Secretaries and Soldiers: Urban Outsiders in a Rural Revolution

By Camilo E. Lund-Montano

Before getting into the ideology of the Zapatistas and how the intellectuals participated in it or influenced it, it might be worthwhile to first review the idea of “intellectuals” in the revolution. One of the first historians to address this issue was James Cockcroft in his seminal book, The Intellectual Precursos of the Mexican Revolution. In it, the author uses the basic conception of the intellectual as a learned man, “they could be understood as an ‘educated’ person rather than an ‘educator.’”

[1] Using Karl Mannheim’s ‘rootless intellectual’ concept, Cockroft states that these learned men can be more flexible than others while defining their loyalty to social or economic causes. He describes that in Mexico, prior to the revolution, there were two types of intellectuals: insiders and outsiders. The first were those who were part of the Diaz regime, an oligarchic group that began taking shape in the last decades of the 19th century, so that by the beginning of the next century, it was quite consolidated and practically impermeable to newer and younger members of society. The outsiders then, were those who were not part of this group and who had great difficulty advancing socially and economically. Feelings of deception, disillusionment and simply being left out made many of these intellectuals form and join opposition groups, like Antonio Diaz Soto y Gama who helped form the Liberal Party branch in the northern state of San Luis Potosi. Others, like Francisco Madero, belonging to a well-off family but politically excluded, only became active when their wealth and property became threatened. Although Cockcroft’s main focus is the intellectual group of which Diaz Soto y Gama was a part of — educated northerners who helped spread opposition which eventually set the ground for Madero’s rebellion — he admits that most intellectuals in the revolution were “radicalized by revolutionary events rather than radicalizing the events.”[2]

Another historian who tried to analyze the role of intellectuals during the revolution is Alan Knight. He argues that historians should do away with this dichotomy of soldier/revolutionary, and focus rather on ‘intellectuality’ as an attribute that can be given to everyone. Absolute categories should be eliminated and rather the degrees of intellectuality of groups and individuals should be taken into consideration. Knight suggests moving away from Mannheim and toward Antonio Gramsci, who believed there was no such thing as a non-intellectual.[3] The nature of intellectuality does not reside solely in a function or ocupation (like teachers or literary bohemians) but in the shared activity by all, in changes in the way we see the world, and in the creation and disemination of new ideas. In the particular case of Mexico it’s the less ‘typical’ intellectuals who play an important yet unrecognized role. It is also necessary to posit the existence of organic intellectuals among the peasantry, perhaps to avoid a bias of applying the adjective of ‘intellectual’ only to those who are dedicated to theorizing, and not to those who organize, administrate or rule.[4] Knight believes that although intellectual participation was important before (1900-1909) and after the revolution (1920 onwards) their effective participation in the armed stage (1910-1920) was weak and limited, but that their contribution was still important.[5]

When referring to the particular case of the Zapatistas, John Womack Jr. avoided the debate by mostly referring to them as ‘secretaries.’ However, he still grants them, or at least most of them, the category of intellectuals. Another historian, Samuel Brunk, adopts the ‘urban’ aspect as opposed to the peasant locals, and labels them the ‘city boys’. But, even more than Womack, Brunk refers to them as intellectuals, using, or so he claims, the peasant use of the word, which would apply to students, lawyers and doctors from the city as well as rural schoolteachers. These city boys were important for the southern revolution because they presided over justice, provided ideology, engineered an official agrarian reform, and provided the guerrilleros with medical care and helped rebuild village life.  Most importantly they represented zapatismo in the corridors of national power and in interfactual diplomacy.[6] As for the locals, both Cockroft and Knight recognize the role of the schoolteacher. Cockcroft identifies two main intellectual characters in the formation of the 1917 Constitution: the teacher and the licenciado.[7] According to Francisco Bulnes, a political commentator and historian contemporary to the revolution, the Pre-revolutionary society turned its back on the teachers, it did not grant them the same category as the doctor, the lawyer, cleric or businessman. This ultimately radicalized the teachers into believing society must change at its core; many had hints of anarchist and socialist influences. Cockcroft on the other hand, argues that more than being in a social position crisis, the teacher’s role was important because they had a natural capacity to speak and give ideological direction to the masses of peasants and workers who made up the revolutionary armies, “the only and major advantage” the school teacher had over the other intellectuals was the combination of respect and trust they got from the impetuous crowd. Even those intellectuals that could muster respect because of their social position were distant from the masses.[8] So the outsiders, even though they were rootless, still would have difficulty connecting with and helping the peasants.

