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The Posthumous Career of Emiliano Zapata

The Posthumous Career of Emiliano Zapata
Myth, Memory, and Mexico's Twentieth Century

A vivid, comprehensive examination of the monumental Zapata legacy, incorporating new archival research and wide-ranging cultural issues.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

October 2008
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365 pages | 6 x 9 | 16 b&w illus. |

Before there was Che Guevara, there was Emiliano Zapata, the charismatic revolutionary who left indelible marks on Mexican politics and society. The sequel to Samuel Brunk's 1995 biography of Zapata, The Posthumous Career of Emiliano Zapata traces the power and impact of this ubiquitous, immortalized figure.

Mining the massive extant literature on Zapata, supplemented by archival documents and historical newspaper accounts, Brunk explores frameworks of myth and commemoration while responding to key questions regarding the regime that emerged from the Zapatista movement, including whether it was spawned by a genuinely "popular" revolution.

Blending a sophisticated analysis of hegemonic systems and nationalism with lively, accessible accounts of ways in which the rebel is continually resurrected decades after his death in a 1919 ambush, Brunk delves into a rich realm of artistic, geographical, militaristic, and ultimately all-encompassing applications of this charismatic icon.

Examining all perspectives, from politicized commemorations of Zapata's death to popular stories and corridos, The Posthumous Career of Emiliano Zapata is an eloquent, engaging portrait of a legend incarnate.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. A War of Images
  • Chapter 2. The Regional Cult
  • Chapter 3. Forging a National Zapata, 1920-1934
  • Chapter 4. Making Zapata Official
  • Chapter 5. A Modern Zapata for a Golden Age, 1940-1968
  • Chapter 6. Putting Zapata on the Map, 1920-1968
  • Chapter 7. Resurrecting the Rebel: Emiliano Zapata at Work and Play, 1968-1988
  • Chapter 8. Going Home to Chiapas
  • Chapter 9. Conclusion: Of Leviathan, Lo Mexicano, and Zapata on the Border
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Samuel Brunk is Professor of History at the University of Texas at El Paso. His previous books include Emiliano Zapata! and Heroes and Hero Cults in Latin America.


No book could possibly chart the innumerable ways in which people have remembered Emiliano Zapata. In Mexico, streets, ejidos, colonias, cities and towns, schools, children, restaurants, hotels, auto repair shops, hospitals, and a subway stop have been named for him. He has been the subject of gossip and rumor, corridos and other songs, folktales, newspaper articles, political speeches, works of visual art, novels, plays, and movies. His image has been engraved on coins, immortalized in statues, affixed to a ten-peso note, and marketed on posters, T-shirts, and mouse pads. He has crossed borders, too—in the United States he has been appropriated by a line of frozen Mexican food, embodied by Marlon Brando, and acclaimed by the band Rage Against the Machine. A recent Google search yielded about 71,500 results. Both in Mexico and elsewhere Zapata has been a statement of purpose, the center of controversy, an object of worship. Because of his very ubiquity, however, it has also been possible to take him for granted. The inhabitants of a given Colonia Emiliano Zapata might know little about him, and the prominent scholar Roger Bartra discounts his importance in Mexico's political culture. In a sense, then, Zapata is—and has been—both everywhere and nowhere in Mexico. He is a bit like the air people breathe, part of what it means to be Mexican, but these are not things people think about every day.


Before Zapata was a memory, of course, he was a man. In early 1911, he and a group of campesinos (peasants) from in and around his home village of Anenecuilco, Morelos, joined a broad rebellion against the regime of long-time dictator Porfirio Díaz. For them, taking arms against Díaz meant fighting to stop expanding haciendas from infringing on the land and water rights of their villages. It also meant fighting for local liberties—for the right to make many of their decisions for themselves, decisions that had increasingly been taken out of their hands during Díaz's extended rule. Together, land and liberty were critical to the preservation of the rural culture that Zapata and his collaborators valued. Zapata soon took over the leadership of this movement, and Díaz, surprisingly, soon fell. Zapata then began to discover, however, that land reform was not high on the agenda of leaders of the many other groups that had joined the revolution. In November 1911, this realization prompted him to produce, with the help of local schoolteacher Otilio Montaño, the famous Plan of Ayala, with which he laid out his demands to the nation and struck out on his own revolutionary path. The civil war deepened as one faction battled another, and for nearly a decade Zapata fought for his principles—and tried to implement them—in this conflict that became known as the Mexican Revolution. In the process, he developed a national program and reputation. Then, on April 10, 1919, he was killed in an ambush at the hacienda Chinameca by revolutionaries loyal to Venustiano Carranza, who had been trying since 1915 to consolidate power from Mexico City.


Zapata was far from being a national hero when he died, but his program, and his clarity and consistency with regard to his goals—unrivaled by any of his revolutionary competitors—captured imaginations in what was then a largely rural country. The lasting power of his memory was apparent on the first day of 1994, when the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) rose up in the state of Chiapas against the neoliberal policies of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. In an attempt to allow market forces freer play in the Mexican economy, in 1991 and 1992 Salinas had taken the controversial step of abandoning provisions in Article 27 of the Constitution of 1917 that called for the redistribution of land and protected communal landholding. Although politicians of the ruling party—the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI)—had claimed for decades that Zapata's demands were the inspiration for Article 27, the Salinas administration frequently employed the figure of Zapata, both visually and verbally, in pushing its reforms.


