An educational project of the
Houston Institute for Culture

By John P. Schmal

Continued from History of Morelos

Emiliano Zapata was born on August 8, 1879 in the village of Anenecuilco, Morelos as the ninth of ten children of Gabriel Zapata and Cleofas Salazar, both mestizos of campesino (peasant) background. Professor Brunk writes that "Zapata enjoyed the work of a campesino, especially when it involved animals. Though most of Anenecuilco's land was owned communally, each family farmed its own plot." The Zapata family was able to hire extra labor "when it was needed, but hiring labor was expensive." The life of young Emiliano was "increasingly dictated by the rhythms of sunup and sundown," writes Professor Brunk, "of planting and harvest: preparing the ground in May, sowing the corn in June, three major weedings, and in November or December bringing in the crops."

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As a poor tenant farmer, Emiliano Zapata had occupied a social position between the peon and the ranchero. But Zapata was also a charismatic individual who felt very strongly the injustices suffered by his people. In 1909, the thirty-year old Zapata was chosen by his fellow villagers to travel to see the Governor of Morelos and try to reclaim the village lands taken by a local hacienda. Zapata was refused a visit and sent home. When Emiliano realized he would not be able to accomplish this task he and his brother, Eufemio, began to organize a guerrilla force of poor peasants.

Initially, Zapata threw his support toward the diminutive Coahuilan hacendado Francisco Madero. Although the first rebel action of the revolution within the state of Morelos took place in December 1910, Zapata held his hand in the belief that Francisco Madero would be able to confer legitimacy on the movement. But, in March, Zapata decided to shift to armed resistance. In the beginning, Zapata's guerilla band numbered a mere seventy men. However, slowly recruiting natives from the plantations and villages of Morelos, Zapata's peasant force soon grew to more than 5,000 men.

In northern Mexico two significant revolutionary forces had formed. One force, led by Francisco "Pancho" Villa (originally named Doroteo Arango), an ex-bandit, attracted many of Chihuahua's vaqueros (cowboys) into its powerful network. The second northern rebel army was led by Pascual Orozco, another peasant who was discontented with the political and economic situation in Mexico.

In early 1911, as Pascual Orozco and Pancho Villa began attacking government garrisons in northern Mexico, the forces of Emiliano Zapata moved to establish their military superiority in Morelos. By mid-May 1912, Zapata's forces, numbering a thousand rebels, had encircled the government forces occupying the large city of Cuautla, just east of Cuernavaca. Suffering from a shortage of food and munitions, the soldiers of the mighty Fifth Regiment on May 19 broke through the rebel lines and escaped westward to Cuernavaca, where they arrived a day later. Once Zapata secured Cuautla, he was able to block the road to Mexico City from the south. In the north, meanwhile, Francisco Madero reached an agreement with the old regime at the Treaty of Ciudad Juárez, by which the fighting ended. A week later Diaz realized he was doomed and fled Mexico for Europe. In his wake he left a provisional President and a large federal army that was commanded by General Victoriano Huerta.

On May 21, 1911, Cuernavaca was evacuated by government troops, leaving the entire state in rebel hands. Professor Brunk, describing Zapata's triumph, writes "On the twenty-sixth, at 4 o'clock on a bright Friday afternoon, Zapata rode triumphantly into that city at the head of four thousand troops. Waving images of the Virgin of Guadalupe overhead, these revolutionaries were a ragged lot in the eyes of the urbane. But to the throngs who greeted them - the common people of Morelos, the young girls with armfuls of bougainvillea - they were conquering heroes."

In June, Zapata rode into Mexico City for his first meeting with Francisco Madero. Now that victory had been achieved, writes Professor Brunk, Francisco Madero "was most concerned with reestablishing order: he wanted Zapata's forces discharged." When Zapata expressed his demand that the land problem in Morelos be resolved to his satisfaction, Madero, always the moderate, could only respond that his suggestions would require both study and legislation. Zapata tried to convince Madero that he should disband some of the haciendas and divide the lands among the nation's farmers. Then Madero attempted to buy Zapata's loyalty with a large piece of land and a hacienda of his own. This offer only succeeded in turning Zapata against him. In fact, every aspect of Madero's agenda was an attempt to please everyone, which translated into complete inaction.

