Zapata was born in the rural village of Anenecuilco in Morelos State, where peasant communities were under increasing pressure from the small landowning class who monopolized land and water resources for sugar cane production with the support of dictator Porfirio Díaz. Zapata early on participated in political movements against Diaz and the landowning hacendados, and when the Revolution broke out in 1910 he was positioned as a central leader of the peasant revolt in Morelos. Cooperating with a number of other peasant leaders he formed the Liberation Army of the South of which he soon became the undisputed leader. Zapata's forces contributed to the fall of Díaz, defeating the Federal Army in the Battle of Cuautla, but when the revolutionary leader Francisco I. Madero became president he disavowed the role of the Zapatistas, denouncing them as simple bandits. In November 1911, Zapata promulgated the Plan de Ayala which called for substantial land reforms, redistributing lands to the peasants. Madero sent the Federal Army to root out the Zapatistas in Morelos. Madero's generals employed a scorched earth policy, burning villages and forcibly removing their inhabitants, and drafting many men into the Army or sending them to forced labor camps in Southern Mexico. This strengthened Zapata's standing among the peasants and Zapata was able to drive the forces of Madero led by Victoriano Huerta out of Morelos. In a coup against Madero in February 1913, Huerta took power in Mexico, but a coalition of Constitutionalist forces in Northern Mexico led by Venustiano Carranza, Álvaro Obregón and Francisco Villa ousted him in July 1914 with the support of Zapata's troops. Zapata did not recognize the authority that Carranza asserted as leader of the revolutionary movement, continuing his adherence to the Plan de Ayala.
In the aftermath of the revolutionaries' victory over Huerta, they attempted to sort out power relations in the Convention of Aguascalientes. Zapata and Villa broke with Carranza, and Mexico descended into civil war among the winners. Dismayed with the alliance with Villa, Zapata focused his energies on rebuilding society in Morelos which he now controlled, instituting the land reforms of the Plan de Ayala. As Carranza consolidated his power and defeated Villa in 1915, Zapata initiated guerrilla warfare against the Carrancistas, who in turn invaded Morelos, employing once again scorched earth tactics to oust the Zapatista rebels. Zapata once again retook Morelos in 1917 and held most of the state against Carranza's troops until he was killed in an ambush in April 1919.
After his death Zapatista generals aligned with Obregón against Carranza and helped drive Carranza from power. In 1920, Zapatistas managed to obtain powerful posts in the governance of Morelos after Carranza's fall. They instituted many of the land reforms envisioned by Zapata in Morelos.
Zapata remains an iconic figure in Mexico, used both as a nationalist symbol as well as a symbol of the neo-Zapatista movement.
Emiliano Zapata was born to Gabriel Zapata and Cleofas Jertrudiz Salazar of Anenecuilco, Morelos, a well-known local family; Emiliano's godfather was the manager of a large local hacienda, and his godmother, the manager's wife. Zapata's family were Mexicans of Nahua and Spanish ancestry, that is mestizos. Emiliano was the ninth of ten children; his older brother Eufemio Zapata is also a figure in Morelos history. From a family of farmers, Emiliano Zapata had insight into the severe difficulties of the countryside and his village's long struggle to regain land taken by expanding haciendas.
He received a limited education from his teacher, Emilio Vara, but it included "the rudiments of bookkeeping." At the age of 16 or 17, Zapata had to care for his family following his father's death. Emiliano was entrepreneurial, buying a team of mules to haul maize from farms to town, as well as bricks to the Hacienda of Chinameca; he was also a successful farmer, growing watermelons as a cash crop. He was a skilled horseman and competed in rodeos and races, as well as bullfighting from horseback. These skills as a horseman brought him work as a horse trainer of Porfirio Díaz's son-in-law, who had an hacienda nearby, and served Zapata well as a revolutionary leader. He had a striking appearance, with a large mustache in which he took pride, and good quality clothing described by a comrade: "General Zapata's dress until his death was a charro outfit: tight-fitting black cashmere pants with silver buttons, a broad charro hat, a fine linen shirt or jacket, a scarf around his neck, boots of a single piece, Amozoqueña-style spurs, and a pistol at his belt." In an undated studio photo, Zapata is dressed in a standard business suit and tie, projecting an image of a man of means.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Anenecuilco was mixed Spanish-speaking mestizo and indigenous Nahuatl-speaking pueblo. It had a long history of protesting the local haciendas taking community members' land and its leaders gathered colonial-era documentation of their land titles to prove their claims. Some of the colonial documentation was in Nahuatl, with contemporary translations to Spanish for use in legal cases in the Spanish courts. One eyewitness account by Luz Jimenez of Milpa Alta states that Emiliano Zapata spoke Nahuatl fluently when his forces arrived in her community.