Knight disagrees with Cockcroft regarding the main reason why many urban intellectuals oppossed the Diaz’s regime and eventually joined the armies of  Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.  For Knight it wasn’t their socio-economic problems that were at the root of this radicalization, but their political demands (against re-election, freedom of the press, a wider democratic system, etc.).   They “were not the mere foam, but the main current that dragged” what eventually became the Madero rebellion.[9] This was partially inspired by examples abroad: in Europe and the proggressive movement in the United States. Their function in the revolutionary armies was to “create and spread ideas, and sometimes give the rebel movements, ideologically a certain degree of expresion and publicity that otherwise they wouldn’t have had, because their original leaders, rural and popular, did not have propensity for those tasks.”[10]

In the same year that Zapata and the Mexican Revolution was published, another historian from the United States published a book on Zapata, Robert Millon’s Zapata: The Ideology of a Peasant Revolutionary. Millon used a very limited bibliography, mostly secondary sources, which condenmed (or allowed) him to make wild speculations, like the assertion that the peasants had a “clearly defined ideological orientation.” He argued against those who believe the Zapatistas had an anarchist, socialist or indianist feature. The intellectuals who joined the peasants “demonstrated an agrarian petty-bourgeois romanticism similar to that of Rousseau or Jefferson.” In short, a combination of the peasant’s and the urban intellectual’s ideology produced a revolution that was anti-imperialist, liberal-bourgeois, that sought to broaden the local governments, but also build a strong state that played an active and protective role.[11]

A Mexican historian, Arturo Warman, tried to downplay the role of the intellectuals and to heighten that of the campesino ideology:

There is a debate as to the extent to which the Zapatista ideology can be attributed to those urban intellectuals, but I believe this is a false problem arising from an elitist and personalistic view of history that is unable to distinguish the divisions of labor in social processes… The public proposals of Zapatismo were not static and they changed throughout the struggle. Nevertheless, those changes occured after the formulation of a basic political plan that remained unaltered from the time it was put forward in the Plan de Ayala.[12]

Although it is important to point out the changing character of the proposals and politics coming out of Headquarters, Warman seems to put too much ‘political’ emphasis on a plan that was formulated as the ‘agrarian’ ammendment to an already established political plan, that of San Luis, written by Madero and his Liberal Party veteran friends. The author attempts to demonstrate, “in a preliminary and incomplete fashion, that Zapatismo generated a radical class-based and coherent political plan for the global transformation of a complex society.” The goal of these southern revolutionaries was not to capture the government but dissolve it in order to proceed toward a transformation of the state, “The revolutionary process was to develop the base of society and not the top.”[13] While this was true, Zapata and GHQ always tried to reinforce the village councils, it did not mean that they wanted to erradicate the government; they in fact thought that there should be a strong government that could protect the municipal and local governments. In this regard, Millon is closer to the point. Ever since the Plan de Ayala, most documents that came out of GHQ would refer to the need to uphold the 1857 Constitution and the Laws of Reform that followed, praising President Benito Juarez as the role model for a Mexican ruler.[14]

Another author from the US, John Hart, although with better research, tries to find an agrarian background and influence to the Zapatistas. He basically says that the Plan de Ayala was the end product of an already developing agrarian ideology. Two urban socialists, Plotino Rhodakanaty and Francisco Zalacosta, established the ‘School of the Lightning and Socialism’ in Chalco, where one of their students, Julio Chavez Lopez, started a rebellion in the 1860s. He was defeated after a couple of years and executed by order of President Juarez. Hart continues by connecting this with other agrarian and anarchist-communalistic revolts, in the states of Mexico, Puebla, and Morelos, some even as late as the 1890s. They all had a strong orientation toward land redistribution and autonomous municipal authorities.[15] Yet in most of the Zapatista documents, including the Plan de Ayala, there is no mention of these men or their ideas. They clearly had an influence on urban agrarians like Antonio Diaz Soto y Gama (who Hart uses as a source for accounts on some revolts) and Gildardo Magaña. However, they settled in the GHQ after the Plan de Ayala had been published, and even though they were in contact with Zapata before that, he was always skeptical of communist and socialist ideas.