But Salinas was not successful in his efforts to steer Zapata's meaning in a new direction. Peasants opposing the changes to Article 27 utilized Zapata in their marches, and the EZLN rallied opposition to the national government around a renewed Zapatismo, often in creative ways. In August 1994, for example, they held a convention in Chiapas. To house this event, they carved a new settlement out of the jungle, which they named Aguascalientes in reference to the site of a military convention that occurred in 1914, in the thick of the revolution. At that original convention, the Zapatistas and the followers of Francisco "Pancho" Villa formed an alliance, which was consolidated when Zapata and Villa met in Mexico City in December 1914. There they were memorialized in one of the revolution's most famous photographs, which pictured Villa sitting in the presidential chair, Zapata beside him with a giant sombrero on his knee, and a crowd of hopeful revolutionaries behind them (see Figure I.1). To advertise its Convention of Aguascalientes, the EZLN plastered Mexico City with posters that appropriated this photograph, inserting in place of Zapata the EZLN's most prominent spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos, wearing his signature ski mask but also holding the sombrero. Beside him, supplanting Villa, was urban social activist and former professional wrestler Superbarrio Gómez, in his customary wrestling garb (see Figure I.2). Salinas answered the EZLN with political theater of his own. Although he was not ready to surrender the PRI's claim to Zapata, shortly after the outbreak of the Chiapas insurgency he chose to proclaim amnesty for the rebels and express his desire for dialogue in front of an image of Carranza—the man ultimately responsible for Zapata's death. The threat was not lost on Marcos.


Clearly, Mexican politics in the 1990s were about more than just policy. They were about style, too, about "spin," and for both Salinas and the EZLN finding the proper spin meant, among other things, deciding how best to engage in the symbolic battle over Zapata. This was true because Zapata, as the key spokesman for the revolution's most fundamental social issue, was a commanding historical personage. But the political need to make something of Zapata probably had less to do with the story of Zapata the man than with that of his mythical twin—with the way in which memories of him had developed since his death.


A myth can be defined as a "traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon." This definition does not exclude the possibility that elements of a myth might be historically accurate. Indeed, it is difficult to separate mythical and historical stories precisely. Both refer to the past—to "history," that is, in the sense of things that have happened in the past rather than in the sense of what has been written about the past. And both fall short of capturing that past, and thus of expressing the "truth," most fundamentally because, like all stories, they have to cut experience down to a thinkable, meaningful size. One difference, though, lies in the kinds of meaning that myths and histories deliver. The meaning of a myth is communal and popular, with value for the "world view of a people." Religions are composed of myths. A history, meanwhile, is simply an account of change over time, and is not required by definition to intrude on anyone's worldview. That does not mean that historians never have mythical goals in mind; they have often sought, for instance, to justify a "people's" claim to land, recognition, or authority. But even with such goals their books are unlikely to appeal to enough imaginations to generate myths on their own. Rather, they typically provide raw material that gets swept up in myths, which must ultimately be bigger and broader than histories, based on the contributions of a wide variety of people, to have much impact on a group's view of reality.


A myth, then, is a story from which people can derive a sense of shared identity and community. In his book, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson has drawn attention to the ways in which myths have helped people imagine—or create—national communities in particular, often by envisioning historical unity for a given population based on common cultural roots. Anderson adds that nationalist thought is intensely concerned with the deaths and immortality of those who have sacrificed for the national good, something that can be seen in the tombs of unknown soldiers that exist in many countries. The imagining of a nation, in other words, often includes what can only be called ancestor worship, in which heroic ancestors of a national community represent ostensibly shared cultural characteristics and the historical events that are accepted as being critical to that nation's formation and survival. One of the key functions of such departed heroes is that they help simplify conceptions of nations, which is necessary because national communities are, in reality, far too large and complex to be easily understood and envisioned in themselves. One cannot, for instance, know everyone in a nation as one might in a small town. By serving as shorthand for aspects of nations, heroes can help large numbers of people identify with their national communities and accept their basic principles and laws. Clearly, nationalism and religious thought are strongly interrelated; in fact, nations themselves are mythical creatures.


As symbols of national unity, heroic ancestors are often employed by officials seeking to enhance state power (a "state" being defined as the civil and military bureaucracies of a territory and the officials, in different branches and at various levels, who run those bureaucracies). State authorities can benefit from the national identity that heroes help produce because a population of people who feel themselves to be part of a single community may be less fractious—and thus more easily governed—than a population that does not. In addition, political leaders often invoke heroes in an effort to bolster their own legitimacy through association with admired predecessors, and in the hope of making citizens more virtuous and productive by giving them models to follow. Ideally, heads of state want to encourage their constituents not to differentiate between state and nation, so that when a Mexican considers the Mexican nation, she or he automatically thinks of the Mexican president as its embodiment and spokesperson.


