Excerpt: Matters of Justice

Helga Baitenmann is an associate fellow of the Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of London. She is the coeditor of Decoding Gender: Law and Practice in Contemporary Mexico. Her new book Matters of Justice: Pueblos, the Judiciary, and Agrarian Reform in Revolutionary Mexico is now available.

In 1992 President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988–94) overhauled Mexico’s agrarian reform sector and, for better or worse, centralized all archival materials at the Agrarian General Archives (Archivo General Agrario, AGA) in Mexico City. Materials at the AGA gave me the evidentiary basis to question some of the most deep-seated myths about the history of Mexico’s post-revolutionary agrarian reform. For example, since the late 1970s many scholars have believed that government officials generally rejected villagers’ demands for the restitution of their old pueblo lands because in effect they would have conceded to peasants’ prior rights and thereby granted them too much autonomy. Instead, they supposedly employed the dotación (land grant) as a mechanism of state clientelism and a tool for peasant co-optation. The excerpt below, about land reform in the hometown of assassinated revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, demonstrates that agrarian reform in revolutionary Mexico was much more complex than the dominant narrative suggests.

Excerpt from Matters of Justice:

One of the great mysteries of the Parres land reform in Morelos is why officials did not grant Zapata’s hometown of Anenecuilco the land restitution its residents fought so hard to acquire. The case is important not only because legend has it that Zapata decided to organize the Revolution of the South after studying the pueblo’s titles and deciding he had solid proof to support their long-ignored court claims, but also because many academics have extrapolated from this particular case to draw conclusions about what they believe was the nature of postrevolutionary peasant-state relations. A close examination of the extensive documentation on Anenecuilco at the Archivo General Agrario reveals a more complicated story.

Governor Parres and Morelos Agrarian Commission president Alfredo C. Ortega planned to make both Anenecuilco and neighboring Villa de Ayala showcases of their land reform program. A few months after Parres became interim governor, agrarian commission officials asked the pueblos’ leaders to sign a blueprint for a land petition. On 26 September 1920 Francisco Franco Salazar (“the man Zapata had appointed to protect the documents that supported Anenecuilco’s land claims”) and fifteen other men, including José Robles (another trusted ally and Anenecuilco representative during the Zapatistas’ 2 July 1915 boundary marking), signed the petition.1 A day later Villa de Ayala representatives signed a petition as well.2

Two days after receiving the Anenecuilco and Villa de Ayala petitions, Ortega declared the Morelos Agrarian Commission “in permanent session until they resolved the Anenecuilco and Villa de Ayala petitions.” Villa de Ayala petitioned for a dotación, which the commission immediately approved. Anenecuilco petitioned for a restitution, but commission officials concluded that the file did not contain enough evidence to justify restoration of the claimed lands. Immediately, therefore, officials granted the pueblo a dotación instead. On this matter, the Morelos Agrarian Commission’s minutes book stated the following: “Regarding the restitution demanded by the Anenecuilco pueblo . . . the petition is denied on the grounds that even though it is true that it justifies the need for ejido lands, it is also true that it does not provide all evidentiary proof to justify the right it claims to have over the areas of land solicited for restitution.”3

Only six days later (on 2 October 1920), and for the entire world to see, Governor Parres formally granted provisional land possession to Anenecuilco and Villa de Ayala. Present at the ceremony were Zapatista generals Genovevo de la O, Rafael Castillo C., Carlos Víctor Ariza, Luis Sánchez Galán, and Serafín Robles (a man so trusted by Zapata that he became part of his escort and his private secretary).4 The grant provided Anenecuilco villagers enough land from the Tenextepango, Cuahuixtla, and El Hospital haciendas “to satisfy the needs of all heads of family,” leaving them with the right to claim a restitution when they had more substantiating evidence.5

There are three possible ways of interpreting the problem of missing evidentiary proof, and they are not mutually exclusive…


1. The Franco quote is from Brunk, Posthumous Career, 55. Most other villagers used exactly the same text. See, for example, the following petitions from Morelos: AGA, Restitución de tierras, exp. 24/3020, leg. 4, f. 11, Amayuca, Jantetelco; AGA, Dotación de tierras, exp. 23/3008, leg. 1, fs. 235–37, Atlatlahucan, Atlatlahucan; AGA, Restitución de tierras, exp. 24/14833, leg. 3, f. 7, Emiliano Zapata (formerly San Francisco Zacualpan), Emiliano Zapata (formerly Jiutepec); AGA, Dotación de tierras, exp. 23/2967, leg. 1, f. 7, Eusebio Jáuregui (formerly Santa Inés), Cuautla; AGA, Restitución de tierras, exp. 24/2994, leg. 9, f. 54, Ocuituco, Ocuituco; AGA, Restitución de tierras, exp. 24/3094, leg. 5, f. 7, Tlalmomulco, Yecapixtla; and AGA, Dotación de tierras, exp. 23/3057, leg. 1, fs. 18–19, Yautepec, Yautepec. For José Robles’s role in the 1915 boundary marking, see AGA, Dotación de tierras, exp. 23/2961, leg. 1, f. 285, Anenecuilco, Villa de Ayala, Morelos.

2. AGA, Dotación de tierras, exp. 23/2960, leg. 1, f.1 (11 September 1920), Villa de Ayala, Villa de Ayala, Morelos.

3. AGA, Restitución de tierras, 24/2961, leg. 8, fs. 20–21 (28 September 1920), Anenecuilco, Villa de Ayala, Morelos.

4. Report by cna delegate Ing. Regino Guzmán, AGA, Dotación de tierras, exp. 23/2961, leg. 1, fs. 2–4 (28 October 1920), Anenecuilco, Villa de Ayala, Morelos; and report by cna delegate José M. Nuñez, AGA, Dotación de tierras, exp. 23/2961, leg. 1, fs. 170–72 (11 May 1923). On Serafín Robles, see Valentín López González, Los Compañeros de Zapata, 214–16.

5. AGAAGA, Restitución de tierras, exp. 24/2961, leg. 8, fs. 20–21, Anenecuilco, Villa de Ayala, Morelos. See also in Instituto Estatal de Documentación de Morelos (iedm), Gobierno Tierras (gt), Villa de Ayala y Anenecuilco, ejidos, 1920, 11/021/97, caja 740, leg. 7.

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