Emiliano Zapata: In the name of the land

Emiliano Zapata: In the name of the land

Emiliano Zapata became a rebel in his own mind much before the missionaries of Madero supplied a social doctrine to uphold him in their minds. Illustration: Barriozona Magazine
Emiliano Zapata became a rebel in his own mind much before the missionaries of Madero supplied a social doctrine to uphold him in their minds. Illustration: Barriozona Magazine

Call Villa a popular hero, but not Zapata. He is the traditional martyr to the land, the man who consciously dies as a symbol. The ballads that mourn for Zapata are like hymns. As this one:

Señores, I bear a corrido
That is silver to the ears
The death of Zapata I’m singing
News that must bring many tears.

There lived in Cuautla, Morelos
A very singular man
All the people and their neighbors
Followed under his command.

Beloved by all his people
He was considered the leader
None of them want to forget him
They will remember his teaching.

His teaching was no new doctrine. It was the creed that “the land belongs to him who works it with his hands”, melodramatized, made tragedy, by this man who contained in himself an old spirit, an old attitude, not by words, nor by personal idiosyncracy, but by the intensely native pattern of his life.

Emiliano Zapata was a ranchero, a small landowner, one of those who cultivate their own maize and give affectionate nicknames to their proud yoke of oxen. They are different free peons chiefly in that instead of white cotton they wear close- fitting tawny or gray leather, clamped to their persons with silver buttons. In appearance Zapata at first glance was typically the charro who valiantly straddles his horse and waves his goblet on nearly any pulqueria wall: the ideal, habits ranch he- man. But really observed, Zapata was remarkable. Tall, lean, slid into dull close black; with a blood-red or purple scarf about his throat; his face sheer bone, smoothly fleshed, built triangularly to his chin; his eyes gray, filmed, distant, pooled under the wall of his forehead; his mouth fin: silent, richly modelled; and over it two enormous mustachio dropped like a Chinese priest’s, accentuating the pull of his brooding jaws.

Zapatism, the thing that he meant to both city and peasantry, was a familiar and hopeful idea to his neighbours. They were perhaps the only rebels of the thousands who lustily, wearily, desperately, gleefully, or recklessly did with their lives violence, who could have described what they wanted. To the city, Zapatism was sinister, terrible. Indians in revolt! Human sacrifice would be their formula. To the soldiers who fought against it, Zapatism meant enormous upward-winged sombreros jumping from rock to rock and disappearing, and reappearing behind them; glimpsed around trees and still there, comically still, riddled with bullets; when captured, only sombreros. For the heads that had filled them, recrowned, bore other sombreros circling forever behind, over, suddenly in their faces.

The Zapatista under his great petate sombrero was a slight, taut person dressed in white cotton, girdled in crimson or black, sandaled, and hung with enormous cartridge-belts; astride a horse lean and agile, harmoniously flexible to him. Horse and rider were a single vengeful being. It carried sometimes a gun wrested from whoever had owned it, and always a machete, the wide-bladed curved knife which had served to harvest Morelos sugar-cane and now swept other crops. When the Zapatista attacked, he invoked the Lady of Guadalupe sewn to his hatband, expected the aid of his allied Malintzins and Tepoztons and nevertheless chanted his “If I am to die tomorrow, let them kill me right away…” When a Zapatista fell his wife or his son or his uncle or his brother med his sombrero, and between gallops meditated:

In the crown of a sombrero
We bore the brains of his head
Let them serve henceforth to soften
So many hearts made of lead.

Zapata became a rebel in his own mind much before the missionaries of Madero supplied a social doctrine to uphold him in their minds. A neighbouring hill village, bordering on a huge estate, was flagrantly, suddenly violated, so flagrantly that even the Diaz courts, subservient to hacendados, declared that the 300 disputed hectares had been unlawfully taken, and must be returned. Instead, the documents entitling the village to its plot, disappeared. So Zapata led the townspeople to their raped fields and forcibly restored them. He was arrested ad put in the army.

