St. Lawrence University
Emiliano and Eufemio Zapata with their wives. In: John Mraz, Photographing the Mexican Revolution (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012): 120.
Zapatista Colonel Amparo Salgado, photographed by Sara Castrjón. In: John Mraz, Photographing the Mexican Revolution (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012): 117.

The Revolutionary Zapatista Woman:

The first photograph depicts Emiliano Zapata and his brother Eufemio with their wives in 1911. Both women look more challenging and dignified than the Zapata brothers, their body language more powerful, and their faces less somber. Brehme argues that Eufemio’s wife looks “relaxed and serene,” while Emiliano’s wife is presents “challenging flirtatiousness.” He also notes the importance of recognizing that each subject’s portrayal of themselves is a direct dialogue with the photographer (Brehme), and that each knows how they choose to portray themselves.[1] He also compares this photograph with one he took later of the apprehension of Zapata’s family by Huertista soldiers, in which they are kidnapped by Huerta’s followers.

The second photograph is of Colonel Amparo Salgado, and was taken by Sara Castrejón, “the first woman to photograph the revolution, [who] may have been the only Mexican woman to do so.” She grew up economically comfortable, and studied photography in Mexico City before the revolution. She had no husband or children, and therefore, was better able to focus on the revolution. Castrejón often photographed executions and their aftermath, and had the unique opportunity to choose how to portray the events and politics of the revolution. There is however, a large documentation of women participating in the Zapatista campaign, and “various women had commanding positions.”[2]

In his discussion of “forging a national Zapata,” Samuel Brunk argues that “Macho and patriarch are not, of course, incompatible.” Instead, both became part of Zapata’s image. In appealing to political allies, the “sexual prowess, the potential for violence, and the other physical achievements of the drinking, gambling, womanizing Zapata who captured the imaginations of Morelenses,” were not especially helpful. In gaining a base of support however, these characteristics appealed to his rural supporters. These same rural traits were later overlooked by the PRI, but are still important for the way that Zapata utilized them to appeal to the peasants of Morelos.[3]


The Neo-Zapatista Woman in Marcos’s Writings:

The Zapatista imagery of women largely carried through into neo-Zapatista ideology. The Fire and the Word has been endorsed by the movement as their official history, and has been translated into several different languages, becoming the first basis for international communication of the aims and goals of the neo-Zapatistas.[4] The introduction by Subcommander Marcos is especially interesting for his characterization of the female author. After interviewing Marcos in 1995 as part of her job in journalism, she set out, in Marco’s words, in 1997 “with the patience and characteristic of women who embroider, she gathered together the fragments of reality” that eventually becaome The Fire and the Word.[5]

Marcos ends his introduction with a listing of illustrators, publishers, translators, and contributors. He closes the introduction by saying: “if the reader notes that women are the majority, do what I do: scratch your head and say ‘such is life.”[6] Throughout the passage, Marcos is sarcastic and cheeky, never quite sounding official, but always respectful of Ramirez, whom he considers both an ally and a legitimate contributing voice in the movement. To him, she is “a woman journalist [who] managed, not without difficulties, to jump over the complicated and heavy wall of Zapatista skepticism, and stayed to live in the indigenous rebel communities.”[7] His writings portray her as courageous and strong, but in evoking “patience” and “embroidery,” her strength is not as the cost of her femininity.

In describing her experiences at a Zapatista encuentro, Rebeca Solnit remembers the Zapatista movement as “feminist from its inception.” Liberation, the key struggle of the Zapatistas has an additional element for Zapatista women. “Liberation from forced marriages, illiteracy, domestic violence, and other forms of subjugation,” are also part of the struggle against oppression. Zapatista women emphasize in their speeches, the way that neoliberalism and capitalism keep people poor and unable to access education and resources. This upholds the oppression of women.[8]

Similarly, Marcos opens his own book, Our Word is Our Weapon, with a discussion of women. The chapter ends again with a list of important women, this time indigenous leaders of the revolution. He discusses Commander Ramona who “laughs when she does not know she is dying. And when she knows, she still laughs.” Then Laura who “becomes the captain of a unit composed only of men…[and] no one carries as much or walks as far as she does.”[9]

Irma too remains both powerful and feminine as she “attacks the garrison in the municipal palace until they surrender… [Her] hair shines and continues to shine, even as the night falls over Ocsingo in rebel hands.” Her powerful femininity makes her both modern and identifiable. Zapatistas are not defined by gender, but by power and courage. Marcos encourages the common Mexican woman to continue to be herself as she recognizes injustices and fights for the Zapatista cause. Zapatista feminism does not rely on the adoption of masculine traits by women, but rather focuses on the ways that women can be both feminine and strong. Motherhood does not require subservience, marriage does not make a woman less important than her husband.

