Emiliano Zapata, the mythical hero of the Mexican Revolution

Emiliano Zapata, emblem of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, at the age of 17 had his first problem with the government, so he fled his village to take refuge with family friends. He then led the Revolution in Mexico from 1910 to 1917 with the aim of fighting for the rights of peasants.

The birthday of the hero, Emiliano Zapata, of the Mexican Revolution is August 8. Photo: UNAM Historical Archive
The birthday of the hero, Emiliano Zapata, of the Mexican Revolution is August 8. Photo: UNAM Historical Archive

Moustache, populated eyebrows, brown skin, and a charro hat are characteristics that always evoke the "Caudillo del Sur" (Southern Caudillo), Emiliano Zapata.

The birth date of the hero of the Mexican Revolution is August 8, a date that serves to commemorate the work of the leader of the Liberating Army of the South during the armed conflict.

The man, later taken up as an emblem of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, had the main objective in mind during the revolt that took place in Mexico from 1910 to 1917: to fight for the rights of the peasants, most of whom during the porfiriato were dispossessed of their lands, forcing them to move away from agricultural production.

But that was not the beginning of his fight against the authorities or his magnetic sympathy. Zapata, brother of two women and a man, who was born in a community of barely 400 inhabitants in Anenecuilco, Morelos, has always been a political leader. At the age of 17 he had his first problem with the government, so he fled his village to take refuge with family friends.

Months later, when the situation calmed down for him, he returned to Morelos. There he continued with his great passion: horseback riding. His talent and natural leadership made the community sympathize with him. When the Anenecuilco Municipal Council changed in 1909, the inhabitants of the area elected Zapata as President.

Immediately the "Caudillo del Sur" began to enter into conversations with authorities in Mexico City to improve the working conditions of the peasants. This caught the attention of the rulers, who asked him to join the Army. And so he did, moving for a time to the capital of the country to work as a knight.

When he returned to his hometown he had his second confrontation with the authorities. The agricultural workers were unable to plant in the hacienda El Hospital because of a lawsuit brought by the owners. The response of Zapata, leader of the local council, was to seize the land through an arms uprising. And he did it.

His victory was heard in neighboring communities living in similar situations, so they elected him as head of the Junta de Villa de Ayala, a larger demarcation than Anenecuilco in which several municipalities of Morelos were included.

In 1910 he was called by Francisco I. Madero to join the ranks of the Revolution. Zapata, who always mistrusted politicians, hesitated a little. But when Pablo Torres Burgos, a friend, and companion of ideals, was named commander in the movement, the warrior of the South also associated.

A year later, seduced by Madero's Plan de San Luis, which spoke of restitution of land to peasants, Emiliano Zapata took over the leadership of the Libertador del Sur Army. At his side was always Eufemio Zapata, his brother, who also played a leading role in the battle.

For the government, he became a rebel classified as a violent person. His achievements on the battlefield made the authorities uncomfortable and deprived them of power. Meanwhile, in northern Mexico, Francisco Villa also fought in the revolution by commanding the Northern Division.

In 1911 Porfirio Diaz left power and fled. The mandate was then taken by Francisco León de la Barra, which I. Madero considered a victory, so he asked the Army to lay down its arms, but Zapata did not agree. He said he would not abandon the fire unless the restitution of the land was complied with.

The "Caudillo del Sur" decided to elaborate the historic Ayala Plan, in which the government of Francisco I. Madero, who was about to become President, was unknown. The armed conflicts returned and Francisco I. Madero was assassinated for treason by Victoriano Huerta. Later he took power from the Government and aggravated the attacks against the revolutionaries.

Pancho Villa and Venustiano Carranza, lawyer and politician, joined forces and in 1914 overthrew Huerta. Then the "Caudillo del Sur" and the "Centauro del Norte" united for the first time in Mexico City and agreed to fight Carranza.

Sometime later the two also had differences, so they separated. Villa confronted the Carrancistas, while Zapata returned to Morelos and worked on the reconstruction of his state. In 1915 the former leader of the Northern Division was defeated, and now the attacks were concentrated on the Zapatistas.

After agreements and conflicts between the government and the peasants, in 1919 Emiliano Zapata was assassinated in Chinameca, Morelos. His followers continued to honor and respect him for the actions he did for the benefit of the peasant communities.

Zapata after Zapata: to whom does the image of the Caudillo del Sur belong?

With execution of Emiliano Zapata, the myth was born, but above all the principles of social justice, equality and resistance related to the struggle he led during his lifetime have prevailed.

Zapata after Zapata will be on display at the Museum of the Palace of Fine Arts until February 16, 2020, at the Nacional and Diego Rivera galleries.
Zapata after Zapata will be on display at the Museum of the Palace of Fine Arts until February 16, 2020, at the Nacional and Diego Rivera galleries.

One day after the murder of Emiliano Zapata at the Hacienda de la Chinameca, the newspaper Excélsior reported on this event in its pages. With the title "Emiliano Zapata Died: The Zapatistas are Dead," the publication pointed out the fall of who had become an important banner of the Revolution and the rebellion. Nine years after the outbreak of the armed movement, Zapata remained in opposition to the government then headed by Venustiano Carranza, and also showed his rejection of the administration of Francisco I. Madero and opposed the coup d'état of Victoriano Huerta.

