Who Were the Zapatistas?

Dan Cavallari

During the Mexican Revolution, poor farmers from the south began to band together under the command of Emiliano Zapata. Their goal was to ensure their farmland was not taken from them, as the lands were their only means of income and subsistence. Formed in 1910 in the southern state of Morela, Mexico, Zapata’s band of mostly poor farmers became known as the Zapatistas and fought until Zapata’s assassination in 1919. The Zapatistas slowly disbanded after that.

Zapatistas were a group of poor farmers who banded together under Emiliano Zapata during the Mexican Revolution.
Zapatistas were a group of poor farmers who banded together under Emiliano Zapata during the Mexican Revolution.

When Porfirio Diaz assumed command as Mexico’s president, succeeding Benito Juarez, he became the dictator he had spent much of his political career warning people about. He decreed that farmers could not lay claim to their land without a legal title, thereby leaving countless farmers powerless and frustrated as their land was taken from them. Diaz’s enemies – including Pancho Villa and Zapata – began to rebel against Diaz, escalating the revolution.

Officially known as the Liberation Army of the South, or Ejército Libertador del Sur, the Zapatistas fought for communal land rights for the indigenous peoples of Mexico. As the European powers moved into Mexico under Diaz’s watch, much of the land was taken by the wealthy elite, leaving less and less farm land for Mexicans. The Zapatistas focused their goal on redistributing these agricultural lands to the indigenous people, thereby sparking conflict with European landowners in power.

When Francisco Madero ran for president against Diaz, he was thrown in jail but eventually escaped. He promised agrarian reform and therefore found the support of the Zapatistas. Madero eventually unseated Diaz, but he proved to be a weak president. Zapata split with him, and the Zapatistas continued their fight to regain their lands.

The Zapatistas were loosely organized and almost all decisions were left to Zapata, though smaller units were commanded by jefes, or chiefs. Because most of the Zapatistas were farmers, many would fight for a short period of time, then return home to work their farms. As Zapata was the only leader and figurehead of the Zapatistas, the force fell apart after his death in 1919. They had fought for their land through the course of four different presidencies and nearly a decade of fighting.

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