The Murder, Memory and Myth of Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata

Published on Remezcla.com

Shortly after the sun rose on April 10th, about a week and a half before Easter, Emiliano Zapata was already awake and riding his horse. He rode along the cool countryside with the comfort that comes from knowing the land. The obvious and hidden trails, the creeks, the hills, he knew them all. Zapata had both hunted and hid in that land.

Years before, when he fought for Francisco I. Madero—who eventually disappointed him—this land was among the first places Zapata had seized control of in his beloved home state of Morelos. Together, he, Madero and several others wanted to overthrow the government. The plan, Zapata thought, would be to redistribute the land. Most revolutions die without accomplishing much. It’s why the successful ones become ingrained in a nation’s psyche. Almost inevitably, they become romanticized and referenced by those whose politics are far removed from the revolutionary.

The Mexican Revolution lived—at least in as far as it overthrew and replaced a government. And so, remarkably, the first goal lasted long enough to make the failure of the second goal hurt men like Zapata that much more. As the leader of the campesinos saw it, Madero had betrayed the cause. Madero was killed—betrayed—but lived long enough to hear Zapata call him a traitor. Zapata lived and, as a master horseman, continued to ride like he did that spring morning in 1919.

Known as a dapper man, one can easily imagine Zapata riding on that cool morning, his mustache immaculately groomed, wearing his usual dark-colored, three-piece suit. A neckerchief tied loosely around his neck, a large sombrero shading not just his eyes but part of his face, all of it smelling like it had been out in the sun and dirt for too long. He rode and breathed the fresh countryside air and pondered. There had already been several attempts on his life. As with Madero, it wasn’t uncommon for the highest of leaders to die at the hands of treacherous men. And yet, it was that same betrayal brought Zapata to this idyllic place that morning. He’d grown desperate.

Years before that morning, Zapata and Pancho Villa—leader of the northern revolt—sat side-by-side in the presidential chair in the country’s capital. They posed for a picture. Villa smiled, his grand mustache not large enough to hide his jovial eyes and smile. Zapata sat to Villa’s left. He gave a stoic, almost menacing stare into the camera. If you were among the poor, this picture captures what was arguably the high point of the revolution. If you were among the elite, the picture concerned you, even if only symbolically.

But since that day, the fortunes of both Villa and Zapata—the revolution’s most charismatic figures—had turned. Villa lost several key battles, twice in Celaya, and eventually retreated to the Sierra Madre mountains, where he hid from the US forces intent on capturing and killing him for raiding their country. Similarly, Zapata and his men fought to survive. This, among other reasons, was why he reached out to Jesús Guajardo, a constitutionalist. Years before, Guajardo had presided over the killing of hundreds of unarmed Zapatistas. But now, he claimed he was ready to fight for Zapata.

Their first contact was the type that happens in love and war. A few weeks prior to that morning, Guajardo had received an order to once again attack Zapatistas. But instead of following orders, Guajardo was discovered by a superior a few hours later in a cantina, presumably drunk. He was jailed before he was ultimately allowed back in the field, and Zapatista spies said Guajardo felt hurt and disgruntled by the scandal. It became the perfect moment for Zapata to smuggle a note to Guajardo.

Like teenagers in an illicit love, they wrote and snuck messages to each other. Zapata asked Guajardo to join his side. Guajardo agreed. Eventually, they met and as a sign of good faith Guajardo killed fifty-nine of his own men. He also brought the one thing all those in revolt consistently want for: weapons and ammunitions. Still, Zapata was wary.

As the day became hotter, Zapata continued to ride. He’d been fighting for the better part of a decade. In Anenecuilco—his home, some twenty kilometers north of the Hacienda de Chinameca he was riding outside of—his family had fought for far longer. During the War of Independence, Zapata’s grandfather was one of the boys who snuck across Spanish lines and delivered whatever insurgents needed in their fight for liberation; tortillas, gunpowder, liquor, salt. Later, Zapata’s uncles fought in the War of Reform. They also fought against the French Intervention. On both his maternal and paternal sides, locals associated Zapata’s family with courage. The type of people who wouldn’t betray your trust. A century of fighting and now, potentially, the future of Zapata’s fight, and by extension the fight of his people, rested on this meeting’s outcome.