Rulers cannot, however, just shape heroic myths and their national contexts according to their own designs. Though specific groups and individuals try to manipulate them, at base myths are social products, made by the many, not the few. In this vein, it is crucial not to take the concept of the nation as an "imagined community" so far as to envision nations as being imagined out of nothing, the purely fictional constructions of elites. A useful caution against any such tendency comes in the work of Anthony D. Smith, who stresses that though nations are relatively modern entities, they are generally built from materials excavated from older traditions. Anderson's reference to ancestor worship, after all, brings to mind images of tribally organized peoples remembering departed elders, and when a national hero is called a founding father it is an evocation both of the family community and of the ancestor cult. The Christian cults of saints that arose during Europe's Middle Ages and traveled to Latin America constitute another type of hero worship in existence long before there were nations, and during the last two centuries leaders of many countries have consciously sought to bolster national identification by adopting heroes with religious vestiges—those who can be understood, as noted above, as having become martyrs for their nations—to capture for their states some of the sense of the sacred at work within religious communities. Those who become heroes of nations, then, often have roots in other, usually smaller communities. These communities are also "imagined," because even in cases where members of a community all know one another, the elements that define and unite it are unlikely to be entirely obvious or natural. At any rate, predating the nation, such communities limit what leaders of modern states can do with the myths they supply. Elite conspirators might seek to avoid those limitations by fabricating myths out of whole cloth, but given their lack of rootedness, such creations would probably not achieve mythical status, and thus be of little use to their makers.


A second critique of the top-down approach to the generation of myth is that we cannot completely separate states from the societies in which they operate. Replete with different branches, levels, ministries, and committees, states are rarely highly unified structures. They are therefore inevitably staffed by people, themselves members of society, who work at cross-purposes from one another on behalf of different constituencies and consequently deliver different and sometimes conflicting messages. Indeed, the signals sent by a particular representative of the state are likely to be intended in part for the consumption of other officials, in the vain hope of getting the state's actors on the same page. All this makes it impossible to draw a hard line between cynical official manipulators of a myth and the gullible masses who accept it. Rather, everyone who employs a myth (except for its hypothetical inventor) has received it first from someone else, and any given member of a political elite may wholeheartedly believe in the mythical constructions he or she disseminates. Everyone, in other words, is to some extent both caught in the "web of significance" spun by his or her society and a participant in its spinning.


Thus, while the building of state power and institutions and the forging of nations have been profoundly interconnected because elites have had good reasons to create and manipulate national mythologies and the heroes that are part of them, the creation and use of nations and their heroes is both a collective endeavor and one that can be opposed. Non-state actors can reject the concept of nation altogether and instead use heroes to bolster the identity of local communities, or they can embrace the nation but define it in ways different from those used by members of the state. At a minimum, for heroes and nations to be heroes and nations people have to accept them, and in doing so they also participate in their formation, adapting them to their personal needs or to those of the smaller communities in which they live.


Precisely when myths arose is impossible to ascertain; they do not turn up in archaeological digs. But widespread practices such as the ceremonial burial of the dead and the composing of accounts of creation demonstrate that myth has long been a fundamental facet of human life. The existence of leaders who organized their communities for food collection and production, for warfare, and for religious ritual was also pervasive in early human societies. These leaders were often remembered after their deaths through ancestor worship. An ancestor cult need amount to nothing more than a family coming together around an altar in the home or at a burial site to remember an ancestor who has died. But leaders and—an overlapping category—individuals with charisma have often been of lasting significance for people outside their family circles. Sociologist Max Weber defined charisma as "a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities." Others have suggested that charisma derives from being near the center of power or important events. Those dead whose value to the living transcended their families came to serve as ancestors of communities—bands, tribes, villages, ethnic groups, and eventually nations—which formed around their memories. Often still conceptualized as heads of families, these sacred, charismatic dead thus became part of the cultural glue that held their societies together.


The first Mexican civilization, that of the Olmec, which began to take shape on the Gulf of Mexico around 1200 BCE, did much to establish core beliefs in central Mexico. The Olmec worshipped the powerful or otherwise impressive animals in their environment, such as the jaguar, the largest predator. They developed a priesthood and began the tradition of human sacrifice and other forms of bloodletting, as well as that of making pilgrimages to sites they considered sacred. Specific kings were often depicted on Olmec monuments, and frequently related to gods and other supernatural forces. Various skills were attributed to the powerful, such as the ability to transform themselves into jaguars. The Olmecs probably had gods associated with rain, earth, and corn—as would later Mesoamericans—and worshipped a feathered serpent, a god subsequent cultures would identify as Quetzalcóatl.


