Emiliano Zapata
Emiliano Zapata; drawing by David Levine

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.

Madero was eventually unwilling to be anything more than an honest broker for the Establishment, which Don Porfirio ran with a heavy hand (his blood-chilling motto was, “Kill them while they’re hot”). Zapata’s break with Madero over his lack of a decisive agrarian policy is particularly well dealt with, although one would desire fuller treatment of the causes of Madero’s downfall at the hands of the very forces he had naïvely left intact: the traditional army, big landholders, and foreign interests. Indeed, the sacrifice of Madero is a case history of don’ts for revolutionary Latin America: his immense democratic good will, his respect for free speech, parliamentary debate, freedom of the press, and electoral rights were nothing but frothy dreams so long as the basic, anachronistic structures remained intact. This is the lesson which Castro learned in Cuba, which, in the Dominican Republic, Bosch did not, and which Frondizi, in Argentina, or Belaúnde in Peru, could not.

In 1915, after the triumph of the national uprising against Huerta, three significant forces comprised the revolutionary spectrum: first, Pancho Villa’s confused, violent army of uprooted peasants, local bandits, ambitious politicos, adventurous intellectuals, and St.-Cyrien military strategists; secondly, the wide front of the rising national bourgeoisie under the Constitutionalist banner of Carranza; and, finally, the campesinos of the Zapatista movement, deeply rooted in the South. From today’s perspective, it would be facile to claim that any of the three factions was exclusively representative of the revolutionary spirit. The Mexican Revolution was too much a spontaneous, undoctrinaire movement. It was an act of national self-recognition. Villa’s cavalcades up and down the national territory showed the strong intuitive need to break away from the closed compartments of Mexican life, to contaminate Mexico with its own songs, colors, slang, passions. The Constitutionalists, who finally conquered and remained in power, represented the broader, more abstract and rational purposes of the national design.

But in choosing to study the locally limited movement of Zapata, Womack has pinpointed precisely what the Revolution was about at its profoundest level. “The people want their rights respected. They want to be paid attention to and listened to.” These are Zapata’s words and the fact that they were pronounced by a Mexican guerrillero at the beginning of the century makes them no less contemporary, both for Mexico and for most of the rest of the world.

Womack marshals the military, economic, political, and psychological evidence of the significance of Zapata and his movement. Let me pay passing homage to the author’s extraordinary sensibility regarding things Mexican. We are exceptionally and refreshingly far from the exotic point of view that makes so much of North American writing on Mexico so remote from its subject or, worse still, tinges it with a mawkishness, ignorance, or condescension masquerading as sympathy. Womack has an uncanny feeling for the infinitely complex strains of Mexico as a civilization. (He even spells all proper and place names right!) Because he understands that historical progression is inseparable from cultural roots, he understands Zapatismo as the history, not of exotic “peasants,” but of campesinos, people from the fields who did not, in the larger sense of the term, feel culturally deprived but, rather, were conscious that a social and political opportunity was given them to realize, in actuality, the latent promises of their local culture.

Only this profoundly civilized self-awareness can explain, first, the apparently natural talents the Zapatistas applied to guerrilla warfare in their campaign against General Juvencio Robles and Huerta’s Federal Army. Zapata, the so-called “Attila of the South,” was the first of the line of strategists—Castro and Guevara, the NLF fighters in Algeria, Giap in Vietnam—that have made of the guerrilla the natural defensive arm of a locally based culture. The Zapatistas thought of themselves as people who knew how to live together in one place with a sense of the tension between the values of tradition and the limited possibilities of happiness through progress. Guerrilla warfare was the intuitive extension of that awareness; it was the defense of a freely accepted tension against a brutal, inflexible tension imposed from outside.

The story of Zapata’s “little war” reads like contemporary headlines. A powerful and remote authority declares martial law in Morelos and, incapable of distinguishing among the cultural components of the rebellion, also fails to distinguish rebels from villagers; in attacking the latter, it swells the rebel ranks. Villagers and rebels, in the process, discover that they are indistinguishable from each other; the rebel’s uniform is the campesino’s work clothes. Since military force thus defeats political purpose, social terrorism supplants them both. A drastic program of pacification through resettlement is pushed through; General Robles, it seems, has already thought of strategic hamlets in 1914. The wealthy planters lobby furiously in Mexico City for more and more troops, bigger campaigns, harsher methods. But escalation only binds the villagers and guerrilla bands closer together and finally brings them under the unified command of Zapata.

