PRESIDENT Carlos Salinas de Gortari has boldly challenged Mexicans' deep historical sensitivies by proposing the most sweeping agricultural reforms since the Mexican Revolution. His program would not only transform the lives of millions of rural Mexicans, but could ultimately undercut the dominance of his own ruling party."Other presidents have tried restructuring, but this is the most profound, most radical vision yet," says economist Antonio Junez of the Colegio de Mexico. Supporters cheer Mr. Salinas for being gutsy enough to buck history and political sensitivities by revamping an archaic communal farm system. If Mexico is to be competitive in a North American free-trade zone, they say, the reforms are imperative. But critics lambaste the president's "privitization" program for abandoning poor campesinos and reintroducing large feudal estates known as latifundios. "If Zapata were alive today, he'd start another revolution" to stop the reforms, says Faustino Arroche Zamora, a farmer here in the hometown of revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. The image of the mustachioed rebel is synonymous with peasant land rights. One of the tenets of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-17 was to break up big landholdings and give every Mexican enough land to be self-sufficient. The Mexican Constitution of 1917 enshrined the ejido communal land system, which now covers more than half the surface area of Mexico. But the ejidos are now failing to feed this nation of 82 million. "Those that criticize change basically propose that the poverty and misery of millions of campesinos continue," Salinas said in a national address on Nov. 14. Of the 17 million Mexicans living in extreme poverty, 70 percent live in the countryside. The majority of ejido farmers, or ejiditarios, own less than five hectares of land (12 acres, or less than one-tenth as much as the average US farmer), making economies of scale impossible. Under Article 27 of the Constitution, the land belongs to the state. The farmer manages the land and can pass these rights on to one son, but by law cannot rent or sell the property. And because they don't own the land, ejiditarios can't borrow against the land's value to buy equipment or more land to increase production. In his address, Salinas called for a national debate and set out proposals to encourage investment in agriculture. Included in the reforms: * A constitutional amendment to give ejidos the right to own their land, form associations with other ejidos, or to sell or rent land to corporations. * A major commitment to boost 1992 farm funding (for new technology, loans, etc.) to 9 trillion pesos (about $3 billion), up 20 percent in real terms over 1991. Another 5 trillion pesos ($1.6 billion) will be made available for an agro-industrial development fund and crop insurance. * A new legal system to protect the rights of rural private property owners and remove the agrarian judicial process from the executive branch. * The end to government distribution of land as dictated by the Constitution. "The population has grown to the point where there is no more land to give," states one Mexican official. One of the first challenges for the Salinas administration will be legalizing ejido land rights. This means untangling a Gordian knot of claims. Of the 28,000 ejidos, only 3,000 communities have legal titles. Even critics long to see the titleship problem resolved. But opposition parties argue the failure of the communal land system is due to low government funding and a corrupt, bloated agrarian bureaucracy. The Salinas reforms, they say, will open the door to domestic and foreign buyers with no long-term interest in helping poor farmers. "The government is giving me the right to sell the land," says ejido farmer Arroche Zamora. "Rich people will come and buy the land. Like a fool, I'll spend my money on wine, women, and song. But in two or three years, I'll be back asking for a job working the land I once owned." Government officials envision a different outcome. They point to recent model projects such as one in the town of Vaquerias in the state of Nuevo Leon. Gamesa, a Mexican cookiemaking conglomerate, put up half of $12 million (state and federal agencies chipped in the rest) to improve production at an ejido there. The ejiditarios work the land and evenly split the profits with their corporate partner. Mr. Junez notes the advantages of more capital investment, but wonders if it will ease rural poverty. "The best land will be sold off.... But the large percentage of farmers with low-production land won't find buyers." But the reforms are endorsed by ejiditario Mateo Zapata, son of the hero and head of the National Movement for the 1911 Ayala Plan, a group devoted his father's original goals. "It gives the campesino more options. He can sell, rent, or combine with other ejiditarios," he says. "Suppose year after year you were planting crops on the same four hectares and losing money. Then, someone offers you 100 million pesos for your land. That's more money than you'll ever see in your life, unless of course you're growing marijuana or opium." Says Mr. Zapata: d sell, get rid of all my problems, and head for Acapulco." Zapata says his father opposed the ejido. The Salinas reforms, says Zapata, may give campesinos more political freedom. "The ejidos are used by the ruling party. They say, if you don't vote for the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party], we won't give you credits or we'll take your land and give it to someone else." Within five to 10 years, says political scientist Frederico Estevez of the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico, PRI will lose much of the influence of the agrarian bureaucracy and the campesino organizations which helped deliver rural votes. But Professor Estevez says: "The PRI leadership hopes that between the two goodies of giving ejido peasants more options plus a huge commitment of money, they can recreate a relatively durable coalition of support in the countryside."