The newspaper reported the assassination of the Caudillo del Sur, described in the publication as a "bloody leader", as follows:

"The government troops, in order to get close to the leader, who always avoided any encounter, who was always far from the bullets of the soldiers of the Federation, had to pretend to take up arms... General Gonzalez already ordered that the body, fully identified, since in Cuautla everyone knew the leader, be injected and that photographs be taken of him to be sent to this capital".

The captures resulting from Gonzalez's order show Zapata's body surrounded by residents and supporters who gathered at the Cuautla, Morelos, town hall, where it was displayed by the authorities. Those present wanted to verify for themselves the expiration of the Attila del Sur, as they were stunned to believe that Zapata had fallen into an ambush at the hands of government troops, since it was well known that the leader of the Liberation Army of the South was particularly distrustful and cautious about relations with the state.

One hundred years after the decisive headline in the newspaper Excélsior, and contrary to his fulminating assertion, Emiliano Zapata is still alive and the Zapatistas are still in power; what both represent dialogues with the present and its actors, questions them, and rethinks contingent struggles that recall the legacy of the Plan de Ayala and its conviction for Freedom, Land, Justice, and Law.

An example of the validity and impact of Zapata and the Zapatistas in the social and cultural spheres of the country is the exhibition "Emiliano. Zapata después de Zapata" (Emiliano. Zapata after Zapata), which is in the Museum of the Palace of Fine Arts and is made up of 141 works from 70 national and international collections, both public and private.

"The guiding concept of the exhibition is that Zapata's image is uncontainable, that is, it cannot be restrained. Although the Mexican state gradually appropriated Zapata's legacy, this institutionalization did not cancel out the strength of Zapatismo among the popular base," says Uriel Vides, curatorial advisor, and manager of the exhibition.

One of the pieces that welcome visitors is a hat that belonged to Zapata and was worn on the day of his assassination. The hat, which retains a visible bullet impact, accompanies a pistol and a gasné that were owned by the caudillo; also in this section are the Plan de Ayala and the iconic photograph of Zapata at the Hotel Moctezuma.

Together, these elements present the death and absence of the revolutionary as the starting point and driving force behind Zapata's prolific iconographic construction and his subsequent reappropriation and vindication by various social movements. The section also highlights the strength of each of these objects by making reference on their own to the Caudillo Sur, a fact that speaks to the transcendence and the rootedness of Emiliano Zapata's image in the culture and collective imagination of our country.

Precisely, the exhibition explores the diverse representations of the Caudillo del Sur throughout 100 years as a peasant leader, an emblem of resistance, a hero of the State, a racial symbol, a revolutionary guerrilla, a reference of 19th-century masculinity in Mexico and a vindicated icon of the most diverse contemporary social struggles.

In the first section, we will find numerous photos of Zapata as a revolutionary charro that exposes the clothing elements that Zapata armed himself with, as well as his skillful use of photography, to build his characteristic image that over time transcended the origin and belonging of each of these elements.

In this part the exhibition addresses the question of gender and calls for the participation of female revolutionaries like Rosa Bobadilla and the female soldiers, women who because of the masculinist perspectives of history have become anonymous participants in the Revolution. It also touches on the story of Amelio Robles, a transgendered man who fought in the Zapatista ranks during the armed movement.

In this axis, where there are also paintings, engravings and videos, pieces by María Izquierdo, Agustín Víctor Casasola, José Guadalupe Posada, José Clemente Orozco and Jorge González Camarena stand out.

Next, we find a series of works that address the appropriation of Zapata's image by the post-revolutionary state to transform him into a national symbol.

The works Paisaje Zapatista (1915) and Zapata, líder agrario (1931), both by Diego Rivera, stand out here. The first, painted in Paris during Diego's cubist period, is the first pictorial approach to the theme of the Revolution; while the second represents the indigenization of the figure of Zapata towards its construction as an official symbol of agrarianism. Other works present in this nucleus belong to Miguel Covarrubias, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Leopoldo Méndez, among others.

The third part of the exhibition deals with the export of Zapata's image abroad to represent various struggles related to migration, specifically the Chicano movement and civil rights. Here, Cholas I stands out, with Zapata y Villa (1986) by Graciela Iturbide, a piece that shows the scope of Zapata in the United States as an important identity icon for Mexican-American populations.

Finally, the last section presents other revolutions that Morelos' history has represented indirectly, since in the pieces exhibited Zapata is taken away from the hegemonic and institutional narrative, in charge of making his image sacred, to later rethink the meanings that make up this narrative and shake the solemnity of a sterile and apolitical image of a national hero trapped in the past.

The works exhibited here use Zapata as a reason to question social norms related to gender, sexuality, desire, race, social inequalities, and political injustices. Here the image of the caudillo is displaced to represent social uprisings of diverse indoles: from the 1968 movement and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, to the feminist, gender equality, and LGBT rights movements.

Some highlights of this section belong to Mariana Botey, Alberto Gironella, Julio Galán, Fabián Cháirez, and Daniel Salazar.

The myth was born with his firing squad, but above all the principles of social justice, equality and resistance related to the struggle he led during his lifetime have prevailed. These principles are still in force and are claimed by various movements and appropriated by nationalist discourses due to the meaning they still have for an immense majority, as the exhibition Emiliano shows. Zapata after Zapata, which will be on display at the Museum of the Palace of Fine Arts until February 16, 2020, at the Nacional and Diego Rivera galleries.