Charles Davis


History 384

Dr. Serbin

Research Paper


   Emiliano Zapata and the EZLN: Radical Social Activism from Beyond the Grave  



            On April 10th, 1919, a group of soldiers loyal to the government of Venustiano Carranza shot and killed Emiliano Zapata, and in doing so, they helped create one of the most popular and revered martyrs of the Mexican Revolution.  Born to a relatively well off family in the state of Morelos, located in central Mexico just south of Mexico City, Zapata rose from obscurity to lead a fiercely loyal group of villagers against the government of Mexico in a fight for their land and livelihood, as immortalized by their cry of “Ńtierra y libertad!” Throughout his life, Zapata was never one to compromise his principles, chief among them being the issue of agrarian reform.  A popular, apocryphal story about Zapata traces his lifelong dedication to this issue of land rights to a moment when he was but a young child of eight or nine, where he supposedly, as historian Samuel Brunk describes in his study of Zapata, “found his father in tears and asked why.  [His father] explained that the hacienda had taken the village land, and that he was powerless to resist the incursion that hurt him so deeply.  Full of noble indignation, Emiliano then promised to recover the lands when he was grown.”[1]  Because of his radicalism and incorruptibility while living, and the treachery associated with his murder, Zapata has since risen to the status of a religious martyr – with the religion being that of agrarian reform and the spirit of the Mexican revolution that many, Zapata included, felt was never realized by the politicians who capitalized on it.  In life, Zapata was spurred into action by the injustices he saw all around him and was inspired to lead a revolutionary movement; in death, his legacy has been the catalyst for numerous contemporary political movements, as the issue of agrarian reform continues to shape Mexican political debate.

            In Mexico, the distribution the land has always been a contentious matter.  In the latter 19th and the early 20th century, with the help of the conservative dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, Mexico became inundated with foreign investors drawn to Mexico’s vast, untapped natural resources and potential for huge profits.  More often that not, the interests of this foreign, investing class were at odds with the interests of the Mexican people, who were often displaced and removed from their traditional lands to make way for large haciendas and businesses that exploited, and outright stole from, the people who had previously lived and worked on the land for generations.  With the assistance of the central government, large tracts of land were sold to foreign investors at the expense of the Mexican people, who were often forced to either become de facto wage-slaves to the hacienda, or perish.  Often mischaracterized as a proponent of free-market principals, which are based on the existence and protection of private property rights, the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz was actually an example of extreme statist central planning.  By disregarding the legitimate property claims of his own people, Díaz effectively handed over land to which he had no right for the material gain of himself and those select few who were politically connected – a far cry from a “free market.”  It was this disdain for property rights, or more to the point, the increasing instances of large businesses simply stealing land that had been in the hands of the indigenous people of Mexico for generations, displacing its people and destroying their livelihood, that eventually caused Emiliano Zapata and his men to rise up in arms against the central Mexican state.

            Of course, Zapata didn’t decide to launch a revolution on a whim; rather, it took years of injustices for the simple villagers of Morelos, who wanted nothing more than to work the land that they had for generations, to risk everything they had – which wasn’t a whole lot – to rise in resistance.  In particular, Zapata and his comrades were forced into revolution out of desperation – the large haciendas were growing evermore greedy and bold in their theft of the villagers’ land.  At first seeking a nonviolent remedy to the situation, the villagers petitioned both the national and local governments to act on behalf of their rights to the land in question, but to no avail.  As would soon become clear, the government was in collusion with the large haciendas and simply had no concern for the livelihood of a few lowly, uneducated peasants.  As John Womack shows in his book, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, the local government of Morelos was firmly in the hands of the wealthy elites, who took good care in making sure that they had a government amicable to their interests.  To this end, the elites installed one of their own, Pablo Escandón, to be the governor or Morelos.  Their reasons are typified by one of Morelos’ principal landowners in 1910, Manuel Araoz, who Womack examines, writing:

                        [Araoz’s] three plantations already included over 31,000 of the state’s most fertile acres; local government could have survived on the taxes he alone could have       paid.  But he wanted even more land under cultivation, to bring an even higher rate of return on his investment.  The problem was not paying the price:     although land in Morelos cost more than anywhere else in the country except the Federal District, the planters could afford it.  What bothered Araoz and his fellow hacendados was getting the land put up for sale.  Almost no public land remained available.  Even offering attractive terms, the planters could not induce villagers to traffic in the titles to their fields.   To acquire the land, they had to resort to political and judicial maneuvers—condemnations, court orders, foreclosures, and defective-title rulings.  Manuel Araoz wanted a governor he could use.[2]

Once elected, Escandón quickly, and blatantly, began acting on behalf of the wealthy, ignoring the plight of Zapata and others victimized by the large haciendas.  With the wealthy landowners having consolidated their power in the political machine of Morelos, the poor were left with no peaceful methods of resistance, as any potential opposition was quickly dealt with, and as Womack notes, “[i]n most cases the disposition was local, unofficial, and brutal—a proper beating, maybe murder.”[3]  Disenfranchised and powerless, it would only be a matter of time before the proud people of Morelos would take no more.

