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Emiliano Zapata and Revolutionary Mexico, 1910–1919

Summary and Keywords

Emiliano Zapata led the Liberating Army of the South during the Mexican Revolution. Zapata’s movement began with a demand for land reform, and his beliefs are most often captured by reference to the Plan de Ayala, which he promulgated in 1911. It was largely because of the Zapatistas (Zapata and his adherents) that land reform was written into the Mexican Constitution of 1917. Later, especially under President Lázaro Cárdenas, (1934–1940), the Mexican government carried out major land redistribution, which helped earn the post-revolutionary state legitimacy in the countryside. Over the course of nearly a decade fighting in the revolution, Zapata’s vision for remaking Mexico extended far beyond the Plan de Ayala and land reform to include judicial reform, decentralization of power, political democracy, the redistribution of wealth, and the promotion of the interests of rural workers and small agricultural producers while protecting Mexican sovereignty against powerful foreign interests. Zapata, however, led the most poorly armed of the main factions in the revolution and was unable to realize his goals. His enemies received large amounts of foreign military supplies, while he received no assistance from abroad. The inability of his poorly equipped volunteer army, mostly peasants and hacienda workers, to carry out large pitched battles dictated that they had to fight a grueling guerilla war. Zapata was unable to win on the battlefield, but was never totally defeated. He was assassinated in 1919. Although his larger vision for the future of Mexico did not prevail, his fight for land reform helped shape modern Mexico.

Keywords: Zapata, land reform, Mexican revolution, Plan de Ayala, Liberating Army of the South

Emiliano Zapata led the Liberating Army of the South during the Mexican Revolution of 1910–1919. During the course of the revolution, the Zapatistas (adherents of Zapata) helped overthrow the dictator Porfirio Díaz in 1911, destroyed the semi-feudal hacienda system in Zapata’s home state of Morelos by redistributing land from the oligarchy to peasant villagers and hacienda workers, and developed a revolutionary program for the remaking of Mexico that included political democracy, the radical redistribution of wealth, and the defense of national resources from entrenched domestic monopolies and foreign interests. Never powerful enough to win militarily, Zapata’s program resonated with the rural populace beyond his area of military presence and helped push land reform into the national dialogue. Even while at war with him, his enemies were compelled to write land reform into the Constitution of 1917, as article 27. That provided the basis for a sweeping agrarian reform in the decades that followed.

Overmatched militarily, but never summarily defeated, Zapata’s opponents had him assassinated in 1919. Because he fought for the poorest and most marginal classes against overwhelming odds, and never gave up, Zapata became a legend in his own time. Today, he remains a symbol of resistance to inequality and injustice. His legacy is contested. Hoping to tame the more radical elements of his agenda, while placating the mobilized multitudes in the countryside, the ruling coalition that emerged from the revolution implemented sporadic land reform, most notably the serious effort under President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940), which helped the government gain greater legitimacy with the rural populace. The ruling party, the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), which controlled the Mexican government under different names from 1929 to 2000, and regained control in 2012, has continuously sought to manage the myth and meaning of Zapata by claiming that they have delivered on what he fought for. The more conservative PAN (National Action Party), which ruled from 2000–2012, does not identify itself with the legacy of the social revolutionaries who fought for the redistribution of wealth and has pandered less to the image of Zapata. When it does identify itself with the revolution, the PAN pointedly invokes the legacy of more moderate symbols of political reform and electoral democracy, most specifically, Francisco Madero.

Part of managing memory involves official characterizations and standard histories of Zapata that suggest his inability to win was because he had a limited regional, rather than national vision, was a one issue leader, was too parochial, too emotionally attached to his regional base in Morelos, was intimidated by Mexico City, lacked sufficient formal education, and was overmatched by the more moderate political program of the victorious Constitutionalists. Such a narrative tells us that Zapata was not simply defeated by rivals with superior military capabilities, but was defeated by the forces of progress and modernity, and he appears heroic, but antiquated.

The official story denies Zapata political and intellectual growth by tying him to his thoughts in 1911, when he was 31 and co-authored the Plan de Ayala. The Ayala plan called for a partial redistribution of hacienda land to villages, with compensation to the large landowners. It is a defining document of Zapatismo. His subsequent pronouncements and decrees issued over the next eight years were far more radical and trace the evolution of his political thought, yet remain overshadowed by Ayala. Perhaps more importantly, his actual policies when his forces governed Morelos went well beyond the Ayala plan. When Zapata controlled Morelos during late 1914 and 1915, the Zapatistas confiscated hacienda land without compensation, and not only returned contested lands to village communities, but divided it among landless estate workers, to the horror of the landed elite and more moderate reformers. Wrapping Zapata in the Plan de Ayala ignores what he actually did, limits his meaning to the issue of land reform, freezes him in time, and serves the interests of the more conservative victors in the revolution. When Zapata lived, Mexico was about 80% rural, now it is about 80% urban. Therefore, by focusing on land reform alone and his earliest ideas on the subject, the standard narrative over-simplifies the meaning of Zapatismo, marginalizes him as a relic of a bygone era, and implies his ideas have little left to offer the present or future.