It is said that in the capital he served as a groom to a rich general. The pampered horses, the gleaming stables, contrasted bitterly with the miserable huts and the atrociously starved and mistreated peons on the same rich man’s—or his friends—estates. In the whispering days toward the end of Diaz’s nth presidential term Zapata had slipped back to his native Morelos and was earnestly converting grim picked men to Madero’s standard. With him went metropolitan poets and patriots who supplied the words and did secretarial duty to their chief, and who afterwards forgot their theories and based a powerful political philosophy on the things they learned in the “Army of the South”, which was then known as the “Horrendous Horde.”

Zapata raided haciendas much in the manner of Villa, but he did not plunder, distribute, and consume as Villa. First, while doubtless his army looted boudoirs, he marched into the estate office and put a match to its documents and titles. Then he mapped out the surface and allotted even portions to the peons living upon it. He opened the jails, and the prisoner followed him like grateful starved dogs. Each village, every hut, was a garrison, storehouse, and courier; was eyes, ears, rampart and beanpot to him. When he rode down to then from his hills the path was scattered with flowers.

Madero, when Diaz was appropriately gnashing his teeth in the vessel that bore him to Paris, was taken out to Morelos to see the peasant leader, possibly to try to persuade him that his battles were all won. They met in the picturesque tourist town of Cuernavaca. There was a great crowd in the plaza. The band played, the palms flirted. The women swirled their skirts and twinkled their fans. Madero stood in the limelight and courageously held out his arms to the big mountain chief and declaimed: “Now, my true-hearted and incorruptible General Zapata, let us unite in a single sentiment, and, bound together in brotherly embrace, let us shout before these nameless heroes: ‘Long live Democracy!’ Hurrah for Liberty!”

Embraced, Zapata looked off over the head of the virtuous president and said: “All right, Señor Madero. But, let me say, if you don’t keep your promises”, touching his gun demonstratively, “one bullet shall be for you, and the rest for the other traitors”. Madero, being a cultured man and sincerely convinced that in his doctrines lay salvation, was, he said, a little surprised at the untactful simplicity of the peasant, but he smiled; and Señora Madero was heard remarking: “Was there ever such an impudent Indian!”

The ballad accounts of what happened after are perhaps a little unfair to Madero. He wears as a martyr rightfully (and more gracefully than ever he did alive) the title of Liberator. But the ballad accounts give the story.

Zapata fought for Madero, and helped his plans to succeed
So that then, little by little, they could fulfill his ideas;
They won a great victory after they had fought awhile
And all of their troops then marched into the capital.
Zapata was very glad to see that Madero won
For the workers of the land, now he said the land would own.
Those promises that he made, there in San Luis Potosi In the plan that he proclaimed,
Madero could not fulfill Having arisen to power by means of what he proclaimed
Once that he had succeeded, he should have kept to his word.

Time passed, and Zapata waited for the promise that was made;
Of promise and promised lands, no longer a word was said.
Waiting for what never happened, seeing the last hope fail,
Zapata rose up in arms, at the Hill of the Nightingale.
If Madero has forgotten, and has furled the glorious banner
Tough my life be the price of it, I’ll make good my Plan de Ayala.
These were the words of Zapata: Land and Liberty for all;
And through the state of Morelos many men came to his call.

The Zapatista troop earned its name of Horrendous Horde. Orgies, outrageous and preposterous, celebrated the possession of each hacienda. Brutal tortures were inflicted on every man caught who was not wearing the religious costume of sandals, white cotton, and petate hat. As a disguise it did not serve, because corns are easily visible between the leather thongs of peasant footgear, and peasants don’t have corns. They would dance, these shocked and delicate men, nude, crowned with a top hat; dance with the bullets spattering under their heels. The rebels stabled their horses in mirrored bedrooms and rubbed them down inside church doors. Smudges and blood mark nearly all the strong walls, nearly all ruined, in Morelos.

