General Emiliano Zapata, the mythical hero of the Mexican Revolution who fought for the rights of peasants

Emiliano Zapata Salazar was a Mexican revolutionary who in 1906 led the rebellion against the sugar plantation owners. In 1909 he organized the Defense Board to distribute land among the peasants.

General Emiliano Zapata, the mythical hero of the Mexican Revolution who fought for the rights of peasants
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. Image: Museum of the Palace of Fine Arts

General Emiliano Zapata, 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 regime were dispossessed of their lands, forcing them to move away from agricultural production.

The state of Morelos is a place with mountains and valleys covered with rivers. It is a region in the south of Mexico where many fruit trees, rice, and sugar cane are grown; the abundance of water allows the plants to grow fast and lush. Near Cuautla, next to the Ayala River, there is a small and very pretty town called Anenecuilco. This place has adobe houses, palm huts, and a small zocalo where the locals stroll.

Since colonial times, sugar production has been one of the main activities in this region. At the end of the last century, only 400 families lived in Anenecuilco. Almost all the inhabitants were poor peasants who worked in the nearby haciendas, where sugar cane was grown; they planted, burned, and cut the cane. Afterward, the muleteers would take it with their mules to the sugar mill. There it was put into the trapiches (mills to extract the juice from the cane) and sugar was produced.

At that time the railroad was built and the mills were modernized with machines that were faster than the mills. With this technological advance, sugar production grew and it became easier to transport. However, many muleteers and sugar mill workers became unemployed; every day the inhabitants of Anenecuilco and other neighboring towns became poorer.

In Anenecuilco lived Don Gabriel Zapata and his wife, Doña Cleofas Salazar. They had 10 children; the ninth was named Emiliano and he was born on August 8, 1879. Like his siblings and friends, Emiliano studied elementary school in the town school.

What he liked most was the history of Mexico, but not only the one his teacher taught him, but the one he learned from his great-uncle. He would tell him that his ancestors had fought for independence in 1810 and had helped José María Morelos by getting food for his troops when he was fighting in Cuautla. He spoke to him about the French Intervention and the Empire, and how he himself had fought to defend the government of President Benito Juárez. His great-uncle also taught him how to use guns, although he told him that he should only use them when he went hunting in the mountains or when he had to defend his country.

Emiliano wanted to learn to ride and tame horses. Once, when he was very young, he got on a horse that was not tamed; it jumped the fence and galloped away. His aunt and mother were sure it would throw him off. A short time later Emiliano returned mounted on the colt, with scratches and blood on his face. He looked at the two women full of pride and told them: " It didn't throw me; the scratches were caused by the huizaches (thorn trees)! I've already tamed it!

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

His father gave Emiliano an old mule. In order to earn a little money, he would get up early to take pasture to an aunt's animals. When the mule refused to work, either because it was stubborn or old, they say Emiliano forced it to walk by biting its ear. Life in the countryside required children to start earning their own bread at a very young age.

Emiliano and his brother Eufemio helped their father. From him they learned the work of the fields: to plow the land, to sow, to raise cattle; but, above all, they learned from him to be free. Don Gabriel used to tell his children: - First, you starve to death rather than work as laborers on the haciendas.

Many of Anenecuilco's neighbors were hacienda laborers; they earned little and worked a lot. The workday began at 6 a.m.; at noon they ate and rested for a while. Before two o'clock they resumed work and continued until 8 p.m. Twelve hours of work and poorly paid! The three or four reales they were given as wages were barely enough to eat. The Zapata family did not have to work in the neighboring haciendas, because besides having land to plant, they raised cattle and then sold them in the nearby towns.

Emiliano and his brother were in charge of selling the cattle, so they learned very well the roads, caves, and ravines throughout the region. Thanks to these trips, Emiliano was able to get to know and befriend many of the peasants in the places he passed through. In Anenecuilco, as in many other towns in Mexico, the elders were the highest authority of the peasants, as they were the wisest and most respected. They formed the Regent Council of Anenecuilco and met whenever they had to resolve something important for the whole community.

In the early 1900s, the peasants had more and more problems every day, as poverty and mistreatment of them had increased at the beginning of the century. Very few had jobs, but they were poorly paid. It was useless to protest in the courts of Mexico City since the government did not support them in any way.

The elders saw that times had changed and that it was necessary for young people to make decisions now since the prudence of old age was no longer useful in such a difficult situation. Thus, the Council of Elders of Anenecuilco called all the inhabitants of the town, and on October 12, 1909, new representatives were elected: Francisco Franco was chosen as secretary, Eduviges Sanchez, and Rafael Merino as treasurers and Emiliano Zapata as president of the Council.

