Emiliano Zapata Salazar (August 8, 1879–April 10, 1919) was a leading figure in the Mexican Revolution, which broke out in 1910, and which was initially directed against the president Porfirio Díaz. He formed and commanded an important revolutionary force, the Liberation Army of the South.
At that time, Mexico was ruled by a dictatorship under Porfirio Díaz, who had seized power in 1876. The social system of the time was a sort of proto-capitalist feudal system, with large landed estates (haciendas) controlling more and more of the land and squeezing out the independent communities of the indigenous and mestizos, who were then subsequently forced into debt slavery (peonaje) on the haciendas. Díaz ran local elections to pacify the people and run a government that they could argue was self-imposed. Under Díaz, close confidantes and associates were given offices in districts throughout Mexico. These offices became the enforcers of "land reforms" that actually concentrated the haciendas into fewer hands.
Zapata's family, although not wealthy, still retained its independence. Like most of the families in Anenecuilco, they were always in danger of poverty, although avoiding peonage and maintaining their own land (rancho). In fact, the family had in previous generations been porfirista, that is, supporters of Díaz. Zapata himself always had a reputation for being a fancy dresser, appearing at bullfights and rodeos in his elaborate charro (cowboy) outfit. Though his flashiness would usually have associated him with the rich hacendados who controlled the lands, he seems to have retained the admiration and even adoration of the people of his village, Anenecuilco, so that by the time he was 30, he was the head of the defense committee of the village, a post which made him the spokesman for the village's interests. He was directly elected to this position during the autumn of 1909, just a year before the start of the revolution.
Zapata became a leading figure in the village of Anenecuilco, where his family had lived for many generations, and he became involved in struggles for the rights of the campesinos of Morelos. He was able to oversee the redistribution of the land from some haciendas peacefully, but had problems with others. He observed numerous conflicts between villagers and hacendados over the constant theft of village land, and in one instance, saw the hacendados torch an entire village.
For many years, he campaigned steadfastly for the rights of the villagers, first establishing via ancient title deeds their claims to disputed land, and then pressing the recalcitrant governor of Morelos into action. Finally, disgusted with the slow response from the government and the overt bias towards the wealthy plantation owners, Zapata began making use of armed force, simply taking over the land in dispute.
At this time, Porfirio Díaz was being threatened by the candidacy of Francisco I. Madero. Zapata made quiet alliances with Madero, whom he perceived to be the best chance for genuine change in the country.
Zapata joined Madero’s campaign against President Diaz. With the support of Pancho Villa, Pascual Orozco, Emiliano Zapata, and rebellious peasants, Madero overthrew Díaz in May of 1911 in the battle at Ciudad Juárez. A provisional government was formed under Francisco León de la Barra. Under Madero, some new land reforms were carried out and elections were to be ensured. However, Zapata was dissatisfied with Madero's stance on land reform, and was unable, despite repeated efforts, to make him understand the importance of the issue or to get him to act on it. Madero and Zapata's relations worsened during the summer of 1911 as Madero appointed a governor who supported plantation owners and refused to meet Zapata’s agrarian goals. Compromises between the two failed in November 1911, days after Madero appointed himself President, and Zapata and Montaño fled to the mountains of southwest Puebla. There they formed the most radical reform plan in Mexico; the Plan de Ayala.
Zapata was partly influenced by an anarchist from Oaxaca named Ricardo Flores Magón. The influence of Flores Magón on Zapata can be seen in the Zapatistas' Plan de Ayala, but even more noticeably in their slogan "Tierra y libertad" or "land and liberty", the title and maxim of Flores Magón's most famous work. Zapata's introduction to anarchism came via a local schoolteacher, Otilio Montaño Sánchez – later a general in Zapata's army, executed on 17 May 1917 – who exposed Zapata to the works of Peter Kropotkin and Flores Magón at the same time as Zapata was observing and beginning to participate in the struggles of the peasants for the land.
The plan proclaimed the Zapatista demands for “land, liberty, and justice”. Zapata also declared the Zapatistas as a counter-revolution and denounced Madero. Zapata mobilized his Liberation Army and allied with former Maderistas Pascual Orozco and Emiliano Vázquez Gómez. Orozco was from Chihuahua, near the U.S. border, and thus was able to aid the Zapatistas with a supply of arms.
Madero, alarmed, asked Zapata to disarm and demobilize. Zapata responded that, if the people could not win their rights now, when they were armed, they would have no chance once they were unarmed and helpless. Madero sent several generals in an attempt to deal with Zapata, but these efforts had little success.
