Emiliano Zapata Salazar was born on August 8, 1879 in Anenecuilco, Mexico. His parents were fairly wealthy compared to other people in the area and owned their own land, however others were not so fortunate and worked on large farms owned by the rich for slave wages. At that time, Mexico was under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, who had come to power in 1876.

At that time, wealthy landowners were buying up land from the Indians all over Mexico, creating giant farm estates known as haciendas. The lack of free land ended up forcing the Indians to work for these giant farms for little or no money. Diaz fully supported this system and ensured that it would remain in place by spreading supporters over Mexico to enforce the laws.

Although Zapata and his family could be considered upper class in Mexico at that time, they maintained good friendships with the lower class citizens in town. Zapata was so well-liked that he was elected to the town's defense committee and became a spokesman for the town. He was well known for his fancy style of clothing, including an extravagant cowboy costume that he would wear to rodeos.

Zapata's family had originally been supporters of Diaz, but they soon began to see the negative effects it was having on the people around them. Zapata became deeply involved in the struggles of his neighbors and worked towards having land given back to the Indians by the wealthy landowners. In these efforts, he was sometimes successful, but not nearly enough to change the social system. On one occasion, he observed as the rich hacendados razed an entire village in order to take the land.

Zapata began working harder to protect the villagers, drawing on old evidence of land ownership to prove that the land had been stolen. However, little attention was paid to his claims by the Diaz-controlled government and he saw no choice but to take another avenue. He began forming militias of Indians to seize back land from the wealthy using armed force.

In 1910, Diaz was taken on by a man named Francisco Madero, who called for Diaz to step down. Zapata allied himself behind Madero, hoping that he would win and change things in Mexico. Later that year, the poor began revolting in different areas of Mexico and Zapata formed an army in the district of Moreles, calling it the Liberation Army of the South.

With Zapata as their general, the army became known as the Zapatistas and had the slogan "land and freedom". Around this time, Zapata became interested in the concept of anarchy after meeting an anarchist named Ricardo Flores Magon. After some fighting, Diaz was overthrown by the militant forces under Madero and Madero took over as dictator.

As dictator, Madero sought reform in both social issues and government issues. He also proposed the establishment of elections for leadership. Zapata continued to meet with Madero, but was unable to get him to act satisfactorily towards giving land back to the poor. When Madero appointed a wealthy landowner as governor of Morelos, Zapata reformed his army and threatened to overthrow the government.

Madero reacted with surprise to Zapata's actions and called on him to disarm. Zapata replied that disarming would not help the poor to get more rights and refused to follow the orders. Madero responded by attempting to disarm Zapata by force, but failed.

In 1913, Victoriano Huerta overthrew Madero and granted amnesty to Diaz. However, he also completely ignored the requests of the poor farmers, causing them to swell the ranks of Zapata's army. Pancho Villa, a charismatic leader in northern Mexico, also emerged as a vocal opponent of Huerta's rule and formed an army to join Zapata. A third army was formed under Venustiano Carranza, who allied himself with Zapata and Villa to remove Huerta from office.

After the successful coup, a convention was arranged to decide on what new government would be implemented. However, Zapata refused to attend and denounced the convention since nobody there had been elected by the people. Carranza managed to form a new government with himself as the leader, creating a great deal of controversy.

After it was made clear that Zapata would not support Carranza and continue fighting his government, Carranza put a price on his head. On April 9, 1919, a colonel in the Mexican Army, Jesus Guajardo, sent a message to Zapata saying that he was interested in joining Zapata. They set up a meeting, but when Zapata arrived on April 10th, he was shot dead by Guajardo's men.