Tierra y Libertad!
By Mildred Boyd
May 2008 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 24, Number 9
“Land and freedom!” was his battle cry. He was a man with a mission— and he pursued it with the passionate fervor of the crusader and the single- minded doggedness of the bloodhound on a hot scent. Time and again he fought courageously and, on the whole, successfully for leaders who promised land reform, only to turn against them when those promises were not immediately implemented. Political necessity was not in Emiliano Zapata’s lexicon.
Indeed, there are those who would argue that very little was in his lexicon, or even that he ever had such a thing. They called him an apolitical bushwhacker, an ignorant bumpkin, a mere puppet figure manipulated by a group of city-slicker intellectuals who used him for their own purposes and published proclamations over his name filled with classical references that made him a laughingstock.
It was highly unlikely that a semi-literate peon could ever have heard of Hegel, Kant, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, Emerson or Whitman, to say nothing of Brutus and the Gracchi, and even less likely that he would have understood the ideas of socialistic reform that he propounded.
In actual fact, although he led an army of peons, Zapata was no peon himself. He was born in the Morelos village of Anencuilco on the 8th of August 1879, the son of a tenant farmer, on a social level between peon and ranchero. He grew up in a stone and adobe house, not a hovel, and neither he nor his brother, Eufemio, was ever forced to labor in some haciendero’s fields. And while it is true that he had little formal education, he was, nevertheless, highly intelligent. He was also a charismatic leader and a shrewd judge of men. It seems more likely that the shoe was on the other foot and Zapata was using the intellectuals for his own purposes.
As for being apolitical, he had been sentenced to three years service in the army for his outspoken resentment of the Mendez Regime. Such sentences were a common punishment in those days, which may account for the relative ineffective-ness of government troops. Although he served only a short time, it is likely that he and other revolutionists were later to make good use of their enforced military training.
In September, 1909, Zapata was elected spokesman for his village in their effort to recover their stolen land and plunged headlong into the conflict which would continue for the rest of his life. Zapata was also well-known as a skilled horse trainer who was considering an offer to manage the stables of a wealthy Morelos sugar planter when war put an end to all personal ambitions.
In 1910 he joined the successful rebellion which replaced Mendez with Diaz as President. Diaz was no more anxious to offend the big landowners than Mendez, so out he went and, on June 7, 1911, Madero took over. Soon after Madero took office he demanded that Zapata disband his army. Zapata did so, but when Madero appointed a man sympathetic to the hacienderos as Governor of Morelos, guess what?
On November 25, 1911, Zapata published his Ayala Plan, denouncing Madero as a traitor to the ideal of agrarian reform. The document was badly written and full of misspellings and grammatical errors that Madero laughingly gave permission for its publication in the capitol. “Let them see just how crazy Zapata is,” were words that he would come to regret for despite its lack of literary merit, the Ayala Plan’s proposals expressed the wishes of the vast majority of Mexicans.
It called for free elections to replace Madero, mandated the return of stolen lands to villages and people, called for pensions for widows and children of soldiers killed in battle and reiterated the agrarian aims of the revolution. He was later to establish a land bank and start a rural school system in Morelos and establish a committee to oversee fair distribution of recovered land. It was this truly revolutionary document with its Marxist overtones that brought the radical intellectuals flocking to his side.
“I am determined,” he once wrote, “to fight against anything and anyone with nothing more than the confidence and support of my people.” Since he had that in full measure, Zapata went back to war to depose Madero and put Orozco in his place, and the game of musical chairs went on. First Orozco, who sold out to the cattle barons of Chihuahua, then Huerta and finally Carranza, were denounced as traitors and stubbornly resisted until Carranza put a bounty on Zapata’s head.
With that incentive, Colonel Jesus Guajardo lured his victim into an ambush by promising to bring his entire command over to the rebel cause. When Zapata arrived at the appointed time, the “Honor Guard” that greeted him became a firing squad. The date was the 10th of April, 1919.
His mourning people fought on, determined that their martyred hero should not have died in vain. Zapata’s life and aims were truly vindicated when his Ayala Plan, despite the snickers of the intelligentsia and with all its startling innovations, became the law of the land a few years later.
To his enemies he was an illiterate upstart, a peasant leading a rag tail army of brigands. To those “brigands” and their descendants, he was a hero, a savior and a candidate for sainthood at the very least. It is hardly coincidental that the rebels currently holed up in the jungles of Chiapas call themselves Zapatistas. Their leader, a ski-masked mystery man known only as Subcomandante Marcos, is certainly no illiterate peasant. He is, in fact, so eloquent that those trying to penetrate his disguise have postulated that he is either a disgruntled public official, a university professor or renegade Jesuit priest.
Whatever his background, his aims are the same as his predecessor’s. His impassioned speeches take us back to the 1910 Revolution and we seem to be hearing a lingering echo of Emilio Zapata’s often repeated cry of “Tierra y Libertad!”