At that time Emiliano Zapata was 30 years old. He was a man of medium height and sunburned skin. He wore a large mustache and had a mole on the upper part of his mustache, on the right side; his eyes were dark and his gaze was frank; his mouth, of regular size, and his lips, thin. He liked to dress as a charro with embroidered stripes on his hat and silver ornaments on his pants. His greatest pride was to have a good horse to ride on his back with a good quality saddle, boots, and spurs.

For some time, Emiliano Zapata, besides being esteemed by the neighbors, had been respected because, together with the young people of the town, he had supported the engineer Patricio Leyva to be governor of the state. Leyva had shown his interest in the peasant problems, but he was defeated because his supporters could not vote freely. Some of them were imprisoned and others were sent to Quintana Roo to do forced labor.

Emiliano Zapata, emblem of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.
Emiliano Zapata, emblem of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. Image: National Institute of Anthropology and History, Mexico

The Madero Revolution

In 1910, Francisco I. Madero began the armed struggle against President Porfirio Diaz, who had already been ruling the country for 30 years. The news of the beginning of the revolution reached the entire state of Morelos. The peasants supported Madero because he had promised to give them back their land when he published the Plan de San Luis; besides, the poor people knew very well that to get what they wanted it was necessary, first, to overthrow the tyrant.

Emiliano Zapata was one of the main Maderista leaders in the state of Morelos. Those who decided to join the Revolution went in search of him to fight by his side. Those who came from the cold lands, those near the volcanoes, gathered along the roads; others came from the hot lands of Morelos. When they reached the Cerro del Aguacate, they met a man leaning on a serape, who, upon seeing them, said to them:

-Where are you going, boys?

-We have come to see a gentleman named Zapata who is gathering people," said one of them.

-Oh, great guys! And what do you want him for? -Zapata asked.

-We want to know if he consents to our going with him. We want to fight," they answered.

To which Zapata replied:

-It's about fighting against the government of Porfirio Diaz so that they give us back the water and the lands they took from us long ago, but it's not a one-day thing. Do you think they'll stand the fight? Because if they do, here you have Emiliano Zapata, at your service.
Emiliano Zapata, in one of his camps in the state of Morelos.
Emiliano Zapata, in one of his camps in the state of Morelos Plano general where the head of the Revolution of the south appears. Photo: UNAM Historical Archive

The revolutionary chief of the south

When the peasants entered the struggle initiated by Madero, they had no weapons other than the rifle and shotgun they used to hunt hares or güilotas. Others took the machete with which they cut sugar cane; these were their first weapons. Everyone went to the revolution with what they had. A peasant tells of that movement:

-I went with a small cylinder pistol and a machete; that was my weapon. Others with shotguns or 12-gauge rifles, and the rest with daggers. And many, only with their hearts!

Months after taking up arms, the peasants of Morelos chose the most outstanding chief to lead the revolutionary movement in the south. Once again, Emiliano Zapata was the chosen one; now he would be the leader not only of his people but of an entire army of peasants who followed him because he knew how to command and lead a battle and also because they had admiration and respect for him.

When the Maderista revolution triumphed, General Porfirio Díaz left the country. While a new ruler was elected, Francisco León de la Barra remained as provisional president. The landowners were afraid that the peasants would occupy their lands with weapons in hand, so they asked the president for the army to protect them. Such a mission was entrusted to General Victoriano Huerta.

The arrival of Generals Zapata and Villa at the National Palace.
The arrival of Generals Zapata and Villa at the National Palace on December 6, 1914. Photo: UNAM Historical Archive

Zapatismo is born

Francisco I. Madero was elected president of Mexico on November 6, 1911. The revolutionaries who had supported him from the beginning were not happy with the situation; Zapata and his men said that now the state of Morelos was worse than during the Porfiriato, since Ambrosio Figueroa, an enemy of Zapata and his people, had been imposed as governor.

Francisco I. Madero had proposed to Zapata and his people to lay down their arms and wait for the lands to be legally handed over to them. Zapata, on behalf of the peasants, did not accept, because -he said- they wanted to treat them as bandits or barbarians and not as revolutionaries.

This was the reason why Zapata, with some of his men, went to the town of Ayoxustla, in the mountains of Puebla, to write his political program, in which he informed the whole Nation that he and the revolutionaries under his command would continue fighting because they had not kept their promise to give them back their lands.

In November 1911, Emiliano Zapata and the teacher Otilio Montaño finished the program, which they called Plan de Ayala. They wanted to have a document that would legalize their nonconformity against the government and unite the revolutionaries of the center of the Republic under the slogan of Justice and Law.

Now the peasants had their own law, by means of which their lands would be returned to them, without them being forced to wait long years. From that moment on, the members of the southern revolutionary army would be called "Zapatistas", in honor of their beloved leader. Together with him, they would fight for nine long years.