He waited. While waiting he heard reports federal troops were near. Zapata and his men investigated. They found nothing. He waited longer. He waited so long, in fact, that Guajardo sent a formal invite from inside the house hosting their meeting. Zapata, not yet ready, declined. When Guajardo sent Zapata a beer—to combat the escalating heat—he again declined. Perhaps it was a poisoned drink, Zapata thought. Perhaps, as some of his spies suspected, this was all a ruse.

Finally, hours since dawn, in the early afternoon—2:10pm to be exact—Zapata decided to meet. He told ten of his men to follow. The rest stayed behind and rested, trying to stay cool under the shade of the surrounding trees. The house they would meet in was inside the hacienda gates. He and his ten men rode inside. They approached the house, and as they did Guajardo’s soldier saluted Zapata – a man who until that moment, he’d considered his enemy. It’s quite possible it was the first time most of these men had seen Zapata in the flesh.

There he was: Emiliano Zapata. The man who’d long been the enemy of the federal government. The man who Mexico City newspapers called a bandit, a terrorist, a barbarian whose savagery inspired comparisons to Attila. Emiliano Zapata, who had not just inspired fear but also a devotion so intense his followers would rather die than turn against him. Emiliano Zapata. They wrote songs about him. They praised him. If you’d seen him then, you might even think he was immortal. Emiliano Zapata. This is who they saluted.

They raised their rifles in the air and shot at the sky. And as Zapata and his men rode closer, the entire thing looked something like preparations for a parade. Zapata dismounted. The show of respect continued with a bugle sounding three times.

Once. Twice. The third bugle’s note still hung in the air when those who had just paid their respects lowered their rifles, aimed and shot Zapata. And though not all of them hit their target, nearly a thousand men inside that hacienda fired their guns.

The local hero died, betrayed on his own land, never fully knowing some of his notes to Guajardo got intercepted. The correspondence ended up in the hands of the same general that had caught Guajardo in the cantina. And during a supper, a few weeks before the day of Zapata died, that general—González—showed the notes to Guajardo. He accused him of being not just a drunk but worse: a traitor. Stunned and eventually in tears, Guajardo understood how treasonous acts end. He knew he’d get executed. But Gonzalez said he could spare his life. And so, Guajardo, with no options, agreed to ambush Zapata. If successful, he’d live – so long as Zapata was either captured or killed. Morelos’ favorite son died.

“Our general Zapata fell, never to rise again,” said a Zapata aide of one of the Mexican Revolution’s ultimate betrayals. In that gunfire and chaos, Zapata’s horse suffered a wound and rode away, scared and alone. Guajardo’s men kept Zapata’s lifeless body. They loaded it on a mule and traveled some twenty-five kilometers north to Cuautla. Inside a police station, authorities identified Zapata’s remains. They took photographs and the following day, newspapers across the country wrote of Zapata’s death.

Locally, in Cuautla, before his burial, thousands came to view the body. Some saw it and knew—despite the swelling—that it was Zapata. They cried like babies, even the grown men hardened by war. “The wings of our hearts fell,” one Zapatista said after seeing the body.

Others saw the same body and refused to believe it was him. As he lay there, lifeless, looking so vulnerable, they refused to believe it. And so, Zapata lived on in the types of stories and songs told to Mexican children, that then get passed on for generations. Tales originally told by people who swore they were true.

They say Zapata never died that April 10th. That he lived and fled to the Arabian Peninsula and would return when most needed. They said something about his dead body wasn’t right. That a scar was different, that a mole was missing, that the body had all ten fingers, when the real Zapata was missing a finger.

