Agrarian Leader Zapata is based on a panel from Rivera’s mural cycle at the Palacio de Cortés in Cuernavaca, the capital of the Mexican state of Morelos. A native of that same state, Zapata led campaigns for land reform, including an effort to reorganize the area’s sugar industry into a system of cooperatives. In Rivera’s image, the rebel wields the type of machete used to harvest sugar cane, a clear reference to Zapata’s revolutionary agenda and Morelos’s most important agricultural product.
Dressed as a humble peasant in huaraches and a white cotton shirt and trousers, Rivera’s portrait of Zapata departs from portrayals propagated by popular press images and by the rebel himself. An expert horseman, Zapata consistently presented himself as a charro, a cowboy whose flamboyant dress—tight pants and a vest with silver ornamentation—signaled an elevated class status in Mexico. Rivera’s vision of Zapata as a humble peasant offers a sympathetic portrait of a folk hero tirelessly devoted to Mexico’s disenfranchised agrarian workers.
Rivera ennobles Mexican history—and Zapata—in this work by linking them to the grandeur of European artistic tradition. The steed, whose owner Zapata has just dragged from his saddle, shares the color and imposing presence of horses in Paolo Uccello’s early 15th-century painting The Battle of San Romano, which Rivera studied on a 1920–21 trip to Italy. Visual parities between Zapata and the horse in terms of scale and color have led commentators to assume the animal belongs to the revolutionary, whose actual horse was black.
Rivera continually reinvented the image of Zapata for didactic purposes. He often drew upon photographs and images of the revolutionary that were distributed widely by press outlets, modernizing his mural practice by integrating these new media forms. Aimed at a broad audience of diverse ages, social and economic classes, and nationalities, Rivera’s portraits of the revolutionary leader appeared in a variety of media, ranging from his monumental mural cycles to prints and book illustrations.