            The final straw for Zapata and his supporters came when the nearby Hospital hacienda annexed their lands and barred them from planting on it, thereby destroying their only means of providing for their existence.  In response, the villagers frantically implored Escandón to intervene on their behalf, but their pleas were ignored.  As the situation grew evermore precarious with the approach of the growing season, the villagers went so far as to concede their own rights to the disputed land, asking just that they could plant and harvest their crops so as to live, but their “increasingly desperate appeals met with blander replies” from Escandón’s office, and finally, “[w]hen their request was forwarded to the Hospital owner for him to ‘say what he considers proper,’ he said it: ‘If that bunch from Anenecuilco wants to farm, let them farm in  a flowerpot, because they’re not getting any land, even up the side of the hills.’”[4]  It is the light of this situation that Zapata, as president of the village council, decided that “[r]egular procedures having failed, Anenecuilco would act for itself.[5]

            Unlike other revolutionary leaders, Emiliano Zapata wasn’t interested in crafting a nation-state based on his vision, or even in securing political power for himself.  Instead, Zapata never wavered from his simple demand that whoever came to power must deal with the problem of large businesses robbing the people of their land and exploiting their labor.  As Samuel Brunk notes, the demands of Zapata and his supporters were plain: “a state government responsive to the will of the people [and] action on the agrarian question.”[6] Specifically, as Brunk highlights in his article, “Remembering Emiliano Zapata”:

                        [The Zapatistas] fought to stop haciendas from continuing to infringe on the land and water rights of peasant communities in their state and to recover resources that had already been lost.  They fought, too, for local liberties—for the right of villagers to take greater responsibility for their own destiny.  They fought, in sum, for conditions crucial to the preservation of their rural culture.”[7]


To this end, Zapata and his band of rebels swept through the state of Morelos, seizing several of its most important towns, immediately becoming a force to be reckoned with in the Mexican Revolution.  Initially allying with Francisco Madero in his campaign against Porfirio Díaz, Zapata soon came to rebuff Madero, and politics in general, as a means of achieving the land reform that he desired.  Zapata came to reject the weak compromises on the issue of agrarian reform coming from the revolutionary government and, refusing to let the issue be dropped, Zapata and his friend and compatriot Otillio MontaĖo crafted the Plan of Ayala, their response to detractors who claimed the movement lacked a coherent ideological focus.  As Samuel Brunk notes in his book on Zapata, the Plan of Ayala was presented within the context of Madero’s own Plan of San Luis Postosí so as to “gain legitimacy within the revolutionary community even as it proclaimed Madero just another tyrant who had betrayed the Mexican people in pursuit of personal power.”[8]  In the Plan, Zapata demanded not only that land that had been taken from the people by the haciendas be returned, but also that one third of the large estates be expropriated for use as ejidos for peasants without land. In addition, Zapata “demanded liberty so [the people] could protect themselves from future outrages by choosing their own leaders and running their own affairs,” and as Brunk notes, “though the word democracy was not used in the Plan of Ayala, the document was full of democratic feeling.” [9]

            Thus, with the Plan of Ayala, Zapata and his movement morphed from a simple peasant rebellion, to a movement with a much broader leftist ideological agenda; rather than just seeking the return of their land, the Zapatistas sought a complete restructuring of their political system.  As opposed to other revolutionary groups, the Zapatistas didn’t seek to create a central state, but rather sought a decentralized system of power that heralded social justice while being responsive to the will of the local people.  Not Marxist or capitalist, Zapata’s ideology was that of freedom, of what Brunk termed “a popular liberalism” that did not attack the concept of property rights or free enterprise, but deplored state-granted monopolies over land and statist central planning.  The democratic nature of the Zapatista rebellion was typified by the fact that, though other leftist movements strongly attacked the Church, Zapata declined to engage in anti-clericalism, choosing instead to respect the religious beliefs of the vast majority of his followers – further showing that Zapata’s purposes were not to impose his own ideas of how society should run, but rather in allowing people to live their own lives as they chose, without the fear of having their lands stolen or their livelihoods destroyed.  For a mere peasant, Zapata’s political ideas and emphasis on decentralization – of letting the local people decide their future, not politicians in Mexico City -- were remarkably prescient, as witnessed by the blood and corruption wrought by Mexico’s centralized state, and the often violent power struggles it has incurred over the years.