Madero was soon overthrown by Victoriano Huerta, a former porfirista general, who granted amnesty to Díaz and suppressed resistance to land reforms. General Huerta murdered Madero in February of 1913. In May, Huerta closed the House of the World Worker, which was largely made up of intellectual radicals including Antonio Diaz Soto y Gama. The peasant reaction to this increased the size of Zapata's forces considerably, and also gave rise to a new group in the north: the Villistas under Pancho Villa. The Villistas were mainly composed of Madero supporters. Zapata at first was hesitant to meet with Villa, after Villa vehemently rejected the Plan de Ayala when a Zapatista introduced him to the concept in prison.
Opposition to Huerta coalesced under Venustiano Carranza, who led a Constitutionalist faction with which both Villa and Zapata eventually allied. These forces proved too much for Huerta and he was quickly deposed. Following his defeat, the Constitutionalists set up a convention to decide the form of the new government. Zapata refused to attend the convention, pointing out that none of the attendees had been elected. Instead, the chiefs in Morelos sent a delegation to present the Plan de Ayala for consideration and observe the convention.
Soon thereafter Carranza had himself made head of the government, which sparked further outrage. Initially, Carranza commanded the loyalty of Álvaro Obregón, who suppressed the Villista guerrillas. The Zapatistas, however, remained mobilised, but grew increasingly fractured after many long years of campaigning, in which Gen. Pablo González, appointed by Carranza in 1916 to recover the State of Morelos from Zapata's control, hanged many peasants and destroyed property all over the state, with no effect since Zapata's forces continued to fight, even recovering the city of Cuernavaca by mid-1917.
The Carranza regime ultimately put a bounty on Zapata's head, expecting disenfranchised Zapatistas to betray him. It also attempted to entice away the other chiefs in the Zapatista army; neither action proved successful.
Although government forces could never completely defeat Zapata in battle, he fell victim to a carefully staged ambush by Gen. Pablo González and his lieutenant, Col. Jesús Guajardo. Guajardo proposed González feign a defection to Zapata's forces. González agreed, and to make the defection appear sincere, he arranged for Guajardo to attack a Federal column, killing 57 soldiers. Zapata subsequently agreed to receive a messenger from Guajardo, to arrange a meeting to speak about Guajardo's defection.
On April 10, 1919, Guajardo invited Zapata to a meeting, intimating that he intended to defect to the revolutionaries. However, when Zapata arrived at the Hacienda de San Juan, in Chinameca, Ayala municipality, Guajardo's men riddled him with bullets. They then took his body to Cuautla to claim the bounty, where they are reputed to have been given only half of what was promised.
Following Zapata's death, the Liberation Army of the South slowly fell apart, although Zapata's heir apparent Gildardo Magaña and many other Zapata adherents went on to political careers as representatives of Zapatista causes and positions in the Mexican army and government. Some of his former generals like Genovevo de la O allied with Obregón while others eventually disappeared after Carranza was deposed.
Many popular organizations take their name from Zapata, most notably the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional or EZLN in Spanish), the revolutionary movement of indigenous peoples that emerged in the state of Chiapas in 1994 and is colloquially known as "the Zapatistas". Towns, streets, and housing developments called "Emiliano Zapata" are common across the country and he has, at times, been depicted on Mexican banknotes.
Modern activists in Mexico frequently make reference to Zapata in their campaigns, his image is commonly seen on banners and many chants invoke his name: Si Zapata viviera con nosotros andaría, "If Zapata lived, he would walk with us." Zapata vive, la lucha sigue, "Zapata lives; the struggle continues."
In the folklore of the people of Morelos, there is a widespread belief that Zapata did not die. The corpse purported to be his was that of a friend posing as Zapata, and Zapata himself fled to some obscure rural locale where he continues to evade law enforcement and prepares for a future revolution.
Zapata has in the last few decades been recast as a quasi-religious icon as well, mostly within indigenous or the newer "Zapatista"(EZLN/Mayan) communities, where he is called "Votán Zapata". Votán (Wotán in modern Mayan spelling) is a Mayan god, who with his twin brother Ik'al was said to have descended from the mountains to teach the people to defend themselves. A part of Our Word is Our Weapon by Subcomandante Marcos of the EZLN is dedicated to Votán Zapata.
Zapata has been depicted in comics, books, music and movies. For example, Zapata (1980) is a stage musical written by Harry Nilsson and Perry Botkin which ran for 16 weeks at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut.