"land and liberty," the great cry of the mexican revolution -- 7/31/18

Today's selection -- from Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution by Frank McLynn. One of the core problems that led to the Mexican Revolution of 1910 was ownership of land. Villagers had owned and worked land communally for generations, but being unsophisticated, had not filed for titles. So the large land owners of the haciendas had taken much of that land away. It was the issue held highest by the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata:

"Above all else, ... was the issue of land; it was no accident that the great slogan of the Mexican Revolution (equivalent to 'liberty, equality and fraternity' in the French Revolution) was Tierra y Libertad -- land and liberty. The core problem of the Díaz years was the way the hacienda had encroached on village lands. Most villages had enjoyed their communal lands for centuries through customary right and had not filed documentary title to the territories in Mexico City. The hacendados and their lawyers took advantage of this to assert ownership in the village lands and water. By 1910 half of the rural population of Mexico bad been reduced to dependency on the hacienda and many villages were hacienda pueblos. Even where the villages were not in hacienda territory, their inhabitants were often landless and had to work in the haciendas. The free non-hacienda villages were largely Indian and these were squeezed mercilessly until only a few retained their own ancient lands. Peaceful resistance was all but impossible, since the hacendados controlled the state courts and dominated local politics, making local democracy or free elections impossible.

The cropped portion features the images of Emiliano Zapata (left with sombrero) Felipe Carrillo Puerto (center) and José Guadalupe Rodríquez (right with sombrero) behind banner featuring the Zapatista slogan, Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty).

"The villagers could in a sense count themselves lucky, for there was an even more exploited group of people: the peons who lived and worked permanently on the hacienda grounds, as opposed to the villagers who worked as day labourers. These peons were ground into the dirt by the nefarious system of debt peonage, common in the south, which made the states of Veracruz, Campeche, Chiapas and Yucatan the closest thing to the notorious serfdom of Russia and eastern Europe. The peon, indentured to the hacienda and unable to leave, toiling all day under the sun, at the mercy of brutal overseers and harsh discipline enforced by whips and riding crops, had perforce to buy all his needs at the company store, where debts were run up either honestly or dishonestly. When these debts were made heritable, so that children inherited their parents' debt, peonage became slavery in all but name. Echoing the cynical transactions in Gogol's Dead Souls, owners bought and sold each other's peons and used bounty hunters to track down fugitives, who would then be beaten to death as a bloody warning to the others.

"It is difficult to overstate the cynical savagery of debt peonage. Many peons owed up to three years' wages in debt which could never be repaid, especially as their employers cynically fiddled the figures. One company storekeeper was reputed to add the date at the top of the page to each peon's debt. The hacendados liked to keep their charges in ignorance, and on many haciendas schoolteachers were expressly forbidden to teach arithmetic to the permanent workers. Since Spaniards often held positions on the hacienda as keepers of the company store, clerks, foremen or managers, the gachupines were particularly hated, and Spain was always the main target for xenophobia in Mexico. The threat to all villagers was clear: if they lost their lands to the haciendas or became economically unviable, they would face starvation unless they became permanent employees on the haciendas and thus got sucked into the maw of debt peonage.

"Although the state of Morelos [where Emiliano Zapata lived] did not suffer from the worst excesses of the hacienda system farther south, the mind of Emiliano Zapata cannot be understood without appreciating the role of land in his mentality: both his mystical feeling for the soil of his ancestors, and his negative appreciation of what lay in store for the villagers of his state if they did not resist the big hacendados."

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Frank McLynn


Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution


Basic Books


Copyright 2000 by Frank McLynn


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