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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 Honest Attempts to Protect His Village's Way of Life Turned Into a Revolution

    Photo: Photographer Unknown / Public Domain

    Emiliano Zapata was born August 8, 1879 in Morelos, a state just south of Mexico City in south-central Mexico. His family lived for several generations in the tiny pueblo of Anenecuilco, where they raised and trained horses. The Zapatas weren't wealthy, but neither were they peons, the indentured peasant farmers who were virtually slaves.  

    Zapata's father died when Emiliano was 17, making him the breadwinner of the family. At age thirty, he was named leader of the town council of his village, and resolved to do something about his townspeople's economic oppression. When his discussions with governmental officials went nowhere, he and 80 fellow townspeople armed themselves and began to take back expropriated property, or land taken from the people.  

    Under the leadership of dictator Porfirio Diaz, large landowners known as Hacendados frequently expropriated land from the peasant community, ignoring laws and property rights.  Zapata's peasant army, which grew exponentially as he continued reclaiming stolen land, was one of the many factors prompting Diaz to flee the country, setting off the Mexican Revolution.  

  • His Guerrilla Army Took Land Back from Wealthy Thieves and Redistributed It to the People

    Photo: Photographer Unknown / Public Domain

    Land reform was the main component of Zapata's political beliefs, as exemplified by his movement's slogan, Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty). His followers were known as Zapatistas, peasants who were determined to redistribute land taken over by wealthy landowners who ran huge tracts known as haciendas. 

    As Zapata himself famously said, "The land belongs to those who work it with their hands." These words have been evoked as recently as the 1990s by Mexican writers and radicals seeking rights for workers and indigenous people throughout the country. The fight for land ownership expanded from Zapata's village to consume all of Mexico; the cause of ownership and guerilla practice of seizing land was one of the main catalysts for the Revolution in 1910. 

  • He Was a Relatively Humble Guy in a Time of Chaotic Political Hubris

    From May of 1911 until May 1920, Mexico had nine presidents, most of whom served for very brief periods. Zapata's lifetime was an era rife with generals raising their own armies, military coups, fleeing dictators, foreign intervention, multiple fronts of sectarian violence, and political chaos. However, unlike most power players of the time, Zapata had no political ambitions. His army was relatively disorganized, and he saw himself as nothing more than a local village leader trying to create a dialogue that might lead to political reform. He was a reluctant national figure in an era of ridiculous political hubris. 

    That said, as you'll learn as you read on, Zapata was also stubborn as a goddamn mule, and refused to budge on land reform. 

  • He's Responsible for One of the Most Famous and Misattributed Quotes Ever

    Photo: Photographer Unknown / Public Domain

    The quote "I'd rather die on my feet, than live on my knees"  has been attributed to several high profile 20th century revolutionaries, including Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Spain's La Pasonaria (Dolores Ibarruri). Aeschylus wrote something sort of similar in Prometheus Bound ("For it would be better to die once and for all than to suffer pain for all one's life.") and French socialist François-Noël Babeuf famously said "Ne vaut-il pas mieux emporter la gloire de n'avoir pas survecu a la servitude?" (roughly: "Would it not be better to take the glory of not having survived a bondage?"), which have similar sentiments to the famous quote, despite the different wording. 

    So where does this quote really come from? Look no further than Emiliano Zapata, who said "Prefiero morir de pie que vivir de rodillas," which translates quite literally to "I prefer to die on my feet than live on my knees." A nice summation on Zapata's views of his revolutionary activity, and staunch refusal to live a life of servitude to wealthy landowners.