Origins and National Context

Emiliano Zapata was a product of his time, but imagined an alternative future. The social upheaval that he came to lead in his home state of Morelos had its roots in a rapid economic transformation between 1880 and 1910, which turned the tiny state into the center of Mexico’s sugar industry and made it the third leading sugar producer in the world. Expanding sugar plantations came to dominate the regional economy while a landed oligarchy backed by the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship ruled. Previously self-sufficient communal villages and small independent farmers lost access to land and water as profit-minded hacendados (large landowners) planted sugarcane, occupied the best land, diverted streams and rivers, and left the communities and smaller independent farmers struggling to raise their staple crops on plots of marginal land dependent on rainfall. A corrupt judicial system dominated by pro-Diaz functionaries facilitated the land-grabs of the oligarchs.

What happened in Morelos was part of a larger pattern during the Díaz era as community-held landholdings shrank from 25 percent to just 2 percent of the nation’s cultivated land. Backed by all layers of government, the haciendas in Morelos grew, village communities lost their land and their economic independence, and semi-independent villagers were driven onto the plantations as dependent workers. Nationally, Díaz pursued a model of economic growth based on the recruitment of foreign investment in infrastructure development, mineral and petroleum extraction, and the promotion of commercial agriculture. Those initiatives came at the expense of village communities wherever they were carried out. In Morelos, Diaz lowered taxes on the landed elite, and protected the sugar barons with high tariffs to keep out foreign sugar. He pursued similar polices on the national level. The main difference in the mineral-rich North was that the dictator’s policies favored foreign interests rather than domestic oligarchs. In Morelos, Diaz supported a nominally domestic elite, which the local populace, nevertheless, identified as gachupines, a derogatory term for what they saw as the culturally distinct descendants of Spaniards. In both regions, Diaz’s economic policies created impressive economic growth and generated fantastic profits for a few, but destroyed the independent livelihoods of the rural population. It was a model of economic growth that proved unsustainable.

The areas of the country where the Diaz model was carried out most energetically, like sugar producing Morelos and the cattle and mining areas of the North, and which were tied to United States investment and markets, became vulnerable to global fluctuations beyond Mexico’s control. When a global economic recession hit the United States and other industrialized nations in 1907, it reduced foreign demand for Mexico’s raw materials, and Mexico entered a recession. The economic collapse hit hardest in rural areas that had undergone the most rapid change. Rendered largely landless, rural workers in Morelos and northern Mexico faced rising unemployment. Meanwhile, across the northern states of Sonora, Chihuahua, and Coahuila, itinerant workers in cattle, mining, and agriculture struggled to feed their families, and many faced desperation. In Morelos, the overproduction of sugar led to falling prices, forcing the land barons to curtail production in 1909–1910. That limited employment opportunities for villagers recently displaced from their lands, and undermined the only benefit of being a dependent worker on the estates, which was predictable employment and material security. When Zapata rebelled against Diaz he found ready recruits among communal villagers defending what was left of their patrimony and newly vulnerable hacienda workers.

The Díaz regime alienated segments of the upper class as well. Some Mexican business leaders outside of the Díaz inner circle felt that, by offering powerful foreign interests preferential tax incentives, gigantic land giveaways, and the nations’ subsoil rights, the dictator had privileged the interests of foreign capital over their own. Francisco Madero, for example, came from a family that controlled major mining, cattle, industrial, and agricultural interests in the northern state of Coahuila. The Madero family suffered from Díaz’s support of foreign competitors, and exemplified the condition of many regional elites. In 1909, Madero took the bold step of calling for free elections. Meanwhile, U.S. investors, who benefited from the low wages of Mexican workers, low taxes, and the safe climate for their investments that the dictatorship provided, held up Diaz’s Mexico as an example for other underdeveloped nations to emulate, despite its totally undemocratic system of governance.

Calling for “effective suffrage and no re-election,” Madero organized a national political party and ran against Díaz for President in 1910. His candidacy proved popular, so Díaz jailed him until the elections were over. Released after Diaz’s rigged re-election, Madero fled to Texas where he issued the Plan de San Luis Potosi, calling for a revolution to overthrow Diaz. Diaz was seventy-six years old, a political change was imminent, and he had recently begun to try and diversify foreign interests in Mexico, threatening the dominant position of U.S. investors. As a result, Madero found some support in Texas, where the U.S. government largely ignored neutrality laws and allowed him to recruit financial backing for his elite-led rebellion. In Mexico, regional leaders began to rally to Madero’s banner. Most were regional or local elites, but some were charismatic working class figures like Francisco (Pancho) Villa, who attracted displaced peasants, small farmers, recently unemployed miners, ranch-hands, workers, and other victims of the Diaz model of growth in the northern states of Chihuahua and Durango. Other important regional leaders like Venustiano Carranza, a mid-level hacendado and Senator from Coahuila, recognized Madero. With a mix of motives and leaders, multiple uprisings rocked Mexico and shattered the Porfirian regime’s image of “peace, order, and progress.”

