¡Viva the Queer Zapata! The Sexual Politics of Defining Mexican Identity and Icons in Fabián Cháirez’s “La Revolución”

Fabián Cháirez’s painting “La Revolución,” part of the current exhibition, “Emiliano. Zapata después de Zapata” in Mexico City’s Bellas Artes Museum, has provoked controversy in Mexico. It portrays Emiliano Zapata (1879–1919), the archetypal, hyper-macho Mexican revolutionary, as a voluptuous, pouty-lipped pin-up girl wearing a pink sombrero, pistol-shaped stilettos, and a ribbon of green, white, and red – the colors of Mexico’s flag. Pin-up Zapata rides a prancing stallion who sports a massive erection. Only his mustache points to masculinity, and even it resembles the coiffed affectations of dandies rather than machos. This is not the heroic Zapata from classic photos, nor John Steinbeck’s fictionalized version, immortalized by Marlon Brando in Viva Zapata! (1952), a poster for which shows Zapata in battle on horseback, a damsel clutching his leg.1 (Blessed heteronormativity! This horse, of course, is not erect.)

“La Revolución,” oil on canvas, 2013. (Courtesy Fabián Cháirez)

Few figures loom larger than Zapata in Mexican history. He rose to prominence during the late Porfiriato (1876–1910), helping demolish that dictatorship in the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), and becoming one of the Revolution’s heroes by advocating sweeping land reforms, rights for rural Mexicans, and grassroots action.2 Zapata’s ideas and image were so powerful that rival Venustiano Carranza had him assassinated in 1919. Zapata became a martyr enshrined among Mexico’s pantheon of great men during the Partido de la Revolución Institucional’s (PRI) seventy-year, one-party dictatorship – and an uncontestable icon of justice and manly bravado.3 Ask anyone what a Mexican revolutionary looks like, and they’ll likely conjure a man sporting a giant sombrero, bandoliers across his chest, a bushy mustache, and twin pistols in hip holsters. That’s Zapata.

For critics, including Zapata’s family and agrarian activists who identify as heirs to Zapata’s movement, displaying “La Revolución” among 100 years of images about Zapata’s legacy is disrespectful. “For us as relatives,” grandson Jorge Zapata González stated, “this denigrates the figure of our general, depicting him as gay.” Zapata González has threatened to sue. Critics also believe that “La Revolución” disrespects the Revolution itself because it rejects the masculinist hagiography promoted as official Mexican cultural mythology by the PRI.4 In defending Zapata’s honor and the Revolution, some protestors have turned violent, storming the palace, demanding the painting’s removal, and bloodying LGBTQ+ activists who sought dialogue. President Manuel Lopez Obrador condemned the violence and supported artistic expression. In response, the “Frente Autentico del Campo” (FAC) recoiled, arguing they are not homophobic (though their actions suggest otherwise). The group claimed to represent “campesinos:” agrarian activists seen as cultural and political symbols of “authentic” Mexico following the Revolution.5 (The implication: “real” Mexico excludes queer, urban identities.) In response, a sign posted by the painting stated that its perspective is not universally shared.

Supporters have rallied to Cháirez’s defense, protesting and producing new, queer images of Zapata. “La Revolución” thus has become a lightning rod through which Mexicans are channeling deep social and economic grievances, even if these have little to do with the painting itself or little chance of being addressed by Mexico’s government. Its importance has been further burnished by its recent purchase by New York’s Museum of Modern Art for 6 million dollars. The FAC and allies have vowed further protests, but their attacks on LGBTQ+ activists are also based on an incomplete, mythic version of Zapata.

Queering Zapata’s Mythology

Emiliano Zapata, posing in Cuernavaca in 1911, with a rifle and sword, and a ceremonial sash across his chest. (Courtesy Wikimedia).

Queer activists and writers like Sandra Cisneros have long toyed with Zapata’s macho image.6 “La Revolución” does the same by bolstering rumors about Zapata’s sexuality. Unlike in famous portrayals, Zapata was not a homespun, macho revolutionary. He enjoyed dressing in fine suits (like the era’s dandies; Zapata himself was called a lagartijo (lizard), the Mexican term for dandy in the era) and in “tight-fitting black cashmere pants with silver buttons, a broad charro hat, a fine linen shirt or jacket, a scarf around his neck, boots of a single piece, Amozqueña-style spurs, and a pistol at his belt.”7