After Porfirio Díaz came to the presidency of Mexico by a coup in 1876, the Mexican social and economic system was dominated by large estates (haciendas) controlling much of the land and squeezing the holdings of independent communities. Many peasants were subsequently forced into debt peonage (peonaje) on the haciendas. Díaz ran local elections to give the semblance of democracy; however, his close confidants and associates were given offices in districts throughout Mexico. These officials became enforcers of changes in land tenure that favored the concentration of land progressively into the hands of fewer and wealthier landowners. Community members in Anenecuilco, including Zapata, sought redress against land seizures. In 1892, a delegation had an audience with Díaz, who with the intervention of a lawyer, agreed to hear them. Although promising them to deal favorably with their petition, Díaz had them arrested and Zapata was conscripted into the Federal Army. Under Díaz, conscription into the Federal Army was much feared by ordinary Mexican men and their families. Zapata was one of many rebel leaders who was conscripted at some point.
In 1909 an important meeting was called by the elders of Anenecuilco, whose chief elder was José Merino. He announced "my intention to resign from my position due to my old age and limited abilities to continue the fight for the land rights of the village." The meeting was used as a time for discussion and nomination of individuals as a replacement for Merino as the president of the village council. The elders on the council were so well respected by the village men that no one would dare to override their nominations or vote for an individual against the advice of the current council at that time. The nominations made were: Modesto Gonzales, Bartolo Parral, and Emiliano Zapata. After the nominations were closed, a vote was taken and Zapata became the new council president without contest.
Although Zapata had turned 30 only a month before, voters knew that it was necessary to elect someone respected by the community who would be responsible for the village. Even though he was relatively young, Anenecuilco was ready to hand over the leadership to him without any worry of failure. Before he was elected he had shown the village his nature by helping to head up a campaign in opposition to the candidate Díaz had chosen governor. Even though Zapata's efforts failed, he was able to create and cultivate relationships with political authority figures that would prove useful for him.
Zapata became a leading figure in the village of Anenecuilco, where his family had lived for many generations, and he became involved in struggles for the rights of the campesinos of Morelos. He was able to oversee the redistribution of the land from some haciendas peacefully but had problems with others. He observed numerous conflicts between villagers and hacendados, or landowners, over the constant theft of village land, and in one instance, saw the hacendados torch an entire villa.
For many years, he campaigned steadfastly for the rights of the villagers, first establishing via ancient title deeds their claims to disputed land, and then pressing the recalcitrant governor of Morelos into action. Finally, disgusted with the slow response from the government and the overt bias towards the wealthy plantation owners, Zapata began making use of armed force, simply taking over the land in dispute.
The flawed 1910 elections were a major reason for the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Porfirio Díaz was being threatened by the candidacy of Francisco I. Madero. Zapata, seeing an opportunity to promote land reform in Mexico, made quiet alliances with Madero, whom he perceived to be the best chance for genuine change in the country. Although he was wary about Madero, Zapata cooperated with him when Madero made vague promises about land reform in his Plan of San Luis Potosí. Land reform was the only issue about which Zapata cared.
