Emiliano Zapata was born in Anenecuilco, Morelos in 1879. In 1906, he attended a meeting in Cuautla at which the need to defend the land owned by the peasants of Morelos from the greed of Porfirian landowners, was discussed. As a reprisal, in 1908, Zapata was forced to join the ninth regiment of Cuernavaca. This form of punishment, known as the levy, was common during the Porfirian period. However, Zapata excelled in the army, and after a little more than a year, he was released from service.
On September 12th, 1909,he was elected President of the Defense Committee of the Lands of Anenecuilco. When armed groups sent by the landowners arrived, they found the people peacefully working the land with rifles on their shoulders. This was Zapata's main idea: to defend the right of the people to the land, and therefore the right to the very existence of the peasant communities. His insistence and stubbornness on this point finally made the voice of the peasants heard. In a letter to Gildardo Magaña, Zapata wrote: "I am determined to fight against anything and anyone with nothing more than the confidence and support of my people".
When the Revolución broke out in 1910, Zapata was attracted by the agrarian demands of the Plan of San Luis, and joined the forces led by Madero. However, once this movement had triumphed, land distribution was not carried out. The hacienda owners took advantage of the fact that the Porfirian army was still intact, and demanded that the peasant forces be disarmed; they also tried to set a trap for Zapata which nearly cost him his life. "I wish to die as a slave to principles, not to men", wrote Zapata in another of his letters.
In view of these circumstances, Zapata reorganized his army and took Yautepec, Cuautla and Cuernavaca. After the victory of the Madero revolution, he refused to lay down his arms until land distribution had taken place.
He upheld this principle until the end of his life, a fact that often caused conflicts with those in power. Zapata was always faithful to the principles of the Plan of Ayala, an agrarian proposal that reflected the demands of the peasants as summarized by the slogan "Land and Freedom". His main goal was to recover the lands taken from the peasants.
After the proclamation of the Plan of Ayala, Zapata and his followers defended their principles against the governments of Madero, Victoriano Huerta and Venustiano Carranza. They broke up the large estates and distributed the land; they confiscated sugar mills and a large paper factory, and put them to work to benefit the people. The Zapatistas also founded an agrarian bank, opened numerous primary schools for both children and adults; they reorganized the political life of the municipalities, promoted traditional peasant organizations and formed vigilance committees.
The peasants were hungry, they lived in poverty, were exploited, and rose up in arms to obtain the bread that had been denied them by the greed of the rich... they did not join the uprising to conquer illusory political rights that do not provide food, but rather to obtain a piece of land which would give them food and liberty, a happy home and an independent, thankful future". However, once Villa had been defeated in the north, in 1915, Zapata and his movement posed the sole obstacle to the consolidation of a new government. Many different forces turned against Zapata, and virtually destroyed the state of Morelos.
In 1919, Zapata was ambushed and assassinated at the Chinameca hacienda, the same place a trap had been set for him eight years earlier. Although the Zapatista army was defeated, its principles of justice remained alive. In a letter to Pancho Villa, Zapata wrote: "...ignorance and obscurantism (preventing people from obtaining knowledge) have never produced anything other than flocks of slaves for tyranny..."
Source: Instituto Nacional de Solidaridad, Microbiografías. Personajes en la historia de México. Emiliano Zapata, México 1993. (Micro-biographies, Figures in Mexican History. Emiliano Zapata), México, 1993.