Zapata was not initially associated with Madero’s multi-layered northern revolt. His concerns began as local. He had recently been elected leader of his village defense committee to protect their communal lands and had successfully defended his community’s rights against the claims of a neighboring hacienda. That was an unusual and inspiring victory for people accustomed to almost constant defeat, and Zapata became locally prominent. His reputation spread when he began unilaterally returning land to neighboring pueblos that had lost their land and water rights to the sugar estates. That quickly made him a recognized regional figure. Believing that Madero’s rebellion was the best way to achieve his now regional goal of protecting community land holdings in his area of eastern Morelos, he eventually joined the Madero revolution against Díaz in 1911, and thousands of the rural poor in and around where he lived joined him.

In the north, Villa and other leaders of modest means, operating in the name of Madero, seized the border city of Ciudad Juarez. That crucial victory gave the Madero revolution access to arms from U.S. suppliers. A few days later, Zapata laid siege to Cuautla, seizing the main city in eastern Morelos, which sat less than fifty miles from Mexico City. The combination of the fall of Juarez on the border and Cuautla near the capitol toppled the dictator. Madero took power several months later, but failed to carry out the quick and effective land reform Zapata had fought for. Zapata, feeling used and betrayed, and afraid the moment would slip by without real social reform, issued a proclamation on November 25, 1911, called the Plan de Ayala. It declared Madero a traitor to the principles of the revolution he had initiated, called for immediate land reform, and announced Zapata in rebellion against Madero.

At that point, Zapata’s rebellion against Madero was limited to Morelos. Before it could succeed or fail, a Díaz-era General, Victoriano Huerta, launched a reactionary military coup d’etat against Madero with the support of the U.S. ambassador, Henry Lane Wilson, and tried to return Mexico to authoritarian rule. Unplanned and uncontrolled, a spontaneous combustion of peasants and rural workers from all states bordering Morelos rallied to Zapata’s banner. Without direct oversight from Zapata, but claiming allegiance to him and the Plan de Ayala, they began attacking haciendas, reclaiming their lost lands, and fighting the federal army. Zapata struggled to bring these disparate elements under his control, but they remained only nominally Zapatista, while actually operating independently. Radical lawyers and journalists joined Zapata’s cause and helped him develop a broad program of social reform. The revolution entered a new phase as people from all parts of Mexican society rose up in a great popular rebellion to reject Huerta’s effort to turn the clock back to the days of Díaz. In the North, Venustiano Carranza, whom Madero had made governor of Coahuila, emerged as the leader and “First Chief” of the great northern revolution. Pancho Villa and Alvaro Obregon began recruiting large mobile armies and operated as Carranza’s main military commanders and subordinates.

The revolution that suddenly swept Mexico lacked clear ideological cohesion. Working-class leaders like Villa, and upper-middle and middle class rebels such as future Presidents Álvaro Obregón and Plutarco Elías Calles of the northern state of Sonora, came together in an uneasy alliance under Carranza’s leadership. The northern rebellion, under Carranza, and the southern rebellion, under Zapata, had Huerta as the common enemy. They differed profoundly in their objectives and were totally independent of one another. The northern revolt was well-financed and well-armed, as the U.S. government, reacting to Huerta’s inability to establish control and ensure security, allowed private arms dealers to supply an array of Carranza forces, including Villa. The combination of the northern rebellion, Zapata’s efforts in the south, and the Woodrow Wilson administration’s hostility toward Huerta, combined to drive the strong-man from power.

Carranza then tried to impose himself as President, and resisted the call for deep social change. In a defining moment in 1914, Villa broke with him at the Convention of Aguascalientes, shattering the northern alliance. The northern revolution fractured into two opposed armed-camps, with Obregon’s forces joining Carranza. Zapata’s vision for the redistribution of wealth and the future of Mexico aligned more closely with Villa’s populist plans than it did with Carranza’s limited political objectives. Calling themselves the Conventionists, Zapata and Villa formed an alliance to fight Carranza’s unilateral claim to power, rejecting the more moderate program of the Constitutionalist faction. Civil war then engulfed Mexico over the deeper meaning of the revolution.