Later cultures elaborated on some Olmec beliefs and added others. Quetzalcóatl reappeared at the city of Teotihuacán, and developed in different societies into a hero with a role in creation. The Aztecs conflated him with a historical figure from the Toltec world, and the city of Cholula, with its massive pyramid, became his pilgrimage site. In these agricultural societies mythical developments were often related to agricultural cycles and the earth. The Mayan concept of the afterlife envisioned death as leading to a journey into the underworld, where one sought to outwit the gods of death. If successful, one appeared thereafter in the sky as a heavenly body. This story of death and regeneration was associated with the life cycle of corn. The Mayan creation myth, in fact, included the idea that humans were made from corn, and the Maya often depicted the god of corn rising from the earth as a growing cornstalk. Other peoples in the region also developed the notion that human beings had originally emerged from the earth, and associated death with renewal and fertility.21


Ancestor worship was important throughout the area and, at least once they were dead, most rulers were apparently recognized as divine. Pyramids in the Mayan world often housed tombs that enshrined important ancestors, and Mayan art was full of rulers and their kin offering sacrifices to honor the dead. King Bird Jaguar, from Yaxchilan, depicted his parents in the heavens on his monuments, enclosed within cartouches—outlines—of the sun and moon. Texts on Mayan monuments were both historical and sacred, and representations of Mayan rulers were ambiguous enough that they could be seen as deity impersonators, actual gods, or both at the same time. The Zapotecs of the territory that became the state of Oaxaca, meanwhile, built underground tombs for their renowned dead, decorated with paintings and equipped with pots for food and drink. Zapotec gods were probably idealized ancestors of particularly important lineages. The Aztec Moctezuma, who was present at the time of the Spanish conquest, seems to have lived his life as if divine: his feet never touched the ground, he avoided all eye contact, and no one was permitted to watch him eat.


Profound concern with death, sacrifice, and the afterlife; the worship of important personages in death and sometimes in life; the association of myth with particular places; the lack of any clear distinction between myth and historical record and, sometimes, between humans and gods; the importance of corn and the earth—these were key elements of pre-Columbian belief, many of which would reappear in Zapata's cult. But they did not do so until after the Spanish made their contribution to the history of Mexican myth following the conquest of 1521. That contribution, of course, came in the container of Christianity. Driven by great fervor connected with the fall of the last bastion of Islam in Spain and the simultaneous discovery of a new missionary field in the Americas, the Spanish rooted out and destroyed the "idols" of the indigenous inhabitants, replacing them with their own images—of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and a wide array of saints. Duplicating practices established in Spain, they developed a network of sanctuaries honoring these figures across Mexico, often at sites that had attracted pilgrims before the conquest. But much as Olmec myth had blended into the traditions of subsequent cultures, so did pre-Columbian religious thought merge with Christianity. Aztec festivals for dead children and dead adults, previously held during separate months, were moved to coincide with Catholic observance of All Saints and All Souls days at the beginning of November, and the Mexican Day of the Dead was born. Through vehicles such as this one, ancestor worship may have remained the key element of religious activity among indigenous populations into the eighteenth century.


The Virgin of Guadalupe, whose tale as patroness of Mexico goes back to 1531, made her famed appearance on a hill associated with the worship of the earth goddess Tonantzin, her dark skin representing the coming together of cultures and peoples. Hers was a foundation myth, a specifically Mexican foundation for church and, ultimately, nation, which helped give Mexicans the status of a chosen people. There was also Santiago (the apostle Saint James), who had enjoyed a pilgrimage site in Spain around what were ostensibly his bones since the ninth century. Over time he had developed into the warrior saint figuratively at the head of the Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula. In Mexico he manifested himself as patron saint of the conquest and his contributions as warrior were ritualized, particularly in the widely performed Dance of the Christians and Moors. Christianized Indians readily adopted this ritual and in doing so appropriated Santiago in various ways, as a defender of their interpretation of the faith, of course, but also often of the specific localities in which they lived. A crucial element in establishing Santiago's sway with the indigenous population was his horse, a powerful animal, essential to the conquest effort, that was in some ways comparable to the jaguars and eagles worshipped by pre-Columbian cultures.


After 1810 the movement for independence gathered these mythical predispositions toward the formation of a national myth. Some lower-class participants demonstrated their partial acceptance of messages from the mother country when they pictured the king as a source of justice in a patriarchal world, a messianic figure who would liberate Mexico from the bad rule of Spanish officials. But leaders among the creoles—people of Spanish ancestry born in Mexico—looked instead to the Indian past. They borrowed Aztec resistance leader Cuauhtémoc as a patriotic hero who had struggled against Spanish tyranny, much as independence leaders Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos were doing. With Cuauhtémoc's help they argued that a Mexican nation had existed before the conquest, and that it was time to reassert its freedom. They also adopted Quetzalcóatl. Stretching their theological hypotheses to include the Americas, some early missionaries had contended that Quetzalcóatl was actually the Christian Saint Thomas, who had come long before the Spanish to instruct the Indians in Christianity. It was a perfect notion for independence leaders seeking to minimize the gifts Mexico had received from its erstwhile mother country. (On the other hand, some indigenous thinkers anxiously awaited Quetzalcóatl's return, not as a proponent of Christianity but as a liberator, whom they expected to form an invincible Indian army that would sweep the whites from the land and restore Mexico to its golden age.)


