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Viva Zapata

Zapata and the Mexican Revolution

by John Womack Jr.
Knopf, 360 pp., $10.00

During the summer of 1962 I visited the villages and rice fields in the State of Morelos. We were a small group of Mexican writers and our purpose was to investigate and denounce the murder of Rubén Jaramillo by the state troops. Jaramillo had been the agrarian leader of Tlaquiltenango. During his lifetime, he had defended the integrity of the ejido, or communal lands, against the voracious encroachments of real-estate dealers who wanted to create a suburban tourist haven for nearby Cuernavaca. The metropolitan investors insisted that the region would profit from the influx of affluent vacationers and that Jaramillo was standing in the way of progress. The agrarista chief held his ground: let the capitalists have the beautiful but barren lands to the west of Tlaquiltenango; the Communal lands were the livelihood of his people and his people were not about to relinquish their rights and their roots in order to become waiters, gardeners, or soda-pop vendors.

But the investors had gone too far: plans had been drawn, officials had been bribed, urbanization works already had been started. So one morning the intransigent Jaramillo, along with his pregnant wife and three stepsons, was hauled from his home by the state troops, mounted on an army truck, and taken to the lonely plateau where the ancient pyramid of Xochicalco stands. There, facing the misty blue hills and the deep grey gorges of the Sierra Madre, Jaramillo and his family were shot to death. Their blood stained, once again, the carved frieze of the plumed serpent that devours its own tail around the base of the Toltec temple.

Jaramillo’s secretary received us in a simple brick hut. He was a bald, middle-aged man with a big curly moustache and the face and hands of a smooth brown Buddha. He was indistinguishable from the campesinos around him, except for two details that marked him as a literate man: he wore, in the hot, vibrant night, a black waistcoat, and a gold-plated ballpoint pen conspicuously stuck out of his shirt pocket. He was gentle and proud, sad and firm in his speech and manner. Yes, he had been warned by the state officials to lay off. He knew who was responsible: a well-known and virtually untouchable Mexico City financier, in collusion with the Governor of Morelos, who, by the way, had been involved in the killing of Emiliano Zapata forty-three years before. We all knew that the only man finally responsible for the actions of the Mexican army was the President of the Republic. Yes, he would probably have to flee and go into hiding. The real-estate people would probably win this time.

We did not try to hide our outrage; he remained serene. He looked at us, at our city clothes, at our dove-blue Renault parked near the tropical veranda full of hammocks and flower pots. “No coman ansias,” he murmured with wry sympathy, “Don’t feed on anguish.” He stood up and went into the hut. A few minutes later, he came out carrying a black, battered old dispatch box, placed it before us, and opened it. With great care, he unfolded the almost golden sheets of paper. “These are our titles to the common lands of Tlaquiltenango. The land was ours in Indian times. The King of Spain recognized it as ours; we lost it to the planters and then Zapata fought and got it back. Here is Emiliano’s own signature. They don’t have these papers. We do. They prove our right to exist. And I will never lose them, even if it costs me my life.”

He put the papers back in the box and hurried into the hut. The next day, when we came back, he was gone. Where? Quién sabe! Nobody knew. The last of the Zapatistas had taken off with his sacred writ; it was almost as if the enemies of agrarismo, by murdering Jaramillo, had achieved nothing: they had not been able to destroy the papers, the one concrete piece of evidence of the reality of communal existence, work, memory and hope. Stronger than murder, the titles to the land were even stronger than justice, since justice itself could be founded only upon that holy bit of parchment signed by an ancient father, the King, and by a sacrificed brother, Zapata. I imagined the little secretary as a wandering guardian of the seals, humble and obscure, but sure of his true power and eventual triumph because he held in his hands the final proof of legitimacy: the written word.

In early 1914,” writes John Womack, Jr. in his exemplary history of the Zapatista revolution, “some emissaries from a Mochiacán rebel came to [Zapata’s] camp at Pozo Colorado, to see whether he was sincere. What was he really fighting for? How could he prove it? [Zapata] showed [the Anenecuilco documents] to his visitors. ‘Por esto peleo,’ he said. ‘This—not these titles, but this record of constancy and uprightness—I am fighting for.’ “

It would be tempting to interpret Mexican history as a battle between sacred texts and profane reality. The eyewitness chronicles of the Conquest written by Hernán Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo are great Renaissance epics: they signify the arrival, in the New World, of a new world, that of sixteenth-century Europe with its growing confidence in individual enterprise, its sense of moral risk, its assault on hierarchy. The reality of the Spanish Counter-Reformation soon put an end to that: the Old World transferred the rotting structures of feudal absolutism (for such was the Spanish paradox) to Mexico. The enlightened, paternalistic Laws of Indies passed by the Crown under pressure from benevolent missionaries were in harsh contradiction to the actual working conditions in the mines, forests, and encomiendas of the colony. Moreover, our founding fathers (mostly landed members of the creole elite) bequeathed us, along with independence, the liberal Constitution of 1821, inspired by the American and French revolutions. But the masks of Jefferson and Montesquieu hardly fitted the children of an ascendant, but defeated Indian theocracy and of a conquering, but already decadent European autocracy.

