Emiliano Zapata became the stuff of legend even during his own life. He was both much loved and much hated. He fought not primarily to fulfill personal ambitions but for the campesinos of the South, particularly in the states of Morelos, Puebla, México, and Guerrero. Many of the campesinos who followed called him “el hombre,” the man. He dazzled them with his performances in the jaripeos, local rodeos and he earned their trust through his fairness, his military prowess and bravura, and his struggle for their rights.

In stark contrast, except for the relatively brief period when Zapatistas occupied the capital, the Mexico City press consistently attacked Zapata as a ruthless bandit and a killer of innocents, the Attila of the South. The struggle between City (especially the capital) and the countryside has been a hallmark of Hispanic culture. For example, in the 16th century the prominent Franciscan, Antonio de Guevara published a highly influential book, Menosprecio de corte y alabanza de aldea that glorified the values of country villages and hamlets in contrast to the venality of the monarchy and the royal court. The conflict between the villages, most of them Amerindian and the cities, particularly the capital, and the haciendas, proxies for the intrusion of capitalistic and “progressive” values on traditional, primarily communal values had been going on in Mexico throughout the entire 19th century.

After Zapata was betrayed and killed at the Hacienda de Chinameca in 1919, many of his campesino followers did not accept his death. Some claimed the body that was left in Cuautla was that of a compadre who looked like him and had taken his place on that fateful day. For the campesinos, Emiliano Zapata was too strong and too symbolic of their life and death cause to die. He was hiding in the mountains until they needed him again.

Here is an excerpt from one of the many corridos to Zapata or on various aspects of the Revolution of 1910.

Su cuerpo al fin sepultaron
llenos de júbilo o gozo
y muchos, muchos lloraron
por sus culpas y reposo.

Pero su alma perservera
en su ideal "Libertador"
y su horrenda calavera
anda en penas. . . ¡oh terror!

Finally they buried his body
filled with joy and pleasure
and many, so many weeped
for his sins and for his peace.

But his soul perseveres
in his ideal of "Liberator"
and his fearsome skull
wanders in grief. . .oh terror!

Thus the legend that grew around Zapata and which converted the revolution of the South into Zapatismo by 1912, transcended the death of the actual man. Zapatismo lived on. In 1920 the Zapatistas joined the revolution on the side of Álvaro Obregón and against Venustiano Carranza. Obregón was a masterful politician who understood the demand by many of the rural rebels for land reform; and he and his successors, who were to institutionalize their party as the party of permanent revolution (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) understood that Emiliano Zapata was the figure who best symbolized land reform.
Beginning with Obregón and continuing with his successors including those who established the Partido Nacional Revolucionario in 1929 which would become much later the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), Zapata was cleansed and mythologized as the immaculate symbol of ¡Tierra y Libertad! (land and freedom) for the campesinos. Sometimes depicted, particularly by the Taller de Gráfica Popular, as a humble Indian campesino dressed in white and wearing huaraches (sandals dating to pre-Hispanic times), he served symbolically as one of the founding fathers of the modern Mexican state, even as the government increasingly favored the city over the countryside to the point that Mexico City and other urban areas have now begun to choke on their untrammeled growth and inflow from that countryside.
During his life not only did campesinos follow Zapata, but learned men as well who were viewed as intellectuals by the Zapatistas such as Gildardo Magaña, Antonio Díaz Soto y Gama, Serafín M. Robles and Octavio Paz Solórzano. After Zapata’s death, a number of his old advisors and secretaries maintained and embellished the myth of Zapata.
Thus, out of a desire to maintain Zapata as a national figure, the reigning government of the so called institutionalized revolution, aided by government-funded artists including muralists Diego Rivera and José Orozco and the artists of the Taller de Gráfica Popular, launched a mythology of Zapatismo that established deep roots in Mexico City and other urban areas. They were aided by former advisors and secretaries and other learned men within the Zapatista movement who survived the conflict, and by writers and scholars who did not participate in the revolution itself but who were nevertheless inspired by the Mexican hero. Collectively, they created a form of Zapatismo that greatly transcended the regionally-based, strongly communal movement that was the original Zapatismo during the revolutionary leader’s life. This Zapatismo that succeeded the death of Emiliano himself was supported by yet two additional factors. One was that the Zapatista military rebellion merged into the insurgency of Obregón and Calles beginning in 1920, and this strengthened the national dimension of Zapatismo. The second was to prove key in the post-PRI period. The original rural, primarily Amerindian Zapatistas and supporters of Zapatismo never forgot their mestizo/Amerindio leader. The symbolism of his ¡Tierra y Libertad! and of his military prowess as a rural and Amerindian leader who for a brief time captured and occupied the capital city of the Estados Unidos de México was impressed upon them for all time.

In the 1950s, Zapatismo was further solidified in the United States by the appearance of an important and influential film which won considerable recognition as well as an Academy Award for Anthony Oaxaca Quinn in his role as Eufemio Zapata.

Beginning with the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Emiliano Zapata, along with other major revolutionary, artistic, historical, or political figures including Francisco “Pancho” Villa, Malintzín, Che Guevara, Lolita Lebrón, César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, José Martí, Sor Juan Inés de la Cruz, Pablo Neruda, Gregorio Cortez, and Emma Tenayuca became sources of great inspiration for the Chicano/Latino civil rights and feminist movements.
On New Year’s Day, 1994, a major event occurred, the insurgency of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN). The struggle between the government and the landowners on one side and the Amerindian population in Chicapas and elsewhere in the South had been going on for hundreds of years, literally. Nevertheless, the reappropriation of Emiliano Zapata as well as the surprisingly effective use of both force and advanced public relations and information technology techniques, propelled and has kept the EZLN in national prominence.