Obviously, all of this was infused with a large dollop of religious fervor. With the Bourbon Reforms of the late 1700s, the Spanish crown ironically distanced itself from the religious ideology that had, since the conquest, played a fundamental role in legitimizing Spanish rule. This enabled both priests, such as Hidalgo and Morelos, and laity to put that ideology to use in justifying their desire to break the colonial relationship. They did so, most strikingly, by drafting the Virgin of Guadalupe, who oversaw the work of the rebels and joined them, on their banners, as they fought. The driving ideological force behind the uprising was thus a form of religious nationalism, and so it was only natural that once independence was achieved, the remains of Morelos, who had been executed in 1815, were moved to the Virgin's shrine outside the capital. In contrast to the universal posture of the founding fathers of the United States, then, Mexican expressions of patriotism at independence were based on Mexican history and religion. Both nations were mythical—if we stick with Anderson's definition—but Mexican national identity could be expressed through a rich and specific body of myth for which there was apparently no equivalent in the United States, where rebels drew instead on the principles of the international Enlightenment.


The leaders of independence had settled a political issue with violence, establishing a habit that was not abandoned once independence was achieved. The ensuing period was characterized by the rule of caudillos—men on horseback leading troops loyal largely to them—who rose to compete for power. Seeking to gain legitimacy for the regimes they established, these men patterned themselves on the mythical archetypes of their culture—the Spanish kings, Jesus Christ, Santiago, Cuauhtémoc, Morelos—as they cultivated images as brave and selfless saviors of the nation. For some this worked for a time, but it was hard for caudillos to appear selfless as they subverted the constitutional order, and their hero cults rarely outlasted their deaths.


A far more successful candidate for the new nation's pantheon was Benito Juárez, the Zapotec Indian politician who became a major figure in the Liberal Party's celebrated Reform era of the 1850s. Perhaps most important, in 1867 his forces defeated those of Emperor Maximilian, the Austrian archduke who had been given a Mexican throne by an invading French army. Juárez and the other liberals were no friends of the church, so rather than looking to Santiago or the Virgin of Guadalupe for inspiration and authority, they usually referred to the more recent national and secular past. "We come from the village of Dolores [Hidalgo's parish]," one asserted; "we descend from Hidalgo." Indeed, the identification was strong enough that Juárez would come to be seen by many as the father of a second independence. With the liberal victory came the complete disgrace of the Conservative Party, which had supported the French invasion, and an epoch of liberal control of the presidency that continued—if we define liberalism broadly—virtually uninterrupted until Vicente Fox, representing the avowedly conservative Partido de Acción Nacional (National Action Party, PAN), came to power in the year 2000. Liberalism became identified with the nation, conservatism with its betrayal, and Juárez, some say, became Mexico's most revered ancestor of all.


The second great rider on this liberal wave was Porfirio Díaz (1876-1880, 1884-1911). Díaz took the presidency as a caudillo—by force of arms—and corrupted, thereafter, the democratic provisions of the Reform Constitution of 1857 in order to perpetuate his power. On the other hand, he did preside over the kind of economic growth of which the progress-minded liberals had long dreamed. Like the makers of independence, he mined the Aztec past as he sought to legitimate his rule, centralize power in the capital, enhance national identity, and project a vision of a unique Mexican nation into the international community. Díaz's era was one of monument building. For the first time statues made the concept of nation visible to the populace in many parts of the country, and in the capital, along a fancy new boulevard called the Paseo de la Reforma, the dictator's regime laid out the liberal version of Mexican history in stone and bronze, embracing the foundational Indian past with Cuauhtémoc and the modern, progressive nation with imposing monuments to independence and Juárez.


By the time of the Mexican Revolution, then, Mexico was endowed with a broad and deep tradition of myth in general and ancestor worship in particular. Ancestor worship was performed, in part, on the Day of the Dead, actually the first two days of November, when families remembered (and remember) their departed by building colorful altars and feasting in the cemeteries. It was manifested in the saint's day festivities carried out in nearly every Mexican settlement. And it infused Mexico's already sizable pantheon of national heroes. The process through which the body of Mexican myth evolved was one of accrual, in which new beliefs and rituals mingled with those that preceded them, producing new forms, but not fully distinct ones, so that the religious and the secular, the indigenous and the Spanish, became hard to separate one from the other.


What are the implications of this history of myth for the story of Zapata's cult? First, it was on this base that the myth of Zapata would be built, because the leaders of the revolution, despite being revolutionaries, were no more able, in some cases, and no more inclined, in others, to throw out the mythical past than were those who presided over previous periods of change. Second, it demonstrates the persistent need for myth, not because Mexico remained somehow backward and superstitious but because myth is a fundamental, pervasive, indispensable component of human existence. It came more or less with language, or so it would seem, and as long as we use language and remain social creatures it will surely endure, despite modernity—whatever precisely that is—with its supposedly rationalist inclinations. The nature of myth has changed at points in Mexican history, becoming more about nation and less about god during the nineteenth century, but secular attitudes did not stamp it out. Finally, we should note that the indispensability of myth suggests that it cannot be seen as something peripheral to human activities, only symbolic, somehow, in contrast to real, practical action. Rather, it is built in from human beginnings, a part of doing what humans do, and as such is both action in itself and a form that action takes.


