Zapata was of almost pure native descent. A tenant farmer, he occupied a social position between the peon and the ranchero, but he was a born leader who felt keenly the injustices suffered by his people. About 1908, because of his attempt to recover village lands taken over by a rancher, he was impressed into a brief service in the army. Late in 1910, as Madero rose against Porfirio Díaz, Zapata took up arms with the cry of “land and liberty.” With an army of native people recruited from plantations and villages, he began to seize the land by force. Zapata supported Madero until he thought that land reform had been abandoned, then he turned and formulated his own agrarian program. This program, outlined in the Plan of Ayala (Nov., 1911), called for the return of the land to the indigenous people. In defense of his plan, Zapata held the field against successive federal governments under Madero, Victoriano Huerta, and Venustiano Carranza. The peasants rallied to Zapata's support, and by the end of 1911 he controlled most of Morelos; later he enlarged his power to cover Guerrero, Oaxaca, Puebla, and at times even the Federal District. After the overthrow of Madero, Zapata in the south and Carranza, Obregón, and Villa in the north were the chief leaders against Huerta. When Carranza seized the executive power, Zapata and Villa warred against him. Zapata's forces occupied Mexico City three times in 1914–15 (once with the followers of Villa), but finally retired to Morelos, where Zapata resisted until he was treacherously killed by an emissary of Carranza. To his enemies, Zapata was the apotheosis of nihilism, and his movement was only large-scale brigandage. To the indigenous peoples, he was a savior and the hero of the revolution. Although his attacks at times seemed to be mere banditry, his objective was not loot; he was single in purpose. His movement, zapatismo, was the Mexican agrarian movement in its purest and simplest form, and the agrarian movement was one of the chief aims and chief results of the revolution. As zapatismo became synonymous with agrarismo, so it did with indianismo, the native cultural movement which is the basis of nationalism in Mexico. Although illiterate and in command of illiterate men, Zapata was one of the most significant figures in Mexico during the period 1910 to 1919. Even while he lived he became legendary, celebrated in innumerable tales and ballads. His grave is revered by the native peoples of S Mexico.
See biographies by R. P. Millon (1969), John Womack, Jr. (1968), and Roger Parkinson (1980); Frank Tannenbaum, The Mexican Agrarian Revolution (1929); H. H. Dunn, The Crimson Jester (1934, repr. 1976); E. N. Simpson, The Ejido (1937).
c.1879–1919, Mexican revolutionary, born in Morelos.