Said Zapata: “We must frighten them; we must terrify them; because if they do not fear us they will never listen to us…” And he added: “Let them curse me now. Afterwards they will lift me up as the martyr who sacrificed his I own good name and happiness to the need of his people”. A journalist familiar with the camp life of the agrarian chief relates the following story: “The general and his staff were supping, when a dispatch arrived, containing a newspaper account of an exploit of one of the Zapatista generals, the terrible Genovevo de la O. A train had been attacked, the passengers had been lined up and plundered, jewels were torn from the bleeding ears and fingers of the wearers. The rebels had their choice of the women. The men were mutilated indescribably and sent naked into the mountains. Zapata, hearing this, dictated a telegram to his subordinate: “My dear Genovevo: Fine work. Congratulations.”

His family says that Zapata was a kind man. It would take courage even in an ungentle person, to perform systematically and deliberately as he did, human sacrifice. Abstractly too, because it seems probable he was not wilfully lustful and certainly he gleaned no fortune by it. In the end it was himself sacrificed. He did it in the name of the land as if he had been doing it in the name of Our Lady of Guadalupe, like Hidalgo. His upsetting reasoning, that this was the only way to achieve what seemed to him the only thing worth achieving by a revolution, has been proved correct reasoning. He did what he set out to do. He forced recognition of the problem he put first, as the first problem. Not, however, till he died.

The Zapatistas besieged Mexico City for several years. As they drew closer and closer around the city of palaces, the dwellers within felt sure they were being poisoned by that terrible vicinity. They would not drink the water that is piped o the capital from the suburbs, because how could it be possible that Zapata at the source had not envenomed it? They feared those Indians with the accumulated guilt and unease if their four vain centuries. When Zapata marched into the capital it might have been an American invasion that was expected, the way the shutters were locked and the children kept off the streets.

It was wonderful to see that quiet, secure procession of men coming in, not as armies stamp, because they wore no boots, but with the steady glide of their daily walk. They quartered themselves in the governmental palace on the main plaza, elbowing the great churrigueresque cathedral. They chose the smallest rooms, in the rear. These were not dwellings at all, but garages, dark storehouses, and stables. In the palace itself their tread was quiet. They stood thoughtfully before a picture, a carving, the splendid curve of a stair. Hat in hand, they went to the museum. It was expected that they would promptly rifle the place. But they behaved as if they had been in church. And instead of taking away the pretty things, they brought contributions, and laid them there with votive gesture. The rhymed account of this invasion is votive too:

The hero and spartan Zapata was the victim of much slander,
And many people had judged him as a man without a standard;
They said he would burn and plunder when he marched into the city
For they thought that he was evil, had no character nor pity.
But when he arrived in the city they found that all was a lie
As the troop in sober order, one by one in line filed by.

They gave their thanks to the people who with them had sympathizer
But the credit and the honor to the leader of their cause.
If I molested my hearer while I was singing this song,
Let me beg to be forgiven, as I intended no wrong.
My only wish is to crown, with narcissus and sweet laurel
The great Emiliano Zapata, loved by the poor and humble.

Every Federal government after Madero fought Zapata. He was killed by a spy in the employ of Pablo Gonzalez, a general of the Carranza army and an official in the Carranza regime. The murderer “joined” Zapata’s troop, and betrayed him. Legend says that the Zapatistas knew the plan beforehand, and that the person who was killed was not Zapata at all, but a man who impersonated him to save his life. The leader inhabits a cave, it is said, and waits for the proper moment to return. He cannot rest until the peasants have all their land. Either he or his ghost walks the fields of Morelos at night, dragging something that clanks, chains, perhaps, it is though: and he bleeds into the furrows. It is in Morelos than one is told: “Do not eat the first fruits of the year; they are nourished with blood.”

© 2016, Anita Brenner. All rights reserved.