Title: Mexican Revolution in 1910. A quarter of





An exploration of land ownership as a catalyst for revolution

what extent did the lack of local autonomy during Porfirio’s administration
contribute to the campesino rebellion of Emiliano Zapata?


Count: 3,040


of Contents


Diaz and Positivism……………………………………………………………………3-4

and the Hacienda………………………………………………………………………5-6

Zapata’s Leadership………………………………………………………………….6-11





investigation will examine the role of political autonomy in the rebellion of
the campesinos, the name given to peasant farmers, during the Mexican
Revolution (1910-1920). Mexico is a Latin American country that won its
independence from Spain in 1821 under the leadership of a priest named Miguel
Hidalgo. According to historian Adolfo Gilly, when Porfirio Diaz took power in
1876, Mexico would experience a wave of capitalism and positvism under the
dictatorship of Diaz lasting until the overthrow of Diaz and subsequent start
of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. A quarter of Mexico’s territory would be
given to companies, “violently seized from the peasant villages and communities,”
and then turned into haciendas (plantations, primarily sugar) where peons (farm
workers) would work for free, as a “massive operation of plunder” to “liquidate
the communal lands in central Mexico” (Gilly 14-15). In this span of over
thirty years, Mexican peasants on haciendas would erupt into several severe
rebellions in 1910, starting the Mexican Revolution (Warman 2-3). In the heart
of a campesino rebellion would be Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919), described as a
“legend” by Samuel Brunk. Zapata grew
up in a tiny village named Anencuilo in the central Mexican state of Morelos to
mestizo parents, who were a mix of Spanish and Indian blood, and of campesino
or peasant farmer background. Mestizos are considered lower class in Mexican
society while those with full Spanish blood, named creoles, were in a higher
social class. The hacienda played a central part of Zapata’s childhood and his
village as it was the only source of employment (Brunk, Career of Emilano Zapata 10-11). This topic is worthy of investigation
because there were many factors to the campesino rebellions during the Mexican
Revolution. One of the significant ones was the effects of modernization by
Porfirio Diaz and the growth in industry and infrastructure that followed. The
Porfirian modernization was very detrimental to welfare of the campesinos.  Another significant factor is the geography
of Morelos, and the rich growing areas that introduced the hacienda. It is also
important to consider Zapata’s ability to lead a revolution and successfully
meet the needs of the campesinos. Zapata’s army was instrumental in achieving
land reform for campesinos and through his army Zapata was able to empower poor
campesinos. Also, the investigation examines the significance of Zapata’s
revolutionary document that became a symbol of the needs and wants of the
campesino, returning local autonomy after a very long Diaz regime. However,
while those factors were significant, this investigation also examines
potential arguments about Zapata’s inability as a leader and his banditry. With
various causes to consider in the Mexican Revolution, this investigation will
try to determine the extent of which causes were more significant. Although
Emiliano Zapata failed to accomplish lasting land reform and economic independence
for his following in Morelos, his military ability and charisma released
villages from the restraints of the hacienda recovering local autonomy.

Porfirio Diaz and Positivism

economic growth resulting from positivism during the regime of Porfirio Diaz
only benefited Mexicans who lived in urban centers and ultimately stripped the
majority of rural Mexicans of land. Positivism is a “philosophical and
political movement” created by a European named Auguste Comte (1798-1857) that emphasized
the role of science in the development of society (Bourdeau). The ideology of Porfirio Diaz would be
heavily influenced by Comte’s positivism movement. Since the positivist
movement was leaving a large impression on most of Latin America, the movement
did not fail to include to Mexico and as a result would experience tremendous
growth in industry and infrastructure. For example, when Diaz took power in
1876, Mexico only had 400 miles of railroad and was producing 8000 barrels of
oil, and by the time Diaz left power there was 15,000 miles of railroad laid
and Mexico was producing 8,000,000 barrels of oil, making Mexico the world’s
third largest producer of oil (Burns 132-138). However, this growth was not
purely domestic as most of this new railroad came from foreign investments made
by America and Great Britain under the lenient policies of Diaz (Garner 175-177).While
railroads and oil were certainly good indicators of material progress, the
leniency of Diaz in letting foreign commercialization of Mexico’s resources happen
would make Mexico’s economy dependent on other countries. This emphasis on
foreign investment by Porfirio Diaz would be effective in neglecting the needs
of the campesinos. For example, the new railroads were purposeful in increasing
Mexico’s exports, and the land by the newly laid railroad increased in value.
Consequently, peasants and Indians were displaced as the number of land titles
decreased and the disappearance of small farms meant that the displaced people
were supposed to work in commercial agriculture instead of subsistence, which
was to be exported under Porfirio Diaz (Burns 139). The loss of land titles for
Indians and peasants, or collectively as campesinos, resulted in a direct loss
of local autonomy for campesino communities due to railroad expansion under
Diaz. Additionally, the move to commercial agriculture for export also meant
that campesinos were less economically secure afterwards because they needed to
find employment to support themselves. And during Diaz, more than half of the
total territory in Morelos passed into the hands of Porfirian haciendas,
described as “legitimate, progressive institutions” that exploited the
resources of “all human beings” in Morelos and were economically and socially
dominate (Warman 46). This suggests that Porfirian modernization of Mexico was
taxing on campesinos. However, modernization could be considered an extension
to earlier exploitation of campesinos in colonial Morelos, so the loss of local
autonomy to the Porfirian hacienda was not new, but the lack of local autonomy
was considerably larger with more land becoming controlled by the hacienda.