Hart agrees with Eric Wolf’s assesment that peasants see the state as an evil that must be replaced by their own ‘homemade’ social order, which would run without the state, making them natural anarchists.[16] Again as I have mentioned before, this would not apply with the Zapatistas, who believed the state should protect the villages. Another example of how the revolts of the 19th century differed from those of the Zapatistas involves Julio Chavez Lopez’s practice of setting fire to municipal archives after sacking towns. I have not found any instance of something like this happening in Morelos after 1910, and I would find it hard to believe due to their almost fervorous respect toward the written word. One point from Hart’s analysis is that if men like Antonio Diaz Soto y Gama and Manuel Palafox were aware of these agrarian precursors, they knew of them that only a complete military victory and total acceptance of a radical agrarian reform could guarantee the welfare of the peasants. The many peasant revolts in the previous century were only valuable examples of moments when the campesinos sought compromise and negotiation and were met with violent repression. This would help explain the radical diplomatic stance of the GHQ since 1914, taking advantage of a peasant stubborness, to not surrender until the Plan de Ayala was fully accepted.

According to Samuel Brunk, after the fall of Victoriano Huerta in 1914, neither Zapata nor his warlords had much to say about national politics. With intellectuals as field agents Zapata gradually created a crude command center. They tried to find time for meetings of local warlords, which were rarely, if ever, arranged. “Thus, though the ideal of consensus persisted, most decisions were made at Zapata’s General Headquarters, where there were many more secretaries than warriors.”[17] The main decision, that of diplomacy, came from GHQ, from which two strategies had to be weighed, either rapprochement with the northern revolutionary factions or intransigence and radical stubbornness. It wasn’t until November of 1917 that Zapata “recognized the need to shift the movement’s emphasis from the old peasant stubborness, which Palafox made his own, to the acceptance of the need for allies on the national scene.”[18] After 1917 most manifests were issued by Magaña and had a much more optimistic rhetoric, but for Brunk, this was only a ‘diplomacy of desesperation,’ the damage by the radical intellectuals had already been made, “Zapata’s lack of education ultimately prevented him from controlling those who were better educated, and thus guaranteed that any bridge they might build between him and the nation would contain serious structural defects… [Zapata] now … was willing only to plead guilty indirectly to the less serious crime of having failed to control his intellectuals.”[19] The intellectuals had failed because their intransigence doomed the peasants to complete isolation and burned all bridges with the other revolutionaries; Brunk then says that peasant rebels must make alliances if they hope to succeed. So, as I have mentioned before, this stubornness and radicality can be understood better with the experiences of the agrarian rebels in the previous century of which Diaz Soto y Gama had full knowledge. It’s possible he shared these histories with Zapata and the peasant warlords, and even though they were not convinced by the socialist and anarchist ideas of their predeccesors, they could be easily convinced that any attempt to compromise would only lead to their defeat.

