“Viva Zapata!” is the ubiquitous call for social justice heard ‘round the world. Pueblos, towns, and schools throughout Mexico bear his name. Why does his fame endure? What in the legend of Zapata is based in myth; what in truth? The hagiography of Zapata began at the moment of his 1919 death with many claiming that he survived the assassination, escaped to Arabia, and lived the remaining years of his life protected by an Arab compadre.
Zapata was branded a traitor and assassinated by government forces yet within days of his death, he was celebrated in art, music, and prose throughout the Republic. In Cuernavaca’s Cortez Palace one finds Diego Rivera’s extraordinary mural, The Conquest of Cuanahuac, depicting Zapata, a mere ten years after his assassination, as the hero of the revolution.
The strength of Zapata’s legacy is a deeply ingrained love, respect, and devotion found in the hearts of millions of Mexicans, particularly the poor and campesinos who hunger for land and a better life for their children. Though only one of the many generals of the revolution, martyred Zapata remains the spiritual heart of the intent of that epoch.
Mexico’s view of its Revolution is conflicted. Some look back on this time as folly, a stain on Mexican history best relegated to a footnote in the history books. Other historians and social scientists argue that the goals of the Revolution, as articulated in the Plan de Ayala and The Constitution, were stillborn with little re-distribution of land and resources or amelioration of the dismal conditions of the peon. This view better explains the rise of many successive movements, most often invoking the name of Zapata, in the nearly hundred years since his death.
Loved by many throughout The Republic, in Morelos Zapata is revered. His legacy remains alive, visible to this day in social movements fighting for land and water rights. The most well-known of the post-Zapata, Morelos, struggles was that of Ruben Jaramillo (1900-1962), who at 17 served as a Captain in the Zapata army and spent the remaining years of his life trying to fulfill the goals of the Revolution.
On May 23, 1962, Ruben, his wife, sons and unborn child were taken from their home by government forces and massacred at Xochicalco. The following day 8,000 campesinos marched at his funeral. Carlos Fuentes, famed Mexican author, traveled to Morelos with other well-known writers to document Jaramillo’s work and death. Fuentes interviewed numerous witnesses, fellow Jaramillistas, family members, and chronicled the poignant, well-known The Death of Ruben Jaramillo in contemporaneous, first-hand accounts of Jaramillo’s legacy as a direct descendent of Zapata. Like Zapata, Jaramillo is honored for refusing profit from his work on behalf of the campesinos. One of the witnesses said, “Maybe they thought that by killing off the entire Jaramillo family there would be no more Jaramillos to go on fighting. They did not realize that the death of five Jaramillos was the best fertilizer for the next five hundred, the next five thousand Jaramillos…. They killed our leader. Now we are all Jaramillos.”
This prediction became palpable to me on the night of November 2. I led that portion of this years’ Day of the Dead trip (to which you may remember you were all invited) on a study trip to Xoxocotla and Ocotopec, two indigenous communities with very different ways of celebrating. Outside the church of Xoxocotla we met a friendly woman, the sacristan of the church. She graciously invited our group to view her home ofrenda. Although her house was adjacent to the back wall of the church we walked a block around the festivities to get there. En route she introduced us to her husband at his small newsstand. He is Saul Roque, the leader of the 13 Pueblos, winner of this years’ Don Sergio Mendez Arceo National Human Rights Prize! When we reached their centuries old home we learned that Zapata had been a guest of Don Saul’s grandfather in the very room in which we were standing and that Ruben Jaramillo had often shared comida at the table on which the ofrenda was laid and had been the close friend and mentor of a much younger Saul.
From Zapata came Jaramillo, from Jaramillo descended the leaders of Morelos’ 13 Pueblos, a consortium of indigenous people still fighting non-violently for their ancient land and water rights, rights guaranteed in written titles given to the indigenous people by the Spanish Crown at the time of the conquest and preserved to this day. Here in the South, the Mexican Revolution was fought to enforce those rights; Zapata and Jaramillo died for them. The grito “Zapata vive! La lucha sigue!” is one you hear whenever there are land or civil rights protests anywhere in Mexico.
Perhaps the legend of Zapata’s survival of the assassination attempt is not an exaggeration after all. He may not have lived out the remainder of his life in Arabia but he does live in the hearts of his countrymen.