Official Mexican history has always presented Benito Juárez and Emiliano Zapata as the two quintessential national heroes. The first is credited with firmly establishing a constitutional framework that solidified Mexico as a sovereign nation-state. The second embodies the ideals of the Revolution of 1910, especially those dealing with the Agrarian Reform. A close reading of history reveals that the story of these two emblematic Mexicans is much more contradictory than most people realize or are willing to admit.
Children in Mexico—lucky enough to have teachers who actually spend more time in the classroom instead of blocking a tollbooth in some highway or camping out at the Zócalo—are still taught that Benito Juárez was born a full-blooded Zapotec Indian who worked as a shepherd, learned Spanish, and moved to the city of Oaxaca where a kind man helped to educate him. He became a lawyer, rose through the ranks of politics, got elected governor of Oaxaca, and, eventually, President of the Republic. He is credited with promoting las Leyes de Reforma, which separated the Church and State, established equality before the law for all Mexican citizens, and broke up the large land holdings of the Church.
For many, the greatness of Juárez is based on the fact that he was a full-blooded Zapotec who did right by the Indigenous communities of Mexico. This is not exactly right. Juárez was a 19th Century politician who endeavored to transform Mexico into a nation-state based on liberal ideology imported from Europe and the United States, an ideology that espoused the belief that the basis of a country is a citizenry that owns private property. Thus, when Juárez went after the large landholdings of the Church, he also included the communal lands of los pueblos indios, which the Indigenous communities had owned since the Spanish Crown had granted them these lands with title and deed during the Colonial Period. These lands, moreover, were the foundation of the cultural identity of these comunidades indígenas.
Juárez’ policies resulted in much turmoil and suffering as the Indigenous communities fought tooth and nail to keep their communal lands. In the following fifty years, many lost these ejidos and ended up as peones in one of the many haciendas that popped up all over the country as capital—foreign and national—bought up las tierras desamortizadas that had formerly belonged to the Indian communities. As such, the liberal policies of Juárez cast much of the Indian population into a semi-feudal life from which they found redemption only long after the Mexican Revolution had triumphed.
Mexican school children still hear the story of Emiliano Zapata, the revolutionary hero who fought a revolution because he wanted the government to restore the lands stolen from the Indigenous people. He is represented as brave campesino of heavy indigenous extraction that looks out for the welfare of his village comprised of poor, hardworking, noble Indians, and is pushed reluctantly into a revolution. Oh wait, that’s actually Elia Kazan’s film, Viva Zapata!, with Marlon Brando as our hero and Anthony Quinn (who won an Oscar for best supporting actor) as his brother. This is one of the many fictional versions we have of Emiliano Zapata, but then, all the stories of Zapata are fictional, especially the official version in Mexican history books that children are taught.
What both fictions, the movie and the official version of history, create is an iconic figure of another Indian who supposedly is fighting a monster Dictator, Porfirio Díaz, who is handing over Mexico on a silver platter to foreigners and screwing the indigenous population in the process. What both fictions don’t tell you is that what mi general Zapata actually wanted was for the government to undo one of the sacred Leyes de Reforma that Juárez had promulgated and for which we were supposed to revere him as a mythic, Indian god figure, right alongside Quetzalcóatl, Cuauhtémoc and company.
How do we reconcile this historical contradiction? How is it possible that we are taught to revere two monumental figures so diametrically opposed? If they had met, Juárez and Zapata would have been mortal enemies. For if Juárez, el Benemérito de las Américas, had been younger, there’s plenty of evidence which suggests that he probably would have anointed himself dictator, and today we would not be discussing the Porfiriato, but the Benitoriato. The Revolution in the south of Mexico would have been more like an Indian uprising: Tlahuicas against the Zapotec dictator that would have sold out to the Europeans and the Americans. Zapata would have played the same role of redemptive hero, who tried to deliver his people from bondage: Tierra y Libertad (though he never said it). And Marlon Brando would still have acted in the movie by Elia Kazan in one of the best fictional stories that would have easily passed for Mexican history.