Womack has a similar interpretation of why Zapata and the warlords refused to take an active diplomatic role.  In Womack’s words, “The only responsible course, they apparently believed, was to let those who proclaimed themselves experts in grand dealings do the grand dealing; meanwhile they would try to defend the little places that were their own. Afraid, like Zapata, of betraying their people, they turned over the chances for doing so to the intellectuals they had always at heart despised.”[20] In 1917, after the death of Otilio Montaño and his brother Eufemio, “Zapata had lost faith in the advice he got in Tlaltizapan [where GHQ was traditionally located].”[21] He had grown tired of the radical politics of Palafox and Diaz Soto y Gama; he began to listen to softer, more pragmatic words that came from Tochimilco, Gildardo Magaña’s headquarters. Magaña was born in Zamora, Michoacan, into a well-off family. He studied commerce in Philadelphia and then settled in Mexico City, where he participated in several oppositional political clubs. Magaña was a firm believer in union and reconciliation; he believed diplomacy should be the first step always. He dedicated himself to settle differences, first between Zapata and Madero, then with the Conventionists and Constitutionalists. He left the GHQ in Tlaltizapan because the intrigues and “backbitting” had gotten too dangerous, setting up his headquarters in the northeast of Puebla, in Tochimilco.  As Womack describes, Magaña was, “Tall, husky, baby-faced, too young and mannerly to seem a rival to older chiefs, too big for those his own age to scare, he became a regular arbiter in the area.”[22] In February 1919 Magaña issued a long letter to a political exile in Texas, Francisco Vazquez Gomez, naming him the ‘Chief’ of the revolution, and in what seemed to be a letter patently designed for an American audience, it supported the spririt of enterprise, in industry, commerce, mining, oil, finance, and especially agriculture; the only restriction was toward monopolies.[23]

Another important role that was played by these urbanites was as agents outside of the Zapatista region. Since the early days, the Zapatistas relied on agents in Mexico City and Puebla City for weapons, propaganda and intelligence reports. For example, in September of 1916, Octavio Paz (father of the famous Mexican poet), then an agent in Puebla, admitted that the constitutionalists’ “military control was generally sound but insisted that his political situation was extremely precarious.” By 1916, some of these agents decided to reach beyond the capital and main cities, beyond the border even, into the United States. Genaro Amezcua, originally from Puebla, served for a while in GHQ and then self-appointed himself Zapata’s agent abroad and went to Havana, Cuba, where he stayed until 1920. Havana was important for the Zapatistas because it was the only way they could get communication with their agents in the United States, via New Orleans and San Antonio. Juan Espinoza was the first man sent to Texas to get support and money for weapons. He proved to be quite unsuccessful and was replaced with Octavio Paz, who returned detailed intelligence but could not locate any serious champions or sympathizers among the Mexican exiles. In July of 1918, after a long time of having no communication with Paz, GHQ sent Gildardo’s brother, Octavio Magaña, to San Antonio to check up on him. When he returned to Morelos he reported that Paz had been in sad shape, he had become an alcoholic and “was out of the swim of exile politics.”[24] Paz then pulled himself together, moved to Los Angeles where he edited a newspaper in Spanish and continued to look for support and weapons for the Zapatistas. He, like all the other Zapatista agents abroad, was ultimately unsuccessful.

When Zapata was killed in 1919, Carranza and the Constitutionalists were sure the Zapatista army would disband and dissolve. They believed that without the leader, Zapatismo would wither away. Many warlords claimed to be the rightful heirs of the commander-in-chief position. The two main contenders were a 48-year-old coal dealer from a poor village in the border of Puebla and Morelos, Francisco Mendoza, who had been constantly fighting for nearly a decade. The other contender was a 28-year-old accountant from Michoacan, Gildardo Magaña. Gildardo proved to be different than the other urban secretaries; he put down the pen and took up the rifle for several years.[25] Even though he had a mannerly disposition, he earned his stripes in the battlefront, meanwhile the other secretaries stayed safely behind in the GHQ.  Magaña was young, he was an outsider, he was constantly looking for alliances, but he was also brave and daring. A revolutionary meeting was convened with all representatives from the major chiefs of the Zapatista army to vote on who would replace their former General. Magaña won by a safe margin, and Mendoza wasn’t even considered. Womack attributes this result to Magaña’s diplomatic and conciliary tone, but his condition as an outsider should also be noted. The warlords had been tangled in rivalry and frictions ever since they took arms against Diaz, what held them together were their loyalty to Zapata and the Plan de Ayala. They knew that by picking a local chief the army would divide; they believed that what they needed was a man of both the pen and the rifle. Antonio Diaz Soto y Gama issued a manifest a couple of days after the vote declaring that the Zapatista struggle lived on — they would continue to fight for the ideals of the Plan de Ayala and to avenge the death of their martyr.