Of all the major figures in the revolution, Zapata was the only one who fought the Díaz dictatorship, rebelled against the half-measures of Madero, refused to recognize the reactionary military coup of Huerta, and then challenged the limited reformist goals of the Constitutionalists under Carranza. Zapata opposed the concentration of wealth and privilege in Mexico, wanted to rectify social inequality, and developed a program for the transformation of Mexican society that was far more radical than what Carranza’s faction wanted. Carranza was independent-minded and a Mexican nationalist, but he did not advocate radical land reform and the redistribution of wealth that Zapata did. Once Villa sided with Zapata, the obvious threat Zapata’s agenda posed to already invested and potential future private U.S. business interests, as well as issues of border security, helped tip the administration of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to back Carranza against Villa and Zapata. Carranza then received substantial loans and large amounts of armaments from U.S. merchants, as well as other foreign support. Meanwhile Villa was marginalized and Zapata totally quarantined.


Villa and Obregon’s forces fought it out on Mexico’s northern steppes during the defining battles of the revolution in the summer of 1915. Meanwhile, the Zapatistas ruled Morelos. During the tumultuous time in which he was administering the Revolution in Morelos, Zapata broke the regional oligarchy, confiscated the great sugar estates, divided the land among the neighboring pueblos and hacienda workers, redistributed access to water, and put the sugar industry under state-control. Given Mexico’s history of authoritarian rule, he sought to decentralize political power by promoting local political autonomy. By the end of the revolution, he developed a wide-ranging program that included banking reform, educational reform, judicial reform, and political democracy. The Zapatistas had a more modern vision than Zapata is normally given credit for. Zapata advocated a new mixed economy based on a combination of land reform, state-sponsored industry, independent initiative and small private property, and rural co-operatives. Taken together, his ideas represented a revolutionary imagining of a more equitable society in Mexico.

Zapata’s Revolutionary Vision


As he transitioned from guerilla fighter to administrator, Zapata issued a “Decree of Nationalization” on September 8, 1914. It nationalized the properties of “enemies of the revolution” in their totality and without payment, (as opposed to the one third with indemnity proposed in the Plan de Ayala). The decree also included urban real estate, declaring that funds from the sale of urban properties be used to create “banking institutions dedicated to fomenting agriculture, with the objective that small farmers are not sacrificed by the bankers and that in this way they are able to prosper at all costs.”1 It also nationalized land, forests, and waters, declaring that they be “distributed in common among the villages that so solicit, and divided into lots among those who so desire.”2 And, to protect both communal and small individual landholders from creditors or crop failures, Zapata declared that nationalized and distributed lands could not be bought or sold, and could only be passed on to legitimate heirs.

Zapata also advocated a National Rural Credit Bank to provide loans, seed, and implements to the communities. The Convention government, under purely Zapatista direction following a series of crushing Villista military defeats in the summer of 1915, issued a detailed Agrarian Law in October of 1915. It came in response to a weaker Carrancista plan on January 6, 1915. The Convention plan was Zapatista and was national in scope. It took into account the wide variance in the types of land across the country, creating eighteen different categories based on humidity, rainfall, topography, irrigation, geographic location, and whether it was pastureland, cropland, or land devoted to cash-crops like henequen and rubber. The law also nationalized rivers, lakes, and forests, declaring them available to all according to the “communal system.” Zapata’s agrarian law, quite unlike Carranza’s seis de enero law, authorized the communities to take the lead, declaring that campesinos “right away and by force of arms should and can recover the properties which were taken from them . . . .” The Ministry of Agriculture and Colonization would then review the decisions of the municipalities. In short, the Zapatista plan inverted the Carrancista plan, giving power to the communities to initiate land repossessions and to divide it either individually or communally, “without it being necessary to wait for the authorities to give them what legitimately belongs to them.”3

Beyond Capitalism: A New Mixed Economy

Alongside the unprecedented land redistribution under way, the Zapatistas attempted to implement their plan for rural industrialization in what would be a partly post-capitalist Morelos. Even though Mexico was economically underdeveloped and had not fully industrialized, let alone become a service economy, the Zapatista vision was “post-capitalist” in that it imagined a mixed part-capitalist, part-communalist, part-statist economy that did not yet exist. Zapata began nationalizing the sugar mills, the most advanced capitalist enterprises in the state. The plan for the new national factories was to eliminate the hacendados/capitalists, and have the state, in the form of General Headquarters, run the haciendas, buy the sugarcane that free villagers grew, and employ former dependent hacienda workers (peones acasillados) in the mills at a living wage. The purpose of the national sugar factories was two-fold. The long-term idea was that the restored ejidos (common lands) would create a self-sufficient rural populace, and the rural factories would provide jobs and participation in a viable cash economy. That would help stimulate other local and regional industry by creating an internal market. It was to be a hybrid system that reflected inherited tradition, but would use the power of the Government to break the oligarchy and pursue the wider public interest.

