zapata in mexico city -- 5/24/22

Today's selection -- from Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution by Frank McLynn. Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata were the key revolutionaries in the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century. While Villa -- from the north -- was more of a brigand, Zapata -- from the south -- was a simple land reformer, tired of a world where families with huge landholdings deprived the farmers who worked for them, and hoping for the distribution of that land. For a brief moment, Zapata and his followers had control of Mexico City:
"On the evening of 24 November 1914, as the last carrancistas (followers of Mexican president Venustiano Carranza) left, the zapatista vanguard (armed representatives of Emiliano Zapata) tentatively entered Mexico City. The zapatistas found evidence of the most malign vandalism by Carranza, supposedly the torchbearer of 'civilisation' against barbarism. The mint and all government archives had been plundered; vast numbers of horses, trainloads of paintings and other spoils, huge caches of ammunition and matériel, all had been spirited away in railway cars, leaving the Mexican railway system in paralysis; as a pièce de resistance Carranza's generals attached the railway track to Veracruz to a locomotive, so that it was progressively ripped up as the engine chugged slowly forward. The irony was that Carranza's vandals then entered a Veracruz recently evacuated by the US Marines which the Americans had left as an object lesson in city management -- a town so clean and hygienic that its fabled vultures had had to seek sustenance elsewhere.

"Zapata's men came not as conquerors or marauders but as awe-struck sightseers, gaping at the unusual features of the city. They were peaceful, deferential, simple folk, the classic country cousins up for the day in the big city, naively carrying banners of the Virgin of Guadalupe and displaying their rustic origins by their coarse white cotton clothes, Franciscan sandals and big straw hats. They wandered the streets like lost children, begging and panhandling for coins from passers-by, knocking on doors and politely asking if they could have some food. A terrified flâneur was approached by a group of zapatistas wielding machetes who, he was convinced, wanted to kill him. However, they took off their huge sombreros, threaded them circularly through their fingers, and said in humble voices: 'Young master, could you let us have a little money?' The most famous story is that the zapatistas opened fire on a clanging fire­-engine speeding to an emergency, thinking it a kind of primitive tank, and killed twelve firemen.

"To the amazement of Mexico City's bourgeoisie, there were no expropriations, except of houses belonging to Morelos planters. It was not long before the middle classes were pointing to the absence of speeches, proscriptions and confiscations, praising Zapata to the skies and contrasting him with the predatory and aggressive Carranza and [Alvaro] Obregon [another Mexican president]. Where [the revolutionary Pancho] Villa and his chiefs always made straight for the most luxurious houses once they occupied a city, Zapata displayed a Cato-like asceticism by staying in a dingy third-class hotel a block away from the railway depot. He left city administration to his underlings and delegated to his brother Eufemio the task of showing provisional president Eulalio Gutierrez around the presidential palace.

Zapata in 1914

"The man who four years earlier was an obscure village leader in Morelos was now master of Mexico City. To the oft-whispered question by an anxious urban bourgeoisie -- 'what does he want?' -- there was only one answer: nothing. Zapata always hated the national capital and could hardly wait to return to Morelos, but there was more than caprice or personal predilection involved here. A dislike of cities was imbricated in the entire zapatista ideology, for cities represented the power of the state and its full-time officials, the ultimate anathema for all attracted by anarchism. Zapatismo was always revolutionary in its visions and aspirations, but it was never so in the Leninist sense of aiming to capture the apparatus of the state and imposing a national ideology.

"Few political movements have been more misunderstood than the one headed by Emiliano Zapata. Anarchism is a useful shorthand tag, as long as one appreciates that Zapata merely wanted the euthanasia of all bosses, owners and overseers. In no sense was he actuated by full-blooded anarchistic theory like that of Bakunin, which was anyway an urban theory reflecting the concerns of city dwellers. The peasants of Morelos, with their white pyjamas and banners of the revered Virgin of Guadalupe, were light-years away from the atheistic Russian anarchists. Bakunin was noted for puritanism and asceticism, but Zapatismo was characterised by a free and easy hedonism of the traditional Mexican kind, where drinking, cock-fighting, playing cards and making love to women were the staples of existence. Even in his later years Zapata himself liked to chew the fat with his men in the plaza, chomping his trademark cigar and sipping brandy while he discussed horses, game­cocks, the weather, farm prices and other peasant concerns."



Frank McLynn


Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution


Basic Books


Copyright 2000 by Frank McLynn


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