Jesús Silva Herzog, a postrevolutionary economist and government official, was not overstating the case by much when he declared, "we Mexicans have two deities: Our Lady the Virgin of Guadalupe and Our Lady the Mexican Revolution." Two noteworthy books have explored the birth of that second goddess. Ilene O'Malley's pathbreaking The Myth of the Revolution (1988) describes how, in the years between 1920 and 1940, the new revolutionary rulers distorted history to portray deceased revolutionaries as founding fathers of the new order. As they did so, she contends, they attached to such popular leaders as Zapata messages of nationalism and patriarchalism meant to pacify and otherwise manipulate the inhabitants of Mexico. In particular, they promoted fatalism, rather than revolutionary action, by claiming that they, as rightful heirs of these founding fathers, would see to people's needs. Individuals and groups that resisted such efforts to pull them into the national community the revolution sought to construct were stigmatized as antipatriotic.


Unfortunately, O'Malley's discussion of revolutionary myth is a tale in which the political elite uses it to bludgeon the masses—who apparently do not help create the myth but are merely its victims—into mystified submission. Though she is correct that those at the top of the postrevolutionary heap sought to manipulate symbols to their own advantage, without an examination of the rest of Mexican society she has only part of the picture. A useful corrective to her overemphasis on the role of the state comes in a second broad assessment of revolutionary myth, Thomas Benjamin's La Revolución: Mexico's Great Revolution as Memory, Myth, and History (2000). Benjamin argues that through rhetoric, ritual, and symbol, the sundry events and factions of the decade of fighting (1910-1920) were molded into the concept of a single revolution that became absolutely critical to the way in which Mexicans viewed their country. He attributes this mythification process to the efforts of people he calls "voceros of the revolution"—"scribblers, journalists, politicians, intellectuals, propagandists, and other insurgent spokesmen and women"—and maintains that the state did not need to manage revolutionary history because "the government's view of the history of La Revolución seemed to be the same as that held by society in general." He does not, however, offer an explanation of how this consensus took shape, nor does he explore precisely who his voceros were. At base, the problem is that, like O'Malley, Benjamin fails to consider either how the messages he studies might have been received or—beyond discussion of a few corridos—the ways in which the revolution's lower-class participants may have helped shape ideas about it. He does, though, reinforce O'Malley's work in offering solid appraisals of the pace at which memories of the revolution were institutionalized and the role of personalism within revolutionary myth.


Other scholars have focused on memories of Zapata in particular, many of them researching the way he has been used by groups that O'Malley and Benjamin overlook. One historian, for example, has interpreted postrevolutionary peasant mobilizations as elaborations on Zapata's program, and another has traced the vicissitudes of an organization of Zapatista veterans. Some have studied the corridos written about Zapata and his movement, and others have concentrated on visual images, historiography, and textbooks. At least one author has compiled information on commemorations of the day of Zapata's death. Various social scientists have done detailed studies of communities in Morelos, where they have discovered ongoing Zapatista sentiment at the local level.44 Oral history projects have also recorded lasting identification with Zapata.45 Salvador Rueda and Laura Espejel have produced a general essay on the mythical Zapata, while others have addressed the uses of Zapata since the 1990s. One work along the latter lines is Lynn Stephen's Zapata Lives!, which inspects memories of Zapata in four villages in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas during the 1930s and the 1990s, thus broaching the subject of the myth's geographical range. Finally, Claudio Lomnitz has used rhetoric about Zapata to examine relationships of culture and power within Morelos and between the state of Morelos and the national government, demonstrating how Zapata's image has both greased the wheels of the political system and supported dissent.


This book is a synthesis in that it draws from the work of these scholars, and also because, unlike some of the publications mentioned above, it considers a wide variety of primary sources. Unlike any of the works mentioned above, it also details the course of revolutionary myth—or at least one more or less manageable strand of that myth—throughout the twentieth century. By taking the long view, I believe, it helps answer one of the fundamental questions about the revolution that scholars have not yet fully resolved. Alan Knight's powerful survey of revolutionary history, The Mexican Revolution (1986), maintains that it was fundamentally a popular, peasant rebellion, but there has been much debate on that point.49 Those who have argued most strongly against conceptualizing the revolution in this way—historians known as "revisionists" who were active in the 1970s and 1980s—were influenced by the fact that the revolutionary state had increasingly revealed itself to be a corrupt and nondemocratic entity. Especially since 1940, it had not looked very "popular." Moreover, this state had not resolved the problem of peasant poverty. Though it was sometimes only implicit, a key question of the revisionists was whether a truly popular revolution could produce an authoritarian state. A better question is why such revolutions do produce such states, for they have done so in a wide variety of world contexts, especially since the beginning of the twentieth century. If Knight is right, the masses of Mexico—workers and, especially, peasants—mobilized in a social revolution that lasted for a decade and profoundly fragmented state structures in the process. In some localities the state disappeared completely. Why, then, in the decades that followed, would this mobilized citizenry permit the pieces to be put back together to produce the kind of state that drew revisionist ire? And what gave the new political arrangements such longevity, producing a single-party system that lasted for the remainder of the century?


