St. Lawrence University
Pancho Villa in the President's Chair, with Emiliano Zapata. In: John Mraz, Photographing the Mexican Revolution (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012): 250.

    

Samuel Brunk. "Poster for the 1994 neo-Zapatista Convention of Aguascalientes (Chiapas). In: John Mraz, Photographing the Mexican Revolution (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012): 252.

Context:

This poster for the 1994 Zapatista convention of Aguascalientes is an evocation of Villa and Zapata’s portrait at the presidential palace. This convention marked the anniversary of the formation of the Zapatista movement, during which Zapatista leaders gave speeches acknowledging the mistakes they had made. Prior to the convention, the Zapatista leadership announced that they were breaking all communication with the federal government. During the convention however, they announced that they would be willing to communicate with the National Mediation council.

The evocation of Villa and Zapata also represents the assumption that the movement remained on track. Announcing that the “Zapatista plan is the same: to change the world, to make it better, more fair, freer, more democratic, that is, more human.”[1] As Zapata and Villa had been during the revolution, the Zapatistas were finally in position to affect change. A month later, they began to break through the military barricades around Aguascalientes, claiming towns and municipalities as rebels and autonomous “without firing a single shot.”[2] The goals of the movement became officially global following these victories, with the convention as the platform from which the Zapatistas restated their goals.

Goals and Characterization:

In adopting Zapata’s place in the photograph, the ESLN attempted to both create and emphasize similarities between Marcos and Zapata. Marcos (through Ramírez) describes himself as the spokesperson for the Zapatista movement, attempting to characterize himself as a legitimate and democratic representative on the same level as the peasants Chiapas. While his social media and technical expertise suggest that he is not likely as poor or rural as others, comparing himself to Zapata suggests that like the general, he may be more socioeconomically advantaged, but also represents the common aims of the people that he was chosen to represent. Both men characterized themselves as not otherwise ambitious, aiming only to achieve their goals through military strategy rather than gaining their own military power.

In 2012, the EZLN released a communique, addressed “to the people of Mexico [and]…to the People and Governments of the World,” which among other steps instructed that “we [Zapatistas] will continue to maintain our critical distance with respect to the entirety of the Mexican political class which has thrived at the expense of the needs and desires of humble and simple people.”[3] The idea of maintaining distance from political office, attempts to lend legitimacy to the movement through characterizing the PRI and other parties that support neoliberalism in governments as “thriving” through trampling peasants, rather than supporting them as they claim to.

The sombrero is also a uniting theme between the photographs, evoking the image of the land owning peasant, represented by both movements. Though his face is covered, Marcos’s dark, somber eyes also mimic Zapata’s expression. Their outfits are similarly plain and worn, agrarian rather than urban. Both seem cautiously pessimistic. Neither smiles.

To Marcos’s left, a luchador sits in Villa’s position. The luchador’s uniform is an interesting comparison to Villa’s military garb. While it may poke fun at the military, representative of the PRI, it may also suggest the struggle of the Zapatistas against neoliberal giants and the importance of anonymity among Zapatista leaders. Villa, representing northern disinherited miners, was a symbolic giant in the fight for peasant rights. Like a luchador, he joined the fight for his own purposes, teaming up strategically with Madero and Carranza with no definite goal for doing so. He later re-allied himself with Zapata, the Southern “wild card” when he began to make progress.[4]

The luchador Superbarrio is also an important symbol utilized by the Zapatista movement. A “self-proclaimed ‘social wrestler,” Superbarrio used “performance and media,” like the Zapatistas to begin to affect political change through the people.[5]  “Superbarrio Gomez has become a symbol of discontent with the government,” using his celebrity to demand action from Mexico City officials.[6] He advocates for the organization of citizens in order to become part of the solution to their own problems. He argues that the “government and city authorities have a constitutional obligation to listen to and respond to the problems of the society.”[7] He advocates for the poor to put pressure on the government in order to find more concrete solutions to the problems of its citizens. Like the Zapatistas, Superbarrio is focused on using his visibility to help people to determine the solutions to their own problems. He also fights the city and national government in his luchador costume, similar to the Zapatista’s use of masks. Like Marcos and the other Zapatistas, his ultimate goal is permanent change, not personal recognition. In staying masked, he is able to lend his celebrity to the issues of poverty and governmental oppression without claiming the spotlight for himself.