Zapata also had significant, complicated relationships with men in the ambiente, Mexico’s queer social world. One was Ignacio de la Torre y Mier, dictator Porfirio Díaz’s son-in-law and (in)famous attendee of the Famous 41 ball in November 1901, where forty-one men, half in drag, danced.8 In José Guadalupe Posada’s famous lithograph of the event, only mustaches prove the dancers are men – imagery which Cháirez’s echoes in “La Revolución.” “41” marked anything queer thereafter. De la Torre y Mier fancied Zapata and did him favors; Zapata, knowing de la Torres y Mier’s reputation, still trained horses for him after 1901, but during the Revolution imprisoned him.9 And Zapata’s closest advisor in the Revolution was Manuel Palafox; his open homosexuality allegedly infuriated Zapata and nearly triggered Palafox’s execution.10 Because of such relationships, some have claimed Zapata was bisexual.11

Queer entanglements also existed in Zapata’s army, which included women (soldaderas) as soldiers and what some now see as a trans man: colonel Amelio Robles. As one meme in the online debate of “La Revolución” put it, the campesinos might be shocked by learning a trans colonel fought under Zapata. Robles successfully lived as a man, earned a war pension, and refused to be a feminist or lesbian icon.12 While Robles affirmed masculinity – he may have rejected the “trans” label had it existed — he still queered masculinity.

Queer(ing) Icons

Cháirez belongs to a long trajectory of Mexican artists who have used femininity and homosexuality to satirize prominent figures. Posada and the working-class penny press, for instance, lampooned Porfirian elites this way.13 The difference with “La Revolución” is that Cháirez uses feminine imagery to queer – and claim – Zapata for his minority. Cháirez’s work is thus more subversive; it peels back masks of tradition, nationalism, religion, and culture, revealing ever-present queer desires that many prefer hidden. Cháirez’s work evokes Octavio Paz’s famous argument in El laberinto de soledad that Mexican men wear masks, hide their real selves and desires, and seal themselves off from the world while tearing others open.14

Masks — and what they conceal — are central to Cháirez’s oeuvre. One sketch queers the Niños Heroes — military cadets who chose suicide over surrendering to American forces during the Battle of Chapultepec (1847).15 Cháirez’s sketch valorizes the cadet’s beauty, not the stoic martyrdom portrayed by Gabriel Flores’s 1967 mural or the patriotism enshrined in marble columns in Chapultepec park. Blatantly sexual and irreverent is the “Coming of the Lord”: clergymen lick a large candle, a reference to queer desire in Catholicism and the Church’s hypocrisy for preaching homophobia while shielding dangerous clergy.

A third work queers Mexican wrestling and elote – iconic sweetcorn street food. The luchador, whose mask marks him as a wrestler, references sadomasochistic desire, and provides “everyman” anonymity, licks the corn slathered unsubtly with mayo, cotija cheese, and dripping chile sauce. Beyond featuring centuries-old culinary staples, the painting shows obvious queer desire and evokes well-known homoerotic albures (word-play jokes). These include “¿te gusta chile?” (“Do you like chile?” meaning “do you like dick?”).16 Cháirez’s luchador embraces the elote phallus; his mask allows him to desire what could tear him open.

Unmasking Revolution

The Bellas Artes Museum is a shrine to Mexican art, history, and national identity, housing works by Diego Rivera, José Orozco, David Siqueiros, and Ruben Tamayo, among others. “La Revolución” is thus among the “greats;” its inclusion speaks to the exhibition’s recognition of queer Mexicans as part of Mexican history, even if contested.17 In an interview by PlayGround, Cháirez stated that “A revolution is just that: moving ideas, moving established things to take them to another place, usually in favor of freedom and dignity. If Zapata were a contemporary person, he would surely be on our side.” Groups inspired by Zapata — most famously the Zapatistas in Chiapas in the 1990s — sought intersectional social justice beyond land reforms. Spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos, known for his own mask, responded to slurs that said being gay and revolutionary were incompatible: “Marcos is all the exploited, marginalized, oppressed minorities resisting and saying ‘Enough.’”

I cannot prove Zapata would have responded like Marcos. But, I am reminded of Nietzsche’s aphorism, “One is most dishonorable towards one’s god: he is not permitted to sin.”18 For nationalists, a queer-friendly Zapata is inconceivable — Zapata cannot sin! — and the feminine version degrades him. Perhaps they fear that such a portrayal reveals how even machos feel queer desires, a revelation undermining static forms of masculinity and revolutionary ideology.