Morelos and the Hacienda

the beginning, it is also important to consider the geography of the state of
Morelos and the system of land deeds before and during the regime of Porfirio
Diaz as it was not effective in helping secure local autonomy for campesinos in
the first place. Historically, the state of Morelos was a location with a large
Indian population. By 1550 the Spanish had claimed ownership of the
agricultural areas of Morelos, and as Warman describes Spanish agriculture as
“entrepreneurial and capitalist” in contrast to subsistence “indigenous peasant
agriculture”, the first haciendas were sugar based plantations owned by the
Spanish crown where Indians worked for sugar production continuing into the 19th
century (Warman 26, 35-36). As a part of Spanish colonization in 1529, the
hacienda was a plantation system that could endure many years. This deep-rooted
system in Mexican society did not afford peasants any sense of land ownership.
Therefore, the lack of political autonomy existed for a long time. However, by
the time the regime of Porifrio Diaz, these haciendas would expand so much that
the productivity could be exploited, and the issue of landless peasants would
erupt into the Mexican Revolution. In
addition, the topography of Morelos was also a factor in securing local
autonomy. For example, Morelos is a state with tall mountain ranges in the
shape of the letter V that descend into deep rich valleys representing the best
agriculture and the most productive haciendas sustaining large dense
communities (Tannenbaum 16-23). Naturally, in the area of Morelos with a dense population,
the possibility of forming a large following was viable compared to other
states that had a less dense population and therefore isolated communities. The
rich growing abode of Morelos was a good candidate for profit-generating
haciendas to be established because there are many natural resources.
Consequently, the location of Morelos helped facilitate Emiliano Zapata in
supplying the peasants with a violent revolution in response to the land needs
of the hacienda.  Alan Knight, a
professor of Latin American history at Oxford Univesity, states that “there was
no place for the voracious plantation of Porforian Morelos, with its
monopolistic claims to land, water, and labor” (Knight 311). This assertion
implies that the existing land entities like the village and the non-Porifirian
hacienda had a weak relationship, especially vulnerable to the introduction of
the Porfiriato.

Emiliano Zapata’s Leadership

from movement of positivism and the influence of geography on the amount of
local autonomy for campesinos, it is important to consider Zapata’s ability to
persuade his following of campesinos and thus lead a revolution. Zapata had a
powerful charisma in his village. For example, in 1909 elders in the town
council of Anenecuilo selected Zapata as a speaker for the whole village,
describing him as being ‘both a sharecropping dirt farmer whom villagers could
trust and mule driving horsedealer whom cowboys, peons, and bandits could look
up to; both a responsible citizen and determined warrior'” (Ruiz 201). Zapata’s
small village origins allowed him to relate with people of lower social status
such as the campesinos who would become his following. With this association,
Zapata could lead a rebellion easily in response to a lack of local autonomy by
the hacienda. And while Zapata had a powerful charisma, he was also sharp and
quick-thinking in the face of manipulation that was rampant in the Porifirato.
This is significant because manipulation existed as a decades-long cycle, especially
in the purposeful aggravation of peasant hostilities. For example, the
peasantry working the fields of the Hacienda del Hospital sent a petition the
Morelos state governor Escandón so that he could permit them to farm the land
for their own food, which got rejected and a ‘time honored method’ was used by
leasing the land to another group of peasants in the Villa de Ayala; the
ensuing conflict was mediated and Zapata earned the respect of both groups (Gilly
66-68). Peasant hostilities such as these were a way to distract peasants from
the issue of land use, and during the Porfiriato these methods were critical to
ensuring a lack of campesino concern around land use. However, Zapata’s
tactical approach to manipulation helped the campesinos recognize that by
assembling as one unit they could combat the abuses and exploitations of the
hacienda. Moreover, Zapata’s identity as a rebellious leader was created after
he took over the group of peasant rebels of Torre Burgon, a similar but less
successful leader of the campesinos, and led them to overthrow more hacienda
lands (Gilly 70). It is interesting to note that while the historian Adolfo
Gilly, a professor of the Zapatista Movement at the National Autonomous
University of Mexico, attributes Zapata’s leadership ability to his
far-reaching radical creed in comparison to more moderate leaders like Burgon, the
historian Samuel Brunk attributes Zapata’s leadership ability to his origins as
a campesino and his little education compared to leaders like Burgon. Brunk
also mentions that Burgon and Zapata were equally radical (Emiliano Zapata 25). Therefore, in order to recover their political
autonomy, campesinos could not rely on privileged leaders like Burgos who came
from a different social class because the plans of leaders like Burgos were
distanced from the more desirable radical plans of Zapata. The likeness of a
leader who intended to enact radical land reform is reflective of the social
class divide that campesinos experienced as workers on the hacienda. However, a
lack of education in the campesino leader Zapata, would inherently limit the campesinos
from being able to take over the central government of Mexico. But through
Zapata’s almost natural ability to lead, and the powerful charasima, Zapata was
able to consolidate the peasant rebellion in the villages of Anenecuilo and the
Villa de Ayala.