            Since Zapata’s death many people of various political leanings have sought to capitalize on the mythology surrounding him and the strong political appeal his image offers.  Yet despite efforts by the Mexican government to co-opt and institutionalize Zapata’s legacy for its own political and rhetorical purposes, Zapata continues to be a popular symbol of resistance to various groups currently opposed to the policies of the central Mexican state, most notably the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) in the impoverished state of Chiapas, located in the southernmost region of Mexico.  The EZLN leaped into the international spotlight when on January 1st, 1994 – the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect – they launched an armed rebellion against the Mexican government, and in a scene reminiscent of the Zapatistas of 80 years before, they seized several of the most important towns in Chiapas, within hours drawing the attention of millions to their plight.  Choosing the image of Zapata to represent their cause, the demands of the EZLN, as expressed through their popular and enigmatic spokesman, Subcomandate Marcos, were remarkably similar to those of the original Zapatistas.  As writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II wrote in The Nation at the time of the uprising,

                        [the EZLN] have announced that they took up arms against a government founded on an electoral fraud, that they have decreed a new agrarian reform, that they will no longer endure any abuses by the police, the army, and the latifundios’ caciques, [and] that they North American Free Trade Agreement is the final kick in the stomach to the indigenous communities.”[10]


Living in one of Mexico’s poorest states and boasting a large indigenous population, the concerns of the EZLN appear to be quite similar to those of Zapata, highlighting not only his continued cultural relevance in 21st century Mexico, but also the fact that little has changed for the poorest segments of Mexican society – the rich still control the levers of government power, and the poor continue to have their livelihoods destroyed.  Even the means by which the wealthy steal the land of the indigenous people hasn’t changed, as Taibo notes, such as when the price of Chiapas’ chief export, coffee, began to drop and “landowners seized more land for cattle” and began to “create conflicts between the communities and assassinate community leaders.”[11]  It was in this context of injustice upon injustice – of watching traditional lands continue to be stolen while people died of treatable and preventable diseases – that the EZLN decided to act.

            Just as with the original Zapatistas, one of the chief concerns of the EZLN is land and the issue of agrarian reform.  In an article entitled, “From Indigenismo to Zapatismo,” Gunther Dietz traces the continuing debate over land reform to the issue of whether such distribution should be enacted through a state-dominated model, as it had in Mexico up until the time of President Salinas, or through the community model as preferred by Zapata, “in which the community is acknowledged as a ‘free confederation of agrarian communities.’”[12]  According to Dietz, “[t]he military defeat of the Zapata’s army during the Mexican Revolution symbolized the formal victory of the state-led model of agrarian reform over the community-based model,” though rural communities tended to continue to view the land as something which only they could distribute amongst themselves, as they were its traditional inhabitants.  In this context, then, the EZLN can be seen as the true heirs to Zapata’s legacy, as they champion his devotion to land reform, social justice, and perhaps most importantly, decentralization – they clearly represent the community model of agrarian reform.  To this end, the EZLN has taken matters into its own hands and has gone about creating 32 autonomous “Zapatista communities” throughout the state of Chiapas, where decisions are made on the local level through a “Junta de Buen Gobierno,” rather than waiting for any sort of action from the central government.

            As is evident, the EZLN is continuing the fight over agrarian reform and the importance of localized decision making that Emiliano Zapata started, but in doing so they are bring Zapatismo to the 21st century.  After their brief armed insurrection in 1994, the EZLN has since opted for a nonviolent approach to political action that emphasizes not only the importance of the distribution of land, but also of protecting the equal status of women, acceptance of homosexuals, and of educating the indigenous people.  To achieve their goals, the EZLN has issued various “Declarations from the Lacandón Jungle,” written by their spokesman, Subcomondante Marcos, for the purpose of explaining their grievances and their ideology for the world to see, utilizing modern technologies such as the Internet and satellite telephones.  In the last of these communiqués, known as the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle, the EZLN called for a transformation of politics in Mexico beyond the three major parties.  To this end, the AFP reported on November 23rd that the Zapatista rebels had “announced they were giving up their armed struggle… [and] would dissolve their political wing… in its bid to become a more mainstream left wing political group.”  The article quotes Subcomandante Marcos, who states: “Now we are going to form a new Zapatista political organization -- civilian, peaceful, anti-capitalist and left wing -- which will not fight for power but will trace the lines of a new way of carrying out politics.”[13]  It is impossible to read Subcomandante Marcos’ words without hearing the echoes of Emilianao Zapata’s own rejection of politics – true change begins on the local and personal level, the statement seems to recognize, rather than on attempting to impose change from the top down. 

