Los Ultimos Zapatistas: Heroes Olvidados

by Jason Dormady, Ph.D.

El Presidente
Emiliano Zapata

Mexico had the unique coincidence of celebrating two national birthdays in 2010: the movement for independence in 1810 and the rebirth of the nation with the Revolution of 1910. Nevertheless, this bit of nationalist serendipity has highlighted a growing acknowledgement in Mexico and by observers of Mexico that of the two, Independence overshadows its younger sibling, and that the Revolution itself may be on the way to being erased in both form and substance. What better time, then, to review a film on memory and the Mexican Revolution like Los Últimos Zapatistas: Héroes Olvidados (The Last Zapatistas: Forgotten Heroes).

A documentary production from the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Morelos, the film’s opening scenes cut directly to interviews with veterans of the Zapatista movement of the Mexican Revolution. Most, at the time of filming in the late 1990s were over one hundred years old, clinging not only to life, but to the edge of subsistence in a Mexico undergoing a free market transformation. Nevertheless, each account of the Zapatista movement and of General Emiliano Zapata sparkles with animation – the struggle for survival, the muscle memory of rifle fire eighty years later, the taking of other men’s lives. And while each soldado and soldadera (for women were always an important element of the revolution) has their own memory of events, the passion for the participation of the movement for land, liberty, and justice remains.

And there, of course, is where the documentary begins to make a subtle shift. What at first appeared to be a fairly interesting yet single-dimensional oral history project suddenly shifts to the context of the late 1990s in Mexico. In 1988, as the result of a deeply suspect election, Carlos Salinas de Gortari ascended to power in Mexico and immediately began a set of unilateral free-market economic reforms to attract international business partners. Of those reforms the most dramatic departure from the 1910 Revolution was the modification of Article 27 of the 1917 Constitution, removing the ability of the state to redistribute land to the peasantry and unlocking communally held plots (known as ejidos) for sale in the private sector. In essence – and certainly in the point of view of the surviving soldiers of the Revolution – the neo-liberal reforms of Salinas were little more than a bald-faced betrayal of the revolution and her veterans.

At this point in the film we begin to hear a different side of the surviving revolutionaries – their struggle in the present. With the privatization of land, farmers in the rural state of Morleos (the base of the Zapatista movement) were either enticed or forcibly removed from their property only to see it fall into the hands of developers. They themselves were then either forced to seek work in the cities (where massive unemployment reigned), seek work in the United States, or enter into a life of crime. As agricultural engineer Wolfgang Aguilar Flores observes, these families become outcasts, their families in ruins and their sustaining ties to the land disintegrated. Quoting a phrase from the Sandanista movement of Nicaragua, one of Zapata’s granddaughters observes that “we are not fish to live in the sea, we are not birds to live in the air, we are men to live in the earth.”

El Zapatista

Indeed, in this struggle to preserve the communal ownership of land prevalent in mostly indigenous villages of Morelos sees the veterans of Zapata finding explicit common cause with a rebel movement in Southern Mexico that calls themselves Zapatistas in the present day – the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional. The film maker even goes as far as to show meetings between the veterans of 1910 and the rebels of 1994, with the veterans encouraging the new generation of resistance to continue their fight. In one of the most moving and perhaps genuine moments of the film we see one of the veterans begging the younger generation of Mexico to reverse the betrayal of the Revolution and to take up the Zapatista cause of land, liberty, and justice. In fact, in a somewhat disturbing but poignant moment, another veteran expires on screen after declaring that after a hundred years he would still fight for “tierra y libertad.”

While the film was well received in Mexico, the bulk of the prizes awarded the film have come from Latino / Chicano film festivals in the United States and festivals in Cuba – perhaps the two places in the Americas most aware of the results of US economic imperialism in Latin America and the most able to voice dissent at that imperialism. For, at the end of the day, the greatest debilitating neo-liberal reform of Salinas de Gortari was the negotiation and signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement that not only created a windfall for Mexican billionaires, but also gutted Mexico’s resources by placing them in the hands of Canadian and US corporations. While Mexicans should view the film to remember the struggle of the peasants who labored to bring greater economic equality and social justice to their nation, US citizens should view the film as a stark reminder of the consequences of their own choices on other nations.

For reading to accompany the film, Samuel Brunk’s Emiliano Zapata (University of New Mexico Press, 1998) and The Posthumous Career of Emiliano Zapata, (University of Texas Press, 2008) are key texts on the memory of Zapata and of his fighters. For more on Mexico’s transition to the free market, consider Philip Russell’s Mexico Under Salinas (Resource Center Press, 1994).

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