Morelos is a south-central Mexican state sharing borders with the Federal District (Mexico City), Puebla, Guerrero, and Mexico State. Cuernevaca is the capital. In many ways, Morelos’s history has been characterized by the struggle over land and water. Beginning in the colonial period, land concentration occurred at the expense of the state’s campesinos (peasants or rural workers) and Indian villages. Popular rebellion became a response to the steady growth of large estates, and in the early twentieth century, many peasants took up arms in the Mexican Revolution. They found a leader in Morelos’s most famous native son: Emiliano Zapata.
Several native languages, including Nahu-atl, Mixtec, Zapotec, and Otomi, are still spoken in Morelos, testimony to the region’s large indigenous population and its rich and varied pre-Columbian history. In the centuries before the Spaniards arrived, Morelos developed in conjunction with southeastern Mexico (from which the influence of the Olmecs came) and central Mexico (which, under the Aztecs, eventually conquered the area). Morelos was also home to the ceremonial center of Xochicalco, which was a center of the Toltec culture and perhaps an ancient Maya site as well. The Spanish Conquest of Morelos began in 1521, and in 1523 Hernan Cortes captured Cuernevaca, where he established his residence. Cortes claimed most of Morelos’s land as his own, and he established the first sugar mill of New Spain in Tlaltenango. Franciscan, Dominican, and Au-gustinian missionaries followed, introducing the Roman Catholic faith to many of Morelos’s native peoples.
After Cortes, Morelos became home to several large sugar haciendas, which were worked by Indians and black slaves. Sugarcane became the main economic enterprise of colonial Morelos, and the sugar haciendas grew steadily. This expansion increased local competition for land and water, and it especially pressured native villages and their communal lands. Popular discontent resulting from the expansion of the sugar economy provided support for the rebellions of Miguel Hidalgo and Jose Maria Morelos in the early nineteenth century. Indeed, Morelos captured Cuernevaca in 1812 and also installed himself in Cuautla, a town to the east of Cuernevaca. In 1821, Agustin de Iturbide occupied Cuernevaca in the name of an independent Mexico before proceeding to Mexico City to become the new country’s first leader.
Morelos did not immediately achieve statehood after Mexican Independence. Instead, it became a part of Mexico State and remained so until 1869 when Benito Juarez created the state of Morelos. Its location in central Mexico and its proximity to Mexico City ensured that Morelos would directly experience the political struggles of the nineteenth century. During the Mexican War (1846—1848), American troops occupied Cuernevaca, and with the War of Reform (1858—1861) Mexico’s liberal and conservative factions vied for control of the capital city. During the 1860s, Cuernevaca was controlled by the French, who invaded the country and established an empire (1862—1867).
Morelos’s sugar industry remained at the heart of the state’s economy, and several laws passed during the second half of the nineteenth century facilitated the continued growth of the region’s haciendas. Modernization was aided by the arrival of the railroad and by the introduction of steam-powered equipment. By the early twentieth century, Morelos was among the world’s largest producers of sugar. As during the colonial period, however, such expansion occurred at the expense of Indian villages and their communal lands. The man who eventually provided a voice for these traditional village communities was Emiliano Zapata.
Born to a campesino family in the village of Anenecuilco, Zapata became a local leader in the struggle to protect land and water from encroachment by the state’s wealthy hacenda-dos (hacienda owners). He responded to Francisco Madero’s call for rebellion against President Porfirio Diaz in 1910—1911, and he gathered an army that succeeded in capturing Cuautla. Zapata’s victory helped force Diaz from power and bring Madero into the presidency. Zapata, who insisted on land reform as the central component of the Mexican Revolution, did not remain allied to Madero for long, however. Madero supported the ha-cendados of Morelos, who succeeded in installing Ambrosio Figueroa (a landowner from the neighboring state of Guerrero) as governor in 1911.
Zapata responded to the imposition of Figueroa and to Madero’s failure to carry out meaningful reforms by breaking with the central government. By the end of 1911, he had issued his Plan of Ayala, which demanded the return of lands taken by hacienda owners and that asserted the people’s right to choose their leaders. Zapata’s movement attracted a large following in Morelos and it spread beyond the state. It continued to grow after Madero’s overthrow and death in 1913. Attempts by the central government to suppress the Zapatista rebellion brought heavy fighting to Morelos and resulted in the destruction of many of the state’s haciendas, as well as the collapse of the sugar industry. Morelos also suffered a precipitous decline in its population through death and emigration.
