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Viva Zapata! (1952)

Saturday 3 February 2007, by ps

Emiliano Zapata Salazar (August 8, 1879 ¿ April 10, 1919) was a leading figure in the Mexican Revolution, which broke out in 1910 initially directed against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. He formed an important revolutionary force, the Liberation Army of the South.

Zapata was born in the small central state of Morelos, in the village of Anenecuilco (modern-day Ayala municipality). At the time Mexico was ruled by a dictatorship under Porfirio Díaz, who had seized power in 1876. The social system of the time was a sort of proto-capitalist feudal system, with large landed estates (haciendas) controlling more and more of the land and squeezing it away from independent communities of Native Americans (pueblos, "towns" in Spanish), who were then subsequently forced into debt slavery (peonaje) on the haciendas.

Díaz ran local elections to pacify the peones and run a government that they could argue was self-imposed. Under Díaz, close confidantes and associates were given offices in districts throughout Mexico. These offices became the enforcers of land reforms that concentrated the haciendas into fewer hands.

Zapata’s family, although not enormously wealthy, still retained independence. They were never in danger of poverty, avoiding peonage and maintaining their own land (rancho). In fact the family had in previous generations been porfirista, that is, supporters of Díaz. Zapata himself always had a reputation for being a fancy dresser, appearing at bullfights and rodeos in his elaborate charro (cowboy) costume. Though his flashiness would usually have associated him with the rich hacendados who controlled the lands, he seems to have retained the admiration and even adoration of the people of his village, Anenecuilco, so that by the time he was 30 he was the head of the defense committee of the village, a post which made him the spokesman for the village’s interests. He was directly elected to this position during the Autumn of 1909, just a year before the start of the revolution.

Zapata, who also spoke the indigenous language Nahuatl, was recognised as a leading figure of the largely indigenous Nahua community of Anenecuilco, and he quickly became involved in struggles for the rights of the Indians of Morelos. He was able to oversee the redistribution of the land from some haciendas peacefully but had problems with some others. He observed numerous conflicts between villagers and hacendados over the constant theft of village land, and in one instance saw the hacendados torch an entire village.

For many years he campaigned steadily for the rights of the villagers, first establishing via ancient title deeds the claims of the villagers to disputed land, and then pressing the recalcitrant governor of Morelos into action. Finally, disgusted with the slow response from the government and the overt bias towards the wealthy plantation owners, Zapata began making use of armed force, simply taking over the land in dispute.

The 1910 Revolution

At this time, Porfirio Díaz was being threatened by the candidacy of Francisco I. Madero. Zapata made quiet alliances with Madero, whom he perceived to be the best chance for genuine change in the country. In 1910, unrest finally broke out in the formation of guerrilla bands. Zapata quickly took an important role, becoming the general of an army that formed in Morelos (the Ejército Libertador del Sur ¿ Liberation Army of the South).

Zapata joined Madero’s campaign against President Diaz. With the support of Pancho Villa, Pascual Orozco, Emiliano Zapata, and rebellious peones, Díaz was overthrown by Madero in May of 1911 during the battle at Ciudad Juarez, and a provisional government was formed under Francisco Leon de la Barra. Under Madero, some new land reforms were carried out and elections were to be ensured. However, Zapata was dissatisfied with Madero’s stance on land reform, and was unable, despite repeated efforts, to make Madero understand the importance of the issue or to get him to act on it.

Madero and Zapata’s relations worsened during the Summer of 1911 as Madero appointed a governor who supported plantation owners and refused to meet Zapata’s agrarian goals. Compromises between the two failed in November 1911, days after Madero appointed himself President, and Zapata and Montaño fled to the mountains of southwest Puebla.

There they formed the most radical reform plan in Mexico; the Plan de Ayala. Zapata was partly influenced by an anarchist from Oaxaca, Mexico named Ricardo Flores Magón. The influence of Flores Magón on Zapata can be seen in the Zapatistas’ Plan de Ayala, but even more noticeably in their slogan "Tierra y libertad" or "land and liberty", the title and maxim of Flores Magón’s most famous work. Zapata’s introduction to anarchism came via a local schoolteacher, Otilio Montaño Sánchez ¿ later a general in Zapata’s army, executed on 17 May 1917, who exposed Zapata to the works of Peter Kropotkin and Ricardo Flores Magon.