Emiliano Zapata and Zapatistas.
Emiliano Zapata and Zapatistas. Photo: UNAM Historical Archive

Zapatistas winning numerous battles

In the beginning, there were several peasant chiefs who also fought but were independent of Zapata. Among these were generals Francisco Pacheco and Genovevo de la O, who had their center of operations near the Zempoala lagoons. From there they would go down to Cuernavaca or move up to Ajusco. But months later, they accepted the Plan de Ayala, with which Zapatismo continued to spread beyond the limits of the state of Morelos and increased the number of combatants.

Despite the fact that the federal army burned villages and cornfields, the civilian population, known as "los pacíficos", supported the Zapatistas by giving them food for themselves and fodder for their horses; they also served as couriers or spies. They helped them because they saw in Zapata the caudillo who would bring them justice; that is why it was said that in Morelos "even the dogs were Zapatistas".

Victoriano Huerta betrayed Madero; he had him imprisoned and, a few days later, assassinated him in order to remain as President of the Republic. Immediately, with the backing of the Morelos landowners, Huerta restarted the campaign of terror in the towns. Many "peaceful" peasants had to take refuge in the hills.

In the camps, the Zapatistas used to meet at night to talk and organize their work. They would revive themselves by singing the corridos of a popular composer, Marciano Silva, known as "Chano" Silva. He said that everyone had to do his job and that he was to compose songs to brighten up the long and restless nights of his colleagues:

the pen is my cannon and my strategy, and my verse is the shrapnel to my understanding. They are the weapons with which I fight in the present and with them I will fight without resting, fighting the tyrants who recklessly yearn only for a national conflict.

Due to the long years of struggle, the fields of Morelos changed; they were transformed into a desolate and sad landscape. Entire villages were uninhabited; wild weeds had grown in the fields; the machinery of the sugar mills was abandoned; the roads were destroyed. Only a few towns and cities retained parts of their population, such as Cuernavaca and Cuautla.

Brothers Emiliano and Eufemio Zapata with their wives.
Brothers Emiliano and Eufemio Zapata with their wives, group portrait. Image: National Institute of Anthropology and History, Mexico

General Zapata ordered to take the square of Chilpancingo, Guerrero, on March 26, 1914; when besieging it, they knew that they did not have artillery like the Federals, but on the other hand, their number of combatants was greater; thus the thrust of the Zapatistas, who together with their horses seemed to be a single character: "horse and rider were one guerrilla".

The Zapatista horsemen knew how to handle the lasso with mastery. According to the story, they even managed to lasso the enemy's machine guns.

It is said that the Zapatista general "Chon" Diaz, with 800 men, five or six "cueteros" (gunners) who made bombs called "de golpe" and the coastal Julio Blanco, went ahead of the date set for combat. The city of Chilpancingo was taken with blood and fire.

At the end of the battle, the Zapatistas obtained sixty mules with artillery, eight or ten rapid-fire cannons, 12 machine guns, and several mountain cannons. In addition to the armament and money, they obtained the most important thing: the defeat of one of the generals most feared by the population: General Cartón, who together with forty-three officers was subjected to a military trial by orders of General Zapata. Cartón and his men were found guilty of the destruction of villages and peasants' homes and were shot. The federal soldiers were disarmed and many joined the Zapatistas.

In different regions of the country, the Zapatistas and the Constitutionalists succeeded in defeating Victoriano Huerta. Venustiano Carranza was left as First Chief of the Constitutionalist Army, provisionally in charge of the government. He immediately wanted to reach an agreement with Zapata so that there would be peace. However, as Venustiano Carranza did not accept the Ayala Plan, Zapata decided to continue fighting.

Emiliano and Eufemio Zapata.
Emiliano and Eufemio Zapata: Photo Historical Archive of the UNAM

A peasant government: the revolutionaries take over

At last, the Zapatistas returned to their territory, and, for the first time in the history of the peasant struggle, Zapata, his army and the people succeeded in establishing their own government. In 1915, in view of the military and political triumphs won by him and his people, Zapata decided to form a revolutionary government.

The "Zapatista General Headquarters" was in charge of organizing the daily life of the towns under Zapatista control: it fixed the price of merchandise to avoid abuses by merchants and ensured that sugar cane continued to be planted in the countryside so that the sugar mills, which were now theirs, would not stop producing sugar. This was given to the population and the army through vouchers signed by Zapata, his brother Eufemio or Manuel Palafox, secretary of the headquarters.

Zapatista currency was also issued.