"With the Treaty of Ciudad Juárez," writes Professor Brunk, "the cause of the planters received a considerable boost, because its terms hardly spelled the demise of the Porfirian system." The Federal Army was left intact and the conservative Porfirian politician Francisco de León assumed the interim presidency. With renewed confidence, the planters started to put pressure on Madero to release Zapata as his lieutenant and disarm his rebel forces. Soon after, the discharge of Zapata's rebel force took place on the outskirts of Cuernavaca. Each rebel received between ten and twenty pesos, depending on how far he had to travel to Cuernavaca and the amount of weapons he surrendered. Within days, some 3,500 rebels were disarmed and an equal number of guns were collected. However, the planters complained that the discharge of Zapata's rebels had not been complete.

In August, General Victoriano Huerta, a full-blooded Indian, went to Morelos to finish the disarming of Zapata's men, by force if necessary. Professor Brunk describes Huerta as "arrogant, brutal, ambitious, and spoiling for a fight" as he crossed the border into Morelos on August 9, 1911 to seek Zapata's unconditional surrender and subservience to Federal troops. As Huerta proceeded to ransack the Morelos countryside, Zapata decided to rearm and resist. In September, as Zapata escaped near capture, the hostilities between the Zapatistas and the Federal forces were renewed with great vigor. In the meantime, Madero was elected to the Presidency in October and took office on November 6, 1911.

In November, Zapata and his chief lieutenants formulated their own agrarian plan. This program, outlined in the Plan of Ayala, called for the return of the land to the indigenous people. According to Professor Brunk, "the Plan of Ayala presented Zapata's demands for land, liberty, and justice in a fairly straightforward way." The Plan, even as it sought for legitimacy within the revolutionary community, "proclaimed Madero just another tyrant who had betrayed the Mexican people in pursuit of personal power. The result of this betrayal was 'the most horrible anarchy in recent history.'"

Articles six, seven, and eight of the Plan of Ayala dealt with the question of land reform, demanding that land and water taken by haciendas should be returned to the pueblos and citizens who had held title to them. Zapata's plan also called for the expropriation of one third of estate "monopolies." But Zapata was not out to destroy the Hacienda System and called for the indemnification of planters for the expropriated land. The Plan of Ayala ended with the slogan "Liberty, Justice, and Law." In the following year, this slogan was amended to "Reform, Liberty, Justice, and Law." Professor Brunk states that "the Plan of Ayala would serve as the movement's main statement of goals until 1917 or 1918, and in a sense still after that."

In his search for support, Zapata forged a new alliance with Pascual Orozco, "the mule skinner from Chihuahua who had been Madero's most able lieutenant during the spring." Orozco - with Pancho Villa's support - had forced the Díaz regime to its knees the previous May when he attacked Ciudad Juárez against Madero's orders. By the autumn, Zapata was able to put together a new force of 2,000 Zapatistas. But Huerta and his forces continued to hunt down and brutalize Zapata's men.

Suspected Zapatistas, upon capture, were usually lined up and shot by a firing squad without being provided with a trial. Villages that were believed to have offered refuge to the rebels were frequently burned to the ground. With this oppression, peasants in the Federal District, Mexico state, and Morelos flocked to Zapata's cause, partly as an opportunity to protect themselves and what little land they held.

By the end of 1911, Zapata and his revolutionary compatriots controlled large parts of the countryside in the states of Morelos, Puebla, Mexico, Guerrero, Michoacán, Tlaxcala, Oaxaca and the Federal District. They were, as yet, unable to occupy any of the largest cities. On April 6, 1912, Zapata captured the southwestern town of Jojutla with a force of one thousand guerrillas. In the meantime, Pascual Orozco had finally opened up the northern front by initiating rebel action in Chihuahua. This action was able to distract the Mexican Government from concentrating its full force against the Zapatistas of the south and soon diverted government troops to the north.

By the beginning of January 1912, Zapata's armed force had grown to about 12,000 men. Mr. Newell writes that the liberation army "had organized itself into small, largely self-supporting bands, based upon the villages which, in turn, could be marshaled rapidly into much larger contingents where and when necessary." Each band, numbering from a couple dozen to a couple hundred men, elected its own chief, who owed his allegiance to Zapata, the Supreme Chief of the Liberation Army of the South. In February 1912, 1,000 Federal troops and 5,000 rurales occupied Morelos. However, these forces could only control the towns and had no effective control over the countryside. Their lines of communications, especially the railroads, were frequently cut.

On February 9, 1913, a coup broke out in the heart of Mexico City with a fierce frontal attack on the National Palace. Troops loyal to President Madero were able to repel the attack on the palace, but for the next ten days, more than a thousand civilians in the capital were killed in the fierce battles between Loyalists and Conservatives. By the end of the month, Madero had been captured and executed. Within days, Victoriano Huerta took control of the country, initiating a new offensive against Zapata's forces in Morelos.

