The marble chambers of Los Angeles City Hall are a far cry from the hillside where Mauro Lopez Ruiz, 100, first saw Emiliano Zapata, the firebrand whose cries for land for the peasants fueled the Mexican Revolution 80 years ago.
Lopez Ruiz was riding with Zapata's army then, one of thousands of men who fought for "land and liberty" against the owners of large haciendas and corporations that held 97% of Mexico's land before the chaotic 1910 revolution.
On Friday, three generations later, the weathered soldier found himself at City Hall receiving a gilded certificate of honor from the Los Angeles City Council on the eve of Mexican Independence Day--a holiday marking Mexico's independence from Spain after a different war a century before.
But the Mexican Revolution wasn't blessed with so popular a single holiday, and Lopez Ruiz and a fellow soldier, Mateo Castillo Castro, 90, will ride in Los Angeles' traditional Mexican Independence Day parade Sunday.
This is the 50th anniversary of the annual parade in Los Angeles, which is scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at 1st and Lorena streets. It will move east on 1st to Gage Avenue, north on Gage to Brooklyn Avenue, east on Brooklyn to Mednik Avenue and south on Mednik to 1st.
Retired Mexican-American contractor Ricky Tavera brought Lopez Ruiz and Castro to Los Angeles for the event.
Lopez Ruiz said he still remembers the first time he met Zapata. Fighting under the command of Zapata's Gen. Francisco Pacheco, he and his fellow soldiers arrived at Zapata's camp at dawn. The famous leader with the drooping mustache came out in the black pants of a charro (a Mexican cowboy) to greet them.
"Silver ornaments glinted at his knee and on his sombrero," Lopez Ruiz said, tilting his head up, as if remembering the moment. "He ordered a cow to be killed to give us meat to eat, and, he said, 'We are fighting for land and we'll die fighting for land.' "
In 1919, Zapata was killed at the hands of a Mexican general. Lopez Ruiz left the cave where he had been hiding out, half-starved, to mourn Zapata's death and return to life as a small farmer.
He had seen thousands of bodies in the war that some historians say claimed a million lives. Asked how many he shot, Lopez Ruiz said: "I don't know. You just shoot and you never see where the bullets go."
The revolution ultimately limited the amount of land any citizen could own, and agrarian reform became a cornerstone of Mexican politics. However, as Mexico's birth rate soared, agrarian reform proved economically ill-advised. Some citizens received no land at all or miserly dry parcels that could not sustain their families. Many of them came north; on Sunday their heirs will line the streets to watch the parade Lopez Ruiz will ride in.
Lopez Ruiz, though he receives a soldier's pension, chose to remain at home in the small house in Huichilac, Morelos, where he has lived nearly all his life. "To apply for land, you had to go to Mexico City," he said. "I didn't have transportation."