The “reconcentration” of villagers fails because as soon as the local population sees a Federal Army column approaching, they flee to the hills. The column fruitlessly sacks the abandoned village and goes away. The inhabitants filter back, now convinced Zapatistas, and Zapata is free to make the Revolution on the march; his officers are ordered to lend their “moral and material support” to villages presenting titles and filing reclamations for the land. The military victories of the Federal Army become more and more Pyrrhic. The rebel guerrillas cannot be concentrated in one place for formal battle, where they can be fixed and annihilated; they attack swiftly, then disperse and establish new, invisible headquarters. The camouflage of the guerrillero is a cultural fact; he knows the land because he is the land, humanly recreated and situated. Robles is soon reduced to defending urban enclaves; the countryside belongs to the guerrillas. And the rebel chieftains learn to synchronize their attacks, so that in a single day the Federal commanders will have to expect half a dozen raids without knowing whether they are major attacks or simply divertive ones. Demoralized from within, menaced by the northern legions of Villa and Obregón, the old elitist army that Madero had not dared to touch finally caves in.

The people of Morelos had rewon their land. After the eighteen months of the guerrilla came the year of freedom:

In central and southern Mexico the utopia of a free association of rural clans was very ancient. In various forms it had moved villagers long before the Spaniards came. Its latest vehicle was the Zapatista army: ironically, Morelos’s country families had clarified their civilian notions in military service [Womack, p. 224].

Indeed, Zapata’s agrarian movement was a tiger lurking in the Morelos ranges and forests. In retrospect, one can now see it wrapped in the shadows of history, nurturing the promises of a local culture, knowing that its time (I employ the crucial distinction made by Octavio Paz) was not the linear, positivistic measure of the West, but rather the circular, cosmogonic re-volution understood by the ab-original mind. A time symbolized by the self-devouring deity that witnessed the murder of Jaramillo. The people of Morelos had waited for their time to come with the patience of inevitability. Then the spark of revolution flashed and caught fire for an incredible year, from the summer of 1914 to the summer of 1915: the long, lonely, unforgettable year of an impossible Arcadia. The price, the strength, and the weakness of this revolution was its isolation. It was a radical revolution, as profound and limited as its roots.

While Morelos’s seclusion lasted, the state was almost a frontier. Dispossessed and destitute families had indeed inhabited the place for centuries; now, psychologically, they arrived. What they conquered, cleared, leveled, and settled was not a territory, which they only recovered, but a society, which they thus created. Like other immigrants and pioneers, they proceeded fitfully—sometimes by the compulsion of immediate needs, sometimes by dreams they would not surrender. But in this social wilderness they moved in a remarkably constant direction towards the establishment of democratic municipalities, country neighbourhoods where every family had influence in the disposition of local resources [Womack, p. 224].

Community, together with personal freedom: this possibility, assaulted by the sinister political realities of our time, and now, perhaps, about to be engulfed by the technocratic entente between the US and the USSR, this, the hope which, against impossible odds, is now moving young people in France, Czechoslovakia, and even middle-class Mexico, this belief that people can rule themselves without sacrificing either social welfare or personal freedom—this dream became reality in the small, enclosed campesino community of Morelos in 1914-15.

Zapata and his chiefs, of course, were themselves villagers, field hands and sharecroppers; their authority sprang from local councils and rested on fidelity to the texts they were about to make forcefully real. On this basis, a politics of confidence arose. “Significantly, Zapata never organized a state police; law enforcement, such as it was, remained the province of village councils” [Womack, p. 227]. Zapata’s personal aura never degenerated into authoritarianism or pride; as Womack points out, the man never went too far from “the guts and flies and manure and mud of local life.” Military chiefs were forbidden to interfere in village affairs, and when Zapata himself had to arbitrate local troubles, he always limited his action to enforcing decisions that the villagers had already reached on their own.

Having supported and composed the revolutionary army, these country folk reasoned that they should be the beneficiaries of its success. More important, they had also learned in the war that military leaders ought to respect them, and that if they did not, others should appear who would. Village authorities all over the state espoused this new toughness, and it constituted the firmest inhibition against neighborhood dictators [Womack, p. 226].

For the first time in Mexico, it was not a remote bureaucracy nor an all-too-present military authority that made decisions in the name of the people. The people themselves, through the cooperation of village leaders, fashioned the new levers of power and the new means of livelihood from the bottom up, unhindered by rigid programs, fusing the traditional agencies of local society and the momentum of the Revolution. The Zapatista chiefs proclaimed that the partition of lands would be carried out according to the customs of each pueblo. If a pueblo wanted the communal system, it would have it; but if it chose to divide the land in order to admit small individual property, so it would be.

