Who Was Zapata
The son of a ‘strong farmer’, Zapata grew up to become the most famous leader of the Mexican Revolution. Like Connolly or the Ladies’ Land League in Ireland, Zapata is paid much lip service by the Mexican establishment, but his revolutionary ideas are ignored by those who inherited the power won in the Revolution. A gifted organiser, Zapata also spoke Náhuatl, his local indigenous language.
Elected leader of his village in 1909, Zapata began recruiting an insurgent army even before the Revolution beginning in 1910 which overthrew the dictator Porfirio Díaz. The links between the dictatorship and the U.S.A., combined with Mexico’s colonial past, gave rise to much ‘revolutionary nationalism’ – revolution as defence of the nation – which is still a vibrant force today.
Zapata’s Liberation Army of the South did not accept the new reformist government under Francisco Madera. The Zapatistas fought on against government troops lead by Victoriano Huerta, the general who overthrew Madera in February, 1913, and was then deposed in 1914. At the following Convention in Aguascalientes, called to decide the future of Mexico, the Zapatistas demanded ‘tierra y libertad’ – land and freedom – for their people.
This was the core of Zapata’s ‘Plan de Ayala’, produced in November 1911. Clearly influenced by anarchist ideas spread in Mexico by people like Ricardo Flores Magón, Zapata demands the socialisation of land:
The lands, forests and water that have been usurped … will be immediately restored to the villages or citizens who have title to them … Because the great majority of Mexicans own nothing more than the land they walk on … one third of these properties will be expropriated … so that the villages and citizens of Mexico may obtain ejidos , sites for towns, and fields.
Zapata remained in opposition, fighting against terrible repression, until 1919. Lured to a meeting with government troops apparently mutinying against President Carranza, he was gunned down on April the 10th, 1919. Although the insurgents fought on, and Zapata’s ghost was seen to ride the hills of his native state, Morelos, the conservatives won out, and Zapata’s ideas of fair distribution of land remained ignored until the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas in the late 1930’s.
Zapata’s memory, like his ghost, rides on in Mexico. His name has been invoked by the indigenous rebel army in Chiapas, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), in their struggle against exactly the same social ills that Zapata fought against: large landlords and (often foreign-owned) big business running a corrupt and repressive régime that leaves the peasants, particularly indigenous peoples, landless and exploited. Throughout this century, people all over the world have risen up against oppression, taking heart from Zapata’s cry:
The first revolt occurred in 1810. It was led by Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a parish priest who issued ‘Grito de Delores’, calling for an end to Spanish rule, redistribution of land, and empowerment of the masses. Costilla and his followers were captured and executed. A following uprising by Jose Maria Moreles y Pavon in 1814 was also crushed, and the disintegrating independence movement turned to guerilla warfare.
Vicente Guerrero led this new struggle and in 1821 he negotiated a treaty with the ruling Spanish elite to gain self determination for the colony. A congress was elected, and after a military rebellion in 1823 Mexico became a republic.
In 1845 the U.S. Congress voted to annex Texas and war with Mexico ensued. By 1848 North American superiority overwhelmed the Mexican Army, and Utah, Texas, Nevada, California, New Mexico, and most of Colorado came under American control.
In 1857 Benito Juarez issued a new constitution in an effort to abolish the remnants of colonialism. Land reforms did nothing however to improve the lives of the majority of the population who lived in poverty. To make matters worse, civil war broke out in 1858 between the liberals led by Juarez and the conservatives. Juarez was victorious and some of his later reforms helped to lessen the excessive power of the church and the army. His liberal successors were not as successful.
In 1876 Porfio Diaz seized power and his monopoly on political power over the next thirty years was a major cause of the revolution in 1910.
The 1910 revolt was led by Francisco i Madero, who advocated neither social reforms nor drastic change. With conservative support, another general, Victoriano Huerta, overthrew Madero. The peasants continued the revolt begun in 1910 and Pancho Villa and Emile Zapata became the two key figures in the struggle against Huerta. Huerta was defeated and control fell into the hands of Venustiano Carranza, a rich landowner who had supported Madero. Civil war broke out between his forces and those of Villa in the north and Zapata in the south. By 1920 the popular uprising had been crushed.
A new party, the PNR, then consolidated power, and depression in the 1930’s caused a reversal of land reforms and an increase in the rich/poor divide. The PNR (now PRI) has ruled Mexico ever since with a peculiar one party system.
In 1968 a major student uprising was crushed and the PRI party became more indifferent towards the oppressed masses On 1 January 1994 the EZLN, an unheard-of revolutionary organisation, seized power in parts of Chiapas, southern Mexico, calling for the reforms Zapata had fought and died for. Forty thousand federal troops now surround the revolutionaries, and the Mexican government is again under extreme pressure to reform. The struggle of the indigenous and oppressed people of Mexico has never ceased and the EZLN have captured the imagination and won the support of many.