Immediately after Huerta came into power the amount of revolutionary violence skyrocketed. Huerta was hated because of his drunkenness and tyrannical rule. By this time, the three major rebel forces in the north were mounting new offensives. These revolutionary forces were led by Pancho Villa, Alvaro Obrégon, and Venustiano Carranza. Upon Madero's death, Carranza took control of the remainder of Madero's army.

By December 1913, Huerta's dictatorship was in serious trouble. Faced with a precarious economic situation, Huerta closed down all the banks, effectively freezing most financial transactions. Huerta's army had begun to press-gang men in order to increase the size of the Federal Army. Men were pulled from their homes, cinemas and bullfights and locked into transport trains to serve in the Mexican Army. By this time, Pancho Villa actually controlled the whole state of Chihuahua, while Obregón had taken complete control of the state of Sonora. Through most of 1913 and the first part of 1914, Huerta and his army suffered one defeat after another.

By March of 1914, Zapata's combined forces now totaled nearly 8,000. As the spring of 1914 progressed, four major revolutionary forces were beginning to converge on Mexico City. As the summer approached, Government forces in many parts of Morelos, Guerrero and Puebla were now on the run. In May 1914, Zapata, with a force of 3,600 men, took control of the southern Jojutla district. By this time, Cuernavaca was the only important town in Morelos that the Federal forces held onto.

But, in late May, Zapata laid siege to Cuernavaca, at the same time that the Constitutionalist generals Pancho Villa and Alvaro Obregón marched closer to the capital of the Republic from the north. During June and July, Zapata began his own offensive against the Federal District, taking the city of Milpa Alta on July 20 with a force of 4,000 men. A sustained push on the capital from all directions began on July 25 as Zapatista forces were summoned from other battlegrounds to assist in operations against Cuernavaca and the Federal District. Zapata, flushed with self-confidence, declared that there would be no peace "while the land is not distributed among those who know how and want to cultivate it."

As the summer drew to a close, General Victoriano Huerta, realizing the hopelessness of his situation, was forced to flee. On August 20, 1914, the hacendado Venustiano Carranza, the head of the northern Constitutionalist rebel faction, declared himself President of Mexico, against the objections of Pancho Villa. At the same time, Cuernavaca finally fell to Zapata's forces. With the fall of the capital, the entire state of Morelos was now in the hands of the Zapatista forces.

Suddenly, however, new divisions within the rebel leadership led to renewed fighting. Soon after becoming President, Carranza and Pancho Villa began hostilities with one another. At the same time, Emiliano Zapata made up his mind about Carranza and decided that he was a man who could not be trusted. With this decision, Zapata threw his entire support to Pancho Villa. By the middle of November, some 90,000 troops loyal to the rebel forces of Villa, Zapata and Obregón faced some 70,000 forces of Carranza in the Federal District. The Zapatistas alone numbered about 25,000.

By the night of November 24, 1914, the forces of Zapata had penetrated to the center of Mexico City. On December 4, Zapata and Villa met for the first time at Xochimilco in the Federal District. Two days later, to the applause of wildly enthusiastic crowds, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, with their combined force of 50,000 troops behind them, rode triumphantly into Mexico City. Immediately, Villa, Zapata and Obregón agreed to the installation of Eulalio Gutiérrez as Interim President of the Mexican Republic.

Although peace was momentarily achieved, the revolutionaries quickly broke up into alliances. In December, Zapata and his troops withdrew from the capital to take part in the battle for the state of Puebla. Although Villa and Zapata remained loyal to each other and backed Gutiérrez, Obregón defected and sought and alliance with Carranza, supporting his claim to the presidency of the Republic. On January 28, 1915, Obregón's forces were able to occupy Mexico City as rebel forces retreated in disarray. In April 1915, at the Battle of Celaya, the forces of Obregón decisively defeated Pancho Villa, significantly reducing Villa's power.

"From the summer of 1914 to the summer of 1915," explains Professor Brunk, "Zapatismo was triumphant. Zapata's national power had reached its peak, and he was able to enact his program of social reform - at least in his own region. Due in part to his fortitude and guidance, many of the villagers of Morelos, southwestern Puebla, Guerrero, Mexico state, the Federal District, and even farther afield were working the land for themselves. Miraculously, the hacendados of Morelos had completely disappeared from the scene. For Zapata it was in many ways a time of great prosperity."