Small-scale private property ownership would continue, and this eclectic economy would have space for private enterprise, state-run industry, and the communally based pueblo self-sufficiency favored by most of the rural populace in Morelos. Aware of the shortcomings of minifundia (small private farms that could not compete with large capitalist agriculture), Zapata imagined small producers participating in voluntary cooperatives to achieve economies of scale that would allow them to mass-produce and market their products and compete with private agribusiness, while an agricultural college would explore new technologies and methods to maximize their output.


Zapatismo was inherently nationalistic. The redistribution of land that Zapata envisioned would have reclaimed much of the nation’s wealth at a time when foreign corporations and individuals dominated the most important aspects of the Mexican economy, including ownership of over 25 percent of the land, 80 percent of the capital in the banking system, most of the transportation infrastructure, 95 percent of the capital in the mining industry, and 100 percent of the oil industry. Zapata found no friends in the United States government or financial community, nor among other foreign interests invested in Mexico. Denied loans and weapons, and totally outmatched militarily, Zapata did not win the war, but his ideas worked themselves into the national consciousness and have influenced Mexican history since.

The idea of national factories was new and visionary at that historical moment, especially in a country where most major industries, including oil, copper, textiles, and banking, to name a few, were dominated by foreign capital. So, it was also a form of revolutionary nationalism. Explaining his movement in a letter to Woodrow Wilson, Zapata complained that the hacenados of Morelos behaved like feudal lords who, as “Spaniards, or the sons of Spaniards, consider themselves to have the right to act as they did in the days of Hernán Cortés, and see their workers as nothing but slaves subject to the brutal law of the conquest.”4 Claiming the sugar factories for the people and the nation was a radical step, far ahead of its time in Mexico and across Latin America, and it earned Zapata powerful foreign and domestic enemies.


The politics of this new society would be a popular democracy through an association of villages rooted in local self-government and the municipio libre (politically independent landholding village). As a national plan, the model represented a hybrid of classic Mexican liberalism by prohibiting monopolies and extending the opportunities for small entrepreneurship, while also pushing “popular liberalism” by carving out a place for pueblo communalism to enjoy the same rights as individuals, and placing both on equal or superior status with foreign capital, which was a radical departure from the status quo ante.

Zapata issued a Ley General Sobre Libertades Municipales on September 15, 1916, and an Organic Municipal Law in April, 1917. By then, he was militarily diminished and could not make them a reality. These unsuccessful laws, codified the rights and responsibilities of the municipios, recognized their political autonomy in local affairs, mandated open elections with one or two-year appointments, and banned consecutive terms for councilmen. Inverting precedent under Diaz, all local issues of land and water were to begin at the local level in consultation with village elders and age-old land titles.

Zapatista Education

Zapata promoted primary education during the revolution, but given the economic hardship of the revolution, many pueblos were slow to open their schools. Frustrated, Zapata issued a public circular saying “one of the ideals for which we are fighting is that of fomenting Public Education, and if under the pretext that the times through which we are passing are abnormal we were to neglect such an important branch, we would contravene our own ideals, which should not happen for any reason.”5 Circular #15 went out in September, 1917, and directed all municipal presidents to open their schools saying, “In light of the improving economic situation and the approach of the harvest the pueblos are now in the position to support the teachers in the schools.” The Ministry of Justice and Public Instruction provided the schools with a formal and uniform curriculum that included books to be used, and prescribed break periods for the children to exercise and sing. The Ministry mandated an attendance policy for both boys and girls, with half a day as the realistic goal for the children of campesinos (workers in the field) whose parents needed their help with fieldwork and household chores.

Wider Consciousness

Meanwhile, Zapata’s representatives in the United States and Cuba were charged with making the true sentiments of the southern revolution known abroad. Having come to see his movements in the wider national and international context, Zapata wrote General Amezcua, who was representing him in Havana, directing him to relate the cause of the Zapatista revolution to the labor confederations of Europe and America, saying that “the proletariat of the world applauds and admires the Russian Revolution . . . and would feel the same sympathy and support for the Mexican Revolution . . . once it fully comprehends its objectives.”6 The international propaganda effort failed, not because Zapata was a provincial who did not recognize its importance, but because he had no important connections in the halls of the U.S. Congress, the White House, or among the American financial community. More importantly, Zapata controlled no area with oil concessions, rich mineral deposits, port cities, coastlines, or large American-owned properties. Unable to either threaten or offer protection to important American investments, Zapata had no leverage and, as a result, gained no serious response from either U.S. investors or the U.S. government.

