In 1810, Mexico won its independence from Spain, resulting in 55 years of turmoil during which the presidency changed hands no less than 75 times. These years were marked by the loss of Texas and California to the United States as well as the invasion of Mexico by France, which declared Mexico an empire. When the French were overthrown, Porfirio Díaz, a general in the Mexican-American war, came into power.
Díaz assumed power in a 1876 coup and would hold the presidency twice over thirty years, a period known as the Porfiriato. He promoted a message of modernization through his slogan, “Order, Liberty, and Progress”, but the economic benefits of industrialization went almost exclusively toward politicians, rich landowners, and foreign capital, while the rural poor suffered.
Díaz repeatedly violated the principles of the constitution of 1857, courting foreign interests, jailing political opponents, restricting civil liberties, repressing labor movements, and censoring the press. Though he held elections to have a semblance of democracy, in reality the elections only installed candidates who were favorable to himself.
Under Díaz, Mexico built over 25,000 miles of railroad, spurring a land grab in rural areas as well as limiting access to plains and marshes which villagers had traditionally relied on for fish and game. Encouraged by Díaz, Mexico’s wealthy came to own 85% of the land, most of which had been stolen from villagers.
Laborers worked twelve hour shifts, seven days of the week. They received no pension or compensation or accidents occurring on the job. Most would return home to unsanitary houses and miserable diets. Workers could expect to live 30 years on average.
It was to these poor conditions that Emiliano Zapata Salazar was born on August 8, 1879.
Emiliano was born to Gabriel Zapata, a mestizo peasant who trained and sold horses, and Cleofas Jertrudiz Salazar. He eventually had three brothers, Eufemio, Pedro, and Loreto, and six sisters, Matilde, Jovita, Maria de Jesus, Celsa, Maria del la Luz and Romana.
Zapata’s father passed away at age 16. His mother died 11 months later, leaving him to support his many siblings.
At age 18, Zapata was arrested for taking part in peasant protest against a hacienda which had appropriated their lands.
After obtaining a pardon, Zapata was drafted into the Mexican army, but served only six months. He was discharged to a landowner in Mexico City to train horses, a skill he had gained from his father.
Zapata campaigned for villager’s rights and oversaw the return of land, using old title deeds to establish claims to disputed land. Dissatisfied with the government’s slow pace and favoritism towards wealthy landowners, Zapata began redistributing land by force.
At age 31, he married Josefa Espejo. He eventually had four children: Diego, Mateo Emiliano, Nicolas, and Ana Maria.
Hover over or click on a person to find out who they were and their relationship to Zapata.
Francisco I. Madero
Madero was born into Mexico’s 5th-wealthiest family. In 1908, he published his highly popular book, La sucesión presidencial en 1910, calling for honest elections. When Madero appeared likely to win the presidency, Díaz jailed Madero, who escaped to San Antonio and wrote the Plan de San Luis Potosi, imploring the Mexican people to rebel against Díaz. Díaz was defeated in 1911, and Madero was voted into the presidency. However, as president, Madero was unable to appease pressure from Zapata and Orozco, and was assassinated by Huerta in 1913.
Relationship: Ally turned enemy. Without Zapata’s assistance in defeating Díaz’s forces, Madero might never have been elected president. However, as president Madero ignored Zapata’s pleas for land reform.
Francisco Pancho Villa
Originally a bandit from northern Mexico, Villa answered Madero’s call to arms. During Madero’s reign Villa fought against Orozco’s rebellion, and when Madero was assassinated he joined forces with Zapata and Carranza in overthrowing Huerta. Once Huerta was overthrown, Villa fought against Carranza. At one point Villa attacked Columbus, NM, hoping to steal ammunition. Though his mission was unsuccessful, it cemented Villa’s reputation as a daring bandit. Villa also signed a movie contract with an American newsreel company, which filmed him in battle.
Relationship: Ally. Zapata fought with Villa against Díaz, Huerta and Carranza.
Orozco was a self-made merchant who joined Madero’s movement in 1910. He commanded rural forces in Chihuahua, and fought in some of the first battles. His forces were key in defeating Díaz. Orozco later turned against Madero because Madero did not comply with his own Plan de San Luis Potosi. Orozco recognized Huerta as president, who then named him General of Federal Troops, fighting against Carranza and Villa. When Huerta was overthrown, Orozco was exiled to El Paso, where he was killed by a group of Texas Rangers in 1915.