In evoking the iconic photograph of Zapata and Villa at the National Palace, the Zapatistas draw parallels between the causes of the revolution and the neo-Zapatista movement, and evoke Zapata as a symbolic and strategic response. While Marcos characterizes himself as the faceless spokesperson of the movement, his image both mimics and reflects Zapata, claiming credibility, but also remaining anonymous. Like Superbarrio, there is a level of crafting celebrity, which is needed for visibility, but also of anonymity, which also removes the personal element of celebrity, further increasing visibility of the issues of the impoverished and oppressed people of Chiapas.

Context:

The second photograph depicts Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa in the national palace following their attack on Mexico City. In February of the previous year (1913), attacks had begun on Mexico City and the national palace. These became the “ten tragic days” in which supporters for Madero battled those against him. Revolutionary violence continued in the capital until the United States and the conflicting generals arranged a treaty to end it.[8]

Madero, president at the time, used the incident as a validation for building up his army, which began to back his leadership, but he . He was ousted shortly after  because the building of an army further delegitimized his promises of democracy. While Madero’s replacement, Huerta, continued to use troops to assert control, Villa allied himself with Zapata.[9]

Goals and Characterization:

Most photographs of Zapata depict him with the same somber and serious expression. When elected president of his village council in 1909, his response was stern: “he accepted the difficult responsibility conferred upon him, but… he expected everyone to back him.” He began his career as “a man with pants on, to defend [his people].”[10]

Throughout his career, images of Zapata characterize him always with “pants on.” He rarely laughs or smiles in photographs. Villa however, provides an interesting contrast. He smiles optimistically from the president’s chair, dressed in full military uniform. He seems to fit into the president’s chair comfortably, his body language relaxed and his attire formal. To his left, Zapata remains a peasant from Morelos, dressed in dirty and plain agrarian clothes, his ever present sombrero resting on his knee.

Ever representative of the people  in his characterizations of himself, Zapata remains somber in the following photographs of himself and Villa talking. While not certain, the rumor following the visit to the national palace was that Zapata had refused to sit in the president’s chair after Villa had offered it. Whether strategically or not, Zapata chose not to sit in the chair in order to distance himself from the idea of political ambition. He presented himself always as ambitious only for the peasants of Morelos. He had not set out to lead a revolution, but rather to protect those he had resigned himself to protecting. Zapata’s maintenance of political distance from the presidency or any legitimized office beyond his own was an important and validating character trait. 

In accepting leadership, Zapata also demanded the loyalty and support of those following him, and while his ambitions were never ambitious for his own personal gain, they were ambitious for the peasants of Morelos. Cohesion of the movement, rather than personal gain seems the most likely reason Zapata demanded this loyalty. He never characterized himself as a particularly strong politician. The speech he gave after accepting leadership of his town council in 1909 emphasizes that Zapata planned to protect and lead his people, but also that he could only focus on differences between them or the revolution, he did not have the skill or energy for both. As a successful revolutionary, this is likely untrue of Zapata, but the character that he presented to his followers was one that relied on cohesion and agreement between supporters in order for the revolution to work.

 

[1] Gloria Muñoz Ramírez, The Fire & The Word: A History of the Zapatista Movement (San Francisco: City Light Books, 2008): 123.

[2] Ramírez, 123.

[3] Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, “EZLN Announces the Following Steps: Communique of December 30, 2012.” 

[4] William H. Beezley, Mexicans in Revolution 1910-1946 (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2009): 25-26.

[5] M. Clint McCowan, “Imagining the Zapatistas: Rebellion, Representation, and Popular Culture,” International Third World Studies Journal and Review XIV (2003): 32-33.

[6] PBS Documentary, Part 3, 7:42.

[7]Superbarrio Ramirez, PBS Doc, Part 4, 1:33.

[8] Beezley, 21-23.

[9] Beezley, 22-25.

[10] John Womack Jr., Zapata and the Mexican Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969): 9.