In contrast, a queer(ed) Zapata is a necessary symbol for silenced minorities seeking visibility as violence against LGBTQ+ people remains high. This was Cháirez’s motive — to use Zapata, an incontestable symbol of justice, to promote equality for LGBTQ+ Mexicans. His supporters see “La Revolución” as part of the evolving Revolution, of updating and honoring Zapata for today’s needs.

Masculinity is a mask, Cháirez told PlayGround, evoking Paz. In the backlash over “La Revolución,” the mask’s fragility is on display. Underneath is a more complicated version of Mexican history than stereotypic iconography allows. And la lucha (the fight) for recognition continues.

Notes

  1. Apparently former US senator John McCain said this was his favorite movie, which says something, perhaps, of his self-perception. Return to text.
  2. John Womack, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1970). Return to text.
  3. On the dictablanda, see Paul Gillingham and Benjamin T. Smith, eds., Dictablanda: Politics, Work, and Culture in Mexico, 1938–1968 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014). For celebrations of Mexican holidays, vendors sell mustaches, including Zapata’s, to kids to wear, a rather charming idea we gringos should adopt – I call dibs on Chester Arthur’s jowls. Return to text.
  4. On Mexico’s cultural mythology, see for example, Mary Coffey, How Revolutionary Art Became Official Culture: Murals, Museums, and the Mexican State (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012); and John Lear, Picturing the Proletariat: Artists and Labor in Revolutionary Mexico, 1908–1940 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017). Return to text.
  5. See Christopher Robert Boyer, Becoming Campesinos: Politics, Identity, and Agrarian Struggle in Postrevolutionary Michoacán, 1920–1935 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003). Return to text.
  6. Samuel Brunk, The Posthumous Career of Emiliano Zapata: Myth, Memory, and Mexico’s Twentieth Century (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008), 189. Return to text.
  7. Enrique Krauze, Mexico: Biography of Power (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), 279. Return to text.
  8. See the essays in Robert McKee Irwin, Edward J. McCaughan, and Michelle Rosio Nasser, eds., The Famous 41: Sexuality and Social Control in Mexico, 1901 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). Return to text.
  9. Womack, Zapata, 63; and Carlo Tello Diaz, El exilio: un relato de familia (Mexico City: Cal y Arena, 1993). Rumors suggest that de la Torre, who died in New York during a medical procedure, may have needed surgery in part due to injuries sustained through rapes by Zapata’s men. Return to text.
  10. Carlos Monsiváis, “El mundo soslayado (Donde se mezclan la confesión y la proclama),” in Salvador Novo, La estatua de sal (Mexico: Fondo de la Cultura Económica, 2008), 19. Return to text.
  11. See Brunk, The Posthumous Career of Emiliano Zapata, 189; and Florencia Mallon, “Local Intellectuals, Regional Mythologies, and the Mexican State, 1850–1994: The Many Faces of Zapatismo,” Polygraph 10 (1998): 39–78. Return to text.
  12. Gabriela Cano, “Unconcealable Realities of Desire: Amelio Robles’s (Transgender) Masculinity in the Mexican Revolution,” in Sex in Revolution: Gender, Politics, and Power in Modern Mexico, eds. Mary Kay Vaughan, Gabriela Cano, and Jocelyn Olcott (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 35–56. Return to text.
  13. Robert Buffington, “Homophobia and the Working Class,” in The Famous 41: Sexuality and Social Control in Mexico, 1901, eds. Robert McKee Irwin, Edward J. McCaughan, and Michelle Rosio Nasser (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 193–225. Return to text.
  14. Octavio Paz, El laberinto de la soledad, 2nd. ed. (Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1959). Return to text.
  15. The battle occurred on September 13, just three days before Mexico’s independence day, September 16, perhaps explaining the cadets’ fervor. Return to text.
  16. On Mexican humor, see Armando Jiménez, Picardía mexicana (Mexico: Editores Mexicanos Unidos, 1972). Return to text.
  17. The inclusion of Cháirez’s work is also ironic: Rivera and Orozco, in particular, lampooned queer members of Mexican society. Rivera, for instance, mocked gay writer Salvador Novo in his murals, while Orozco, as a young cartoonist, portrayed queer men unflatteringly, such as stereotyping them with large butts. See, for instance, the image reproduced in Lear, Picturing the Proletariat, 110. Neither artist, it can be assumed, would have approved of Cháirez’s painting. Return to text.
  18. Friedrich Nietzsche, “Aphorism 65A,” Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 79. Return to text.

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