Why Emiliano Zapata’s Legacy is More Relevant Than Ever


You’ve seen him on t-shirts, car decals and probably all over social media. His distinctive mustache and gaze identifies the unforgettable Mexican revolutionary icon: Emiliano Zapata.

Born 1879 in the state of Morelos, Zapata experienced first-hand the exploitation of poor campesinos. The hacendados would frequently capitalize water sources for their large estates and forcibly take land at the expense of the Indigenous majority. Zapata himself was mestizo of Nahua descent and his hometown of Anenecuilco speaks both Spanish and Nahuatl.

Under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, known as the Porfiriato, mestizo and Indigenous lands were illegally taken by elites under the ever-expanding hacienda system. Campesinos and peasants from these lands were then obligated into a feudal labor relationship with those who had stolen their territories to become indebted farmers or peons.

Zapata would often come to the defense of his fellow oppressed neighbors, taking their land deeds to court to establish ownership over contested land. Witnessing the ineffectiveness of the legal system, Zapata and his followers would often squat on haciendas to protest the theft of land. These experiences would catapult him to the national stage under Francisco Madero’s call for revolution in 1910 and led to the establishment of the Ejército Libertador del Sur, ELS, (Liberation Army of the South) where he commanded an estimated 20,000 troops.

While the ELS was successful in defeating Díaz, Madero proved to be equally unresponsive to demands for land reforms that were central to Zapata’s Indigenous and peasant base. Under Venustiano Carranza, Francisco “Pancho” Villa was assassinated and the full force of the Mexican Army turned its attention to Zapata’s stronghold in the south.

Zapata was able to carry out land reforms in his home state of Morelos and continued to defy the reactionary Mexican state. His life posed a serious threat to the criollo control of the nation. The status quo saw his assassination as necessary for stomping out all resistance under the banner of the Mexican Revolution.

Although Zapata died almost a century ago, his legacy remains more relevant than ever before.

As Mexico’s elections loom, the Mexican state continues to rob the masses. The Internal Security Law, state-cartel violence, the surveillance of activists and the targeted murders of journalists have created a chaotic environment meant to silence those who speak out against the neoliberal government.

Today, Mexico remains a junior imperialist partner in the global capitalist world order. The state rabidly violates the rights of Central American migrants who cross their borders in the hopes of making it to the United States. Corruption is widespread, including the fraudulent 2012 election that brought Enrique Peña Nieto to the presidency. Women continue to die at alarming rates. Wealth is owned by a small percentage of the nation’s criollo elites like Carlos Slim. Zapata’s push for agrarian reform still resonates, serving as an inspiration for the name of the the well-known Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN, which struggles for Indigenous peasant rights in southern Mexico. His profound respect and valiant fight for the most destitute should inspire many.

As we approach the centennial anniversary of Zapata’s assassination in 2019, we must heed his words more than ever: “Seek justice from tyrannical governments not with your hat in your hands but with a rifle in your fist.”

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