In the decade of the seventies, the prominence of Emiliano Zapata as the heroic image of the Mexican Revolution has continued to grow. In both the popular literature and serious historical work the Zapatistas and Zapata are portrayed as representatives of a vaguely defined mass search for “justice.” The contributions of Newell and León-Portilla are in part a prolongation of that trend, but León-Portilla has introduced an important revision of the long-standing picture of the southern caudillo.
In his analysis of two Náhuatl Zapatista proclamations found in caja twenty-nine of the thirty-one-box Archivo Histórico Zapata at UNAM, León-Portilla makes a telling case for the agrarista Zapata and the leadership of his movement as Náhuatl speakers appealing to peasants in Mexico, Morelos, Puebla, and Tlaxcala in their native tongue. He cites eyewitness testimonies to Náhuatl utterances by the suriano and to recruitment talks delivered by him and his confederates to the ciudadanos of pueblos occupied by his army when on the march. León-Portilla argues his case convincingly, citing census reports that more than 35 percent of the Morlense population was still “Indian” in 1921 and that three Morelos municipio districts retained more than 50 percent Náhuatl speakers as recently as 1940. These findings are careful, even understated, and confirm my own linguistic data, obtained via National Agrarian Commission field reports.
In recognizing the bilingual nature of the Zapatista army and movement, León-Portilla goes far toward demonstrating rather than simply declaring the Zapatista base in the countryside masses. Unfortunately, few Náhuatl Zapatista documents exist. Indeed, the only ones found thus far were precipitated by the crisis that developed after the killing of Tlaxcalan agrarista Domingo Arenas. In April 1918, Zapata tried to recruit Arenas’s Tlaxcalan followers to his banner. The two manifestos join Náhuatl maps in the National Archive and the Archivo Agrario of the National Agrarian Commission in revealing the collective consciousness of the rural masses, the level of their participation in the revolutionary process, their opposition to the great estate, and continuing opposition to outside authority.
Mr. Newell has written a story without footnotes (aside from the appendix), intended for popular consumption. It is very much in the romantic tradition of Zapatana. There is little here that we did not already know and some disconcerting errors of fact (e.g., Tenochtitlán was not the Toltec capital—p. 161), but one must applaud the continuing interest in and support of Mexican history by the Cienfuegos Press.