1879-1919 · General
Emiliano Zapata was born and raised in a campesino (peasant) family in the southern Mexican village of Anenecuilco, Morelos. During his childhood, the centuries-long struggle for land and water between the villages and the expanding sugar haciendas of the state was becoming increasingly intense. Growing up in such a charged atmosphere, it is not surprising that Zapata was in trouble with the law at an early age; in 1897, for example, he fled the state to avoid arrest for a minor infraction at a fiesta, and he would later trace his personal rebellion back to about this time. By at least 1906, his rebelliousness had acquired greater focus, as he had become involved in the defense of Anenecuilco's land in the courts. Building upon that interest in his community's welfare, in 1909 he was elected president of the village council, and in 1910 he temporarily resolved a local land dispute by gathering together some 80 men to occupy the land in question by force of arms.
Part of the reason that Zapata could get away with such behavior was that, in 1910, national politics were becoming increasingly unsettled. After having been jailed while running for president against long-time dictator Porfirio Díaz, a hacienda-owner from northern Mexico named Francisco I. Madero called the nation to arms in November with the goal of removing Díaz from power. Isolated, rural rebellions erupted in many parts of the country, and after carefully considering the opportunity that Madero's insurrection provided, Zapata helped organize a small guerrilla movement, which joined the fighting in March 1911. Zapata soon attained leadership of this local rebellion, and by May it had grown large enough to capture the important regional center of Cuautla, Morelos.
The taking of Cuautla, which was not far south of Mexico City, was surely an important factor in inducing Díaz to relinquish power in late May. Once Díaz was gone, however, Zapata quickly discovered how complicated the business of revolution could become. Madero and the other new leaders in Mexico City were more dedicated to democracy than to the land reform that Zapata's peasant following expected. Moreover, the plantation owners of Morelos immediately began maneuvers intended to preserve their power and wealth in the state. With their encouragement, Zapata was attacked by the conservative Mexico City press, which began to call him the "Attila of the South" in June for the real and imagined atrocities perpetrated by his followers. Meanwhile, Madero wavered, uncertain of whether he should support the respectable landlords with whom he naturally identified or the peasants who had participated in the Revolution. Under these circumstances Zapata was reluctant to disarm his forces as the new government demanded; after weeks of negotiations, in August 1911 troops were sent against Zapata under the command of General Victoriano Huerta. Zapata returned to the mountains, now to fight against an ostensibly Revolutionary regime.
To explain his cause to the nation and refute charges that his movement was politically illegitimate, Zapata joined in November with a local schoolmaster named Otilio Montafio to compose the Plan of Ayala, the document upon which much of his subsequent reputation has been based. The Plan of Ayala was a powerful expression of many of the central goals of Mexico's rural rebels. It clarified Zapata's demand for land and water rights, calling not only for the return of resources that the haciendas had stolen, but for the expropriation—with indemnification—of a third part of hacienda "monopolies," which were to be given to peasants without title to land. It also provided for the complete confiscation of the property of those who opposed the Zapatistas. The second main thrust of the document was its call for political liberty. It insisted on the rule of law, and on the right of the people to choose their own representatives. Together these provisions added up to a demand for the basics of social justice from a rural, southern Mexican point of view.
Perhaps more important than the mere writing of this program in establishing Zapata's significance is the fact that he stuck to these fundamental positions throughout the tangled history of the Revolutionary decade. The Plan of Ayala accused Madero of betraying the Revolution, and Zapata fought against him until Huerta removed Madero from the presidency in a February 1913 coup. Huerta then sought to make peace with Zapata, but Zapata was not willing to trust his promises, and the warfare continued. As it did so, Zapatismo grew. Peasants from Morelos, Mexico State, the Federal District, Puebla, Guerrero, and farther afield joined Zapata against the Huerta regime, which had reintroduced the hated Porfirian conscription and thus given them a new reason to support the insurrection. As the movement expanded, it became more diverse, and it was Zapata's task to discipline it and shape it into a force on the national scene. Given its grassroots origins in the myriad villages of the region, achieving that level of discipline was a tremendous challenge, but one that Zapata was able to meet. One measure of his success was that by the summer of 1914 he controlled Morelos and large parts of neighboring states and threatened Mexico City. He had become one of the most prominent leaders of the Mexican Revolution.