Biography of Emiliano Zapata, Mexican Revolutionary

Emiliano Zapata and his staff

Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Emiliano Zapata (August 8, 1879–April 10, 1919) was a village leader, farmer, and horseman who became an important leader in the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). He was instrumental in bringing down the corrupt dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz in 1911 and joined forces with other revolutionary generals to defeat Victoriano Huerta in 1914. Zapata commanded an imposing army but rarely sallied forth, preferring to stay on his home turf of Morelos. Zapata was idealistic, and his insistence on land reform became one of the pillars of the Revolution. He was assassinated in 1919.

Fast Facts: Emiliano Zapata

  • Known For: One of the leaders of the Mexican Revolution
  • Born: August 8, 1879 in Anenecuilco, Mexico
  • Parents: Gabriel Zapata, Cleofas Jertrudiz Salazar
  • Died: April 10, 1919 in Chinameca, San Miguel Mexico
  • Education: Basic education from his teacher Emilio Vara
  • Spouse: Josefa Espejo
  • Children: Paulina Ana María Zapata Portillo (with his wife),Carlota Zapata Sánchez, Diego Zapata Piñeiro, Elena Zapata Alfaro, Felipe Zapata Espejo, Gabriel Zapata Sáenz, Gabriel Zapata Vázquez, Guadalupe Zapata Alfaro, Josefa Zapata Espejo, Juan Zapata Alfaro, Luis Eugenio Zapata Sáenz, Margarita Zapata Sáenz, María Luisa Zapata Zúñiga, Mateo Zapata, Nicolás Zapata Alfaro, Ponciano Zapata Alfaro (all illegitimate)
  • Notable Quote: "It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees."

Early Life

Before the Revolution, Zapata was a young peasant like many others in his home state of Morelos. His family was fairly well off in the sense that they had their own land and were not debt peons (slaves, essentially) on one of the large sugarcane plantations.

Zapata was a dandy and a well-known horseman and bullfighter. He was elected mayor of the tiny town of Anenecuilco in 1909 and began defending his neighbors’ land from greedy landowners. When the legal system failed him, he rounded up some armed peasants and began taking the stolen land back by force.

Revolution to Overthrow Porfirio Díaz

In 1910, President Porfirio Díaz had his hands full with Francisco Madero, who ran against him in a national election. Díaz won by rigging the results, and Madero was forced into exile. From safety in the United States, Madero called for a Revolution. In the north, his call was answered by Pascual Orozco and Pancho Villa, who soon put large armies into the field. In the south, Zapata saw this as an opportunity for change. He also raised an army and began fighting federal forces in southern states. When Zapata captured Cuautla in May of 1911, Díaz knew his time was up and he went into exile.

Opposing Francisco I. Madero

The alliance between Zapata and Madero did not last very long. Madero did not really believe in land reform, which was all that Zapata cared about. When Madero’s promises failed to come to fruition, Zapata took to the field against his onetime ally. In November 1911 he wrote his famous Plan of Ayala, which declared Madero a traitor, named Pascual Orozco head of the Revolution, and outlined a plan for true land reform. Zapata fought federal forces in the south and near Mexico City. Before he could overthrow Madero, General Victoriano Huerta beat him to it in February 1913, ordering Madero arrested and executed.

Opposing Huerta

If there was anyone that Zapata hated more than Díaz and Madero, it was Victoriano Huerta—the bitter, violent alcoholic who had been responsible for many atrocities in southern Mexico while trying to end the rebellion. Zapata was not alone. In the north, Pancho Villa, who had supported Madero, immediately took to the field against Huerta. He was joined by two newcomers to the Revolution, Venustiano Carranza, and Alvaro Obregón, who raised large armies in Coahuila and Sonora respectively. Together they made short work of Huerta, who resigned and fled in June 1914 after repeated military losses to the “Big Four.”

Zapata in the Carranza/Villa Conflict

With Huerta gone, the Big Four almost immediately began fighting among themselves. Villa and Carranza, who despised one another, nearly began shooting before Huerta was even removed. Obregón, who considered Villa a loose cannon, reluctantly backed Carranza, who named himself the provisional president of Mexico. Zapata didn’t like Carranza, so he sided with Villa (to an extent). He mainly stayed on the sidelines of the Villa/Carranza conflict, attacking anyone who came onto his turf in the south but rarely sallying forth. Obregón defeated Villa over the course of 1915, allowing Carranza to turn his attention to Zapata.

The Soldaderas

Zapata’s army was unique in that he allowed women to join the ranks and serve as combatants. Although other revolutionary armies had many women followers, they generally did not fight (with some exceptions). Only in Zapata’s army were there large numbers of women combatants: some were even officers. Some modern Mexican feminists point to the historical importance of these “soldaderas” as a milestone in women’s rights.

Death

In early 1916, Carranza sent Pablo González, his most ruthless general, to track down and stamp out Zapata once and for all. González employed a no-tolerance, scorched-earth policy. He destroyed villages, executing all those he suspected of supporting Zapata. Although Zapata was able to drive the federales out for a while in 1917-1918, they returned to continue the fight. Carranza soon told González to finish Zapata by any means necessary. On April 10, 1919, Zapata was double-crossed, ambushed, and killed by Colonel Jesús Guajardo, one of González’ officers who had pretended to want to switch sides.

Legacy

Zapata’s supporters were stunned by his sudden death and many refused to believe it, preferring to think he had gotten away—perhaps by sending a double in his place. Without him, however, the rebellion in the south soon fizzled. In the short run, Zapata’s death put an end to his ideas of land reform and fair treatment for Mexico’s poor farmers.

In the long run, however, he has done more for his ideas in death than he did in life. Like many charismatic idealists, Zapata became a martyr after his treacherous murder. Even though Mexico still has not implemented the sort of land reform he wanted, he is remembered as a visionary who fought for his countrymen.

In early 1994, a group of armed guerrillas attacked several towns in southern Mexico. The rebels call themselves the EZLN, or Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (National Zapatist Liberation Army). They chose the name, they say, because even though the Revolution “triumphed,” Zapata’s vision had not yet come to pass. This was a major slap in the face to the ruling PRI party, which traces its roots to the Revolution and supposedly is the guardian of the Revolution’s ideals. The EZLN, after making its initial statement with weapons and violence, almost immediately switched to modern battlefields of the internet and world media. These cyber-guerrillas picked up where Zapata left off 75 years before: the Tiger of Morelos would have approved.

Sources

Emiliano Zapata.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 4 Feb. 2019,

McLynn, Frank. "Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution." Basic Books, August 15, 2002.

Who Was Emiliano Zapata? Everything You Need to Know.” Facts, Childhood, Family Life & Achievements of Revolutionary Leader.