The chiefs or their troops were prevented from committing abuses on civilian properties. For example, they needed to have authorization from the chief of the plaza to slaughter cattle for food. The municipal president was in charge of obtaining sustenance for the troops in the towns. The people elected their municipal authorities and governor, and the troops, together with Zapata, were in charge of appointing the generals of the revolutionary army.

In 1915 a group of young agronomists arrived in Morelos to work on the demarcation of the lands that corresponded to each town, thus preventing them from fighting over the boundaries. When the peasants returned and recovered their lands, the fields were planted; the population had food. People returned to their homes to continue their daily lives. It seemed as if there had been no war because the population was able to continue with their customs and festivities.

The limits of the Zapatista zone were guarded by the liberating army to avoid a surprise attack by the Constitutionalist army. In the middle of 1916, Carranza commissioned General Pablo González to initiate a military campaign to finish off Zapata; the Zapatistas had to retreat and return again to the hills. In 1917, Venustiano Carranza was elected constitutional president. For Carranza's government, Zapata was just a rebel leading outlaws who opposed national unity.

Emiliano Zapata on horseback.
Emiliano Zapata on horseback, portrait. Image: National Institute of Anthropology and History, Mexico

Zapata dies due to treason

The government managed to increase its army, which already had modern weaponry. Little by little, the Zapatistas lost ground until they had to return to their former places, that is to say, the highest and most remote hills. There they suffered cold, hunger, and thirst. The winter of 1918 was very hard. About these days, an old Zapatista recounts:

-We ate wet earth, tender grass; we chewed herbs. Sometimes we managed to go down to the fields to cut some beans and corn. To quench our thirst, we drank water puddled from the already rotten trunks...

Each day that passed, the situation became more difficult, to the point that Emiliano Zapata told the other chiefs:

-From today on we will have to change the way we fight. We will move in small groups. Each one will follow the general who represents his people.

Zapata and his group took refuge in the town of Tepalcingo, near the state of Puebla. Although he had lost almost all the places he had dominated for nine years and found himself with fewer troops and without weapons, Zapata was still a threat to the federal government, which was looking for a way to finish him off.

Thus, in early 1919, the government convinced Colonel Jesús Guajardo, who was in the federal army, to pretend that he wanted to join Zapata's forces. Guajardo wrote to Zapata to tell him that he wanted to fight with him and that he could provide him with a large number of weapons and cartridges.

At first, Zapata was not convinced of Guajardo's sincerity. However, given the possibility of obtaining reinforcements and weapons, he finally accepted. After several talks, Guajardo invited General Zapata to lunch at the Chinameca hacienda. The general showed up accompanied by an escort of only 10 men.

At two o'clock in the afternoon of April 10, 1919, Zapata arrived at the entrance of the hacienda, mounted on a sorrel horse that Guajardo himself had given him as a gift a few days before. In the hacienda's courtyard, the guard was ready, supposedly, to honor him.

The bugle sounded three times the call of honor. It was the signal. The soldiers discharged their rifles twice at point-blank range and our unforgettable General Zapata fell, never to rise again. This is how the death of Emiliano Zapata was told by one of his assistants who managed to survive the betrayal.

Emiliano Zapata led the Revolution in Mexico from 1910 to 1917.
Emiliano Zapata led the Revolution in Mexico from 1910 to 1917 with the aim of fighting for the rights of peasants. Image: National Institute of Anthropology and History, Mexico

The peasants do not forget Zapata

Within a few hours, the news reached the most remote places: "General Emiliano Zapata is dead". There were many peasants who wanted to see the corpse of their leader because they did not believe that he had died. They wanted to see with their own eyes Zapata's particular signs: "he had a black mole on his cheekbone and a little finger - the pinky - by his leg". Everyone left convinced that this was not their General Zapata.

The more time passed, for those who had loved him and still loved him, it was more difficult to accept that Zapata was dead. That is why different stories began to spread, by word of mouth, about where "their general" was.

-General Zapata escaped; he went with his compadre the "Hungarian". They were there, in Hungary; and they loved him like a god.

-The one who died was his compadre. When he found out about the ambush, he offered to go in his place; that is why he was wearing his suit, his hat, and his spurs.

-Zapata managed to reach Veracruz, where he embarked for Arabia. There he stayed to live.

-He is not dead. On moonlit nights he can be seen in the mountains, riding his white horse, as if keeping watch.

However, the truth is that General Emiliano Zapata died in an ambush on April 10, 1919. Despite the years that have passed, Zapata's example is still present. The peasants are convinced that the land is theirs because Zapata told them: "The land belongs to those who work it".

Corpse of Emiliano Zapata.
Corpse of Emiliano Zapata. Image: National Institute of Anthropology and History, Mexico

By Laura Espejel and Ruth Solís, Source National Institute of Historical Studies of the Revolutions of Mexico