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The Revolution Will Not Die

Why should not old men be mad? Mexico's revolutionary soldiers are still ready to kick some ass in the documentary 'The Last Zapatistas'

By Richard von Busack

IT'S RATHER astonishing to see that old men who fought beside Zapata in 1915-17 are still alive, and see them you do in Francesco Taboada Tabone and Sarah Perrig's documentary The Last Zapatistas: Forgotten Heroes (March 9 and 11 at Cinequest). At the time of the American Civil War, there were men alive who'd seen George Washington. American Civil War veterans weren't uncommon in the 1920s. Probably the last American veterans of World War I will be gone by the end of this decade. (Thanks to a recent obituary, I happen to know there are exactly two surviving World War I doughboys in Alabama.) If you jiggle the math, you could claim that there were really only three generations between now and the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

But Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919), the rebel leader who was a key figure in the Mexican Revolution, was a former sergeant in the army who assembled a militia of peasants whose land had been seized by speculators--often foriegners--who hoped to make fortunes in the booming sugar cane market. Zapata has always been a sacred figure in Mexican iconography, which is why the Zapatistas of Chiapas adopted his name. He is such a semimystical revolutionary figure, it seems shocking to see that his warriors are still around. They're pushing 100, but they can recall their general. Maybe the most touching moment in the film comes when an otherwise silent grandmother is asked what Zapata was like. "Joven," she says. Young.

These vets are seen outdoors, mostly, in their farmyards, or in the doorways of their small homes. Joining the original Zapatistas was a defensive move, the elderly men explain. Some of them have enough Indian ancestry to refer to Zapata's opponents as "Spaniards." The Mexican government had been snatching up anyone old enough to fight, raiding homes to press-gang boys to take as soldiers. A woman remembers that her sister wasn't old enough to pronounce the word "government" when they were both hiding from its soldiers--enlisting in Zapata's army of rebellion was, as some say, the lesser of two evils. Another vet explains, "Zapata stole me," since he and his brothers were found by the general when they were swimming in a river, roughhousing in the water. ("These are the sort of men I need, fighters," he remembers the general saying.)

But courage wasn't the only requirement for the soldiers of the Army of the South. Men recall how Zapata reconnoitered the land, meeting with villagers before a battle broke out to learn the escape routes and hiding places. As guerrillas, they had to prize stealth and craft over machismo. A survivor of Zapata's battles quotes an assistant to the general, Otilio Montano: "I want men who are afraid. Brave men are of no use to me. They end up dead bodies without weapons."

Putting together a composite picture of Zapata, the directors also speculate what became of him. The treacherous assassination of Zapata is a well-known story, told in the Brando movie. But then there's a nine-way argument about what really happened. Some agree he was killed, and that his killers shouted, "Viva Zapata," to mock his corpse. The history is embellished with a tale of Indian washer-women sneaking out of the hacienda to warn our hero, and a friend of his offering to go in Zapata's place, to trade his life for the general's. But that's not what happened, comes the argument. An imposter was shot, and Zapata escaped to Arabia, with the help of an Arab comrade in arms, and "He must be dead by now." No, it was Italy, argues another vet. "It's a secret of war," opines a third.

Such a picturesque, heartening story; so full of the characteristics of back-road Mexican life. I loved how one interview, with Zapata's son Mateo Zapata Perez, was accompanied, as it were, with shrill notes from the panpipes of a passing street vendor. Decades after the finish of the Mexican Revolution, Zapata's old soldiers are still on the warpath because of Article 27--the liberalization of Mexican farm-holding regulations, which is closing family farms and opening up the land to development for factories, golf courses and condos, and allowing Yankees to pick up retirement property cheap.

Maybe the Zapatista's outrage is a conservative critique, and Mexico can survive without family farms; perhaps agriculture has changed so much that there's no place left for the small freehold. One wants a good debate when a contingent of today's Zapatistas from Chiapas hold a historic meeting with the original Zapatistas. Unfortunately, these final scenes aren't cinematically compelling. It seems as if the emotions are so thick no one feels like saying anything. (The new Zapatistas of Chiapas conceal their faces under ski masks, so their emotions may be a little hard to guess.) And if the younger soldiers had come for advice, the old men only know what they did in 1915--and what they say must be done again.

This is a fiercely partisan documentary, so partisan that it includes a long shot of a fireworks-laden papier-mâché effigy of former President Salinas carrying an attaché case and a bag of loot. It's novel enough to have the actual descendants of Zapata critiquing the land grabs of today. Emiliano Zapata, the great man's namesake grandson, is onscreen as well, saying bitterly, "Now land and liberty belong to the rich." When you have old men calling for revolution--"Only violence will bring in a new era," says one old soldier; "It's inevitable, and that's the truth"--even a gringo can get a sense of the seriousness of the disruption of the countryside in post-WTO Mexico.


The Last Zapatistas: Forgotten Heroes plays Cinequest March 9 at 5pm at SJSU's University Theater and March 11 at 3:30pm at Camera 3 in San Jose.


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From the February 25-March 3, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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