St. Lawrence University
Emiliano Zapata, Chilapa, March 1914; Amando Salmerón. Fondo Casasola, SINAFO-Fototeca Nacional del INAH. In: John Mraz, Photographing the Mexican Revolution (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012): 110.


Diego Rivera. "Agrarian Leader Zapata."

Rivera and the Charro:

The first image is “Agrarian Leader Zapata” by Diego Rivera from 1931. Rivera painted this version of Zapata as part of a series on the history of Morelos commissioned by the Minister of Education. The painting was hung in the palace of Hernán Cortés the Conqueror, which became a symbol for imperialism and oppression. Rivera claimed that he had focused on him “’because he thought Zapata was the rare leader who authentically represented the people.”[1]

Rivera claimed during the revolution to have fought with Zapata, and also that his father taught Zapata to read before the start of the revolution. Rivera also bragged that he had taken part in railroad bombings, and was part of a plot to assassinate the president. While his claim is questionable, he did leave Mexico shortly afterward, returning after the revolution had ended. [2]

Included in the Museum of Modern Art’s Caption of the painting is:

“Rivera's depiction also departs from portrayals of the rebel propagated by Zapata himself. An expert horseman, Zapata consistently presented himself as a charro, a cowboy whose flamboyant dress—tight pants and a vest with silver ornamentation—signaled an elevated class status in Mexico. Rivera’s vision of Zapata as a humble peasant offers a sympathetic portrait of a folk hero tirelessly devoted to agrarian reform.” Footnote needed here.

Zapata however, devoted himself to his charro image. The second image is of Zapata dressed as he always was in portraits. His embroidered vest, tight pants, and felt sombrero distinguished him from his troops, always dressed in the loose white clothing of Morelenses peasants.[3] Zapata is dressed similarly in all of his portraits, including the iconic photograph taken just after his assassination.

Womack also emphasizes Zapata’s skill with horses. In his early life, Zapata learned to buy and sell horses to make up for his family’s lack of land. “He had also learned the pride horses stir in men, and so as he made money he used it on them… outfitting himself to sit, worthily booted and spurred, on the shining back of the horse he most admired.”[4]

It is interesting then, that Rivera decided to paint Zapata as a peasant rather than as he chose to present himself. Marcos too though, connects Zapata to his indigenous heritage as well. In his writings he evokes Votan Zapata, and footnotes his writing with the explanation that “Votan corresponds to ‘the heart of the people…’ Zapata refers to Emiliano Zapata, who helped to insure that the indigenous territories be autonomous, and beyond the reach of the Mexican government.”[5] 

 While Zapata chose to separate himself from his followers through fashioning his image into that of the charro, this image seems to change to reflect those who use it. While the Emiliano Zapata of the PRI is always the strongman, the Zapata of the EZLN is closer to the indigenous.

The final photograph here is a “Zapata Mural” that Marcos chooses to include in Our Word is Our Weapon.[6] The mural depicts only Zapata’s face under his wide sombrero, with a band of followers over his left shoulder. His expression is as somber as in all of his portraits. The omission of his clothing is interesting because it highlights the ways in which his image had been used by the EZLN. While Zapata may have been a charro, that is not an important element of the Zapata of the EZLN. Instead, he becomes the “heart” rather than the whole, represented by Emiliano, but present throughout history as the spirt of the indigenous in constant revolution.


[1] Samuel Brunk, The Posthumous Career of Emiliano Zapata (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008): 59-60.

[2] Brunk, 60-61.

[3] John Mraz, Photographing the Mexican Revolution: Commitments, Testimonials, Icons. (Austin, University of Texas Press, 2012): 111.

[4] John Womack Jr, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969): 6.

[5] Subcommander Marcos, Our Word is Our Weapon (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002): 21.

[6] Marcos, photograph section.