This is a book that deserves a close reading by any scholar interested in the various struggles and civil wars called the Mexican Revolution. It provides significant new information about the Zapatista struggle and a new version of the old story of Zapata himself. But it misses a chance for a major contribution to scholarship.
In the last 25 years, at least 15 archives on the Zapatistas have been opened, oral historians have done interviews of many Zapatista survivors, and a team of historical anthropologists has made a sterling study of many villages in the Zapatista heartland. The main opportunity the new sources allow is the chance to make new historical analyses of questions not firmly resolved in the old literature; for example, changes in the Zapatista armed forces; relations between Zapatista villages and hacienda workers; relations between and within villages themselves; the power of the Zapatista headquarters to decide and enforce Zapatista policies; the success (or failure) of Zapatista reforms. Based on these sources, at least one hundred books and articles have been published. Among them are excellent historical studies by Horacio Crespo, Laura Espejel, Alicia Hernández Chávez, Salvador Rueda, Arturo Warman, and others.
Samuel Brunk has searched ten of the new archives and the five main old archives. He has studied the literature, new and old. And he has produced an interesting and valuable book. Its principal merit is the important new detail it offers on some of the outstanding questions about the Zapatistas. There is nothing on villages and hacienda workers; there is something on conflicts within villages. There is much on conflicts between villages, on the Zapatista headquarters, and on its agrarian reform. What could be no more than weak judgments in the old literature are, in Brunk’s book, impressive reports. It is now certain that conflicts between villages were frequent and difficult; so were conflicts between villages and the headquarters; and despite the agrarian reform, these conflicts continued. But in no case do these reports lead to any new resolution or even a robust new argument.
The book’s central fault is that Brunk has cast it as a biography. This was a mistake, for the new sources evidently do not yield personal information sufficient for a biography. Brunk could have addressed outstanding questions as specific problems and at least clarified them. Instead, focusing on Zapata personally, he treats these questions as experiences in Zapata’s life, infers more than argues, tends to romanticize rather than analyze, simplifies complexities in the old story, suggests a new story (Zapatismo was not very different from the other local rebellions) but does not bring it off, and leaves important issues still up in the air.
Another serious mistake is to see the staff at headquarters as “intellectuals.” Some were, sort of; others were not at all. This causes confused interpretations.