Emiliano Zapata lived August 8, 1879 – April 10, 1919. He was of key importance in the Mexican Revolution.
Zapata has been identified as a communist by 21st century historians because of his emphasis on land reform.[Citation Needed] He believed liberty flowed partly from this and partly from an armed citizenry. Persons throughout Latin America with this ideology have been continuously pigeonholed as communists by the United States and other conservative forces at least since Operation Success in 1954. It is not clear what Vladimir Lenin and other contemporaneous leaders of Communism thought of Zapata while he was alive.
Zapata's image appears on the Mexican ten peso bill.
Social milieu of pre-revolutionary Mexico
For the first 31 years of Zapata's life, Mexico was ruled by dictator Porfirio Diaz, a veteran of the second independence war (against the French and their puppet Maximilian). Despite a rapidly increasing population during this time, and very slow industrialization in comparison to the United States or Europe, the number of landowners actually decreased throughout Diaz's tenure. This meant that more and more persons who formerly owned their own land actually found themselves in a state of debt peonage, similar to sharecroppers in the southern United States during the same period.
By the early 20th century, a much larger percentage of Mexicans than Americans identified themselves as what is now called native. As with most Mexicans, it is not clear what blood quantum Zapata possessed of the Nahua tribe, the most populous in his home state of Morelos, in southern Mexico. However, he spoke their language fluently and was trusted by them and by most in his community, leading to his being elected head of his village's "defense committee" in 1909, at age 30.
Role in the Mexican Revolution
When it became clear that Diaz would not permit an election he might lose to challenger Francisco Madero in 1910, Madero's supporters across the country began to arm themselves. Among these was Zapata, who that year formed the Liberation Army of the South, which would be a thorn in the side of successive Mexican governments for the ensuing nine years. Even Madero himself felt threatened by the ELS (Spanish initials) and asked Zapata to demobilize it, but Zapata referred Madero to the need for an armed citizenry.
By that time (winter of 1912), Zapata had fled with his army to Puebla state, where he published with co-conspirators Ricardo Flores and Otilio Montano the Plan de Ayala. The Plan was not so much a proposed constitution as an aspirational social contract for Mexico, which would have broken up all large haciendas whose owners dominated rural life. Paradoxically, in an effort to recruit former supporters of Diaz, Zapata identified his movement as a "counter-revolution."
Madero had little choice but to attempt to restore central government authority; his efforts initially failed, which was one cause of his overthrow and subsequent murder the following winter by General Victoriano Huerta. By the late spring, a revolutionary movement which in some ways mirrored Zapata's had risen up in the north of Mexico under Pancho Villa, who later became infamous as the only person to lead a cavalry raid against the United States in the 20th century. Unlike Villa, anti-Americanism does not seem to have been a significant part of Zapata's appeal.
Yet a third anti-Huerta movement, the Constitutionalists under General Venustiano Carranza, arose in late 1913 and finished off Huerta's supporters the following year. While all parties agreed that the 1871 Mexican Constitution was a dead letter, the factions divided yet again over whether delegates to the new constitutional convention should be popularly elected.
Technically, Carranza won, and was still in power at the time of Zapata's death (by ambush) in 1919. The latter event followed a three-year counterinsurgency led by General Pablo Gonzalez and Colonel Jesus Guajardo, in Zapata's new stronghold and original home, Morelos. They were initially as unsuccessful as Madero had been, but all other rivals to Carranza were now more or less exhausted by years of war. Eventually, Guajardo pretended to be trying to defect to Zapata's side, enabling them to lure Zapata to a "meeting" where he was killed. Perhaps because Guajardo had killed 57 of Gonzalez's men to make himself credible to Zapata, Guajardo's men were given only half the bounty promised by Carranza to whomever killed Zapata.