Word was sent to the villagers: reclaim your lands. Technically this problem was solved by appointing agrarian commissions “charged with the survey and division of lands.” The situation recalls the demands of those European university students who are demanding the right to collaborate professionally with the working classes rather than with private enterprise. In Mexico, scores of graduates from the National School of Agriculture went to work in the field with the agrarian commissions set up to legalize claims, survey the land, and determine boundary lines. In six months, the “ingenieritos” from the city won the respect of the local villagers; together, they assured the renaissance of the hundred-odd pueblos of Morelos, which finally came into possession of their local farm land, the stands of timber, and the irrigation facilities.

Legally, the revolution was made. Practically, it was necessary that a state razed by civil war be restored. Rather than take on the more complex responsibilities of the old haciendas, the free campesinos of Morelos stuck to the staple products of the pueblos; in one summer, they restocked Morelos with beans, corn, chile peppers, tomatoes, chickpeas, chickens, and onions. As local production rose, so did local consumption. Prices were kept low and inflation was avoided.

In such clear relief the character of revolutionary Morelos emerged: in the very crops people liked to grow, they revealed the kind of community they liked to dwell in. They had no taste for the style of individuals on the make, the life of perpetual achievement and acquisition, of chance and change and moving on. Rather, they wanted a life they could control, a modest familial property in the company of other modestly prosperous families whom they knew, and all in one place [Womack, p. 241].

The text and the reality had become one. The campesinos of Morelos had achieved the modest, profound dream for which they had fought so hard. Far from being hopelessly anchored in resignation, they had shown that a campesino culture could escape its presumed fate and achieve a humane and functional civil and economic organization on a local basis. They had shown that Mexicans could rule themselves democratically. But the very values of the system proved to be its undoing; the Morelos Arcadia cut against the grain of the national design. In effect, the vision of the National Mexican State presupposed a withering away of provincial peculiarities in favor of a much wider enterprise; little Morelos had to be sacrificed to greater Mexico, the dynamic, responsible, unscrupulous, centralized force that was taking shape around Carranza and his ambitious chieftains, Obregón and González.

It would be unfair to say that, once the remnants of the Díaz regime had been shattered and Carrancismo was in power, the popular democracy of Morelos was threatened by a new form of reaction. Rather, a national revolution faced a local revolution. The latter was based on accepted common traditions; the former had to elaborate and impose a national plan for progress. In Morelos, the people’s intimate knowledge of one another favored direct democracy; the nation as a whole was unknown to itself. Where did the common bond lie between Sonora cattle ranchers and Yucatán plantation workers, between Mexico City intellectuals and several million isolated Indians?

Zapatismo could solve problems as they came; local ethics were clear, concise, and irrevocable, local culture was homogeneous. The national revolution, however, felt it had to centralize energies in order to transform a heterogeneous society and create a modern infra-structure in a country lacking in communications, electric power, and administrative coordination. The Morelos revolution could be internationally irresponsible; the national revolution had to stand the constant pressure of North American power and the explicit menace of foreign intervention. Zapatismo knew it could rely on the common sense of a democratic people who knew and respected both one another and a locally approved law. On the other hand, the national revolution could impose its abstract laws only by falling back on consecration of the authoritarian father figure and the sacred text that assured his legitimacy. That the Political Constitution of 1917, which embodied the basic agrarian demands of the Zapatista movement, was written into this text was, perhaps, the only possible measure of its local success.

When, in the winter of 1915, the government forces of General Pablo González swooped down from Mexico City into Morelos, the dream was over. González was as brutal as the Huertista General Robles had been. But where the Zapatistas could fight victoriously against the henchmen of the old regime, they faltered, however courageously, in their struggle against the new national forces. With González, it was not the old planters who came back. It was the new merchants, the ambitious little lawyers, the promoters, who arrived. They had been waiting in the wings for the opportunity to establish the rights of a national bourgeoisie cloaked int he mantle of modernity and progress.

Zapata fought on grimly, firm in his loyalty to a revolution “rooted in local pride and grief.” But now he fought in order not to die, a hunted fugitive, helpless against the rising national bourgeois tide. When he was murdered by Carranza in 1919, the heirs of Constitucionalismo were about to accept Zapatismo as the local wing of the national revolutionary movement, as an eccentric experience that offered limited solutions. This is how Zapatismo has come down to us: shadowy, profoundly rooted, sometimes corrupted by the powerful forces imposed on the country by capitalist development (Zapata’s own son, Nicolas, became a wealthy, cynical, and oppressive oligarch), sometimes winning small battles, seduced by stability and a thin prosperity; sometimes brutally suppressed as in the case of Jaramillo, its primitive cohesion shaken by the mobility and porousness of the new Mexican middle class; and sometimes seemingly lost forever in its own brooding nostalgia for Arcadia and its grief over the sacrifice of the legendary leader. At times, almost an irrelevant anachronism….

