Remembering Emiliano Zapata and the Struggle for Land Rights in Mexico

Zapata’s legacy lives on most powerfully today among the Zapatistas who launched a rebellion in 1994—their recent resurgence has given rise to a phenomenon among tourists and travellers in Mexico called zapaturismo.

Emiliano Zapata
Courtesy: ANF

2019 marked a hundred years since the assassination of the formidable Mexican peasant leader and revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. Born on 8 August 1879 to a mestizo farmer in Morelos but orphaned at the tender age of 17, he was one of the key figures of the protracted and fraught battle for indigenous land rights that is known as the Mexican revolution.

Confrontation With Plantation Owners as a Teenager

His first confrontation with the exploitative owners of the hacienda (enormous estates or plantations in Mexico) occurred in 1897 when the latter attempted to confiscate and appropriate the land of indigenous peasants in Morelos. At the time, Morelos was the third-largest sugar producer in the world.

Emiliano Zapata, still a teenager at the time, immersed himself headlong into this bitter struggle and vehemently protested against the institutionalized theft of indigenous land and consequent disenfranchisement of peasants, for which he was arrested.

Those in power perceived the threat that Emiliano Zapata’s revolutionary zeal and charismatic influence posed to the order of things in Morelos, and he was forced into military service in 1908. However, he was released six months later, with none of his fervour diminished, and was soon elected by the peasants as president of the board of defence for their village.

Reclaiming Peasants Land 

He renewed negotiations with the landowners but after these attempts were rendered fruitless on account of the latter’s absolute adamance, Zapata led the peasants to occupy by force the land that had been stolen from them by the hacienda owners, which they distributed amongst themselves. This was only the beginning of the powerful story of peasant rebellion that would shape the beating heart of the Mexican revolution, and Zapata would become an emblem of that indefatigable spirit, immortalized by his lifelong struggle for indigenous land rights in Mexico.

In 1910, a new political opposition was crystallizing in the nation against the ruling president Porfirio Díaz, whose policies openly favoured wealthy landowners and industrialists. Aided by numerous peasant guerrillas, Francisco Madero, who was leading this opposition, declared himself the president.

emiliano zapata
Porfirio Diaz | Courtesy: ThoughtCo

Zapata perceived a hope for institutional change in Madero’s alternative political vision and decided to support him. His small but organized peasant forces began to wage a fierce battle against the rural political bosses while Pascual Orozco and Pancho Villa in the north mobilized their armies and took over government garrisons. Finally, Zapata and the peasants seized the city of Cuautla which effectively blocked southern access to Mexico City, leading to Diaz’s resignation, and marking the beginning of the Mexican Revolution.

Losing Faith in Politicians and the Emergence of the Zapatistas 

Zapata urged Madero, soon to be elected, to exert pressure on the provisional president , appointed in place to Diaz, to hasten the return of land to the indigenous people of Mexico. But Madero began to falter on his promises, asking Zapata to disarm his guerrillas instead.

Soon after, Zapata prepared the Plan of Ayala, which declared a complete loss of faith in Madero’s ability to fulfill the aspirations of the revolution.

The signatories, who called themselves the Zapatistas, vowed to return the appropriated land to the peasants expropriating a third of the total area of haciendas with payment—those estate-owners who refused to comply would have their lands seized and reclaimed without compensation

Adopting the slogan “Tierra y Libertad” (“Land and Liberty”), Zapata organized thousands into peasant guerrillas that distributed land seized from the haciendas—he paid them by heavily taxing the wealthy in the provincial cities.

American Interference and the Assassination of Madero

In the meantime, however, the US government thought Madero was too lenient with rebel forces and wanted to regulate the volatile political situation in Mexico to protect American business interests in the country.