Zapata joined Madero's campaign against President Diaz. When Zapata's army captured Cuautla after a six-day battle on May 19, 1911, it became clear that Diaz would not hold on to power for long. With the support of Pancho Villa, Pascual Orozco, Emiliano Zapata, and rebellious peasants, Madero overthrew Díaz in May 1911 at the Battle of Ciudad Juárez. A provisional government was formed under Francisco León de la Barra. Under Madero, some new land reforms were carried out and elections were to be ensured. However, Zapata was dissatisfied with Madero's stance on land reform, which Madero did not really believe in, and was unable, despite repeated efforts, to make him understand the importance of the issue or to get him to act on it.
Madero was not ready to create a radical change in the manner that agrarian relations operated during this time. Some other individuals, called "anarcho-syndicalist agitators", had made promises to take things back to the way that they had been done previously. The major method of agrarian relations had been that of communal lands, called "ejidos". Although some believed that this could be the best course of action, Madero simply demanded that "Public servants act 'morally' in enforcing the law ...". Upon seeing the response by villagers, Madero offered formal justice in courts to individuals who had been wronged by others with regard to agrarian politics. Zapata decided that on the surface it seemed as though Madero was doing good things for the people of Mexico, but Zapata did not know the level of sincerity in Madero's actions and thus did not know if he should support him completely.
Madero and Zapata's relations worsened during the summer of 1911 as Madero appointed a governor who supported plantation owners and refused to meet Zapata’s agrarian demands. Compromises between the two failed in November 1911, days after Madero was elected President. Zapata and Otilio Montaño Sánchez, a former school teacher, fled to the mountains of southwest Puebla. There they formed the most radical reform plan in Mexico; the Plan de Ayala (Plan of Ayala). The plan declared Madero a traitor, named Pascual Orozco head of the Revolution, and outlined a plan for true land reform.
The Plan of Ayala called for all lands stolen under Díaz to be immediately returned: there was considerable land fraud under the old dictator, so a great deal of territory was involved. It also stated that large plantations owned by a single person or family should have one-third of their land nationalized and would then be required to give it to poor farmers. It also argued that if any large plantation owner resisted this action, they should have the other two-thirds confiscated as well. The Plan of Ayala also invoked the name of Benito Juárez, one of Mexico's great leaders, and compared the taking of land from the wealthy to Juarez's actions when he took land from the church in the 1860s.
Zapata was partly influenced by an anarchist from Oaxaca named Ricardo Flores Magón. The influence of Flores Magón on Zapata can be seen in the Zapatistas' Plan de Ayala, but even more noticeably in their slogan (this slogan was never used by Zapata) "Tierra y libertad" or "land and liberty", the title and maxim of Flores Magón's most famous work. Zapata's introduction to anarchism came via Montaño Sánchez – later a general in Zapata's army, executed on May 17, 1917 (by order of Zapata) – who exposed Zapata to the works of Peter Kropotkin and Flores Magón at the same time as Zapata was observing and beginning to participate in the struggles of the peasants for the land.
The plan proclaimed the Zapatista demands for "Reforma, Libertad, Ley y Justicia" (Reform, Freedom, Law and Justice). Zapata also declared the Maderistas as a counter-revolution and denounced Madero. Zapata mobilized his Liberation Army and allied with former Maderistas Pascual Orozco and Emiliano Vázquez Gómez. Orozco was from Chihuahua, near the U.S. border, and thus was able to aid the Zapatistas with a supply of arms.
In the following weeks, the development of military operations "betray(ed) good evidence of clear and intelligent planning." During Orozco's rebellion, Zapata fought Mexican troops in the south near Mexico City. In the original design of the armed force, Zapata was a mere colonel among several others; however, the true plan that came about through this organization lent itself to Zapata. Zapata believed that the best route of attack would be to center the fighting and action in Cuautla. If this political location could be overthrown, the army would have enough power to "veto anyone else's control of the state, negotiate for Cuernavaca or attack it directly, and maintain independent access to Mexico City as well as escape routes to the southern hills." However, in order to gain this great success, Zapata realized that his men needed to be better armed and trained.