There are a number of partial answers to these questions, some of the most obvious and well established focusing on material rewards and organizational accomplishments. Campesinos did receive land in the aftermath of the fighting, especially in the mid-1930s, and in exchange many were willing to pledge their loyalty to the regime, even when that meant the surrender of democracy and other liberties. Beyond policies that were actually carried out, there were also the promises of rewards for peasants and workers that had been written into the Constitution of 1917, and the ensuing pronouncements of politicians in postrevolutionary administrations meant to keep people hoping and thus string them along. Then, on the base of those rewards and promises came the construction of the ruling party, ultimately called the PRI, which would control Mexican politics from its creation in 1929 into the 1990s. The main architect of this party was President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940), who made peasants and workers—newly organized into separate, officially recognized confederations—two of its main pillars. While inclusion in this organization surely raised some hopes, as time passed any expectations that party membership would give lower-class groups substantial power faded. Peasants and workers could and did bargain for benefits, but their pull was limited in a party that served more to manage them than to give them voice. Other big pieces of the puzzle may be found in the repression directed against peasants by self-interested army officers, and the ability of the civilian leaders of the postrevolutionary state to slowly subject the military to their command.


While these arguments are valuable, to some extent they beg the question. Why, exactly, were peasants and other groups willing to be demobilized, to accept the promises and pronouncements, to make the concessions and trade-offs? Why, when they realized that material benefits would be limited, did they not again rebel en masse? What was the role of local cultures, the cultures of the people who did the fighting during the revolutionary decade, in conditioning those decisions? And what about the issue of national identity—could loyalty to the idea of a Mexican nation have played a part? The answers to these questions lie in the realm of political culture, which Florencia Mallon has defined as a combination of "beliefs, practices, and debates around the accumulation and contestation of power." As we have seen, O'Malley finds that the state subjugated the people of Mexico with its hero cults, and Benjamin that the new government benefited from a consensus about the revolution's meaning. Looking more closely at both the nature of the political system and its constituents, Lomnitz indicates considerable success on the part of the state, using Zapata, in integrating the people of Morelos into national culture and establishing paths of negotiation between Morelian bureaucrats and peasants. He finds that the state achieved a substantial degree of "cultural hegemony," but not so much that it became impossible for peasants to make claims against it or even reject its authority altogether. Other cultural explanations have been offered as well. Mary Kay Vaughan professes, for example, that the role of education and of discussions, through teachers, about education and other issues ultimately helped produce a "hegemonic consensus" unique to Latin America. This consensus allowed the PRI to rule as it did, but it also helped defend local identities and cultures. Finally, Knight has argued that in terms of cultural transformation, revolutionary programs often failed to overcome behaviors of "recalcitrant people," and that market forces and better communications were more important than revolutionary policy in creating a more homogenous Mexican people with basic loyalty to party, state, and nation.


Taking off from the thought of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, the concept of hegemony that lies at the center of these discussions of political culture has been defined in many ways. At bottom it means legitimacy, but with the understanding that legitimacy does not exist simply because people approve of their government, but rather through the exercise and influence of power, which is unequally distributed within society. It is, in other words, a state of affairs in which the government is accepted by the people it governs because representatives of the state and substantial sectors of society have reached general, often tacit, agreement about the rules and practices of political power. The existence of hegemony means that those who rule do not need to depend solely on force to do so but can complement their use of force, which is always necessary to some degree, with rule by consent.


Two issues related to the idea of hegemony are significant for our purposes. The first concerns the goals of the state. Since it is clearly in the interests of those who seek to govern to be considered legitimate, it may seem predictable that states have cultural projects to persuade or manipulate subjects or citizens into agreeing with their representatives about the basic rules of power. A typical goal of such a project, discussed above, is to instill a sense of national identity in a population while simultaneously trying to associate the nation with the state. Given the size and complexity of most modern states, however, one cannot take the existence of a coherent cultural project for granted. Rather, its existence needs to be demonstrated and its characteristics described.


The second and more thorny issue has to do with the nature of the consent that produces hegemony. One possibility is that people are completely fooled by the state. To continue with the example offered in the previous paragraph, they come, perhaps over generations, to identify themselves above all as members of a national community and to understand their nation as inseparable from, or even the same thing as, their state. They also come to believe that the political culture of their nation is part of the natural order of things rather than a man-made settlement that could therefore be challenged. This degree of consent creates what has been called a "thick" form of hegemony, and those who have internalized and accepted the state's propaganda to this extent are said to be victims of "false consciousness," unable even to perceive their own interests, much less defend them.


Consent can also be understood in a much "thinner" form. People who receive benefits or opportunities from the rules of the political game may agree to those rules out of self-interest rather than the belief that they are good or natural. Others may accept political arrangements they find unfair because they cannot imagine how to do anything about them. At any rate, individuals or groups falling into this thinner category of hegemony are able to see their interests—at least in part—despite the messages generated by the state. Those messages may be important somehow in keeping them from challenging the entire system, but they are not strong enough to prevent them from seeking to reshape that system, whether through direct negotiations, resistance to particular rules or procedures, or illegal activities, such as theft, that lessen the difficulties they face within the hegemonic order. This, then, is "consent" in only a limited sense, and many scholars have emphasized that the creation of hegemonic relations under such conditions must be an ongoing process, with readjustments constantly being made because of the negotiations and resistance. Still, under these conditions hegemony does exist; there is no fundamental challenge to the status quo, and state officials have tools other than violence and intimidation that help them keep it that way.