After he was elected leader of the Zapatistas, Magaña had managed to pull together what was left of the Zapatista army and began organizing attacks in the South. However, under the threat of a possible US intervention due to Mexico’s political instability at the end of 1919, he decided to put the country first after the new year, and surrendered to Carranza in order to avoid an international conflict. The stubborn peasant war chiefs scoffed at this gesture, and without declaring themselves champions of the Zapatista army, continued their guerrilla attacks. Alvaro Obregon, a clever general from the North who had managed to defeat Villa in 1916, was now becoming a political threat to Carranza, and began negotiating with Genovevo De la O, a Zapatista war lord, who helped him escape the capital. A deal was quickly reached and the two chubby generals, De la O and Obregon, joined a new coup against Carranza and within weeks had taken over the country and the capital. Magaña and Diaz Soto y Gama arrived in Mexico City a few days later, dressed in their original catrin suits, ready to take up their new role in the new government.


[1] James Cockroft, Precursores intelectuales de la Revolucion Mexicana ( Mexico: Siglo XXI, 1971),  8.

[2] Ibid., 215.

[3] Alan Knight, “Los intelectuales en la revolución Mexicana,” Revista Mexicana de Sociologia, 51:2 (1989),  28.

[4] Ibid., 29.

[5] Ibid., 31.

[6] Samuel Brunk, “Zapata and the City Boys: In Search of a Piece of the Revolution,” Hispanic American Historical Review, 73:1 (1993), 35.

[7] This last one is quite open-ended, because a licenciado is a bachelor degree graduate, who could be a lawyer, doctor, accountant, etc.

[8] James Cockcroft, “El maestro de primaria en la revolución Mexicana,”  Historia Mexicana, 16:4 (1967),  568.

[9] Ibid., 35.

[10] Ibid., 42.

[11] Robert Millon, Zapata: Ideology of a Peasant Revolutionary, (New York: International Publishers, 1969),  99-101.

[12] Arturo Warman, “Political Project of the Zapatistas” in Riot, Rebellion, and Revolution, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 326.

[13] Ibid., 334.

[14] Even though Benito Juárez and the reform laws that dissolved the communal lands (both of the Church and the indigenous villages) opened the way for the big landowners and hacendados to buy and appropriate these lands.

[15] John Hart, “Agrarian Precursors of the Mexican Revolution: The Development of an Ideology” in The Americas, 29:2, (1974).

[16] Ibid., 136.

[17] Brunk, 46.

[18] Ibid., 60.

[19] Ibid., 64.

[20] John Womack, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), 215.

[21] Ibid., 288.

[22] Ibid., 290.

[23] Ibid., 316.

[24] Ibid., 307.

[25] Not all foreigners were secretaries and Magaña wasn’t the only one who wanted to be a man of arms. There was at least one military man who joined the Zapatistas, Angel Barrios. He was a military engineer from Puebla who studied in the Colegio Militar, the top military school of the country. He introduced the peasant rebels to many military tactics, especially regarding ambushes and sabotage. In an attempt by Zapata to maintain some kind of order in his army, he sent Barrios to the northwest corner of the state, where two warlords, Francisco Pacheco and Genovevo de la O, of same rank from rival villages, were in constant quarrel. He was sent not as their superior, simply as the regional inspector and was met with suspicion and wariness from both de la O and Pacheco. De la O wrote to Zapata: “Your majesty… these men who have barely joined us and want to have us as their subordinates just because of their intelligence, no sir, we must tame them as they deserve, before they tame us.” De la O a Zapata, Cuartel General, 21 septiembre 1913, FGO, c. 17, e. 5, f. 2-3, en Documentos inéditos sobre Emiliano Zapata y el Cuartel General. Seleccionados del Archivo de Genovevo de la O, que conserva el Archivo General de la Nación / Archivo General de la Nación, México, Comisión para la Conmemoración del Centenario del Natalicio del General Emiliano Zapata, 1979, 179-180.