The first line of action demanded that Zapata and his men "control the area behind and below a line from Jojutla to Yecapixtla." When this was accomplished it gave the army the ability to complete raids as well as wait. As the opposition of the federal army and police detachments slowly dissipated, the army would be able to eventually gain powerful control over key locations in the Interoceanic Railway from Puebla City to Cuautla. If these feats could be completed, it would gain access to Cuautla directly and the city would fall. The plan of action was carried out successfully in Jojutla. However, Pablo Torres Burgos, the commander of the operation, was disappointed that the army disobeyed his orders against looting and ransacking. The army took complete control of the area and it seemed as though Torres Burgos lost any type of control that he believed he had over his forces prior to this event. Shortly after, Burgos called a meeting and resigned from his position. Upon leaving Jojutla with his two sons, Burgos was surprised by a federal police patrol who subsequently shot all three of the men on the spot. This seemed to some to be an ending blow to the movement, because Burgos had not selected a successor for his position; however, Zapata was ready to take up where Burgos had left off. Shortly after Burgos' death, a party of rebels elected Zapata as "Supreme Chief of the Revolutionary Movement of the South" (Womack, p. 78). This seemed to be the fix to all of the problems that had just arisen, but other individuals wanted to replace Zapata as well. Due to this new conflict, the individual who would come out on top would have to do so by "convincing his peers he deserved their backing".
Zapata finally did gain the support necessary by his peers and was considered a "singularly qualified candidate". This decision to make Zapata the true leader of the revolution did not occur all at once, nor did it ever reach a true definitive level of recognition. In order to succeed, Zapata needed a strong financial backing for the battles to come. This came in the form of 10,000 pesos delivered by Rodolfo from the Tacubayans. Due to this amazing sum of money Zapata's group of rebels became one of the strongest in the state financially. After some time Zapata became the leader of his "strategic zone." This gave him tremendous power and control over the actions of many more individual rebel groups and thus increased his margin of success greatly. "Among revolutionaries in other districts of the state, however, Zapata's authority was more tenuous." After a meeting with Zapata and Ambrosio Figueroa in Jolalpan, it was decided that Zapata would have joint power with Figueroa with regard to operations in Morelos. This was a turning point in the level of authority and influence that Zapata had gained and proved useful in the direct overthrow of Morelos. Zapata immediately began to use his newly found power and began to overthrow city after city with gaining momentum. Madero, alarmed, asked Zapata to disarm and demobilize. Zapata responded that, if the people could not win their rights now, when they were armed, they would have no chance once they were unarmed and helpless. Madero sent several generals in an attempt to deal with Zapata, but these efforts had little success. It seemed as though Zapata would shortly be able to overthrow Madero. Before he could overthrow Madero, General Victoriano Huerta beat him to it in February 1913, ordering Madero arrested and executed. This officially and formally ended the civil war. Although this may have caused individuals to believe that the revolution was over, it was not. The battle continued for years to come over the fact that Mexican individuals did not have agrarian rights that were fair, nor did they have the protection necessary to fight against those who pushed such exploitation upon them. If there was anyone that Zapata hated more than Díaz and Madero, it was Victoriano Huerta, the bitter, violent alcoholic who had been responsible for many atrocities in southern Mexico while trying to end the rebellion. Zapata was not alone: in the north, Pancho Villa, who had supported Madero, immediately took to the field against Huerta. Zapata revised the Plan of Ayala and named himself the leader of his revolution. He was joined by two newcomers to the Revolution, Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregón, who raised large armies in Coahuila and Sonora respectively. Together they made short work of Huerta, who resigned and fled in June 1914 after repeated military losses to the “Big Four."
