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Emiliano Zapata was a leading figure in the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), during which he formed and commanded the Liberation Army of the South, an important revolutionary brigade. Followers of Zapata were known as Zapatistas.
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Born on August 8, 1879, Anenecuilco, Mexico, Emiliano Zapata was a Mexican revolutionary and advocate of agrarianism who fought in guerrilla actions during the Mexican Revolution. He formed and commanded the Liberation Army of the South, an important revolutionary brigade, and his followers were known as Zapatistas. Zapata died on April 10, 1919.
Born on August 8, 1879, Emiliano Zapata was orphaned at the age of 17. A revolutionary from an early age, in 1897 he was arrested because he took part in a protest by the peasants of his village against the hacienda (plantation) that had appropriated their lands. After he was pardoned, he continued to agitate among the peasants, and because of his rabble-rousing, he was subsequently drafted into the Mexican army. After serving for only six months, Zapata was discharged to a landowner to train his horses in Mexico City. In 1909 his leadership skills were already well known, and he was summoned to his village of birth, Anenecuilco, where he was elected as the village’s council board president.
A man of the people, Emiliano Zapata became a leading figure in Anenecuilco, where his family had lived for many generations, and he became involved in the struggles of the local peasant farmers. There were many conflicts between villagers and landowners over the continual theft of village land, and in one instance, the landowners set an entire village on fire in response to peasant protests. Zapata managed to oversee the return of the land from some haciendas peacefully, but it was an ongoing struggle. At one point, after failed negotiations, Zapata and a group of peasants occupied by force the land that had been appropriated by the haciendas and distributed it among themselves.
During this time, and for many years to follow, Zapata continued to faithfully campaign for the rights of the villagers, using ancient title deeds to establish their claims to disputed land, and then pressuring the governor of the region to act. Finally, in the face of the glacial pace of governmental response and the clear favoritism toward the wealthy plantation owners, Zapata started to use force, simply taking over the disputed land and distributing it as he saw fit.
Around this time, Mexican president Porfirio Díaz was being threatened by the candidacy of Francisco Madero, who had lost the 1910 election to Díaz but had subsequently fled the country, declared himself president and then returned to confront Díaz.
In Madero, Zapata saw an opportunity to promote land reform in Mexico, and he made a quiet alliance with Madero. Zapata was wary about Madero, but he cooperated once Madero made promises about land reform, the only issue Zapata truly cared about.
In 1910, Zapata joined Madero’s campaign against President Díaz, taking on an important role as the general of the Ejército Libertador del Sur (Liberation Army of the South). Zapata’s army captured Cuautla after a six-day battle in May 1911, a clear indication that Díaz’s grasp on power was tenuous at best.
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