With the blessings of formal democracy, the oppression of the campesino communities continued without hindrance; the native Mexican landholder now invoked, not the rights both divine and de facto of the conqueror, but the free play of economic forces. When the Reform Laws of Benito Juárez broke the dead hand of the Church holdings, the liberated lands were sold on the open market. It was not the campesinos who could buy them back, but the new class of proprietors, who became the backbone of the thirty-year Porfirio Díaz dictatorship.

What does this proliferation of legal texts actually cloak? Perhaps a grave problem of identity and its attendant question: from what does legitimacy spring in a country that denies its rapist Spanish father and condemns its treacherous Indian mother? The feeling of being orphaned has been sublimated by attributing paternity to the objective, aseptic legal text, much as if it were the incarnation of an undefiled act of genesis. He who possesses the text also exercises the patria potestas. And since the text delivers us from the degraded condition of bastards (similarly, the image of the dark-skinned virgin, Guadalupe, saves us from the fear of being sons-of-a-whore: we now see our Mother pure and enshrined) we should willingly renounce our unprotected freedom as children of the left hand for the privileged, if submissive, status of subjects of the right.

The legitimation of the bastard, the identification of the orphan, is achieved through the authority of the text and thus becomes the basic moral condition of a society ruled from the top, sustained and suffered from the bottom. To renounce a name and a place, however lowly, in the rigid pyramid, means losing one’s self, again, in the deserts of populist illegitimacy. Whether it be the civil register, a membership card of the Party of Revolutionary Institutions or the Federal Constitution: Mexicans need a solid text that gives them an identity by referring them to a paternalistic authority.

From this rationalization springs the unbroken line of succession of power in Mexico: Aztec Emperor—Spanish Viceroy—Republican Señor Presidente. “Mexicans are incapable of governing themselves democratically; they need a benevolent, guiding father who flexibly implements the broader meanings of the law”: this conclusion, openly voiced by the científico bureaucracy of the Díaz dictatorship (who used to read Spencer and Comte), is now urbanely muttered, along with the appropriate reflections on the nature of realpolitik, by their modern-day heirs, the ruling managers of the P.R.I., the Banker’s Association, and the Chambers of Commerce (who read Burnham and Rostow).

The marvel of Zapata and his movement was that in this maze of conflicting texts and realities the campesino communities of Morelos should have maintained, through the centuries, a continuing sense of their identity and the legitimacy of their social, cultural, and economic claims to the land. “Like a wound, the country’s history opens at Anenecuilco.” This quote from the Mexican historian García Cantú aptly heads Womack’s study. Indeed, not the least of Zapata’s achievements was that his movement not only destroyed the objective structure of feudal land tenure, but also wounded the subjective justifications of the almost metaphysical Mexican status quo. For only in appearance were Zapata’s claims to rights based on the legal texts of Anenecuilco another extension of the rightist scriptural theory.

This theory contains an implicit acceptance of the necessary écart between text and reality, between juridical promise and administrative implementation. It contains, furthermore, a no less implicit approval of the fatal compromise between the purity of the ideal text and its outright violation in practice. Madero defied Díaz’s legitimacy as the heir to the 1857 Juarista Constitution because he felt that the old dictator had not achieved that compromise; violations were too flagrant. On reaching the Presidency, Madero himself believed that to strike the right note of equilibrium was quite sufficient. Madero was not a revolutionary: he was an apostle of textual legitimacy. Zapata was a revolutionary: and his scandalous belief was that men should fight, starve, strike back, suffer sickness, burn, hide in the mountains, and never relax until finally the text and the reality should be one and the same.

Womack traces Zapata’s nine-year struggle for this essential, uncompromising identity of things written and things done with superb detachment, all the more striking for its scrupulous avoidance of lyrical or emotional temptations. In what must be considered a feat of historical writing, given the abundance or the meagerness, the confusion and contradictions of original sources, the author describes with much telling detail the economic and political background of Mexico under Díaz, the concrete conditions prevailing in the State of Morelos (his description of the sugar aristocracy is particularly rich and witty), then moves from the Zapatista revolution back to the national scene of Madero’s triumph.

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