On April 21, 1914 U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sent a contingent of troops to occupy the port city of Veracruz. This sudden threat caused Huerta to withdraw his troops from Morelos and Puebla leaving only Jojutla and Cuernavaca under federal control. Zapatistas quickly assumed control of Eastern Morelos, taking Cuautla and Jonacatepec with no resistance. In spite of being faced with a possible foreign invasion Zapata refused to unite with Huerta in defense of the nation. He stated that if need be he would defend Mexico alone as chief of the Ayalan forces ). In May the Zapatistas took Jojutla from the federales, many of whom joined the rebels, and captured guns and ammunition. They also laid siege to Cuernavaca where a small contingent of federal troops were holed up (Womack 187). Over the summer of 1915 Zapata’s forces had by then taken the southern edge of the federal district, occupying Milpa Alta and Xochimilco, poised to move into the capital. Nonetheless in mid July, Huerta was forced to flee as a Constitutionalist force under Carranza, Obregón and Villa took the Federal District. The constitutionalists established a peace treaty inserting Carranza as First Authority of the nation. In spite of having contributed decisively to the fall of Huerta, the Zapatistas were left out of the peace treaties, probably because of Carranza’s intense dislike for the Zapatistas whom he saw as uncultured savages. Through 1915 there was a tentative peace in Morelos and the rest of the country.
As the constitutionalist forces began to split with Francisco “Pancho” Villa posing a popular front against Carranza’s constitutionalism, Carranza worked diplomatically to get the Zapatistas to recognize his rule. He sent Dr. Atl as an envoy to propose a compromise with Zapata. Zapata nonetheless refused to recognize Carranza’s leadership, stating that the only acceptable result is following the Plan de Ayala, which would make him supreme chief of an interim government. Finally, Zapata decided to side with Villa against Carranza and Obregon (Womack 196-99). Villa and the other anti-Carrancista leaders of the north established the Aguascalientes against Carranza. Zapata and his envoys managed to get the Convention to adopt some of the agrarian principles of the Plan de Ayala . Zapata and Villa met in Xochimilco to negotiate an alliance and divide the responsibility for ridding Mexico of the remaining Carrancistas. The meeting was awkward but amiable, and was widely publicized. It was decided that Zapata should work on securing the area east of Morelos from Puebla towards Veracruz. Nonetheless, during the ensuing campaign in Puebla, Zapata was disappointed by Villa's lack of support. He did not initially provide the Zapatistas with the weaponry they had agreed on and, when he did, he did not provide adequate transportation. There were also a series of abuses by Villistas against Zapatista soldiers and chiefs. These experiences led Zapata to grow unsatisfied with the alliance, turning instead his efforts to reorganizing the state of Morelos that had been left in shambles by the onslaught of Huerta and Robles. Having taken Puebla, Zapata left a couple of garrisons there but did not support Villa further against Obregón and Carranza. The Carrancistas saw that the Convention was divided and decided to concentrate on beating Villa, which left the Zapatistas to their own devices for a while (Womack 220-23).
Through 1915, Zapata began reshaping Morelos after the Plan de Ayala, redistributing hacienda lands to the peasants, and largely letting village councils run their own local affairs. Most peasants did not turn to cash crops, instead growing subsistence crops such as corn, beans, and vegetables. The result was that as the capital was starving Morelos peasants had more to eat than they had had in 1910 and at lower prices. The only official event in Morelos during this entire year was a bullfight in which Zapata himself and his nephew Amador Salazar participated. The year 1915 was a short period of peace and prosperity for the farmers of Morelos, in between the massacres of the Huerta era and the civil war of the winners to come.
Even when Villa was retreating, having lost the Battle of Celaya in 1915 and Obregón took the capital from the Conventionists who retreated to Toluca, Zapata did not open a second front.
When Carranza's forces were poised to move into Morelos, Zapata took action. He attacked Carrancista positions with large forces trying to harry the Carrancistas in the rear as they were occupied with routing Villa throughout the Northwest. Though Zapata managed to take many important sites such as the Necaxa power plant that supplied Mexico City, he was unable to hold them. The Convention was finally routed from Toluca, and Carranza was recognized by the US President Woodrow Wilson as the head of state of Mexico in October.
Through 1916 Zapata raided federal forces from Hidalgo to Oaxaca, and Genovevo de la O fought the Carrancistas in Guerrero. The Zapatistas attempted to amass support for their cause by promulgating new manifestos against the hacendados, but this had little effect since the hacendados had already lost power throughout the country.