an emerging following, Zapata naturally procured weapons, which would aid in
recovering political autonomy over the land. Zapata cooperated with Ambrosio
Figueroa to be a part of the “Liberating Army of the South”, and with this
army, Zapata managed to take over towns and haciendas, and drive the federal
armies out in Morelos and the south (Womack 87). With a new army and conquered
towns under Zapata’s radical belt, Morelos became the base of Mexico’s
campesino rebellion. In the process of recovering political autonomy from the
hacienda, Zapata succeeded in creating an image of armed peasants for the rest
of Mexico’s southern campesinos to follow. Gilly remarks that while the lack of
money, weapons, and ammunition limited Zapata’s army, the villages he passed
were more than eager to support him and thus was a primary supplier for his
army (Gilly 82). The domestic aid that Zapata secured came from the universal
grievances of the campesinos, or the lack of local autonomy by the hacienda.
Giving Zapata’s army supplies was a way in which the campesino could ease
his/her grievances. And from the lack of foreign countries supporting Zapata,
the unity of peasants secured a kind of autonomy over its own military. Additionally,
Alan Knight, a professor of Latin American history at Oxford, noted that “it is
very remarkable… that during the whole of the Mexican Revolution it’s the
agricultural classes who have furnished the militant element” (Knight 79). This
observation implies that other classes like the urban bourgeoisie working class
(doctors, lawyers, ect) in Mexico were unable to enact reforms, but according
to Gilly the urban bourgeoisie had the education and social status to furnish
the “political feature” unlike Zapata’s peasants did – a limitation of Zapata’s
militarization and taking over of rural villages. Even though Zapata might’ve
shortcutted the need for political central power, the transition from landless
peasantry to armed peasantry provided a necessary catalyst for the Mexican
Revolution and achieved local political autonomy.

As the leader of many Mexican campesinos, Zapata
would create a document that would be considered sacred by his following, making
his rebellion effective and rewarding in recovering local autonomy for the
campesinos. In 1911, a year after the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution,
Zapata went up into the mountains with a school teacher named Otilio Montaño; and
working together, Zapata told Montaño what to write in the ‘Plan de Ayala’
which would become a summary of ‘Zapata’s demands for land, liberty, and
justice (Brunk, Emiliano Zapata 63-64).
In the document, Zapata states that the government will be overthrown and that
all land owned by “landlords,
científicos, or bosses” of the Diaz era will be confiscated and given back to
the Mexicans who have the original titles to that property (campesinos); Zapata
also states that one-third of land owned by monopolies like the hacienda will
be given to villages and landless campesinos (Zapata). The large concern for
land reform in the plan for campesinos demonstrates the aim of Zapata’s
rebellion, and with the force of Zapata’s army the plan would have reversed
much of Porfirian hacienda land monopolies. It is remarkable that the plan
doesn’t address urban Mexicans, and shows Zapata’s determination in supplying
his campesino following with much needed land ownership that would give them
not only local autonomy, but also economic power with the absence of commercial
agriculture in the hacienda. Historian Adolfo Gilly remarks that this plan created
“the duality established through revolution would issue in the re-establishment
of bourgeois state power… with the revolutionary-democratic guarantee that
weapons would remain in the hands of the peasantry” (Gilly 78-79). Gilly is
talking about how Zapata’s plan secured political power in hands other than the
campesinos, but that the campesinos would keep their weapons and army, the fuel
needed for the Mexican revolution.