Relationship: Ally turned enemy. Zapata and Orozco both fought against Díaz, and in the Plan de Ayala, Zapata named Orozco as leader of the revolution. However, when Orozco sided with Huerta, whom Zapata despised, Zapata turned against Orozco.
As governor of Coahuila, Carranza joined the revolution when Madero started the struggle against Díaz. When Madero was assassinated, Carranza wrote the Plan de Guadalupe, calling for Huerta’s resignation and the restoration of the constitutional government. Carranza supported political, but not social, reform, and under his leadership he did little to institute social change. He was assassinated after his general, Obregón, rebelled against his attempt to choose a presidential successor in 1920.
Relationship: Opposed a common enemy, but generally adversarial. Carranza was unwilling to enact agrarian reform, prompting Zapata’s opposition. Between 1915-1917 Carranza and Zapata’s forces fought for control of Mexican land.
A military genius despite his humble upbringing, Obregón did not participate in Díaz’s ouster, but fought for Madero against Orozco’s rebellion. After Madero’s assassination, he joined forces with Carranza against Huerta, and continued to fight against Villa and Zapata. He became disillusioned with Carranza’s policies and ran successfully for president in 1920. He was assassinated before taking the presidency a second term in 1928.
Relationship: Opposed a common enemy, but generally adversarial. Zapata sided with Villa, who hated Carranza and Obregón.
Born to poor peasants, Huerta rose to the rank of general under Díaz, whom he admired. As general, he suppressed uprisings and defended Díaz until his resignation in 1911. He served under Madero as chief of staff of the army, but secretly plotted Madero’s assassination. When Madero was assassinated on his orders, he assumed a despotic rule over Mexico, dissolving the congress and establishing a dictatorship. After heavy opposition, Huerta fled to the US in 1915.
Relationship: Enemy. Zapata hated Huerta's conservatism and his many atrocities in southern Mexico.
Madero was released here after being jailed by Díaz.
Madero sought refuge here and drafted his revolutionary manifesto, the Plan de San Luis Potosi.
The first shots of the revolution were fired here, two days early, in a firefight between a politician and the Mexican police.
The Liberation Army of the South captured Cuautla after a six-day battle.
Madero triumphantly entered Mexico City after Díaz's forces were defeated.
The 1910 election
In 1908, Díaz announced his intention to retire at the end of his term, allowing Mexico to hold free elections. Despite this, Díaz ran for reelection in 1910, and when Francisco I. Madero emerged as a major contender for the presidency, Díaz imprisoned him. Díaz was elected to another term, and released Madero in San Luis Potosí, who took a train to the United States.
Plan de San Luis Potosi
In October, Madero drafted the Plan de San Luis Potosi, in which he rejected the outcome of the 1910 election. He called for the Mexican people to rise up and replace Díaz with a provisional government on November 20, a day he marked as the start of the Revolution. His document was widely distributed and enthusiastically received. Zapata, lured by promises of land reform, formed an uneasy alliance with Madero.
the revolution begins
On November 20, Madero and his band of rebels entered the country, but did not find the mass uprising they had anticipated. In the week following, small bands of rebel groups flocked to the north, looking to the join the revolution. Though some who came to fight had been inspired by the Plan de San Luis Potosi, many had never heard of Madero at all. Over the next decade, thousands of Mexicans would flee to the US to escape the violence.
The highly charismatic Zapata began recruiting thousands of peasants to fight for land reform. Zapata assumed the role of general in this new army, the Ejército Libertador del Sur (Liberation Army of the South). From March to May of 1911, his army fought for Madero’s cause, capturing Cuautla after a six-day battle with federal forces. In May, Madero’s forces, commanded by northerners Francisco Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco, defeated Díaz in the First Battle of Juárez. Díaz resigned and fled the country.
madero elected president
Between May and November, an interim government was established under Francisco León de la Barra, a former diplomat. On November 6th, Madero was elected President, but he quickly faced pressure from competing factors. Orozco urged social reform and the nationalization of Mexico’s railroads, while Zapata met with Madero to advocate for the immediate redistribution of stolen lands. Zapata, angered by Madero’s indifferent attitude towards land reform, rejected Madero’s request to disarm his guerillas.