In 1916, Carranza sent a force under general Pablo Gonzalez Garza to attack Morelos from the northwest. The Zapatista generals Pachecho and Genovevo de la O who believed the former to be a traitor, struggled against each other, and Zapatista positions began to fall. First Cuernavaca, then Cuautla and then Tlaltizapan. In Tlaltizapan Gonzalez executed 289 civilians, including minors of both sexes. Throughout Morelos thousands of civilian prisoners were stuffed on box cars and carried to Mexico City, and further to the Henequen plantations of Yucatán as forced laborers. Zapata fled into the hills as his headquarters were raided, returning after a few months later to organize guerrilla resistance throughout Morelos. The brutality of the nationalist forces further drove the Morelos peasantry towards Zapata, who mounted guerrilla warfare throughout the state and into the Federal District, blowing up trains between Cuernavaca and the capital. Having been put in charge of the efforts to root out Zapatismo in Morelos, Gonzalez was humiliated by Zapata’s attacks, and enforced increasingly draconian measures against the locals. He received no reinforcements as Obregón, the Minister of War, needed all his forces against Villa in the north and against Felix Diaz in Oaxaca. Through low scale attacks on Gonzalez's positions, Zapata had driven Gonzalez out of Morelos by the end of 1916 (Womack 269-71). Nonetheless, outside of Morelos the revolutionary forces started disbanding. Some joined the constitutionalists such as Domingo Arena, or lapsed into banditry. In Morelos Zapata once more reorganized the Zapatista state, continuing with democratic reforms and legislation meant to keep the civil population safe from abuses by soldiers. Though his advisers urged him to mount a concerted campaign against the Carrancistas across southern Mexico, again he concentrated entirely on stabilizing Morelos and making life tolerable for the peasants (Womack 281-2). Meanwhile, Carranza mounted national elections in all state capitals except Cuernavaca, and promulgated the 1917 Constitution which incorporated elements of the Plan de Ayala.
Meanwhile, the disintegration of the revolution outside of Morelos put pressure on the Zapatistas. As General Arenas had turned over to the constitutionalists, he had secured peace for his region and he remained in control there. This suggested to many revolutionaries that perhaps the time had come to seek a peaceful conclusion to the struggle. A movement within the Zapatista ranks led by former General Vazquez and Zapata's erstwhile adviser and inspiration Otilio Montaño moved against the Tlaltizapan headquarters demanding surrender to the Carrancistas. Reluctantly, Zapata had Montaño tried for treason and executed (Womack 1983-86).
Zapata began looking for allies among the northern revolutionaries and the southern Felicistas, followers of the Liberalist Felix Diaz. He sent Gildardo Magaña as an envoy to communicate with the Americans and other possible sources of support. In the fall of 1917 a force led by Gonzalez and the ex-Zapatista Sidronio Camacho, who had killed Zapata's brother Eufemio, moved into the eastern part of Morelos taking Cuautla, Zacualpan and Jonacatepec.
Zapata continued his work to try to unite with the national anti-Carrancista movement through the next year, and the constitutionalists did not make further advances. In the winter of 1918 a harsh cold and the onset of the Spanish flu decimated the population of Morelos, causing the loss of a quarter of the total population of the state, almost as many as had been lost to Huerta in 1914. (Womack 311). Furthermore, Zapata began to worry that by the end of the World War, the US would turn its attention to Mexico forcing the Zapatistas to either join the Carrancistas in a national defense or to acquiesce to foreign domination of Mexico. In December 1918 Carrancistas under Gonzalez undertook an offensive campaign taking most of the state of Morelos, and pushing Zapata to retreat. The main Zapatista headquarters were moved to Tochimilco, Puebla, although Tlaltizapan also continued to be under Zapatista control. Through Castro, Carranza issued offers to the main Zapatista generals to join the nationalist cause, with pardon. But apart from Manuel Palafox, who having fallen in disgrace among the Zapatistas had joined the Arenistas, none of the major generals did (Womack 313-14). Zapata emitted statements accusing Carranza of being secretly sympathetic to the Germans (Womack 315). In March Zapata finally emitted an open letter to Carranza urging him for the good of the fatherland to resign his leadership to Vazquez Gómez, by now the rallying point of the anti-constitutionalist movement (Womack 319-20). Having posed this formidable moral challenge to Carranza prior to the upcoming 1920 presidential elections, the Zapatista generals at Tochimilco, Magaña and Ayaquica, urged Zapata not to take any risks and to lay low. But Zapata declined, considering that the respect of his troops depended on his active presence at the front (Womack 320-22).