“We all laughed when we saw the cadaver,” one of Zapata’s soldiers said decades later. “We elbowed each other because the jefe was smarter than the government.” They say Zapata knew about Guajardo’s impending trick and that Jesús Delgado — a spitting image of Zapata, who traveled with the general as a body double —was the man killed. Others say it was another man, Agustín Cortés, or Joaquín Cortés, or Jesús Capistrán, or, as Zapata’s son put it, “some pendejo…from Tepoztlán.” Whoever it was, the name didn’t even matter. The important thing was that, according to these stories, Zapata lived and would eventually return.

And some say he did return. They claimed he’d visit only when protected under the cover of night. Others swore that, just like on the dawn of April 10, 1919, they’d see him atop his horse. He’d ride up in the mountains and always keep watch. Others said they saw that same horse, alone, galloping in the hills. They said it was an impossible white color.

Several decades after his murder, the daughter of a man appointed by Zapata to protect the land documents that proved their ownership, spoke of Zapata’s return. She said Zapata was an old man by then, and too aged to continue his struggle.

Zapata, whether you see his picture as a young man or were among those who claimed to have seen him in old age, has come to symbolize whatever noble cause the Mexican Revolution stood for. It was that same cause that for years brought together veteran Zapatistas. Increasingly, they too became old. And each year, on a day like today—April 10th—they gathered and expected Zapata’s return. A resurrection. He’d arrive and together they’d continue fighting for justice.

Today, a century after Zapata’s death, across Mexico and other parts of the world, the living—and perhaps even the dead—continue their fight inspired by Emiliano Zapata.

 

Old man Dirk

Published at SBNation.com


On a cold, late-winter night in Dallas, the Mavericks are playing the 61st game of another season in which they’ll lose more than they’ll win. With a little under 8:30 left in the fourth quarter, Dirk Nowitzki — in only his third start of the season and his first at home — shoots a three-pointer. As soon as the ball leaves his hands, you can hear the crowd noise increase. If he misses, a collective groan will rumble across the arena. If he makes it, fans will cheer wildly.

He makes it. Fans cheer. Mavericks go up by five over the Indiana Pacers.

Less than 50 seconds of game time later, Nowitzki walks to the bench. He follows his usual routine. After high-fiving any hand teammates offer, he works his way toward the end of the bench. He takes out his mouthpiece and tucks it into the top of his right sock. A ball boy hands him a long-sleeve shirt and Nowitzki puts it on, then another. The ball boy gives him his tear-away pants. Nowitzki steps over the pant’s inseam, secures the top-right hip button, then the left. A few more buttons on each side. The game is close, but Nowitzki, the best player the Mavericks have ever had, won’t play the rest of the night. He sits in the middle of the bench, and watches.

You watch him. Gone is the long hair — once described as “blond locks [resembling] some teenage idol from another decade” — that complimented his youthful appearance. His face isn’t as young as it once was. Also gone is that effortless stride with which he ran up and down the court. When he runs backwards, transitioning between offense and defense, his movement appears even more labored. His shoulders look almost-shrugged as his arms swing about as fast as his legs move. By the standards of professional athletes, Nowitzki is an old man. But even at this stage of his career, his impact and importance endures, not just on a young Mavericks team but in the city where he plays.

Before the game began, a 28-year-old father, Jahir Martinez, held his 5-month-old son, Judah, as they waited in the hallway outside the Mavs’ locker room. The father wore a white Nowitzki jersey. The son wore a blue Mavericks onesie.

As players ran out of the locker room to get to the court, they slapped the hands of fans standing along the walls shouting encouragement. Nowitzki was the last player out. Instead of running, he walked. Martinez held out his son and as Nowitzki went past, he delicately engulfed baby Judah’s entire forearm with his hand.

“I’ve met him in person,” Martinez says of Nowitzki, his favorite player, “and the reason why I took my son — everybody was asking, ‘Why you take your son? What’s the motivation behind it?’ — because when my son grows up, I want him to see what type of athlete he got to meet.”

Dallas loves Nowitzki. On the court, no other player is as responsible for the success the Mavericks have had in the last two decades. Before Nowitzki, the team was dreadful. Throughout the 1990s the Mavericks were among the worst teams in professional sports. Thanks to a back-to-back wins to close the 1993-1994 season, they narrowly escaped becoming the first NBA franchise to lose 70 games in consecutive seasons, but they never won more than 36 games in any season.

