Colonels

Emiliano Zapata is an enduring figure in this part of Mexico. Where his northern rival, Pancho Villa, engendered a swaggering, brutal image, Zapata over the years has retained a reputation for integrity of purpose combined with military ability. Both men were key figures in the revolution that broke out in 1910, but where Villa survived until he was assassinated some years after it ended, Zapata was betrayed and murdered close to its culmination. As a commander, he had lost and regained territory, and survived several setbacks. Only a clever deception by a presumed ally snared him, and he was killed in an ambush at a hacienda (plantation) in Chinameca on April 10, 1919.

For the actual centenary, a local history group compiled documents and photos of people who served under him, and mounted it in the square in town. Zapata was born fifteen miles from here in 1879, and this area saw some of the most intense fighting of the decade-long conflict. The effort to sever the rich plantation owners from their control of most of the farmland (and of the farmers) was partly successful, and it reshaped the agricultural landscape. But Zapata’s murder at Chinameca was the hacenderos’ way of ensuring they retained a measure of power, and his dream was never wholly fulfilled.

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The statue over Zapata’s tomb in Cuautla, Morelos. (‘Gral’ is an abbreviation for ‘general.’)

I wanted to write about the revolt when I saw the photo exhibit, but found it hard because it moves me in ways that surprise me. Usually, revolutions and revolutionaries leave me cold, but there was a desperate nobility to the struggle here. Moreover, it WAS here. Going through the photos, I saw surnames I recognised, and references to villages whose streets I’ve walked down. When I first visited here fifteen years ago, two of Zapata’s children were still alive.

Zapata, and his movement, live on today, and not just in the Zapatistas of Chiapas further south in Mexico. On the bus to the nearby city of Cuautla, I pass a couple of tall brick chimneys, the walls below them still standing, that belonged to haciendas where sugarcane was grown and processed, and which Zapata’s men attacked while Europe was wracked by its own more massive war. In the north, the U.S. sent General Pershing to help put down Villa, who learned the hard way what machine-guns would do to his cavalry; while Zapata had to fight against his own countrymen and supporters who switched sides. In my local town of Tepoztlan, citizens fled from the fighting to hide in caves for weeks on end.

Yes, it was bloody.

The photos showed some absurdly young officers, generals and colonels scarcely out of their teens. The forces under their command were modest, perhaps a few score for a colonel and a couple of hundred for some generals. A few of them were educated, like Zapata; others look like they couldn’t write their own names, but were trusted by their troops because they’d all grown up together.

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A photo of a few of Zapata’s colonels, from the exhibit in Tepoztlan, where some had fought.

One time, my Spanish language teacher showed us students a documentary made in the 1990s, featuring interviews with old men who’d been fighters seventy years before. Two of them, I remember, tried to mimic the distinctive cluck-click noise their rifles made when a bullet was loaded into the chamber. A third, who’d been one of those post-adolescent colonels, pulled out his old weapon, and demonstrated the actual sound for the interviewer.

It was a brilliant bit of editing. The fact that these were simple farmers, not fighters, with little weaponry beyond these German-made rifles, was something I never forgot. They’d grown up in a hardscrabble life, with no real civil rights, and were fighting for their children to have something better.

Other men, politicians who’d played their own part in the revolution, tried to complete Zapata’s dream of land redistribution in the decades after the conflict ended. In the end, though, a changing world was what defeated that dream. Today, people round here sell off the land won with blood so that outsiders can build hotels and houses. Trucks roar through small towns that were once villages where half-forgotten battles and skirmishes were fought. And since so many fighters couldn’t write, records of the battles are often sketchy or non-existent.

Zapata, though, since he died before power could corrupt him, remains an admired figure. I try to be coolly cynical about his image, but I can’t be. One thing that ties me to this place is respect for those peasant soldiers who found the strength to rebel against brutality and poverty through the will of a leader who dared risk it all; and how he paid for that with his life in an ambush.

They don’t make them like Emiliano Zapata any more.

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