Zapata and the Mexican Revolution
From the Shelf
WE ARE ALL aware that the lives of the great mass of men are lost to us: their loves and hopes, their very selves seem irretrievable. "When I think of antiquity," George Orwell says, "the detail that frightens me is that those hundreds of millions of slaves on whose backs civilization rested generation after generation have left behind them no record whatever. We do not even know their names."
But occasionally a book appears which chronicles for an illiterate people what they could not record themselves. With great pain and diligence and scholarship John Womack Jr. has wrested the story of the agrarian revolution captained by Emiliano Zapata from the reports of the literate and the educated, and has managed to give their history back to the people who own it.
Zapata and the Mexican Revolution is a vast achievement, not only because the civil war in the state of Morelos and Zapata himself are important to the Mexican Revolution, but because it is hard to imagine a historian, especially a gringo historian, writing a book which comprehends so deeply the spirit and desires of the men who made the events.
Although the Mexican Revolution ended a half-century ago and some of its accoutrements, the big sombreros and the moustaches, may seem laughable to us now, the Revolution remains an instructive episode in modern history. Zapata's guerrilla tactics were those the Viet Cong use; during the Huerta dictatorship, villagers in Morelos were herded into camps while their land was defoliated, that the farmers might be pacified; journalists and outside agitators attempted to change the course of the Revolution.
Although Womack holds very tight reins on his subjects matter, for me his book is suggestive of certain principles concerning the nature of any agrarian revolt. He offers an understanding of the nature of a populist leader and what the goals and limits of a populist uprising are.
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THE CENTRAL figure in the story, Emiliano Zapata, became a mythical being in his own lifetime. To the Lift in Mexico and around the world, Zapata is the purity of the Revolution, and the intransigent spirit of the People. His best-known statement of policy, "It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees," was one of the slogans in the Mexico City student revolt only last summer. (Womack is not sure Zapata ever said it, and the students attributed the remark to Father Hidalgo, the fervent but inept tocsin-sounder of the Revolution of 1810.) To the old regime in Zapata's time, he was a bandit of a new Attila; to the ruling class today, he remains the ominous symbol for the dark forces within the dispossessed which could still be stirred up at an moment. For those of us who like our history epic and our heroes simple and romantic, Zapata is Marlon Brando schmarfing to himself in his Speedy Gonzales accent.
Although Womack deals with the origins of the mythic Zapata, he is not taken in by the myth. Rather than the story of a man and how he changed the world, Womack tells the story of a little world and a man who epitomized it. The tale ends, not with Zapata's murder, but with the final dissolution of the movement he started. In the history of a populist movement the people are the real heroes and the story ends with their surviving our not surviving.
Over and over, Zapata is shown as a citizen not of the world or even of Mexico, but of the little state of Morelos and, more particularly, the village of Anenecuilco. He had land there, he was a campesino. (Not a peasant, Womack insists, but a countryman--the revolutionaries of Morelos were independent farmers, no matter how pitifully small the plots they framed.) Because Zapata's forefathers had been leaders s in the village, and because he himself was known to be honest and loyal to them, in 1909 the villagers elected him president of Anenecuilco. It was a year of great difficulty for the villages: the Morelos sugar plantations were in the process of gobbling up what was left of land the villagers knew they held by rightful title. Like other local jefes, Zapata sought legal recourse and found there was none left. Unlike the others, he and his neighbors took their guns and defended their fields. The rest of the villages followed and the revolution in Morelos, which was to last a decade and cost the state half its populations, was begun.
THE GOALS of the Morelos people were limited. The fought long and hard in big-league competition for little-league demands--the plots of land they had always farmed. Over and over Zapata made him men disarm, take off their crossed bullet belts, because a new winner in Mexico City promised him that now the campesinos of Mexico would have what belonged to them. As the years went by and the guerrilla war continued, Zapata did become more sophisticated. Men with grander schemes and more education became his aides and wrote grand statements for him to sign. He reached stages of exhaustion and hope when he was willing to have his subordinates compromise the simple, campesino-oriented "Plan de Ayala" which was Holy Writ to the Zapatistas. But personally, Zapata tended to avoid important parleys, as though aware that in the eyes of him fighting men any dealing was dishonest dealing, all overt politics dirty politics. That be never grew political may appear to be a tribute to Zapata's revolutionary purity, but it also may have been the result of his remaining a rightfully suspicious village leader.