In mid-March 1919, Gen. Pablo González ordered his subordinate Col. Jesús Guajardo to commence operations against the Zapatistas in the mountains around Huautla. But when González later discovered Guajardo carousing in a cantina, he had him arrested, and a public scandal ensued. On March 21st, Zapata attempted to smuggle in a note to Guajardo, inviting him to switch sides. The note, however, never reached Guajardo but instead wound up on González’s desk. González devised a plan to use this note to his advantage. He accused Guajardo of not only being a drunk, but of being a traitor. After reducing Guajardo to tears, González explained to him that he could recover from this disgrace if he feigned a defection to Zapata. So Guajardo wrote to Zapata telling him that he would bring over his men and supplies if certain guarantees were promised. Zapata answered Guajardo’s letter on April 1, 1919, agreeing to all of Guajardo’s terms. Zapata suggested a mutiny on April 4. Guajardo replied that his defection should wait until a new shipment of arms and ammunition arrived sometime between the 6th and the 10th. By the 7th, the plans were set: Zapata ordered Guajardo to attack the Federal garrison at Jonacatepec because the garrison included troops who had defected from Zapata. Pablo González and Guajardo notified the Jonacatepec garrison ahead of time, and a mock battle was staged on April 9. At the conclusion of the mock battle, the former Zapatistas were arrested and shot. Convinced that Guajardo was sincere, Zapata agreed to a final meeting where Guajardo would defect.
On April 10, 1919, Guajardo invited Zapata to a meeting, intimating that he intended to defect to the revolutionaries. However, when Zapata arrived at the Hacienda de San Juan, in Chinameca, Ayala municipality, Guajardo's men riddled him with bullets.
After he was gunned down, they then took his body to Cuautla to claim the bounty, where they are reputed to have been given only half of what was promised. Zapata's body was photographed, displayed for 24 hours, and then buried in Cuautla. Pablo González wanted the body photographed, so that there would be no doubt that Zapata was dead: "it was an actual fact that the famous jefe of the southern region had died." Although Mexico City newspapers had called for Zapata's body to be brought to the capital, Carranza did not do so. However, Zapata's clothing was displayed outside a newspaper's office across from the Alameda Park in the capital.
Although for Carranza the death of Zapata was the removal of an ongoing threat, for many Zapata's assassination undermined "worker and peasant support for Carranza and [Pablo] González." Obregón seized on the opportunity to attack Carranza and González, Obregón's rival candidate for the presidency by saying "this crime reveals a lack of ethics in some members of the government and also of political sense, since peasant votes in the upcoming election will now go to whoever runs against Pablo González." In spite of González's attempts to sully the name of Zapata and the Plan de Ayala during his 1920 campaign for the presidency, for the people of Morelos continued to support Zapatista generals, providing them with weapons, supplies and protection. Carranza was wary of the threat of an U.S. intervention, and Zapatista generals decided to take a conciliatory approach. Bands of Zapatistas started surrendering in exchange for amnesties, and many Zapatista generals went on to become local authorities, such as Fortino Ayaquica who became municipal president of Tochimilco. Other generals such as Genovevo de la O remained active in small-scale guerrilla warfare.
