Dr. Paul Hart Tells Emiliano Zapata’s Story, Analyzes Complexities of Mexican Land Reform
Sandy Pantlik | September 17, 2018
“It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees!”
Emiliano Zapata was a leading figure in the Mexican Revolution. As a revolutionary, he commanded the Liberation Army of the South, an important brigade on a mission to force the Mexican government to return lands taken by the elite ruling class to local peoples. Zapata was known as an unrepentant champion of equality for the poor. His famous quote, “It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees,” provides modern day scholars a view of his resolve for a cause that remains relevant in political debates.
It’s the mission of Texas State University’s Dr. Paul Hart, Director for the Center for International Studies and Associate Professor of History, to unpack the extent of Zapata’s influence in modern Mexico, and he does so through his latest book, Emiliano Zapata: Mexico’s Social Revolutionary.
Hart believes Zapata’s ideas and goals are as relevant in Mexico today as they were nearly a century ago. He made this connection while researching Mexican social reform for his first book, Bitter Harvest: The Social Transformation of Morelos, Mexico, and the Origins of the Zapatista Revolution, 1840-1910.
“Zapata imagined a more just society, developing a broad program of social reform which included confiscating illegally-gained property and giving it back to struggling communities,” Hart said. However, as revolutionaries often are, he was portrayed by his enemies as a reactionary idealist who represented a way of life that was fading from existence.
According to Hart, Zapata’s ideas influenced Mexico through much of the 20th century, especially in land reform policies, which helped mitigate poverty and inequality. Hart argues, “Zapata was a social justice pioneer. He never gave up fighting against the injustices in his time, and many of those persist still today.”
In 1992, the Mexican government instituted economic policies similar to those Zapata rebelled against until his death in 1919. The policies have widened the gap between rich and poor and driven millions into unemployment. Today, the wealthiest 1 percent of Mexican citizens control over half of the wealth in Mexico, while 50 percent of the population lives in poverty. It is Hart’s hope readers will learn from Zapata’s story to use their own voice to stand up against injustice they see in their daily lives. “The beauty of knowing how things came to their current state is that you can advocate for change and improvement,” notes Hart.
Hart’s research informs his teaching, “because rather than just taking someone’s word for their account of history, I’ve researched what actually happened and developed my own point of view.” He encourages students to do the same and looks forward to integrating the lessons of Zapata into his history curriculum.