Cross-Class Alliances

This is where Zapatismo as an ideology was weakest. Organized urban labor, including the anarchist inspired Casa del Obrero Mundial, had reached out to Zapata when Huerta seized power, and Zapata had been dismissive in his response. Years later, and when it was way too late, he finally did what he should have done much earlier when the opportunity presented itself. On March 15, 1918, when he was basically militarily beaten, he published a manifesto, under the heading: OBREROS DE LA REPUBLICA !SALUD! Presented in an urban vernacular that he and his staff rarely used in other writings, it opened with a direct invitation to the urban and industrial working class, saying: “Brothers in the cities, join your brothers in the fields . . . Workers of Puebla, Orizaba, Monterrey, Guanajuato, Cananea, Parral, Pachuca, el Ebano, and Necaxa, workers and operators of the factories and mines of the Republic, hear our fraternal call . . .” The places named were carefully chosen and included the main textile, mining, petroleum, and industrial centers of the country. The manifesto included reference to labor conditions, wages, unions, and other basic industrial and urban-working class demands. The effort was too little too late. Here, the standard interpretations of the shortcomings of Zapatismo ring true. Zapata failed in dramatic fashion to build a rural-urban working class alliance, not because urban labor rejected him, but because he largely ignored them, probably against the advice of the intellectuals around him.

A Revolutionary Party

Zapata carried out copious correspondence with revolutionaries across the country, sending form letters and others specifically crafted for the recipient, saying: “we should form one great revolutionary party inspired by a common program of reforms and capable of giving the country a government founded in the agreement of all the leaders, not in the caprice of a despot.”7 Zapata was totally devoted to his cause, but he was also pragamatic. These overtures, like those to organized labor, came when his military capabilities had been drastically degraded. Ironically, as a champion of decentralized rule, his call for “one great revolutionary party” to represent the disparate groups in the revolution anticipated the centralizing power of the one-party state. Contrary to his vision of that organism incorporating the grass roots movements like his own, the official revolutionary party that was formed after his death turned out quite the opposite from what Zapata imagined. Although it engaged in a negotiated dialogue that moved from the top down and bottom up, the ruling party succeeded in co-opting and then controlling the peasant and worker coalitions, rather than empowering them.

Beyond Ayala

Zapata’s Manifesto al Pueblo Mexicano, on April 2, 1918, attempted to move beyond the shadow of Ayala, saying: “we don’t intend the abusurdity of imposing a fixed, universal standard, but rather hope to improve conditions for the Indian and the proletariat . . . .” The document acknowledged that each region and social class had its own special concerns, something that the Plan de Ayala never mentioned. Zapata then offered what he thought were the defining issues for “national reconstruction,” they included: “Agrarian Reform, worker grievances, transparency and purification of the justice system, guarantee of municipal liberties, the implementation of parliamentarianism, and the abolition of personalist leadership,” which he called caudillaje.

Militarily weak, but ideologically powerful, Zapatismo pushed the nation beyond the limited political reforms envisioned first by Madero, and then by Carranza, Obregón, and the coalition that won the revolution. By the time of Zapata’s death, Zapatismo embodied a plan for the revolutionary transformation of Mexican society. Many of Zapata’s ideas on land reform, nationalized factories, and a revolutionary party became part of the Mexican political landscape in the years that followed, although not in the way that he had imagined.

Zapata lost the revolution, and the winners produced the official story. The caricature of Zapata that has emerged is that he was a determined agrarian who fought a noble struggle for the return of the land. The message is that he was destined to lose because he was trying to preserve a peasant past, not push society forward. He remains an important member of the revolutionary pantheon of heroes because he stood up for the downtrodden and, unlike Villa, never gave up, and died for his cause. Finally, the standard narrative tells us that those who won the Revolution and created post-revolutionary Mexico were the ones with a modern vision for the future. Unfortunately, that narrative obliterates from common knowledge Zapata’s true legacy by ignoring the broader vision and more equal society he imagined and tried to create.

Discussion of the Literature

The official image of Zapata, embraced and promoted by Mexico’s political leadership and official history for decades, packages him as a purely agrarian leader, presents him as a brave and honorable national hero, but suggests he was doomed to defeat because he represented the peasant past, while the urbanizing, industrializing, modern world was passing him by. That image is reinforced by scholarship that links Zapatismo to the deeper roots of communal land holding, from the pre-Colombian Aztec calpulli, to the Spanish fundo legal, to the subsequent Mexican ejido and the idea of the autonomous village or municipio libre. One of the most informed students of Zapata and Zapatismo, Jesús Sotelo Inclán, in his classic 1948, Raíz y razón de Zapata, called Zapata the last calpuleque (indigenous leader) of Anenecuilco. Although sympathetic to Zapata and Zapatismo, the link is to the past. John Womack Jr., in the equally classic Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, opens by saying it is about people who got into a revolution because they did not want to move. Womack’s book is sympathetic to Zapata and is nuanced, deep, and even inspiring. His depiction, though, also implies inertia, torpidity, and lack of forward movement. Ultimately, it does not characterize Zapatismo as a progressive force. Patrick McNamara, in an enlightening article entitled “Rewriting Zapata: Generational Conflict on the Eve of the Mexican Revolution,” challenges Womack’s depiction and presents Zapata as more flexible and pragmatic, and less bound by tradition. Samuel Brunk’s, Emiliano Zapata: Revolution and Betrayal in Mexico, challenges the more hagiography-like aspects of Womack’s book, presenting a Zapata with warts and all, while following the idea of Zapata as a strong, but traditional leader primarily concerned with land reform, not a Zapata with a modern vision for the future. More than other works in English, Robert Millon’s, Zapata: the Ideology of a Peasant Revolutionary, emphasizes the evolution of Zapata’s ideas, making an important contribution in that regard, but it stretches to fit Zapata’s eclectic program within a basically Marxist paradigm that post-dates his actions.8

