Richard Melson

September 2005

Zapata and Historical Reasoning

Cambridge Forecast Group:

Zapata and the Puzzle of Historical Reasoning

1879 - 1919


Born August 8, 1879, in Anenecuilco, Morelos. Was a mediero (sharecropper) and horse trainer. Conscripted into the army for seven years attaining the rank of sergeant. As president of the village council, he campaigned for the restoration of village lands confiscated by hacendados. His slogan was "Tierra y Libertad." Zapata sided with Madero.

Between 1910 and 1919, Zapata continued his fight for land and liberty, rebelling against anyone who interfered with his Plan of Ayala which called for the seizure of all foreign owned land, all land taken from villages, confiscation of one-third of all land held by "friendly" hacendados and full confiscation of land owned by persons opposed to the Plan of Ayala.

On April 10, 1919, Zapata was tricked into a meeting with

one of Carranza's generals who wanted to "switch sides."

The meeting was a trap, and Zapata was killed as he arrived at the meeting.

Zapata and the Puzzle of Historical Reasoning:

In 2006, there is a resurgence of Zapatismo and the Zapatistas, centering in Chiapas, Mexico, re-energized perhaps by the events in Bolivia, where the "left-indigenist" movement is winning major political contests. The Zapatista movement, named after Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican peasant leader, first leapt into the news in 1994 and is now on the comeback trail. We immediately are reminded of the famous American movie based on Zapata's life.

The movie classic "Viva Zapata" originally screened in 1952.

Directed by Elia Kazan, it features Brando as the Mexican peasant revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata.  The script is by Steinbeck.

Most movie-goers have seen "Viva Zapata" whether in 1952 in the movie theaters,

on the "late show" on TV decades later, or via VHS or DVD today.

Such a movie-goer, if alive today, would also have heard something

about two severe Mexico-related financial crises,

the first in 1982 and then again in 1994,

when Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin at Treasury

arranged for one of the largest financial bailouts in world history.

Now suppose such a person read up on Zapata and dipped

into the classic on him, by Professor John Womack of Harvard,

"Zapata and the Mexican Revolution" (1969/1972), depicted below:

This "researcher" would come across the following words in

Womack’s book, describing Mexico in the two decades after WW II:

"During the next twenty years massive changes went on in Mexico.

The population almost doubled.

The number of workers in factories and construction tripled.

Acreage under cultivation doubled.

Production in industry and agriculture more than tripled.

Over twenty thousand miles of new roads opened, and the number

of cars, trucks, and buses racing along them more than quintupled.

The number of radios increased at least ten times.

And switched on to beam, incessantly it seemed, were over a million TVs.

New tricks in salesmanship became routine, like brand names, advertising,

standard packaging. The annual cargo shipped on trains alone tripled.

Pulled into this boom and driving it faster, the population shifted around

the Republic – out of the poor, densely settled rural areas of the centre and

south and into the most blatantly thriving states of the

northwest and the Gulf Coast, or into the large cities,

especially into the new huge metropolis of Mexico City.

By the mid-1960s barely half the working population was still in farming.

The obvious prospect was a mainly urban society.

…there appeared a new generation of national leaders,

intent on accelerating the progress they now called the Institutional Revolution."

(Womack book, 1972, paperback, Penguin/Pelican Books, Epilogue, page 521.)

In other words, a normal person would have no idea whatsoever that between the death of Zapata (1919) and the depiction of the events surrounding his life and death as shown in "Viva Zapata"(1952), there had already begun a tremendous post-WW II process of Mexican transformation, as described by Womack (1969/1972).

Thus the Mexican financial crises of 1982 and 1994 would have to be seen in a broad context linking them to the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 (Zapata-ism) and the later urban-industrial process described by Womack above.

The point is not that a person should know everything about every country.

The point is that without a larger context, historical reasoning is impossible and the world as well as globalization trends, become completely opaque and incoherent.

This "context deficit" is what CFG strives to rectify.

September 5, 2005