Zapata was enraged by Madero’s betrayal. In response, he drafted the Plan de Ayala, a manifesto illuminating his philosophy of agrarian reform. The Plan drew widespread support among peasant groups, prompting many laborers from Southern Mexico to join Zapata’s army. Zapata and his supporters - Zapatistas - used the Plan to determine who they could trust. Anyone who would not agree to the Plan would not receive Zapata’s support. However, most revolutionary leaders were not focused on land reform, making it difficult for Zapata to form alliances.
“having no intentions other than satisfying his personal ambitions, his boundless instincts as a tyrant...“
The Plan accused Madero of failing to carry out the promises he had made during the revolution. It said Madero had preserved key elements of Díaz’s corrupt regime, and Madero, like Díaz, had no respect for the Constitution of 1857. The Plan declared the new focus of the revolution to overthrow the “dictatorial elements of Porfirio Díaz and Francisco I. Madero”. Anyone who fought for the revolution were to help overthrow Madero, or be considered enemies.
“recognized as Chief of the Liberating Revolution is the illustrious General Pascual Orozco..”
The Plan appointed Orozco as the Chief of the Revolution, and in case Orozco did not accept the post, Zapata was to assume the position of leader of the revolution.
“citizens are owners of no more than the land they walk on, suffering the horrors of poverty...”
Zapata called for all lands stolen under Diaz to be immediately returned to the citizens from whom the land was stolen. Large plantations, owned by single family, would have one third of their land nationalized, to be given to poor farmers. Those who resisted would have the rest expropriated.
Zapata’s followers were mainly peasants who avoided battle by adopting guerrilla tactics. As a result, Zapata’s army had few trained soldiers and often lacked sufficient ammunition. Many of his followers would fight for months at a time, then return home for the rest of the year to produce an income. Zapata’s army gained resources through raids and imposing taxes on cities which they occupied.
"Tierra y Libertad!"
Throughout the revolution, Zapata continued to push for land reform. He created agrarian commissions to redistribute land, devoting considerable time to supervising their work to eliminate favoritism and corruption. The commissions were composed of engineers, many students from the National School of Agriculture. Though these engineers sometimes clashed with local villagers, Zapata resolved disputes with his reserved and cautious personality. He also established the Rural Loan Bank, Mexico’s first agricultural credit organization.
"Mejor morir a pie que vivir en rodillas!"
"La tierra es para el que la trabaja!"
Though other armies had soldaderas (women soldiers), Zapata’s army was notable for the sheer number of soldaderas who fought and held ranking positions.
Ten Tragic Days
Disgruntled with Madero’s presidency, Victoriano Huerta, Felix Díaz (nephew of Porfirio Díaz) and Bernardo Reyes, formed a conspiracy to topple Madero. Under their orders, insurgents stormed Mexico City from February 9-18. At the end of the ten days, Huerta, formerly a general under Díaz but now chief of staff of the army under Madero, betrayed and murdered Madero.
Plan de Guadalupe
In response to Huerta’s coup d’etat, Carranza wrote the Plan de Guadalupe, which called for Huerta’s ouster and the restoration of a constitutional government. Carranza used this to establish himself as “First Chief of the Constitutionalist Army”, and put himself as a leader of Anti-Huerta movements.
Huerta assumed power and dissolved the legislature, prompting heavy opposition from Villa, Carranza, and Zapata. The US distrusted Huerta and sent troops occupying Veracruz in 1914. Zapata, who hated Huerta, executed Huerta’s peace commissioners, and Huerta was thus forced to fight insurrections in both the South (Zapata) and North (Carranza and Villa). Huerta responded by sending Juvencio Robles to burn entire villages in Morelos to the ground.
When Orozco allied himself with Huerta, Zapata revised the Plan de Ayala, revoking Orozco’s title and making himself the Chief of the Revolution.
The Catholic Church
After Madero’s election, the Catholic Church, the major religion of Mexico at the time, saw an opportunity to move into politics and formed the National Catholic Party (NCP). During Huerta’s reign, though the Archbishop of Mexico would publish documents which expressed concern as to the legality of Huerta’s presidency, Huerta kept the NCP under control by promising them 100 seats in the legislature.
Convention of Aguascalientes
When Villa’s troops defeated Huerta’s federal forces in the Second Battle of Juárez, Huerta resigned and was exiled to Europe. With Huerta gone, Carranza called for an assembly of all revolutionary forces. The assembly took place in Aguascalientes, where both the Villa’s delegation and Zapata’s delegation attended. At the convention it became clear that the absence of a common enemy was causing the once unified revolution to splinter. The group which had defeated Díaz and Huerta was composed of people from all corners of Mexican society: businessmen and peons, intellectuals and laborers, each petitioning their different agendas. Zapata’s southern peons, who wanted agrarian reform, clashed with the businessmen who expected efficient agricultural production to continue. Villa’s northern revolutionaries valued political autonomy while the Carrancistas wanted a restoration of the 1857 Constitution.