Mexican scholars have explored Zapata and Zapatismo in depth. For anyone studying Zapata, the place to begin is Gildardo Magaña’s, Emiliano Zapata y el agrarismo en México. During the latter part of the revolution, Magaña served as Zapata’s secretary and oversaw General Headquarters correspondence and proclamations. All other histories written in any language by those who did not actually know Zapata derive in some way from Magaña. Like Sotelo Inclán, Magaña roots Zapata in history and tradition, but makes it plain that he had a contemporary perspective and was always looking ahead to the new social relationships the revolution would create. Laura Lopez Espejel’s edited book, Estudios sobre el Zapatismo, offers a wide-ranging multi-disciplinary perspective, both topically and geographically, that captures the multiple aspects of Zapatismo, as does Espejel, Alicia Olivera, and Salvador Rueda’s co-edited, Emiliano Zapata: Antología. Francisco Piñeda Gómez’s, La Irrupción Zapatista, and La Revolución del Sur, are well researched and make extensive use of oral histories and interviews to explore the causes, events, and multiple meanings of Zapatismo, as remembered by those who made the movement. As the title suggests, Enrique Krauze’s, Emiliano Zapata: El Amor a la Tierra, presents a traditional, backward-looking Zapata, and the message is reinforced by the language and imagery employed. Krauze’s book reflects a standard, officially embraced narrative. Taken together, the works of Mexican scholars focus more on Zapatismo than on Zapata, and contextualize the movement in important ways. Finally, Samuel Brunk demonstrates in The Posthumous Career of Emiliano Zapata: Myth, Memory, and Mexico’s Twentieth Century, that the Mexican government has worked to shape the image of Zapata in the decades since the revolution. A review of the scholarship indicates that it too has occasionally served to reinforce the official message.9

Primary Sources

The Mexican Archivo General de la Nacion (AGN) houses the Archivo de Emiliano Zapata. These are primarily letters to General Headquarters and Zapata. The letters are generally from individuals and communities and, more than any other archive, they offer a view of the concerns and objections that local people had about Zapatista troops and their abuse of pueblo citizens, theft of crops, and similar complaints. Consulting this document base alone would offer a skewed view of Zapatismo, as people are much more likely to send letters hoping for some redress of local grievances than they are to send random letters saying that they have nothing to complain about. It is an important resource that, when used in conjunction with other archives, provides a more balanced perspective.

The Mexican AGN also has the Archivo de Genovevo de la O, which contains correspondence to and from de la O, including that with Zapata. The AGN also holds the Archivo del Cuartel General del Sur, which has more correspondence, as well as pronouncements, decrees, and information on troops, resources, and civil and military concerns. The AGN has other collections useful to the study of the period that contextualize the historical moment.

The Archivo Historico of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) holds the archive of Gildardo and Octavio Magaña Cerda, which is the most useful of the archives on Zapata and Zaptatismo. Magaña ran General Headquarters during the last years of the revolution, and the archive contains letters to and from Zapata, de la O, Magaña, and many others, as well as pronouncements, decrees, and laws. Taken together, they provide a view of the main concerns of Zapata and General Headquarters and how they evolved over time.

The Programa de Historia Oral of the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH) contains interviews with former Zapatatistas conducted by scholars during the early 1970s. They provide unique and invaluable insight into Zapatismo from the view of the rank and file. The Instituto de Investigaciones Dr. Jose Maria Luis Mora contains more and different interviews conducted around the same time that provide the same kind of anthropological information. The Steinbeck Collection at the Morgan Library in New York City contains interviews conducted by Steinbeck and his associates during the late 1940s, when he was researching for the writing of the script of the 1952 film, Viva Zapata. These interviews are primarily with people of important standing within the Zapatista movement, were done long before the ones at INAH or the Mora, and provide yet another layer of information and perspective. Finally, the Hemeroteca Nacional at UNAM contains newspapers from the time that reveal the various ways Zapata was presented and interpreted when he was fighting the revolution and after.