The revolution in Morelos would never have continued as it did if there hadn't been successive uprisings in other parts of Mexico. Zapata repeatedly made common cause with the other rebels, only to find they would not meet his demands for just land distribution. The intractability of the others (Madero, Villa, Carranza) on the one issue of land may have several causes. For one, being from the north where vast expanses of land are used primarily for grazing, the others missed the importance men could attach to a tiny place to raise a few stalks of corn. Or they were city liberals who were uncomfortably aware of the larger socialistic implications of the land policy which these Morelos dirtfarmers were advocating.
Reading Womack's account, I can't help believing that there were several crucial moments when, if Zapata himself could have transcended his background, he could have have explained the urgency of his followers' needs. But such an unraveling of the misunderstanding never took place because Zapata, the excellent guerrilla tactician, was unable to wheel and deal at conferences. He bucked himself up for his important meeting with Pancho Villa by masquerading as part charro, an elegant cowboy, and part gypsy, rings and scarves and a lavender shirt. All through the meeting, Zapata hardly spoke. Glowering and slumped in the official photograph, he looked less like the "Attila of the South" than like a poor village president who had been brought up before the bigwigs. He seemed to know that whatever the apparent outcome of the parley, the real chingado had already been determined. Eternal experience teaches the campesino at least this much: "honest" and "political" are antithetical words; a "conference" is the name of the place where the campesino gets screwed.
(Any one of us who wants to capture briefly what a campesino feels like need only recall the Coop annual meeting last October. As someone pointed out, "There were five of them and a thousand of us and they won.")
If his fighters and countrymen loved him, and they did, it was because Zapata never lost sight of their values. His own desires for change never outstripped theirs. If he was limited as a revolutionary, it was because his followers were limited.
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CERTAIN documents--Womack's book and films like Potemkin and The Battle of Algiers--lead me to ask what may be a naive question: do the people, because they are right, always win out in the end?
Films of Socialist realism, because they promote a particular ideology, always answer in the affirmative. Womack's answer is less biased, but strangely equivocal. He shows how, when Carranza was overthrown, the remaining Zapatista leaders won pivotal roles in the government of Obregon. The ejido program of the early twenties, which granted previously-claimed land to villages, was a Zapatista victory. The boost given the ejidos by Cárdenas in the thirties nearly satisfied the revolutionary goals of the Morelos villagers.
But, returning to Zapata's own village today, Womack finds that though the campesinos survive in the sixties, they do not prosper. They have been bypassed, shunted aside by the industrialized Mexico which began under Cárdenas, the man who protected their interests. In Five Families, Oscar Lewis draws a similarly dismal picture--a day in the life of a family in Tepotzlan, one of the Morelos villages, and a day in the life of a Tepotzlan family which has moved to a working-class barrio in Mexico City. Both families continue to exist as their revolutionary ancestors did--marginally, badly.
Were you to ask Womack whether the campesinos of Morelos triumphed, he would say, "well, they survived."
Survival was all they sought and, ironically, all they got.
That people could seek only the survival of their way of life, or want a revolution so limited, so circumscribed and conservative, these notions are alien to out sophisticated way of thinking.
Several years ago a lay psychoanalyst who had been studying people in Morelos announced in The Atlantic that all rural people hate the land from which they grab their living. Land is fickle, he said, yielding some years and not others. Why then were the campesinos of Morelos willing to give up their lives to secure tiny fields for their children? I get from Womack's book the same feeling I have gotten from watching campesinos in other parts of Mexico talk about land. It is not something you love or hate, it is a part of you, and as you would fight to stay alive, so you would fight to protect you land from dismemberment. Only such strong feelings can serve to explain how Zapata and his followers could have made the terrible, ruinous journey they made. Their revolution demanded of them a self-sacrifice which few of us, with our theories and our brains and our shifting loyalties, could make.