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12 Surprising Facts About Emiliano Zapata, Mexico's Reluctant Revolutionary

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Chances are you've heard the name Emiliano Zapata but don't know that much about him. But the man, a staunch idealist who became a reluctant revolutionary, had a massive impact on Mexican history. He was a freedom fighter who, in no uncertain terms, changed the course of history. So maybe now you're interested in learning some badass Emiliano Zapata stories and surprising Emiliano Zapata facts? 

Admittedly, "badass" is a relative term for Zapata. He wasn't kicking down doors with a six shooter in each hand, or rolling into town pumping out rounds from his shotgun while smoking a giant Cuban cigar. Rather, Zapata was a compassionate idealist who fought for the rights of the common people. Despite his lasting national importance, Zapata saw himself as little more than a local leader. But also, come on, raising an army and taking the fight to wealthy and oppressive forces is totally badass. 

Read on to learn all about the life and exploits of this legendary Mexican revolutionary. Amidst the chaos and corruption of early 20th century Mexico, Zapata stuck to a fundamental vision and simple concepts concerning freedom and economic justice. He is a remarkable historical figure, revered Mexican symbol of national pride.   

  • His Manifesto on Land Reform Cemented the Zapatista Revolutionary Movement

    Photo: Emiliano Zapata / Public Domain

    During the early years of his uprising, Zapata allied himself with Francisco Madero, an opponent of Porfirio Diaz, hoping to push for the enactment of land reform through political channels. Madero didn't follow through on promises, so Zapata broke with him, regrouped in the mountains of southern Mexico, and announced the Plan de Ayala, in 1911. The plan, basically a political platform, called for all stolen land to be returned to the people, and for one third of large haciendas to be nationalized. Those landowners who refused to comply would have all their land seized and nationalized. 

    Zapata intended to impose his plan on Madero by force. However, as fate would have it, Madero was deposed and executed by another strongman, Victoriano Huerta. Huerta was so despised, he united the revolutionary armies of Mexico against him.  

    Previous to the drafting of Plan de Ayala, Zapata had no written mission statement. Thus, the plan served as something of a manifesto, concretely declaring the beliefs at the heart of the Zapatista movement, which continue to affect Mexican politics and social life into the 21st century. 

  • He Was a Bit of Dandy, Because He Believed His Position Called for It

    Photo: Bain News Service / Public Domain

    Zapata dressed like a traditional Mexican charro, or horseman, with tight black pants, silver buttons, a large brimmed circular sombrero, a linen shirt and jacket, a colorful scarf around his neck, polished boots and spurs, and, most importantly of all, a pistol tucked into his belt. He did so, he said, because he wanted to wear his best clothes, like the chief of any village. With a long handlebar mustache, Zapata had the appearance of the quintessential Mexican Revolutionary. 

  • Like Most Mexican Revolutionaries, Zapata Was a Stubborn Bastard

    Photo: M. Ramons / Creative Commons

    When Victoriano Huerta, who seized control of Mexico in a counter-revolutionary coup, was defeated and fled in June 1914, the country was in the position to create a new constitution and government. At first, Zapata, Villa, Venustiano Carranza, and others revolutionary leaders worked toegether.

    However, as Carranza maneuvered his way toward the presidency, and Zapata suspected his Plan de Ayala would become a matter of little importance to the central government, things began to fall apart. Both Zapata and Villa broke away from the new government, which was supported by the United States. Zapata's rationale was his steadfast refusal to accept anything other than the complete implementation of his plan, and his belief that the new government had little concern for agrarian issues. 

    Villa and Zapata were wary of one another, yet suspected they would need one another's support to stand up to Carranza. They met at the Presidential Palace in Mexico City on December 7, 1914, forming tentative agreement to unite that never amounted to anything. In the wake of the agreement, Zapata returned to Morelos, which he had been granted control of after Huerta fled, and focused on implementing land reform. Meanwhile, Villa suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of Carranza at the Battle of Celaya in April 1915, ending his aura of invincibility.

    The defeat placed pressure on Zapata; with Villa neutralized, Carranza turned attention to Zapata, sending troops into Morelos, attempting to capture or kill Zapata and his rebels.

  • He Was Assassinated by the Federal Government, Cementing His Folkloric Outlaw Status

    Photo: Photographer Unknown / Public Domain

    In 1916, Carranza sent General Pablo Garza to Morelos in an attempt to destroy the Zapatista movement. Supporters of Zapata were to be massacred or shipped out of the state to serve elsewhere as slave labor. Zapata lost control of the state, but the brutality of the occupying Federal troops allowed for a gradual counterattack and a reestablishment of the Zapatistas by the end of 1916.  

    Outside Morelos, the revolution was dissipating, as many grew tired of constant violence, chaos and death. For two years, Zapata survived, fighting the Carrancistas to a stalemate. In early 1919, as a harsh winter and influenza epidemic wiped 25% of the population of Morelos, Zapata's situation grew tenuous. He began to negotiate with a potential Federal turncoat, Colonel Jesus Guajardo, in response to Guajardo's offer to defect with men and weapons.  

    Zapata put Guajardo through an elaborate test to determine whether was sincere, then decided to meet him. Zapata was greeted with a hail of bullets.