Zapata Revisited

Image: Revolutionist/Zapatista, Linocut by Rufino Tamayo

“Tierra y Libertad” (Land and Liberty) was the famous slogan of the Mexican Revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata.  The slogan resonated with the peasants of that era of Mexico, as more and more small farms were taken by the large estates or haciendas.  The Revolution successfully overthrew the despotic regime of Porfirio Díaz, however the disparity between rich and poor is stark and obvious in Latin America today.

Land and its correlation to social and economic parity seems to be evident in other parts of the globe, too.  Land seizures in the People’s Republic of China seems to be systemic and arguably deliberate.

Last September, in the small village of Wukan in Guangdong Province, China, villagers claim that they did not receive fair compensation for land sold to real estate developers.  This led to protests, in which some were arrested.  One of the arrested, Xue Jinbo, an elderly man of the village died in prison due to “sudden illness” claimed the local police.

“Land sales are where the big money is”,  according to Edward Friedman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, quoted last month in The New York Times.

Land acquisitions in China it seems is a modern-day mimicking of the semi-feudal hacienda system of Zapata’s Mexico.

The idea of fair access to land, as a means of production, can applied to the United States, as well, I think.  The “manifest destiny” mentality of white settlers gave them a flawed sense of entitlement to farm the land the indigenous peoples of this country were not using “efficiently”.  So, it seems to follow that if the farming families of rural America no longer want to farm, why does the U.S. government subsidize apathy?  Why can’t all Americans have better access and involvement in food production?

Collective farming failed in the Soviet Union, but the idea of shared access to agriculture seems to make sense to me.  Fair access to food is a human right, in my opinion.  It seems to follow, then, that fair access to the means of production of food could be an entitlement, too.

In economics, there is a constant struggle between efficiency and equity. Capitalism as the only “guiding light” for a society can take the competing goal of efficiency to an extreme.  In Mexico, it stands to reason the hacienda system had a certain aspect of efficiency.  In Wukan, the farmland of the peasants perhaps was thought by the developers to be used more “efficiently” as development land.  And in the U.S., the industrial agriculture machine is “efficient”.

While there are property rights, while land development is not inherently immoral, while the American family farm has its place, I wonder, did we tip the seesaw of competing economic goals so far to efficiency that equity was propelled into the wild, blue yonder?

“Tierra y Libertad” was proclaimed by Emiliano Zapata during the Mexican Revolution. It seems that the same message is played over and over again from China to small town America.  And no one seems to listen.



  1. What a poignant essay. Something in my Midwestern heart dies a little bit whenever I see rich, fertile farmland being shredded for commercial development.


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