Further Reading

Espinosa, Ávila and Filipe Arturo. Los Origenes del Zapatismo. Mexico City: El Colégio de México, 2001.Find this resource:

    Brunk, Samuel. Emiliano Zapata! Revolution and Betrayal in Mexico. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.Find this resource:

      Brunk, Samuel. The Posthumous Career of Emiliano Zapata: Myth, Memory, and Mexico’s Twentieth Century. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008.Find this resource:

        Díaz Soto y Gama, Antonio. La Revolución Agraria del Sur y Emiliano Zapata: Su Caudillo. Mexico City: Policromia, 1961.Find this resource:

          Espejel, Laura, Alicia Olivera, and Salvador Rueda, eds. Emiliano Zapata: Antología. Mexico City: Instituto nacional de Estudios Históricos de la Revolución Mexicana, 1988.Find this resource:

            Gilbert, Dennis. “Emiliano Zapata: Textbook Hero.” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 19.1 (Winter 2003): 127–159.Find this resource:

              Hart, Paul. Emiliano Zapata: Mexico’s Social Revolutionary. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.Find this resource:

                Krauze, Enrique. El Amor a la Tierra: Emiliano Zapata. Biografía del Poder, no. 3. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1987.Find this resource:

                  López Espejel, Laura, coord. Estudios sobre el Zapatismo. Mexico City: National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), 2001.Find this resource:

                    Magaña, Gildardo and Carlos Pérez Guerrero. Emiliano Zapata y el Agrarismo en México, 5 vols. Mexico City: Editorial Ruta, 1951–1952.Find this resource:

                      McNamara, Patrick J. “Rewriting Zapata: Generational Conflict on the Eve of the Mexican Revolution.” Estudios Mexicanos 30 (2014): 122–149.Find this resource:

                        Millon, Robert. Zapata: The Ideology of an Agrarian Revolutionary. New York: International Publishers, 1970.Find this resource:

                          Piñeda Gómez, Francisco. La Irrupción Zapatista: 1911. Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 1997.Find this resource:

                            Piñeda Gómez, Francisco. La Revolucion del Sur: 1912–1914. Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 2005.Find this resource:

                              Rueda Smithers, Salvador. El Paraíso de la Caña: Historia de una Construcción Imaginaria. Mexico City: INAH, 1998.Find this resource:

                                Schell Jr., William. “Emiliano Zapata and the Old Regime: Myth, Memory, and Method.” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 25.2 (2009): 327–365.Find this resource:

                                  Sotelo Inclan, Jesus. Raíz y Razón de Zapata (2d ed.). Mexico City: Comisión Federal de Electricidad, 1970.Find this resource:

                                    Warman, Arturo. “We Come To Object”: The Peasants of Morelos and the National State. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.Find this resource:

                                      Womack, John. Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1970.Find this resource:

                                        Paul Hart


                                        (1.) Archivo Historico de la Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico: Archivo de Gildardo Magana (AGM), Caja 80. See also Robert Millon, Zapata: The Ideology of a Peasant Revolutionary (New York: International Publishers, 1970).

                                        (2.) Caja 80; and Millon, The Ideology of a Peasant Revolutionary.

                                        (3.) Millon, The Ideology of a Peasant Revolutionary, p. 65.

                                        (4.) Emiliano Zapata: escritos y documentos (1911–1918). Centro de estudios para el desarollo nacional, 3rd ed., 1999.

                                        (5.) Caja 80, exp. 96 and 97 contain this, and other decrees on education specifically, and governance generally.

                                        (6.) Caja 70.

                                        (7.) Caja 70, exp. 11.

                                        (8.) Jesús Sotelo Inclán, Raíz y razón de Zapata (Mexico City: Comisión Federal de Electricidad, 1970); John Womack Jr., Zapata and the Mexican Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1970); Patrick McNamara, “Rewriting Zapata: Generational Conflict on the Eve of the Mexican Revolution,” Estudios Mexicanos 30 (2014): 122–149; Samuel Brunk, Emiliano Zapata: Revolution and Betrayal in Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995); and Millon’s, The Ideology of a Peasant Revolutionary.

                                        (9.) Gildardo Magaña, Emiliano Zapata y el Agrarismo en México (Mexico City: Editorial Ruta, 1951–1952); Laura Lopez Espejel, Estudios sobre el Zapatismo (Mexico City: National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), 2001); Laura Espejel, Alicia Olivera, and Salvador Rueda, eds., Emiliano Zapata: Antología (Mexico City: Instituto nacional de Estudios Históricos de la Revolución Mexicana, 1988); Francisco Piñeda Gómez, La irrupción Zapatista (Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 1997); Francisco Piñeda Gómez, La Revolución del Sur (Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 2005); and Samuel Brunk, The Posthumous Career of Emiliano Zapata: Myth, Memory, and Mexico’s Twentieth Century (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008).