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The Posthumous Career of Emiliano Zapata: Myth, Memory, and Mexico’s Twentieth Century (review)

From: The Americas
Volume 66, Number 2, October 2009
pp. 275-276 | 10.1353/tam.0.0182

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It perhaps goes without saying that Emiliano Zapata has been the most enduring symbol of Mexico’s 1910 revolution. As the embodiment of a peasant/indigenous claim to land, liberty and some sort of justice, Zapata has been invoked by actors across the political spectrum to make claims on the past and present. His name and image adorn subway stops, schools, towns, and any number of commercial products. Samuel Brunk, already a noted scholar of Zapata himself, views this ubiquitous presence as an opportunity to trace Mexico’s twentieth-century political and social history, and to offer insights into the thorny questions related to hegemony and Mexican national identity. His insights are at moments compelling and original, but given the vast nature of the subject matter, it is not surprising that in places he falls short of his goal of explaining the continuing relevance of the rebel from Anenecuilco.

The text considers a series of historical stages in the development of the Zapata myth. Its greatest strengths lie in the periods immediately surrounding Zapata’s life and death, when a series of actors, including Zapata and his followers, other revolutionary groups, and the terrified urbanites of Mexico City, sought to make sense of the man and his movement. Zapata was indeed an enigmatic figure, in some ways the idealistic leader of a social revolution, but similarly the nominal head of avenging hordes that at times seemed little more than roaming bandits. Brunk compellingly illustrates how these competing versions of Zapata and the Army of the South played out in the 1910s and 1920s. In particular, the story of his rapid transformation from bandit to revolutionary icon in the early 1920s offers interesting insights into the efforts by the revolutionary state to forge a modus vivendi between emerging urban elites and the unruly rural masses. The debates over Zapata’s ideology —whether it was socialist, capitalist, communist, centered on communal peasants or small holders—also remind us of the malleability of Zapatismo, while nonetheless demonstrating the state’s clear commitment to social reform in this era. While different groups within the state may have disagreed on the nature of the reform, reformist sentiment remained strong until 1940.

Zapatismo was flattened after 1940, and in some ways the text suffers the same fate. As the 1910 revolution became more remote and as rural questions were supplanted by urbanization and industrialization, we see a state that increasingly paid lip service to Zapata but was largely indifferent. In this period we see rural people (especially Morelenses) constructing alternative narratives of Zapata, a sure sign that urban elites and rural peasants did not share the same sensibilities, though it is not clear that those in power cared all that much about the dissonance. As long as the countryside remained relatively peaceful, peasants were welcome to their own version of Zapata, while at a national level Zapata became so ubiquitous and empty of real ideological content as to be a virtually empty signifier.

Brunk ties practice prior to and after 1940 together with the claim that Zapata offers us insight into a very thin form of hegemony directed by the Mexican state. He also makes a larger claim that Zapata works as a national symbol, which however superficial, unites all Mexicans on some level. Some would agree, and he certainly has evidence for this claim, but his argument is not entirely convincing to this reader. It does not seem clear to me that the peasants who continue to celebrate the anniversary of his death (April 10) and the government officials who continue to join them have ever been engaged in reproducing a pact of domination. It seems more likely to me that while they share the same space, they do so to entirely different ends. Brunk’s own evidence suggests this.

In the end, this is a text that is fascinating for many of the well-told and carefully researched stories it tells. The questions it leaves unanswered beg further research.

Copyright © 2009 The Academy of American Franciscan History
Project MUSE® - View Citation
Alexander Dawson. "The Posthumous Career of Emiliano Zapata: Myth, Memory, and Mexico’s Twentieth Century (review)." The Americas 66...



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