            As part of their non-electoral approach to politics, the Zapatistas have launched what is known as the “Other Campaign,” a speaking tour of Mexico meant to coincide with the heated 2006 presidential race.  Not meant as a means of gathering votes, rather the tour will focus on raising awareness of the plight of Latin America’s indigenous communities, as well as to the injustices of the neoliberal policies of Mexico and other countries.  In addition, the campaign marks the EZLN’s transition from an armed rebel group located in Chiapas, to a broad, left-wing political organization that encompasses the larger body of the disenfranchised, and deals with issues of economic globalization and rampant corporatism as it affects all peoples, not just the impoverished Mayans of Chiapas.  As author John Ross notes in his article on the campaign for the online political magazine Counterpunch: “[t]he Other Campaign is not just another kind of political campaign; it is literally a campaign of others.  Diversity, bringing together the most marginalized Indians, gays and lesbians, the disabled, punks and anarchists - is the EZLN's source of unity and strength. Because the Zapatistas attract the most disaffected, the outsiders, it is literally a campaign of the ‘Others.’”[14]  The goal of the EZLN is not to win elections, but to win hearts and minds.  Their cause goes much deeper than merely choosing another master every six years – theirs is a campaign to radically change society; to reject the statist, corporate nation-state as the only functional social organization; and to create a decentralized system of governing (not government) that corresponds to the will of the people in not only words, but deeds.

            When Emiliano Zapata was ambushed and murdered in 1919, his physical body may have died, but the ideas and principals that he fought for did not.  Just as Zapata refused to compromise what he believed to be right, and eschewed political power in favor of direct, decentralized local action, so are his modern heirs in the EZLN.  Not content to simply mirror Zapata’s actions, the EZLN has adapted the basic principals of Zapatismo to the 21st century.  Their weapons are emails and communiqués, not guns.  Their votes are for freedom and social justice, not any one political candidate or party.  As the heirs to Zapata’s legacy, the EZLN is continuing his work from beyond the grave.  As John Ross notes,  “[t]he Zapatista ethos of building power down below but eschewing taking state power has currency in Latin America today. The triumphs of the electoral left as a response to the savage capitalism of the neo-liberals [has] failed to live up to their expectations… Hugo Chavez rules from the top down while the Zapatistas build from the bottom up.”[15]  Emiliano Zapata’s enemies may have thought they had succeeded when they defeated him and his organization, but as is becoming increasingly evident with the success of the neo-Zapatistas, it takes a lot more to kill an idea than to kill a man.

[1] Samuel Brunk, Emiliano Zapata: Revolution and Betrayal in Mexico, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995) 13.

[2] John Womack, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969) 18.

[3] Womack, 50.

[4] Womack, 63.

[5] Womack, 64.

[6] Brunk, Emiliano Zapata, 61.

[7] Samuel Brunk, “Remembering Emiliano Zapata: Three Moments in the Posthumous Career of the Martyr of Chinameca,” The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 78, No. 3 (Aug., 1998), 457-458.

[8] Brunk, Emiliano Zapata, 65.

[9] Brunk, Emiliano Zapata, 67.

[10] Paco Ignacio Taibo II, “Zapatistas! The Phoenix Rises,” In The Zapatista Reader, ed. Tom Hayden, 23, (New York: Thunder’s Mountain Press, 2002).

[11] Taibo, 24.

[12] Gunther Dietz, “From Indigenism to Zapatismo: The Struggle for a Multi-ethnic Mexican Society,” In The Struggle for Indigenous Rights in Latin America, eds. Nancy Grey Postero and Leon Zamosc, 35, (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2004).

[13] Anonymous, “Zapatista Rebels Take New Step Into Political Mainstream,” Agence France-Press, 23 November 2005, <> (25 November 2005).

[14] John Ross, “La Otra Campana: The Zapatista Challenge in Mexico’s Presidential Elections,” Counterpunch, 5 November 2005, <> (7 December 2005).

[15] John Ross, “La Otra Campana: The Zapatista Challenge in Mexico’s Presidential Elections.”