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This Week in Texas History: A column

To keep Emiliano Zapata and his peasant army out of Mexico City, troops loyal to a rival revolutionary occupied the capital on Aug. 13, 1914.

The ancient village of Anenecuilco dated back to the Aztec empire. In 1607 during the first century of Spanish rule, the viceroy gave the Indian inhabitants a grant but a nearby hacienda or huge estate seized the land that same year.

In order to survive the villagers had no choice but to lease the very soil which was rightfully theirs. Time and again they politely petitioned for the return of their stolen property only to be ignored, intimidated or placated with empty promises.

Things went from bad to worse in the late nineteenth century. Another hacienda encroached on Anenecuilco from the east in 1887, and eight years later the original greedy neighbor grabbed the peasants’ grazing land.

Then in June 1909 the hacienda administrator rubbed salt in the old wound by doing away with the long-standing custom of leasing cropland. “If the people of Anenecuilco want to sow their seed,” declared the heartless bureaucrat, “let them sow it in a flowerpot because they will get no land even on the barren slope of a hill.”

The following summer, Emiliano Zapata took the bold and historic step of righting the 303-year old wrong. The newly chosen village leader reclaimed the land and distributed it among the deserving descendants.

Zapata always stood out in a crowd with his black charro uniform of tight black pants, broad hat, jacket, scarf, boots and pistol tucked in his belt. This dramatic attire was topped off by the enormous mustache that became his trademark.

The administrator of the second hacienda taunted Zapata by saying if he were “so brave and so much a man, we have thousands of bullets and enough guns waiting to welcome you and your men as you deserve.” Those were fighting words, and the result was the peasants’ slaughter of their hated oppressors.

By May 1911, only two towns in Zapata’s home state of Morelos remained in government hands. Weeks of ferocious hand-to-hand combat cut that number in half. Six days after the fall of Cuautla to the Liberating Army of the South, the 31-year reign of Porfirio Diaz ended with the elderly dictator’s resignation.

Two weeks later, Zapata met heir apparent Francisco Madero, a well-meaning but weak reformer from a rich family. The rural revolutionary was willing to do whatever necessary to secure land for the peasants, while the future president pinned his hopes on piecemeal progress within the current system.

Given the fact that a privileged three per cent owned all the farmland in Mexico, Madero believed there was a giant grain of truth in a politician’s hysterical warning: “Zapata is the new Attila, a Spartacus, the liberator of slaves. He is a total danger to society. He is the underground rising with a will to sweep the surface clean.”

Soon after taking office, the schoolmaster lectured the unruly pupil, “Your rebellious attitude is doing serious harm to my government.” The answer from Zapata must have made Madero’s blood run cold: “You can begin counting the days, because in a month I will be in Mexico City with 20,000 men and I will have the pleasure of hanging you from one of the tallest trees in the forest.”

Gen. Victoriano Huerta robbed Zapata of that pleasure with his bloody overthrow and murder of Madero in February 1913. The latest tyrant sent his soldiers to crush the zapatistas, but their atrocities and scorched-earth strategy only strengthened the grass-roots movement. The sandaled fighters drove the invaders from Morelos, and Huerta followed Diaz in exile in August 1914.

Venustiano Carranza filled the void created by the dictator’s departure, presumably to maintain order in Mexico City but in reality to guard against the peasant peril. He left town in December 1914 after showing he was the political reincarnation of Madero.

Two days after at last laying eyes on each other, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata rode triumphantly together into Mexico City. They were an unbeatable combination but neither knew how to govern nor cared to learn. Even something as simple as a mutual aid pact eluded them, and the two proud lions returned to their strongholds.

Carranza proclaimed himself president in January 1915 and set about destroying his rivals one at a time. Once Villa was permanently crippled, he unleashed Gen. Pablo Gonzalez on Morelos. Thirty thousand troops ran amuck looting, burning and putting hundreds to death.

On the verge of annihilation, Zapata launched a counteroffensive in October 1916. By Christmas he had Gonzalez on the run and complete control once again of Morelos.

Zapata recognized too late the importance of alliances and threw caution to the wind in an attempt to win friends and influence people. On Apr. 10, 1919, he went to the site of his first battle to bury the hatchet with a Gonzalez subordinate, but a ceremonial salute from an honor guard turned into a treacherous volley that killed the peasant hero.

Visit BARTEE HAILEE’s “General Store” at or request list of “Best of This Week in Texas History” collections at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549.

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