Accordingly, following a violent clash with Felix Díaz over the course of what is known in Mexican history as La Decena Tragica or the Ten Tragic Days, the federal government engineered a strategic alliance—formalized by the signing of the “Pact of the Embassy” between Victoriano Huerta, and the nephew of Porfirio Díaz, which would work towards displacing Madero from power.

emiliano zapata
La Decena Tragica | Courtesy: Wikipedia

Their machinations culminated in the assassination of Madero and Huerta becoming president in 1913. Zapata and his men rejected Huerta’s offer to unite in fighting against the Constitutionalist guerrillas of the north led by Venustiano Carranza who ultimately forced Huerta to flee the country in 1914. Well aware of the reach of his reputation, Zapata invited Carranza’s Constitutionalists to accept his Plan of Ayala and made it clear that he would continue fighting independently until the plan was executed, no longer willing to place the future of the peasant movement in the hands of politicians. Along with some other intellectuals who were drawn to his vision and struggle, among them Antonio Díaz Soto y Gama, Zapata went on to establish an agrarian party as well.

Carranza decided to call an assembly of all the revolutionary forces, including the Villistas and the Zapatistas, but no consensus could be reached between the Constitutionalists and the revolutionaries about the appointment of a provisional president, and soon civil war erupted and swept the nation.

Redistribution of Agrarian Land

On November 24, Zapata led his forces, now called the Liberation Army of the South with 25,000 men, to occupy Mexico City. A fortnight later Zapata and Pancho Villa pledged to present a united front against Carranza.

This was followed by a period of revolutionary execution: not only did Zapata create agrarian commissions to swiftly distribute the land to its rightful peasant owners and cultivators, but also ensured that there was no corruption of favouritism towards particular interest groups and landowners.

Constantly driven by a mission to empower dispossessed Mexican farmers, Zapata tried to reorganize the sugar industry in Morelos into cooperatives, and set up a Rural Loan Bank which was the country’s first agricultural credit organization.

Isolation of Zapata by US-backed Carranza

However, Carranza, whose government had been recognized by Woodrow Wilson in 1915, continued to wage war, until his generals defeated Villa in 1917 and politically isolated Zapata. He was subsequently elected president of Mexico by a convention that passed a new constitution, to which Emiliano Zapata was not even invited.

Zapata’s legacy and brilliant, egalitarian governance was brought to the attention of international media finally when William Gates, a U.S. envoy published a series of articles that juxtaposed the harmony in the areas controlled by Zapata with the chaos of Carranza’s domain, concluding that “the true social revolution can be found among the Zapatistas.”

The Legacy of Emiliano Zapata

After a lifetime of independently fighting for the peasants of Mexico, Zapata was finally ambushed and shot to death by Carrancista soldiers in 1919. This tragic event was portrayed with acute poignancy in the 1952 film by Elia Kazan called Viva Zapata! Of course, one of the many liberties taken with historical facts in the film is illustrated in the decision to have Emiliano Zapata portrayed by a very Caucasian Marlon Brando with taped up eyelids.

emiliano zapata
A scene from Viva Zapata! | Courtesy: Turner Classic Movies

But in its final images, the film suggests that the resistance of the Zapatistas does not end, and that hopeful rumours have blossomed everywhere that the fearless leader never died but is continuing to fight from the hills.

Emiliano Zapata’s tremendously heroic and tragic legacy has had a rich and varied afterlife in the cultural imagination of his own nation—Mexican Golden Age cinema is replete with characters who look exactly like him, and in 1970 Felipe Cazals directed his biopic.

In Mexican politics too, there is a distinct presence of his influence, with Mexico’s current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador pledging to revive the rural economy and declaring 2019 as the year of Emiliano Zapata.

However commentators and Zapata’s grandson himself have viewed this as a disingenuous appropriation.

Zapata’s legacy lives on most powerfully today among the Zapatistas who launched a rebellion in 1994—their recent resurgence has given rise to a phenomenon among tourists and travellers in Mexico called zapaturismo.

Adreeta Chakraborty is a student of literature at Delhi University.

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