But Zapatismo, as the profound aspiration of people capable of participating in the decisions that affect them, as a rebellion against the fate of subservience, Zapatismo has not spoken its last word. For the Revolution has not had the last word in Mexico. The urgent, dynamic bourgeoisie that came to power with Obregón in 1920 has now become a calcified political class. It created the conditions for Mexico’s considerable economic progress in the past fifty years; it created these conditions by realizing that its existence as a class depended on revolutionary measures. Agrarian reform meant better methods, higher production, fewer hands in the fields and more hands in the factories; nationalization of natural resources meant cheap fuel for industrialization, better social conditions, rational conservation and long-range planning. Till the end of the Cárdenas presidency in 1940, economic development was accompanied by a sense of social duty; only thus, thought Cárdenas, would the inevitable inequities of capitalism be corrected and its programs made coherent. Without social justice, the national market would never reach that 50 percent of the population that still was, and is, rural.

Unhappily, the spirit of Cardenismo (historically coincidental with Roosevelt’s New Deal) was quickly abandoned once its revolutionary methods had assured the New Class of sufficient power, wealth, and stability. Centralized politics became a screen for quick, profitable, socially irrelevant investments. “The Revolution” became an empty slogan piously invoked by bankers, corrupt union leaders, and official speech-makers. More and more, Mexico’s economy became a model of uneven distribution (4 percent of the population receives 50 percent of the national income) and myopic credit structures. Small loans are given only for short terms and high interest, and thus restricted to highly remunerative and/or speculative mercantile operations; large credits are absorbed by national and foreign monopolies. The mask of this nouveau-riche boom is there for any tourist to see, in shops, hotels, residential districts, and luxury spas. But sixty years after Emiliano Zapata rose up in arms, almost half the population of Mexico is still illiterate, a third never eats bread, a fourth consumes neither meat, milk, nor fish, and 12 million people still walk on their bare feet, in a country where shoe manufacturers, for lack of a local market, have to export part of their product. The metropolitan markets are saturated, while the 25 million people who live in the countryside languish. Yet it is thanks to their sacrifices that Mexico has become a partly industrialized nation.

A few years ago, I accompanied ex-President Cárdenas on a tour of rural districts in the states of Michoacán and Jalisco. Everywhere we went—the dusty hamlets near Guadalajara, the lush Uruapan valleys, the baked lands around Jiquilpah—where the agrarian reform had been honestly administered, where the campesinos had been able to count on technical assistance, modern machinery, seed and fertilizers, price stability and protection from middlemen, the ejido or collective farm had been a success. The campesinos had again shown that, if dealt with fairly, they could rule themselves. The reverse side of the story was dramatically brought home to us by a white-thatched, nut-faced old campesino in Jalisco. I remember his words vividly: “When Cárdenas gave us the land, we became free for the first time. For generations, we had been like slaves to the big hacendado, we had been chained to the hacienda through debts that passed from fathers to sons. Then we were free, the debts were cancelled, and we became masters of our corn-growing ejido. Many left, it is true; they went to Guadalajara, even to Mexico City, and began to work in the factories. They were paid better.

“We stayed at the ejido and tried to prove we could make it. At first we were protected, the agrarian officials lived with us and knew us. But later things changed. People we didn’t know were named as officials. Rich people began buying up farm land, small plots, one after the other, until all together they formed new haciendas. It was useless to protest. These people were old government functionaries, and they had named the new agrarian officials. Our demands ceased to be listened to. The bigger farms got the machinery, and soon we were forced to go back to work for them, or to the cities and the factories, or up to the United States as braceros. Also, there was no protection against the mill owners. We know what our harvest is really worth; the mill owners will only take it at half the price. Many children are born here; it is becoming difficult to feed them. We feel we are not moving. Who will listen to us?”

