Aug. 8, 1879 – Apr. 10, 1919
by Brother Gerald del Campo
Mexican revolutionary, guerrilla, and champion of agrarianism. Emiliano Zapata was born on August 8, 1879, in Anenecuilco, Mexico to a peasant horse trainer. Orphaned at the age of 17, Emiliano cared for his brothers and sisters. He was a revolutionary and a passionate person with uncomplicated ethics. Historians like to focus on the fact that he ordered executions for traitors and that he did not always adhere to the laws of war, instead of telling of the horrific challenge that he faced for his people, or that he often avoided battle by adopting guerrilla tactics. Zapata was able to gather thousands of men for his army. He compensated them by imposing levies on the provincial cities and shaking down the rich. The weapons they fought with were captured from federal troops. His soldiers farmed with weapons at their shoulders. They were often seen with plows in one hand, and rifles in the other.
In 1897 the peasants of his village rose up against the hacienda that had appropriated their lands. Emiliano was arrested in the uprising and later pardoned, but continued to incite peasants into standing up to protect their land. In an effort to shut him up, he was drafted into the army.
In 1909 he was elected president of the Board of Defense for his village, where he tried for many months to negotiate with the landowners. A group of peasants lead by Zapata finally resorted to take the land that had been appropriated by the haciendas by force. It was distributed amongst themselves.
In 1910, Francisco Madero, a landowner from the North, fled to the United States when he lost the elections to a dictator known as Porfirio Diaz. Diaz was not a benign dictator: He took land from peasants, started wage slavery, murdered thousands and opened up slave labor camps. He later declared himself president of Mexico and reentered assisted by peasant guerrillas. Zapata and his humble army decided to assist Madero. In 1911, with a modest group of peasants, took the city of Cautla and closed the road to Mexico’s capital. Within the week, Diaz resigned and fled for Europe as Zapata entered the capital of the state of Morelos with a force of 5,000 men. With Zapata’s help, Madero had won.
With Madero in place, Zapata tried to negotiate the return of the land to the former Indian communal system of land ownership. Instead, the new provisional president offered to compensate Zapata (pending the disarmament of Zapata’s guerrilla forces) so that he could repurchase the land, but Zapata, wanting to return to communal land ownership, refused the offer. Zapata DID, however begin to disarm his army, but stopped when he learned that the provisional president had sent the army after him.
With the help of a teacher, Zapata drafted the Plan of Ayala, which stated that Madero was inept in executing the objective of the revolution. They reaffirmed the intent and goals of the revolution and promised to appoint a provisional president until such a time that election could take place. The growth of the entire movement, which had began as a local revolt, grew in proportion with the oppression of the peasant. His wish was to restore village rights to lands, forests, and water. He favored a decentralized, self-ruling, communitarian democracy, informed by shared customs, a continuance of the oldest peasant values. They also resolved to pay the landowners to return a third of the stolen land to the ejidos. Those haciendas that refused would have the land expropriated without payment. Zapata took on the catch phrase “Tierra y Libertad” – Land and Liberty. He often took haciendas by force and burned them to the ground.
Sometime in 1913, Zapata enlisted the help of intellectuals from Mexico City and established an agrarian party. The agrarian commissions were to allocate the land. He spent much time observing the operation to prevent favoritism, and to make sure that the landowners did not corrupt members. He established a Rural Loan Bank: Mexico’s first agricultural credit union, and attempted to restructure the sugar industry of Morelos into cooperatives. He asked the Constitutionalists to accept his Plan of Ayala, and made it very clear that the fighting would continue until the plan was used.
On August 24th, 1914 war broke out between the Carrancistas (moderates) and Conventionists (revolutionaries) over a disagreement with the majority elected provisional president. Zapata’s army, now 25,000 men strong, was now ordered to occupy Mexico City. Much to the surprise, the people of the capital watched dumbfounded as the peasant soldiers went from door to door humbly asking for food and drink, rather than the expected rape an pillage they were unjustly accused of.
A couple of weeks later Zapata met with Pancho Villa, the most influential warrior in the north of Mexico. The two pledged to join forces until they put a civilian president in place. Pancho Villa accepted the Plan of Ayala.
With the help of professional soldiers who joined him, Zapata occupied the city of Puebla. But in 1917 Pancho Villa was defeated and the opposing forces that were divided by fighting two fronts focused their attention on the Zapatistas.
A U.S. representative by the name of William Gates met with Zapata and then published a string of commentaries in the United States about the struggle in Mexico. He reported the truth about the turmoil of the constitutional region and the order of the Zapata controlled areas, and reported that “the true social revolution can be found among the Zapatistas.” When Zapata read these words he said, “Now I can die in peace. Finally they have done us justice.” He may have seen his demise in the very near future.
Zapata never ordered a state police force or law enforcement of any kind. For a brief time between 1914 and 1915, Zapata and his people lived by their own laws, and governed themselves without bureaucratic intervention, making it one of the most workable societies ever seen in Latin America. Agricultural output was increased, and land was treated as either communal or individual property according to the wishes of each village. Finally, after a decade of violence which cost the lives of roughly one in eight Mexicans, the struggle of the Morelos campesinos had led them to the modest and profound vision of democratic self-governance, as well as a civilized and efficient local economy. They were to be awakened from this brief dream by tragedy.
General Pablo Gonzales fashioned a sinister plan in which Colonel Jesus Guajardo was to pretend to want to join the agrarians. A secret meeting was held between Guajardo and Zapata in the hacienda of Chinameca, Morelos. On April 10, 1919 Zapata was ambushed and shot to death by Carrancista soldiers. His body was carried by mule to Cuautla and buried there.
Zapata never lowered his flag, never swayed from his mission to free the simple man from the grasp of the tyrannical landowners of his time, but died fighting for his beliefs and for the benefit of his countrymen. “Es mejor morir de pie, que continuar viviendo de rodillias.” (“It is better to die on your feet, than to live a lifetime on your knees.”)