While Zapata’s response to the loss of political
autonomy during the regime of Porifirio Diaz played an important role in the
rebellion of the campesinos, some historians question the significance of
rebellion. For example, Alan Knight states the Zapatista movement was
“fundamentally defensive, backward-looking, and nostalgic” representing a “conservative
reaction against the economic and social changes that were proving detrimental
to indigenous culture” (Knight 310). This statement suggests that Zapata’s
movement held little value; and thus the significance of the campesino
rebellion becomes not a question of political autonomy, but rather a question
of the campesino position in a modernized state. On the other hand, Paul
Garner, a professor of Latin American history (specializing in Mexico) at the
University of Leeds, establishes that
the Diaz “developmentalist project” in Mexico was highly damaging and that
“economic and political power were concentrated in the hands of a minority
elite, a ‘comprador bourgeoisie'” who did not act in the national interest and
thus the impact was the “impoverishment of the masses and a serious loss of
economic and political sovereignty” (Garner 166). Knight’s interpretation is
flawed because Garner suggests that Porfirian modernization affected the
“masses” of Mexico, not just the indigenous culture. Additionally, Zapata is
sometimes also seen as a bandit with a celebrity status who enjoyed the popular
following of campesinos and even “sought personal gain” (Brunk, Emiliano Zapata 45-47). However, Zapata’s
influence on land reforms in Mexico outweighs his likeness to fame. And Zapata
was not the only peasant leader who had a celebrity status. Pancho Villa, a man
who also fought for land reform and also had his own following like Zapata,
starred in a American-sponsored movie fighting the Mexican federal army in 1910
in real time, and subsequently was seen as popular hero and a Hollywood movie
star (Johnson). The cult following of bandit leaders like Zapata was
characteristic of their profound influence in the Mexican Revolution.


The significance of the positivism movement present
in the regime of Porfirio Diaz was a determining factor for the campesino
rebellion in Morelos. However, Diaz was able to rule for many years before
rebellion and the subsequent Mexican Revolution because the expansion of the
hacienda plantation had existed previously in the Spanish colonial era, when
the local autonomy of most campesinos was lost. Therefore, the leadership
ability of Emiliano Zapata in creating a movement for the masses—the
disadvantaged campesinos—was the catalyst necessary for the rebellion. As a
bandit in the eyes of the federal government and a popular hero in the eyes of
peasants, the Zapatista movement effectively ended the plunder and exploitation
of Porfirian modernization. The Plan de
Ayala empowered campesinos to form a large movement that was assisted by
the rich agricultural regions in the state of Morelos and population density.
The calls of land reform were symbolic of the centuries long struggle endured
by the peasants in securing local autonomy over their original lands.
Therefore, Emiliano Zapata’s focus on land reform was the main cause of the
campesino rebellion.


Works Cited

Bourdeau, Michel.
“Auguste Comte.” Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. Stanford University, 2015.

Brunk, Samuel
Frederick. Zapata: Revolution and
Betrayal in Mexico. N.p.: n.p., 1992. Print.

Brunk, Samuel
Frederick. The Posthumous Career of
Emiliano Zapata: Myth, Memory, and Mexico’s Twentieth Century. Austin, TX:
U of Texas, 2010. Print.

Burns, E. Bradford.,
and Julie A. Charlip. Latin America: A
Concise Interpretive History. 7th ed. N.p.: Prentice Hall, 2002. Print.

Garner, Paul H. Porfirio Diaz (Profiles in Power). N.p.:
Routledge, 2016. Print.

Gilly, Adolfo. The Mexican Revolution. Trans. Patrick
Camiller. London: Verso/NLB, 1983. Print.

Johnson, Reed.
“Pancho Villa, Leader of the Mexican Revolution and Hollywood Movie
Star.” Los Angeles Times. Los
Angeles Times, 01 May 2010. Web.

Knight, Alan. The Mexican Revolution. Lincoln: U of
Nebraska, 1990. Print.

Ruiz, Ramon Eduardo.
The Great Rebellion: Mexico, 1905-1924.
New York London: Norton, 1980. Print.

Tannenbaum, Frank. The Mexican Agrarian Revolution. Hamden:
Archon, 1968. Print.

Warman, Arturo. We Come to Object. Trans. Stephen K. Ault. Baltimore and London: John
Hopkins University Press, 1980. Print.

Womack, John. Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972. Print.

Zapata, Emiliano. “The Plan De Ayala.”
Letter. 25 Nov. 1911. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Plan De San Luis Potosí / Plan De Ayala. 2009. Web.










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