Zapata, Dead or Alive
Friday, March 4, 8.30 p.m. (8 Adelaide)
Reviewed by Peter Boyle
Even before the surprise Zapatista uprising in Mexico on New Year's Day, there were Mexicans who believed that the legendary revolutionary leader of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, General Emiliano Zapata, still lives.
In this documentary some of these people, old peasants in the main, insist that Zapata was not really assassinated in 1919, as the history books record. The body paraded by the government of the time did not have a mole in the right spot, says one. Another peasant claims it did not have a missing thumb (lost when the young Zapata lassoed a too wild stallion). "Zapata did not die, he just went elsewhere to help other people in their struggles", he insists.
Zapata, Dead or Alive, a Mexican production, explains the strength of the Zapata legend with a mixture of interviews with survivors, dramatic footage from the revolution and less impressive interviews with contemporary commentators.
Zapata commanded great loyalty because of his unwavering commitment to the protection of the age-old villages in Morelos, his home state, from the encroaching haciendas owned by a handful of sugar barons. He built a movement around demands that land stolen by the haciendas be returned to the villagers.
Most other "revolutionaries" in Mexico at the time forgot their promises on land reform as soon as they came to power. Another exception was Francisco (Pancho) Villa, an ally of Zapata. So Zapata and Villa sought to continue the revolution against supposedly "revolutionary" governments in Mexico City.
The Zapata myth was also reinforced by Zapata's image as a "man of the people". He dressed like a cowboy most of the time and had a legendary appetite for horse racing, cockfighting and women.
The documentary tends to get lost in the myth. Zapata and Villa, we are told by one expert, were the only two working-class leaders of the revolution. If things went wrong, it was because of the intellectuals who joined their staffs.
The truth is that Zapata was a rich peasant, as were most of the other Zapatista chiefs. Their revolutionary movement's strengths and weaknesses are in large part explained by its narrow peasant outlook, in particular its provincial focus. The radical youth from the city who became his advisers, socialistis and anarcho-syndicalists among them, had to struggle to convince Zapata of the need to look to broader alliances. While some of them betrayed Zapata, these city radicals were responsible for actually implementing a successful land reform in periods when the Zapatistas controlled Morelos.