As Venustiano Carranza moved to curb his former allies and now rivals in 1920 to impose a civilian, Ignacio Bonillas as his successor in the presidency, Obregón sought to align himself with the Zapatista movement against that of Carranza. Genovevo de la O and Magaña supported him in the coup by former Constitutionalists, fighting in Morelos against Carranza and helping prompt Carranza to flee Mexico City toward Veracruz in May 1920. "Obregón and Genovevo de la O entered Mexico City in triumph." Zapatistas were given important posts in the interim government of Adolfo de la Huerta and the administration of Álvaro Obregón, following his election to the presidency after the coup. Zapatistas had almost total control of the state of Morelos, where they carried out a program of agrarian reform and land redistribution based in the provisions of the Plan de Ayala and with the support of the government.
After Zapata's assassination, according to La Demócrata, Zapata "had taken in the consciousness of the natives the proportions of a myth“ because he had “given them a formula of vindication against old offenses”. Mythmaking would continue for decades after Zapata was gunned down.
Zapata's influence continues to this day, particularly in revolutionary tendencies in south Mexico. In the long run, he has done more for his ideals in death than he did in life. Like many charismatic idealists, Zapata became a martyr after his murder. Even though Mexico still has not implemented the sort of land reform he wanted, he is remembered as a visionary who fought for his countrymen.
Zapata's Plan of Ayala also influenced Article 27 of the progressive 1917 Constitution of Mexico that codified an agrarian reform program. Even though the Mexican Revolution did restore some land that had been taken under Diaz, the land reform on the scale imagined by Zapata was never enacted. However, a great deal of the significant land distribution which Zapata sought would later be enacted after Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas took office in the 1934. Cárdenas would fulfill not only the land distribution policies written in Article 27, but also the other reforms written in the Mexican Constitution as well.
There are controversies about the portrayal of Emiliano Zapata and his followers, whether they were bandits or revolutionaries. At the outbreak of the Revolution, "Zapata's agrarian revolt was soon construed as a 'caste war' [race war], in which members of an 'inferior race' were captained by a 'modern Attila'".
Zapata is now one of the most revered national heroes of Mexico. To many Mexicans, especially the peasant and indigenous citizens, Zapata was a practical revolutionary who sought the implementation of liberties and agrarian rights outlined in the Plan of Ayala. He was a realist with the goal of achieving political and economic emancipation of the peasants in southern Mexico and leading them out of severe poverty.
Many popular organizations take their name from Zapata, most notably the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional or EZLN in Spanish), the initially Marxist guerrilla group that emerged in the state of Chiapas in 1983 and precipitated the 1994 indigenous Zapatista uprising which still continues in Chiapas. Towns, streets, and housing developments called "Emiliano Zapata" are common across the country and he has, at times, been depicted on Mexican banknotes.
Modern activists in Mexico frequently make reference to Zapata in their campaigns; his image is commonly seen on banners, and many chants invoke his name: Si Zapata viviera con nosotros anduviera, "If Zapata lived, he would walk with us." Zapata vive, la lucha sigue, "Zapata lives; the struggle continues."
His daughter, Paulina Ana María Zapata Portillo was aware of her father's legacy from a very early age. She continued his work of dedication to agrarian rights serving as treasurer of the ejido of Cuautla, as ejidataria of Cuautla, as municipal councilor and municipal trustee.
Zapata has been depicted in movies, comics, books, music, and clothing popular with teenagers and young adults. For example, there is a Zapata (1980) stage musical written by Harry Nilsson and Perry Botkin, libretto by Allan Katz, which ran for 16 weeks at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. A movie called Zapata: El sueño de un héroe (Zapata: A Hero's Dream) was produced in 2004, starring Mexican actors Alejandro Fernandez, Jaime Camil, and Lucero.
Marlon Brando played Emiliano Zapata in the award-winning movie based on his life, Viva Zapata! in 1952. The film co-starred Anthony Quinn, who won best supporting actor. The director was Elia Kazan and the writer was John Steinbeck."Calpuleque (náhuatl)" – leader, chief
"El Tigre del Sur" – Tiger of the South
"El Tigre" – The Tiger
"El Tigrillo" – Little Tiger
"El Caudillo del Sur" – Caudillo of the South
"El Atila del Sur" – The Attila of the South (pejorative)
"Emiliano Zapata", BBC Mundo.com