As they struggled, a teenaged and then-unknown Nowitzki played on a club team in obscurity in villages and small amphitheaters around his hometown of Würzburg, Germany. In 1998, Nowitzki arrived in Dallas without much fanfare despite being described as someone who could revolutionize basketball. “The Mavericks, in the ’90s, had a tough decade,” Nowitzki remembered. “[I’d] go somewhere all the time, and people were like, ‘Oh, you’re tall,’ but they had no idea who I was.”

Thousands of miles and about a 10-hour flight away from home, Nowitzki experienced complete culture shock. He couldn’t get through many conversations in English without having to ask, “what?”, multiple times. Fans booed him during his rookie year, in which he averaged eight points per game. He played so few minutes that a Dallas journalist wrote, “Dirk sweats so little during games, he doesn’t even need to shower.” Frustrated, Nowitzki knew that once he’d fulfilled his contract with the Mavericks, he could always go back to play in a European league. He stayed in Dallas for one day after the season ended before returning home.

But Nowitzki and the Mavericks would quickly improve. Steve Nash, acquired during Nowitzki’s rookie year, helped him acclimate to the league and the United States. The two played together six seasons, improving to 60 wins in 2002-2003, before Nash signed as a free agent with the Phoenix Suns in 2004.

Nowitzki could be the last great player to play the entirety of his career in one city anywhere.

Mark Cuban, who bought the team during the 1999-2000 season, called not re-signing Nash among his biggest regretsas an owner. Nowitzki was heartbroken.

“There will be some decisions you don’t like,” Nowitzki said in 2009 of his close friend leaving, “and there will be some decisions that you like, but you can only control yourself.” Yet Nowitzki stayed loyal, and racked up individual accomplishments, beginning more than a decade of consecutive all-star and All-NBA team selections. In that time, the Mavericks were consistently among the better teams in the league. But disappointment tempered much of the Nowitzki era.

There was the 2006 Finals when the Mavericks took a two games-to-none lead over the Miami Heat, only to lose the next four games. The following season, Nowitzki was named the league’s MVP and the team won a franchise-best 67 games. But they also suffered a shocking upset in the first round of the playoffs to the Golden State Warriors.

The loss was so devastating it drove Nowitzki into the Australian outback for five weeks. He spent time with his mentor, grew a beard, and searched for the “meaning of life.”

That was the first of three consecutive seasons in which the team lost in the opening round. With the early exits, Nowitzki was criticized by national media members, who said that he wasn’t an elite player or a leader — or worse, claimed he was soft.

But while Nowitzki — and by extension, the team — went through difficulties, coaches and teammates continued to support him. So too did Dallas.

“From my first year when I was really struggling … when I did get subbed in I used to get a standing ovation in year one,” Nowitzki said early into this season. “That made me think; this community here, these people, these fans really want me to succeed here. And I want to make everything possible to pay them back and make this work, to pay their loyalty back.”

Nowitzki and the Mavericks eventually broke through on the court, winning the 2010-11 NBA championship over LeBron James and the Heat. Off the court, he began a foundation that works with children who’ve suffered through illness, poverty, and abuse. When asked why Dallas loves Nowitzki, Cuban says, “His loyalty.”

In the five years after their championship season, the Mavericks lost in the first round of the playoffs four times. They missed the playoffs the other of those five years. Counting this season, the Mavericks have struggled three years straight. During these lean times, other teams inquired about Nowitzki’s availability. Yet when his contract expired in 2016, he re-signed with the team, again. Now, as a player clearly past his prime, who years ago could have perhaps contributed on a contender, Dallas cheers each dwindling minute of his career.

As the game against the Pacers winds down, with the Mavericks holding a four-point lead, Nowitzki, with a white towel draped around his neck and over his shoulder, sits on the bench and watches. With about two minutes left, Luka Doncic shoots a three-pointer from 30 feet away. The ball hardly touches the rim as it goes through the net. The crowd cheers and Nowitzki stands up, raising both his arms.