From 1914 to 1916 the Zapatistas controlled Morelos and they were allied with the so-called Convention government against Venustiano Carranza’s Constitutionalist movement. Under Genovevo de la O and Lorenzo Vazquez, Morelos had a radical government that divided the state’s sugar haciendas and redistributed land. The Revolutionary gains of Zapata’s local regime were short lived, however. In 1916, Constitutionalist general Pablo Gonzalez began an offensive that, by 1919, left Carranza in control of Morelos. In the same year, Zapata was ambushed and killed. His movement waned, though many of his followers continued to wage guerrilla warfare.
In 1920, the surviving leaders of Zapata’s rebellion, including Gildardo Magana (who assumed leadership of the movement after Zapata’s death), adhered to the Plan of Agua Prieta, which overthrew Carranza and aided Alvaro Obregon in his ascension to the presidency. In Morelos, Jose G. Parres, a medic in Zapata’s army, assumed control of a new state government. Parres called on the people of Morelos to submit claims for land and the state was among the first to see land distributed to campesinos. Some 200,000 hectares of land had been distributed in Morelos by 1929. But the agrarian reform of the 1920s was designed as much to placate the peasants as it was to make them beholden to the central government and to a new group of local political bosses who did its bidding. Indeed, Zapata’s earlier land reforms were nullified and land redistribution was carefully controlled and manipulated by the leaders of Mexico’s national government. While several peasants received ejidos (plots of land granted by the government to be cultivated communally), villages like Anenecuilco, which claimed historic rights to land, did not see those lands returned.
During the 1930s President Lazaro Cardenas distributed an additional 70,000 hectares in Morelos, even as he brought campesinos into a national organization, the National Peasant Confederation (CNC). Meanwhile, the state’s haciendas, which survived the Mexican Revolution in diminished form, turned to commercial agriculture. Lacking the capital to participate in the new market-based economy, many peasants became indebted and beholden to those who could provide them with machinery and access to markets beyond the state.
The politicization of Mexico’s land reform program, and the increasingly heavy hand of the national government, pushed some of Morelos’s campesinos to rebel again. In 1935 and 1938 Zapatista veteran Enrique Rodriguez led an uprising against the intrusion of the Mexican government, and in the 1940s, Ruben Jaramillo, who had also joined Zapata’s army, took up arms to protest the continued exploitation of the peasants. Although Jaramillo’s efforts to organize the state’s campesinos earned him death threats, and the animosity of wealthy landowners, he remained active. He formed the Agrarian and Workers’ Party of Morelos (PAOM), and during the 1950s he became a local representative of the CNC. Ultimately, however, Jaramillo supported land invasions as the only real way in which peasants could gain land. In 1962, Jaramillo was assassinated, most likely on orders from the central government.
The last decades of the twentieth century saw the continued growth of commercial agriculture in Morelos, as well as the intensification of agriculture through the use of new machinery, chemical fertilizers, and insecticides. Access to capital and outside markets became crucial to the state’s farmers, and peasants were left farther behind. Many responded by emigrating to the United States or to Mexico City. Industry and tourism also became a part of Morelos’s economy. Cuernevaca in particular became a major tourist destination and a modern highway linking Cuernevaca to Mexico City helped make the state’s capital a popular weekend spot for Mexico City residents. While the energy of Zapata’s Revolutionary movement seemed to have faded by the end of the twentieth century, the ideals of that movement were still in evidence. Peasants continued to raise their voices, as in 1996 when a group from Tepoztlan began a march to Mexico City to protest plans for development that included a golf course, industrial park, and resort. Police forces confronted the caravan and shot and killed one of the protestors. The public outcry over this event caused the suspension of the development project.
See also: Agrarian Reform/Land and Land Policy; Carranza, Venustiano; Confederacion Nacional Campesina (CNC); Revolution of 1910; Zapata, Emiliano.
Brunk, Samuel. Emiliano Zapata: Revolution and Betrayal in Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.
Warman, Arturo. We Come to Object: The Peasants of Morelos and the National State. Trans. Stephen K. Ault. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.
Womack, John. Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. New York: Random House, 1968.
Official state web site: Http://www. morelos. gob.