Emiliano Zapata (August 8, 1879 – April 10, 1919) was born to Gabriel Zapata and Cleofas Salazar in the small central state of Morelos, in the village of Anenecuilco (modern-day Ayala municipality). He was of mixed Spanish and indigenous ancestry. He spoke the indigenous language Nahuatl and was recognized as a leading figure of the largely indigenous Nahua community of Anenecuilco.
A former sharecropper, Zapata became involved in struggles for the rights of the Indians of Morelos. When unrest finally broke out resulting in the Mexican Revolution, Zapata quickly took an important role, becoming the general of a guerrila army that formed in Morelos – the Ejército Libertador del Sur (Liberation Army of the South). Joining forces with Pancho Villa and others to fight the government of Porfirio Diaz, Zapata supported agrarian reform and land redistribution. His rallying cry was “Land And Freedom” (Tierra Y Libertad) sometimes translated as “Land And Justice.”
Though Diaz was defeated, Zapata continued to resist subsequent government leaders. He was ambushed and shot by Mexican troops on April 10 1919.
Zapata remains a folk hero in Mexico, where his name has often been invoked by rebels like the Zapatista Subcommander Marcos. He is often credited with the phrase “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees” and graffiti to this effect was often seen on buildings in Oaxaca during the teacher strike. However it is believed that the saying originated with Jose Marti, a leader of the Cuban revolutionary movement. T-shirts with Zapata’s image abound in Oaxaca markets.
There is another march in Oaxaca City today honoring Zapata with all the usual demands.