Doncic is this season’s revelation. He has sped up the Mavericks’ rebuilding process. When Doncic brings the ball up, Nowitzki will talk to him if they’re on the court together. Doncic nods back, implying he understands what Nowitzki, old enough to be his father, is telling him. There’s 40 years of basketball and life wisdom in Nowitzki’s words.

Unlike during Nowitzki’s early years, Dallas now has an entire infrastructure in place to help players like Doncic acclimate quickly to the NBA. And while it took Nowitzki some time to believe he belonged in the NBA, Doncic, signed to Real Madrid at 13 — the same age Nowitzki first picked up a basketball — knows he was born for the play the game.

Doncic plays with an arrogance that comes from prodigious talent. He passes the ball in a way that shows he sees things others can’t. Naturally charismatic, fans can’t pry their eyes off him when he’s on the floor. And on this late-February night, Doncic, in his last game as a teenager, seemingly controls everything the Mavericks do. It is what earned him the nickname “Wonder Boy” in his home country of Slovenia. In Dallas, it’s called Luka Magic.

Nowitzki is the best-case scenario for how an aging athlete should end their career … his best current contribution is knowing how to gracefully let go.

With Mavericks up by six, Doncic has the ball again. He dribbles, feints a drive, then steps back to hit another 30-footer. The game ends with Doncic scoring seven of the Mavericks’ last 10 points. He assisted on the other three-pointer, too. The Mavericks win while Nowitzki watches from the bench. This is how athletes age when they play long enough. Eventually, they come to witness their own obsoletion.

And yet, Nowitzki is the best-case scenario for how an aging athlete should end their career. Unlike many before him, there’s no sense that he’s here for the proverbial wrong reasons. He’d certainly love to win another, but he’s not chasing rings. He doesn’t seem to have monetary motivations, either. He enjoys being around his young teammates — joking, laughing, and playing — even if his best current contribution is knowing how to gracefully let go.

This transition from the past to the future could have gone horribly wrong. Nowitzki could have ended his career in the jersey of a team he has no connection to. Teams have paid players younger than Nowitzki and told them to stay away. Instead, as soon as the game’s final buzzer sounds, Nowitzki is the first player off the bench and on to the court to congratulate Doncic and the rest of his young teammates.

The Mavericks will, again, miss the playoffs this year. But with Doncic’s emergence, their fans have a renewed sense of hope. Next year, with Kristaps Porzingis, acquired in a January trade, presumably healthy and playing, Dallas’ prospect could change quickly, but Nowitzki will almost assuredly not be around when the Mavericks are serious championship contenders again.

That Doncic will be great seems ordained. A few hours after the game, Doncic turns 20 years old, and he has already accomplished feats that no other NBA player have, accounting for four of the five triple-doubles ever recorded in the league by a teen.

That Doncic will always be there for Dallas, the way that Nowitzki was, is unknown. Doncic is urbane and speaks three languages. He represents the future, not just for Dallas but for the NBA as a global brand. And one could understand if he let that cloud him into thinking that even a city like Dallas isn’t big enough to reach his ambitions.

Nowitzki could be the last great player to play the entirety of his career in one city anywhere. Long past being a teenager, he may even may play another season. He grew old in Dallas. He has a key to the city so he calls Dallas home. And Dallas loves him because, among other things, through the struggles, he never left.

Thus, during the winter months of his career, fans continue to cheer for him the loudest. Entire families will wear their matching Nowitzki jerseys and shout for a player averaging a small fraction of his career marks. At every home game, faceless voices among the crowd yelling, “Let’s go, Dirk!”

“I will choke up,” Jahir Martinez says of that inevitable moment when Nowitzki walks away. He says he will tell his son, who will likely grow up cheering for Doncic and, at best, only faintly remember the cold night when Nowitzki shook his hand, of what the big German meant to him and many others. “I will get something choked up,” Martinez continues, “because [Dirk] delivered something that I can remember for the rest of my life.”