To bridge the chasm between urban and rural society would call for strong reforms, if not revolutionary actions. But the ruling bureaucracy, the creature of the financial and industrial Establishment, instead merely keeps itself in power by means of the proven political machinery of the P.R.I. which dominates the worker and campesino organizations, the monopoly of information media, a rubber-stamp Congress, and even the pacified opposition parties of the Left and the Right. Nevertheless, a system that could take for granted the support of a new society emerging from feudalism and civil strife cannot, today, count on the patience or solidarity of millions of young Mexicans (half the country’s population is under thirty) who, in their cities, take better living conditions for granted and, like Zapata, demand that the abstract political freedoms accorded by the law become actual freedoms practiced by responsible citizens.

The Mexican Revolution broke the back of the Spanish feudal inheritance that still shackles the rest of the Latin continent, and then pursued a course of basic capital accumulation and rapid industrialization through heavy foreign loans, and by postponing the demands of the campesinos, who had been the soldiers of the Revolution, and of the workers who supplied cheap local labor. But the country has now reached the final stage of economic development through the sacrifice of social progress and political freedom. Such is the source of the eminently political revolt of the Mexican students that shook the somnolent Establishment to its foundations last year. The government’s over-reaction, which led, on October 2, to the massacre of students and civilians on the Plaza of the Three Cultures (an Aztec pyramid, a Spanish church, and an American skyscraper were the ironic witnesses of the ritual blood-letting), proves that for the first time the system is on the defensive, unwilling to grant one inch of its acquired powers, yet faced with demands that deny the very values, social peace and political stability, that the P.R.I. claims as its greatest historical success—even its raison d’être.

After the student revolt of 1968, the Mexican “guided democracy” will never again be the same. The conditions of its power were threefold: unity of the upper classes that rule it, manipulation of the working classes that sustain it, consensus of the middle classes it favors. Student demands for real political freedom and passive civilian resistance to the bloody repression have severely damaged its consensus. The inner circles of government are violently divided over the options: democratic reforms or virtual military dictatorship. Doves and hawks (or, to invent a Mexican designation, quetzales and zopilotes) alike fear that middle-class democratic demands will eventually reawaken proletarian and campesino movements.

In any case, only profound revisions of the status quo can make the country go forward from its present, exhausted stage of development to a new and more demanding one. Democratic socialism is certainly not likely now in a country which, strategically and even culturally, is the Poland of Latin America. But a greater equilibrium between economic development on the one hand and social justice with political freedom on the other is possible and necessary. However benevolent the reformist tendencies that might come forward in Mexico, their good intentions will inevitably be frustrated by the insistent tradition of centralist, scriptural autocracy, if they are not simultaneously either affirmed or contested by an organized citizenry actively intervening in the decisions that affect them at the factory, the ejido, the university, the publishing house, the newspaper office, the trade union, the national and state legislatures, and the local councils. Zapata’s provincial purpose has become, in a roundabout way, the national design. What Zapata achieved in an agrarian society must now be achieved by all Mexicans in a larger, transitional, and highly unbalanced industrial society.

I remember a bald little brown man who scurries from town to town carrying a black dispatch box with a title to a small piece of the land—a title that actually speaks for the human aspiration to weld the meaning of words with action. And remembering him I recall other men I have met Cuban guajiros directly explaining their problems to Fidel Castro with a newfound sense of dignity, Parisian students fighting at the barricades of the Boulevard St.-Michel to be something more than cheerful robots of the consumer society, Czech workers on strike against censorship of the press at a Prague metal works. And men like these have harassed, outwitted, and finally defeated the awesome imperial force of the United States in Vietnam.

Can all these men prevail against that which negates them—the sinister world order that is taking shape with the formidable trappings of nuclear terror, peace by blackmail, spheres of influence, and the promise of a planetary fascism that denies both individual rights and socialist experience in the name of an exercise of power by the specialized technocracies of the two major powers and their servile bureaucracies in the East and the West?

In any case, what happens in Mexico will not be unconnected with the great paradox of our confused time. The universal diffusion of sound, image, and words have made individuals more aware than ever before of their basic rights and of the practicability of their aspirations. Never before have so many people been so conscious that the dialectics of progress must take account of cultural, moral, and personal demands or become bankrupt, irrelevant, or oppressive. Never before has there been an age in which so many men, everywhere, have voiced their decision to participate in the affairs that concern them. But, also, never before has the decision-making capacity become so concentrated in a few men with specialized knowledge of a highly coordinated technology. Gilles Martinet has made a subtle distinction between power (le pouvoir) and powers (les pouvoirs). The first belongs to the technocratic state; the second, to the citizens. Perhaps the time when citizens could take power is over. But, certainly, the time for citizens to take powers has come. There is no other way of preventing power from taking us. In this sense, we have all become Zapatistas.

This Issue

March 13, 1969