“Zapatistas”, I could never forget the word. Since my first encounter with a picture of this painting on the arts-appreciation page of my Prentice Hall literature text book many moons ago, the unique word stuck on my mind. To a ninth grader with a non-English as the first language like me, the syllables sound rhythmic, repetitive and intriguing too. It starts with Z the last letter of the alphabet, followed by A the first letter of the alphabet and it is trailed in random by one P, two A’s, one I, two T’s and two S’s. Just like the action speech bubble on my DC Comic book, I fantasized the first syllable bursting with dynamics – zap, zap, zap!

I could never forget the painting as well. A string of tingling sensation surged all through my veins when one early spring in 1978 at the Museum of Modern Art New York, I came face to face with the original “Zapatistas”. On the real encounter with “Zapatuistas” I found the 45 x 55” oil on canvas by Josè Clemente Orozco contrary to my fantasy. It portrays a sombre portrait of four horsemen leading a number of men and women dressed in traditional Mexican peasant garb to their doom. Orozco’s trademark palette, dominated by blacks and earthy reds, underscores the violent nature of the theme and echoes the grim political instability and armed conflict in the days of Emiliano Zapata Salazar, the leading figure in the Mexican Revolution.  

“Zapatistas” does not exhibit the positive and vibrant imagery found in works by the first generation muralists like Diego Rivera, Fernando Leal, Alva de la Canal and others. Far from a fiery revolutionary poster, these peasants are not distributing arms, land or weapons, nor are they embracing workers in a show of solidarity. The painting is sombre, with dark areas of viridian and browns. Reds and blues are scattered across the picture plane, in the shirts and robes of the marching men and women. Four men on horseback loom large over the marching line. Behind them are dark hills and a stormy sky of dark gray and pale pink.

There is an angular tension created throughout the composition; the line of figures leans left, while the hills in the background lean towards the right. Bleak and dramatic, in this masterpiece the red of the clothes is associated for the viewer with the blood of martyrdom. Classically this work evokes traditional Christian iconography – the captured Zapatistas are unwavering believers herded to their death. They have kept the faith to a modern world agrarian revolution, but the world has turned against them, and they are meeting their end. Orozco recalled, “I was with the Carranza forces, and I saw their defeated victims, like the poor Zapatista peasants brought in to be executed. There was something suicidal about those Zapatistas, like their leader, they were marked for doom, death.”   

Unlike Diego Rivera who always took a celebratory approach in representing Zapata and his supporters, Orozco in this painting depicts a dreary moment in the Mexican Revolution. "I don’t trust revolutions or glorify them since I witnessed too much butchery," he later remarked.

Orozco the social realist painter specialized in bold murals that established the Mexican Mural Renaissance. Compared to the works by fellow muralists like by Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and others, Orozco’s was the most complex. He was fond of the theme of human suffering, but less realistic and more fascinated by machines than Rivera was. Mostly influenced by Symbolism, the 23 November 1883 born artist was also a genre painter and lithographer. Between 1922 and 1948, Orozco painted murals in, among others, Mexico City, New York City, Hanover, New Hampshire, and Guadalajara.

José Clemente Orozco, one of the great figures of the movements often spoken as of the Mexican Renaissance, created “Zapatistas” in the United States and completed the work in 1931. As of the origins of the masterpiece by Orozco, The Museum of Modern Art press release simply stated, “In 1937 another Museum trustee anonymously gave a remarkable group of Orozcos including the famous Zapatistas.”