Emiliano Zapata grew to be a legendary hero in the State of Morelos, Mexico, where I now live. Morelos is one of the smallest of the 31 states of Mexico, but also one of the most important due to its plentiful water, fertile farm lands and year round growing season.
Zapata was raised in the humble, rural town of Anenecuilco where his family owned land. At the turn of the century, the surrounding fertile valley of Morelos began producing sugar cane on a global scale surpassed only by Hawaii and Puerto Rico. While slavery had been abolished in the New World, indentured servitude on the great haciendas of central Mexico was akin to feudal farms during the middle ages in Europe. The peons had little control over their living and working conditions, a throwback to when the conquistadors enslaved the natives to work their fields and mines.
Although Zapata did not have a university education, he was well-educated. He learned not only to read and write, but also the proud history of the indigenous people. Records also indicate Zapata was fluent in Nahuatl, the indigenous language of his region. In 1909, Zapata was elected president of the local town council at the age of 30, an honor almost unheard of since town councils were typically made up of town elders. He had grown to understand the terrible exploitation of the peasant farmers, and with the full confidence of the people, he dedicated his life to looking out for their right to own the land they worked.
Zapata supported Francisco Madero’s successful campaign for President of Mexico. However, Madero was not prepared to institute significant land reforms for the benefit of the peasant farmers. In 1911, Madero appointed a regional governor in Morelos who supported the hacienda owners, and the relationship between Madero and Zapata deteriorated. Soon thereafter, Zapata and others drafted the Plan of Ayala, a land reform plan that called for all lands stolen under earlier administrations to be immediately returned to the farmers.
Inevitably, Zapata placed himself in mortal danger by defying the president. In 1919, Zapata was tricked into believing one of the Federal Army’s commanders was prepared to defect to Zapata’s side. Zapata believed this would be the final step in achieving the victory for his people. Instead, he was ambushed and murdered.
While the Plan of Ayala influenced the revised Constitution of Mexico, not all of the reforms envisioned by Zapata were ever fully realized. Nevertheless, Zapata is revered by the people of Mexico and there are streets, parks, highways and landmarks throughout the country named in his honor.
Note: According to most accounts, Zapata had 13 children, most if not all by different mothers. Zapata never forced his desires on women. It is considered a tribute to Zapata that the women who bore his children came to him out of love and devotion.