In December 1915, Carranza embarked upon an offensive that retook significant parts of the state of Morelos. In the previous months, both Villa and Zapata had suffered significant strategic losses while fighting with the armies of Obregón and Carranza. By the spring of 1916, Zapata was forced to abandon several of his strongholds. The biggest loss came on May 2, 1916, when Zapata lost Cuernavaca to enemy forces, which now numbered some 30,000 troops. As Zapata continued to lose ground, his forces were forced to return to the guerilla warfare that they had waged a few years earlier. In the fall of 1916, Zapata's forces made several disruptive raids in the Federal District. In the following months, Zapata's forces once again made progress, retaking Cuernavaca in mid-January, 1917.

By this time, however, war had begun to take its toll on Zapata's home state. "The Zapatistas themselves had begun to dismantle the haciendas as they scavenged for the resources needed to continue the war," writes Professor Brunk, "The destruction of war was deeply rooted. It had become a way of life, and it would be an ongoing processâ¤| the copper of the hacienda machinery would continue to be reworked into inferior ammunition in makeshift Zapatista factories or smuggled across Constitutionalist lines in exchange for munitions, money, and food." Morelos had fallen into a state of shambles.

On May 1, 1917, Venustiano Carranza was formerly installed as President. By this time, Zapata had experienced a series of diplomatic and strategic losses, from which he was unable to recover. Then, in April 1919, one of Carranza's generals expressed an interest in defecting and becoming a Zapatista. On April 10, 1919, Zapata went to visit the defecting general. Only after he arrived did Zapata realize that the meeting was an ambush. Zapata was shot and killed moments after he arrived.

To his enemies, Zapata was sometimes regarded as a despicable bandit. However, to many of the indigenous peoples of Mexico, he was a savior and the hero of the revolution. The people remembered very clearly that his agrarian movement had been the primary objective of his revolution. Many Mexican historians consider Emiliano Zapata the most significant figure of the Mexican Revolution. Even while he lived he became legendary, celebrated in innumerable tales and ballads.

In the post-Zapata Morelos, the citizens of Morelos came to realize that "the mere ownership of land was no guarantee of a livelihood," writes Professor Brunk, "In the countryside of Morelos the expanding central government replaced the hacendados as the arbiter of campesino destinies, and the land reform process became riddled with corruption."

The Morelos of the present-day represents a success story by virtue of several competitive advantages. Its strategic location and proximity to Mexico's largest market have provided many inhabitants of the state with an excellent quality of life, services and education. With 1,819 kilometers (1,130 miles) of roads and another 246 kilometers (153 miles) of railroads, Morelos' well developed transportation system is linked to both Mexico City and other surrounding states.

For the immediate future, Morelos has a very favorable economic outlook. With a total of 42,716 firms located within her boundaries, Morelos' share of Mexico's gross national product is 1.38%. Manufacturing makes up 19.51% of Morelos' economic activity, while trade accounts for another 17.25%. The state's main export products are motor vehicles, tomatoes, sugar cane, honey and flowers. Secondary exports include pharmaceuticals, plastics, vinyl, cellulose, garments, and electromechanical equipment.

Return to History of Morelos

Copyright © 2004 by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved. Read more articles by John Schmal.


Ward Barrett, "Morelos and Its Sugar Industry in the Late Eighteenth Century," in Ida Altman and James Lockhart (ed.), Provinces of Early Mexico: Variants of Spanish American Regional Evolution. Los Angeles: UCLA, 1976, pp. 155-175.

Samuel Brunk, Emiliano Zapata: Revolution and Betrayal in Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.

Linda Cintron, History of Cuernavaca (Cuauhnahuac)," Online. http://dougsinc.com/LifeInMex/History.html . December 12, 1997.

Peter E. Newell, Zapata of Mexico. Quebec, Canada: Black Rose Books, 1997.

Dr. Michael E. Smith, Tlahuica Peoples of Morelos. Online: http://www.albany.edu/~mesmith/tlapeop.html. September 20, 2001.

Dr. Michael E. Smith, Tlahuica Ruins Near Cuernavaca. Online: http://www.albany.edu/~mesmith/tlaruin.html December 12, 1997.

John Schmal is an historian, genealogist, and lecturer. With his friend Donna Morales, he coauthored "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (Heritage Books, 2002) and "The Dominguez Family: A Mexican-American Journey" (Heritage Books, 2004). He has degrees in History (Loyola-Marymount University) and Geography (St. Cloud State University) and is a board member of the Society of Hispanic Historical Ancestral Research (SHHAR). He is an associate editor of SHHAR's online monthly newsletter, www.somosprimos.com. John is presently collaborating with illustrator Eddie Martinez on a manuscript entitled "Indigenous Mexico: Past and Present."