaxaca, Mexico. Much of Zapata’s Plan de Ayala bear influences of Flores Magón’s “Tierra y libertad" or "land and liberty" which was the title and maxim of Flores Magón's most famous work. The growing anarchist thoughts in Zapata’s school of thought came from a local schoolteacher, Otilio Montaño Sánchez who later became Zapata’s trusted general in Zapata's army. Sanchez was executed on 17 May 1917 after teaching Zapata the thoughts of Peter Kropotkin and Flores Magón. Zapata learnt a lot about anarchism from Sanchez during his personal quest for participation and bringing changes in the struggles of the peasants for the land.
According to the plans formulated by the Plan de Ayala, Zapatista demands “Reforma, Libertad Ley y Justicia” (Reform, Freedom, Law and Justice) were claimed. Zapata rejected Madero’s governance. Zapata mobilized his Liberation Army and successfully joined hands with former Maderistas who were Pascual Orozco and Emiliano Vázquez Gómez (Madero followers). It was with Orozco’s help (since he lived Chihuahua, near the U.S. border) that Zapatan army got their arms and ammunitions. Military operation developed greatly. With Zapata’s command the Zapatan army thought of attacking Cuautla which was the centre of all fighting. However, Zapata realised the need of better arms and training within his army. According to the line of action in the proposed plan, Zapata’s army started off by gaining a control in the area between Jojutla to Yecapixtla. More raids followed which brought amazing success in Jojutla.
Zapata’s army got a major blow with Torres Burgos, the commander of the operation being shot dead by a federal police patrol. Burgos' death led the party rebels to choose Zapata as “Supreme Chief of the Revolutionary Movement of the South”. However, there were people within the rebellion army who wanted to replace Zapata. Zapata proved himself and was respected by his peers. Zapata led his army with supreme power and control. He said, “It's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees”. With this Zapata formed several individual rebel groups and brilliantly increased his margin of success. A meeting between Zapata and Ambrosio Figueroa took place in Jolalpan. Zapata came to the power jointly with Figueroa to operate in Morelos. This worked in the direct overthrow of Morelos and Zapata’s tremendous growth in authority and influence. Zapata started accessing areas in the city with his newly acquired power. Madero was alarmed by Zapata’s growing power and asked the later to disarm and demobilize. Madero sent many of his generals to deal with Zapata but these efforts failed miserably. It felt like Zapata would shortly overthrow Morelos, but then the Treaty of Ciudad Juarez was signed. This officially and formally ended the civil war. This did not end the revolution. There were battles that followed in the years to come.
Zapata could not be defeated in any battle with the government. In 1919 Zapata was defeated in a planned ambush by Gen. Pablo González and his lieutenant, Col. Jesús Guajardo who were supporters of the Mexican president, Venustiano Carranza. A major conspiracy followed with Guajardo asking González to feign a defection to Zapata's forces to which González promptly agreed. González arranged for Guajardo to attack a Federal column, killing 57 soldiers. Zapata unknowingly received a messenger from Guajardo to discuss Guajardo's defection.
On 10 April 1919 Guajardo invited Zapata for a meeting. Zapata arrived at the Hacienda de San Juan, in Chinameca, Ayala municipality where Guajardo's killed him with several bullets.