This book seeks to complement the findings of Lomnitz, Vaughan, Knight, and others by using Zapata's myth to explore the degree and nature of the state's legitimacy across twentieth-century Mexican history. Initially, there was no reason to expect that his image would have much to say about the legitimacy of the state. It did become vital to the identity of many people in his home region, but at the national level the adoption of Zapata as a founding father was just a small and unambitious facet of the moderately ambitious cultural project fashioned by the postrevolutionary elite. Zapata's myth turned out to be a remarkable part of that bigger picture, however, because it gradually became, and remained, a creation of substantial value at both national and more local levels. It became a central element of various imagined communities, in other words, and in the tension that resulted lies its lasting power.


During the decade of revolutionary warfare, with its accompanying political disintegration, Zapata had limited national appeal. He earned admiration on his home turf for his advocacy of peasant demands, but much of the rest of Mexico saw him as the enemy—and a bloodthirsty one at that. After his death in 1919, the campesinos of Morelos rewarded what they perceived as his sacrifice by infusing his image with sacred characteristics. Then, in 1920, the fighting—or at least the capture of national power through military force—ended, yielding a new central government that sought to put the country's pieces back together. With the aid of various artists and writers, Mexico's new rulers borrowed memories of Zapata from Morelos much as they found them, with the immediate goal of forging ties between nation and region and thus bringing the Zapatistas back into the national fold. Zapata was also useful in reaching out to a broader constituency as a symbol of the peasant role in the revolution and of the cause of land reform; as, alternately, a mestizo (of mixed ethnicity) or an Indian, who in either case embodied messages about Mexican ethnicity that the government was promoting; and as a patriarch who could convey lessons about authority—rather scarce in the wake of the war—to communities as small as families and as large as the nation. Combining honors for Zapata with land reform, national politicians gained substantial peasant support between 1920 and 1940, though their program for the countryside, bestowing land but not liberty, only partially satisfied Zapata's demands.


Between 1940 and 1968, the state put its use of the Zapata myth to the test. National officials took steps to strengthen it—such as continuing the process, begun earlier, of spreading the cult around the country—in the hope that it would work alone, without the support of programs that offered clear benefits to campesinos. The national founding father Zapata proved equal to the challenge. People in Morelos and elsewhere did grumble, openly, about government hypocrisy on anniversaries of Zapata's death, but they either would not or could not formulate a counter-vision of Zapata that would help them confront the rules of the political game directly. As gauged by the myth of Zapata, then, hegemony continued to exist, albeit in only a thin form. Indeed, the government would never produce much false consciousness with Zapata, never achieve the kind of control over how he was remembered needed to create hegemony's thicker manifestation. Famed Mexican poet Octavio Paz put his finger on one reason why when he wrote in the 1950s that "Zapata dies at every popular fair." By disseminating memories of Zapata around Mexico, the state created the conditions in which he could become rooted in new localities. There, like Santiago, for instance, before him, he could represent more local interests and, ultimately, local communities of protest could use him to challenge the government's authority. This became especially possible after the 1960s, when rural rebels in the state of Guerrero, Chicanos in the United States, and leaders of Mexico's student movement made conscious decisions to employ him against governmental forces, paving the way for subsequent organizations, some of them armed, to conceptualize Zapata as a rebel, not a founding father of the state as it was constituted.


Still, until 1994 the state continued to get mileage out of Zapata during a period in which something of a draw developed between officials and protesters about his meaning. This suggests the existence of only the thinnest of hegemonies, but politicians could in some cases still make forceful claims for their policies in Zapata's name, and despite rising instability the fundamental fact of Mexican politics did not change: the PRI controlled the presidency. After 1994, however, with the rise of the EZLN and the circulation of its inventive and resonant message—resonant in good part because Zapata was used to send it—Zapata became a known associate of the opposition. The postrevolutionary state had received magnificent returns on its investment in his myth, but he was now of little use in protecting the political status quo. In the year 2000, after seventy-one years of single-party rule, the election of Fox signaled the advent of new, more democratic political practices and the end of the PRI's monopoly on presidential power. Does that mean that a share of the myth of Zapata was a necessary component of the PRI's power? Surely not—again, his image was just one aspect of a much larger picture. But Zapata's myth does prove to be an effective measuring stick of certain political processes.


Given Zapata's nearly infinite number of manifestations, this book cannot have the final say on its subject; there are probably exceptions to every generalization in these pages. What I hope to offer instead, based on a sampling of Zapata's cult, is a readable story about political culture after the revolution, as well as a survey of the fascinating history of twentieth-century Mexico through the window provided by those who have chosen, for whatever reason, to remember Zapata. The details follow.