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Who “owns” Emiliano Zapata?

11 December 2019

This year, being the centennial of Emiliano Zapata’s assassination, has seen a number of exhibits, new biographies, conferences, and the like.  Considered the most “authentic” of the Mexican revolutionary caudillos by more than a few historians and political theorists, or at the very least, the one with the most consistent agenda (which, I admit, I see as limited to agrarian reform), he has been interpreted and reinterpreted to fit whatever modern sensibility we want to put on him.

Like Pancho Villa, Zapata’s romantic appeal comes in part from NOT emerging from the Revolution as a “winner”… the winners — Carranza, Obregón, et. al. — never reaching consciousness outside Mexico and Latin Americanists… although, unlike Villa, Zapata never has become a joke, or a cartoonish figure.  One can’t imagine a comedy about Zapata, whereas at least one comedy has been premised on Villa’s best-known action.  Instead, when it comes to films (at least those in English), for foreigners, Zapata is the saintly revolutionary of “Viva Zapata!”, as scripted by John Steinbeck.

Belfast, ca. 1980

Steinbeck’s Zapata was not that of John Womack, the scholar, nor of the Irish Republicans who appropriated Zapata’s rural uprising to the urban “troubles” of their own country, nor that of the EZLN, the “Zapatistas” who draw their inspiration for their own anti-neoliberal uprising to the the Caudillo del Sur… nor that of Mexican communists (never mind the original Zapatistas were “good Catholics”), nor the one promoted by the State of Morelos whose politicians shout their Vivas! to the home-state hero every 16th of September, only to sell out their farmers and see the campesinos as “useful idiots” in their various political campaigns…

Anencuilco, Morelos. Roberto Rodriguez, Photo by Patricia Morales,

And… Zapata the gay icon.  Although it had been suggested, generally to discredit him, that Zapata was gay or at least bisexual (I wrote on this at some length 10 years ago), appropriating him as a gay icon has not been widely accepted. Jorge Zapata, the caudillo’s grandson led a contingent of Morelos campesinos into the Bellas Artes Zapata exhibit yesterday, demanding the removal of Fabian Chairez’s “offending” work.

Honestly, I can understand Jorge Zapata’s objections.  It’s not… as some have suggested… brutish, machismo peasants v. the LGBT community, bisexuality having been quietly tolerated in Mexico (I can show you records going back to the earliest days of the Conquest on this), nor that it’s unknown that Emiliano Zapata enjoyed a close relationship with one of the most “notorious” and flamboyant gay men of his time (although, as a horse trainer, and by no means as a social equal to his employer, Ignacio de la Torre).  Nor, is it so much that a gay man felt the need to present a supposedly gay man in the retro images of female stereotypes, but rather that a true “working class hero” and revolutionary leader … the image of everyone from the romantic musings of Steinbeck to the gritty street of Belfast… into a ridiculous and decadent bourgeois cartoon.

That, and it’s kitsch.



One Comment leave one →
  1. norm permalink
    11 December 2019 5:33 am

    It is hard to beat the photo of Villa.

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