Along with Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata is one of the most important heroes in the history of Mexico. But according to a version of his life, he concealed who he was, fearing it would affect his work as a revolutionary. Was that just a sexual myth?
Pick the historical character you admire the most for the many changes they accomplished in their country. Now, think about what would have happened if, back in their day, they had come out as queer. Nowadays, this sounds like a stupid question, and the answer would be a simple “who cares, the important thing is what they achieved,” and to be honest I couldn’t agree more. However, things aren’t that simple, and throughout history we have cases where queerness was seen as a weakness to be concealed or as a tool to damage the image of important characters. Today’s story could be either way because it's one of those stories people talk about without no further evidence to show which way it is. The case of Emiliano Zapata’s alleged bisexuality has been around since his days. My great-grandfather (who fought with him in is Liberation Army) always claimed that everybody knew he liked sleeping with younger men, and just like him, many others have told the stories. But was this an open secret or just a myth?
What’s interesting about the - let’s call it a rumor - is that it would shed more light towards on incredibly defining character in the history of Mexico. I mean, Zapata is considered by many to be the real hero of the Revolution, and the one who actually fought tirelessly for people's rights. So, imagine if this good-looking man who always wore his impeccable “charro” outfit and his iconic mustache, always surrounded by dozens of women, were confirmed to be bisexual? Would it change how we’ve always seen him and how we learn about him in school? If he was not, then how did the rumor survive all this time? But before we jump into conclusions, let’s see who Zapata was and how his story goes.
Born in 1879, in a small town in Morelos, Mexico, Emiliano Zapata had always been a man of the people. Of Spanish and Nahuatl descent, his family had lived in Anenecuilco for generations and generations, and they were a really well-known family in the town. Ever since he was a little boy, he worked in the fields and got to see the injustices and abuse people endured every day and vowed to change their working conditions no matter what. So, when he was barely thirty years old, he chose to be council president of his town, and in 1910, when Francisco I. Madero organized the coup that ended the Díaz dictatorship, he was one of the central figures in the South to support Madero’s movement.
Along with Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco, Zapata secured the defeat of Porfirio Díaz’s troops. However, as soon as Madero became president and started appointing his people to important government offices, mainly the new governor of Morelos, Zapata realized that their intentions weren’t really the same because his cause for implementing a land reform was pretty much left out of the new political agenda. Dissatisfied with Madero, he decided to start his own revolution under the motto “land and liberty,” and soon, his army started fighting for the reforms he proposed, even if this meant going against the whole idea of Madero’s revolution. For years, power was passed from hand to hand in an environment of treason, changing of sides, and assassination, but Zapata was definitely one of the few who was always firm with his ideas and purposes; his zest was what made him such a beloved leader and also a fearsome character in the country.
Now, as we mentioned before, Zapata was considered to be a faithful representation of the Mexican macho stereotype. He wasn’t only a man with strong ideals willing to die for what he believed in, but he was also physically strong, which added to the characterization of his persona. He would be seen surrounded by dozens of women, and not only that, he was publicly against homosexuality and even lashed and killed “effeminates” as he called them. But according to some contemporary accounts, this was more of a façade to conceal who he really was: unofficially, he was a bisexual man who pretended to be a macho man only to hide what he believed would be as a weak trait in his persona and thus make him fail in his revolutionary attempts. If not, then this also speaks about what kind of man he was and still doesn’t help his image a lot, especially today.
One of the first stories related to the subject dates back some years before the revolution, when he was spotted by Díaz’s son-in-law. As the story goes, Ignacio de la Torre, who had had a brush with the law after being arrested at a gay party, wasn’t only surprised by Zapata’s skills with horses, but he also felt automatically attracted to the young man. It’s said that in de la Torre’s wife’s diary (Amada Díaz) she blamed the young groom for her husband’s lack of attention and abuse, claiming that he was, in fact, more into the servant than into any other woman he knew. Apart from that, there’s allegedly an episode in the diary in which she describes a day she caught the two men in the hacienda's barn.
There’s another story that says that, in 2010, as part of the hundred-year anniversary of the Revolution, an old soldadera who still lived back there claimed that Zapata “was such a man that he lay with other men.” Of course, this isn’t definitive evidence, but of course, it isn’t the only one.
Another story that is widely told about the subject is the relationship he had with Manuel Palafox, the former Secretary of Agriculture. Palafox was openly gay, and he almost got killed by Zapata after he discovered him having sex with a younger man. However, he somehow managed to impress the revolutionary and was eventually appointed as his personal secretary. People were shocked at how much Zapata trusted him knowing how much he hated homosexuality. It made many people have doubts about his macho image.
There isn’t that much information to draw any conclusions because all of these stories and myths live in books written mainly by novelists (even when these aren’t novels per se). If you ask me, I’ve heard this story all my life and I wouldn’t dare to give an answer as to whether it’s true or not. If he was really bisexual, he wasn’t going to say it and risk his image of the strong, macho revolutionary who led an army. The point is that either way it doesn’t really change his important work fighting for the injustice and abuse perpetrated for hundreds of years in Mexico.
Every day, stories of iconic characters with a particular sexual identity come out, and we love reading them because they prove that diversity is a reality that has existed all this time and that it isn’t a flaw, as we’ve been told to believe for millennia. But hopefully, a day will come when pointing out someone's sexual identity and orientation won’t be necessary to define these characters and people in general. Zapata’s case, even when we have to consider it a myth, can be great to understand how prejudice in general can be really harmful, but also to see that strength in ideals and will to change things shouldn’t be concealed to make them possible. After all, he’s one of the greatest heroes of Mexico's history and will always be seen that way regardless of his orientation.
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