Emiliano Zapata

Emiliano ZapataOn this day in 1879, the Mexican agrarian reformer and revolutionary Emiliano Zapata was born. He was a huge figure in the Mexican Revolution. But I must admit: I find the Mexican Revolution baffling. It is so complex with different factions and constant changes in alliances. But I’m not so much interested in Zapata as a revolutionary. I’m interested in him as a reformer and I think in a different time and place, that’s all he would have been. His participation in the Mexican Revolution was from beginning to end about reforming the system and freeing the peasant community.

During his whole life up to the Mexican Revolution, Mexico was an autocracy with what was effectively a feudal system. I find this more and more in my reading of history. Feudal system are an equilibrium that societies very often fall into. We know that feudalism in England turned into capitalism. But as we see in our own country, capitalism has a tendency to creep back into feudalism. It is very simple: money and power are positive feedbacks. The more money the rich have, the more they can manipulate the political system to their advantages. And this is exactly what happened in Mexico. According to Wikipedia, “These officials [of autocrat Porfirio Diaz] became enforcers of ‘land reforms’ that drove the haciendas into the hands of progressively fewer and wealthier landowners.” Sound familiar? (For the record, Diaz was nominally the democratically elected president.)

By the age of 30, Zapata was elected council president of his home town of Anenecuilco. He worked peacefully to get the hacendados (large land owners; think: oligarchs) to return land to peasants. He was somewhat successful. But most had no intention of giving land back and, in fact, continued to steal land. The state government was not at all interested in doing anything. So eventually, he used the local militia to simply take over disputed land. Now, a common conservative complaint about this kind of thing is that it is wrong to take someone’s property by force. But this is the ultimate conservative trick, claiming that however things are at a given time is how they should be. This land was stolen by the hacendados, generally from peasants who were still alive and wanted it back. And the state government understood what modern conservatives understand: if they just do nothing, then the rich win.

In 1910, Francisco Madero became a viable threat to Diaz. So Diaz had Madero arrested. Zapata aligned with him and this was pretty much the start of the Mexican Revolution. Madero did become president in 1911 and stayed in power until 1913 when Victoriano Huerta (with the help of Diaz supporters and the United States government) staged a coup d’etat. He was subsequently assassinated. Zapata spent much of the next several years at war with Huerta’s forces. If you look at photographs of the players in all of this, you can see why the United States would align with Diaz and Huerta: they were white. The more you know of American history, the more you see how large racism looms over it.

Once in power, Madero did what most powerful people do: he abandoned his ideals and the people’s interest. One of the first things he did was to appoint a governor of Zapata’s home state of Morelos who, like governors Diaz had appointed, supported the interests of hacendados. Zapata was very unhappy. In response, he wrote the Plan de Ayala. Much of it involved the revolution itself. But the main thing is that it called for land to be taken away from the hacendados and given back to local townships and individuals. Talk about local control! Libertarians always tell me that’s what they want, but I have a feeling that they would be totally against this.

Zapata’s assassination in 1919 pretty much ended the Mexican Revolution. Many of his reforms were eventually enacted, although never on the scale that he had wanted. And Zapata stands today as a hero whereas everyone sees Diaz and especially Huerta as villains. So there’s that.

Happy birthday Emiliano Zapata!


Warren Zevon’s second album has a song called “Veracruz” about the US troops leaving Veracruz after having occupied it for much of 1914. I’ve always liked it. Now I see it as kind of a pro-Huerta song, with the characters being wealthy land owners. I mean, why is the American troop withdrawal from Veracruz the death of the city? I know that Zapata practiced modern warfare, but still: who didn’t? Regardless, it is a nice song and it is responsible for my first introduction to the Mexican Revolution:

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