As portrayed by Marcos, becoming a Zapatista allows Laura to fight back. She attacks a policeman who “only saw someone to humiliate or rape as he gazed upon her…the same one that until that day believed women were only useful when pregnant or in the kitchen.” Zapatista women fight misogyny. They are equal to, and sometimes better than the men. They are strong and confident and fight for their rights. These are not inherently masculine qualities in Zapatista feminism.

The last woman that Marcos lists is “she,” the everywoman Zapatista:

She. Has no military rank, no uniform, no weapon. Only she knows she is a Zapatista. Much like the Zapatistas, she has no face or name. She struggles for democracy, liberty, and justice, just like the Zapatistas. She is part of what the EZLN calls ‘civil society.’—a people without a political party, who do not belong to the “political society” made up of leaders of political parties. Rather, she is a part of that amorphous yet solid part of society that says, day after day, ‘Enough is enough!’…She has already fought against everyone—against her husband, her lover, her boyfriend, her children, her friend, her brother, her father, her grandfather. ‘You are insane,’ they say. She leaves a great deal behind…Once she merely admired the Zapatistas, but no longer. Her admiration ended the moment she understood that they are a mirror of her rebellion, of her hope…She meets March 8 with her face erased, and her name hidden. With her come thousands of women…more and more arrive…It appears that dignity is contagious, and it is the women who are more likely to become infected with this uncomfortable ill.”[10]

While “She” is a powerful and courage caricature, she is also achievable. “She” is the modern Mexican peasant woman, and is therefore accessible for all. Her defining features are belief in the Zapatista movement and the courage to stand up to the oppressors in her life. In highlighting the ways she is oppressed not only by the government but by societal expectations for women. The Zapatista movement offers everyone the opportunity to fight for their autonomy and equality, which includes an additional aspect of oppression for women.

While Marcos’s messages are intended in part for the recruitment of members for the EZLN, his message also represents a breaking from the machismo of the revolutionary period. Zapata’s evocation of machismo and patriarchy to gain support seems to be a direct contrast with the way that Marcos highlights equality and opportunity for women in order to gain support for the EZLN. Both movements however, offered women the opportunity to reclaim some of their autonomy as supporters. Zapatista women held significant leadership roles and had a direct effect on the portrayal and recording of the revolution. In both revolutions however, the separation from women outside of the movements seems to come from the acceptance of feminine characteristics as not inherently weak or subjugated. Zapatista and neo-Zapatista women are still wives and mothers. They are still weavers and embroiderers. They are also strong and brave. Zapatista feminism centers on the idea that femininity is not inherently bad, and is not an excuse for the exclusion of women from social change.

The portrayal of the Zapata brothers wives as more important than their husbands emphasizes the way that Zapatista women stepped out of their traditional roles to become an important part of the revolution. The neo-Zapatista movement, through Subcommander Marcos similarly highlights the ways in which women joining the movement can break free of the oppression of machismo and patriarchy, while also breaking from the oppression of the institutionalization of the PRI and other capitalist parties. The Zapatista woman does not have to give up her femininity, or become a man to escape the oppression of a society plagued by neoliberalism. 


[1] John Mraz, Photographing the Mexican Revolution: Commitments, Testimonials, Icons. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012): 114-118.

[2] Mraz, 114-118.

[3] Samuel Brunk, The Posthumous Career of Emiliano Zapata (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008): 84.

[4] Gloria Muñoz Ramírez, The Fire & The Word: A History of the Zapatista Movement (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2008): 18.

[5] Marcos, The Fire and the Word.

[6] Ramírez, 37.

[7] Ramírez, 35.

[8] Solnit, Revolution of snails.

[9] Subcommander Marcos, Our Word is Our Weapon (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002): 6-7.

[10] Marcos, 11-12.