By majority vote, the Villistas and the Zapatistas, known as the Conventionists, agreed to appoint General Eulalio Gutiérrez as provisional president, a choice which Carranza and his Carrancistas rejected. Instead, Carranza declared himself president, and Villa and Zapata, as allies, broke from Carranza. His choice brought two years of a bloody civil war to Mexico.
Zapata’s force of 24,000 men peacefully occupied Mexico City. Carranza fled to Veracruz, where he negotiated the removal of the U.S. troops.
Zapata and Villa met in Xochimilco, where Villa accepted the Plan of Ayala. The two leaders agreed to fight as allies until they put a civilian president in the palace.
Obregón’s use of European 20th-century-style warfare handed him a decisive victory against Villa’s cavalry.
Villa’s forces fought American forces. 2 hours later, Carrancistas attacked the American forces.
Villa’s supporters attacked a train in Santa Ysabel, Chihuahua, killing 17 Americans. White residents in El Paso responded by attacking Mexicans in a race riot.
Villa and his men raided Columbus, NM. In response, General John J. Pershing led 10,000 U.S. soldiers into Mexico in an expedition that failed to capture Villa.
Pershing’s troops fought the Carrancistas.
Carranza’s generals defeated Villa and isolate Zapata. Carranza called for a constitutional convention, but did not invite Zapata. The new constitution introduced agrarian reform and unprecedented economic rights for the Mexican people, and Carranza was elected president.
Now president, Carranza decided Zapata was too large a threat to ignore. In 1919, Colonel Jesus Guajardo, a Carrancista, asked to meet with Zapata in Chinameca on the pretense of switching sides. To gain credibility with Zapata, Guajardo staged a rout against other federal forces, sacrificing whole slews of men in a mock battle.
On April 10, the day Guajardo and Zapata were to meet, Zapata was ambushed and shot to death by Carrancistas. His last moments were captured in an iconic photograph of him surrounded by his Zapatistas.
Two traditional mexican ballads, known as corridos, portray conflicting views about Zapata’s death.
Little star in the night
that rides the sky like a witch
where is our chief Zapata
who was the scourge of the rich?
Little flower of the fields
and valleys of Morelos,
if they ask for Zapata,
say he's gone to try on halos.
Finally they buried his body
filled with joy and pleasure
and many, so many weeped
for his sins and for his peace.
But his soul perseveres
in his ideal of "Liberator"
and his fearsome skull
wanders in grief... oh terror!
Diego Rivera’s painting of Emiliano Zapata on his horse immortalized Zapata as a martyr who sacrificed his life to help Mexico’s poor. His painting was key in transforming Zapata’s public image from a violent revolutionary into a hero who used force only when necessary.
José Clemente Orozco’s painting of Zapata appearing in the doorway of a peasant hut depicted Zapata as a brave rebel, willing to put himself in front of bullets, daggers, and swords in his fight for agrarian reform.
On January 1st, 1994, a rebel group calling itself the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) attacked four towns in Chiapas. The EZLN describe themselves as modern day Zapatistas, fighting against economic policies which they believe adversely affect Mexico’s indigenous population, such as NAFTA. As of 2018, the Zapatistas are one of the most powerful rebel groups in Mexico, and number in the 300,000s. Like the original Zapatistas, a large percentage of their forces are women.
Zapata’s movement was key in the creation of Article 27 of the 1917 Constitution, which declared all land, water and mineral rights to be the property of the people of Mexico. It gave the Mexican government the ability and mandate to redistribute land from large plantations to eligible agrarian communities. By 1988, over three million households were living in rural communities.
Zapata inspired the 1952 film Viva Zapata! starring Marlon Brando, with a screenplay by John Steinbeck. Zapata’s life has been made into two other notable biopics: Emiliano Zapata, a 1970 drama film starring Antonio Aguilar and directed by Felipe Cazals, and Zapata: El sueño del héroe, a 2004 motion picture starring Alejandro Fernández and directed by Alfonso Arau. The latter was reportedly the most expensive Mexican movie ever produced.