In the history books there are many records of revolutionary characters -- some of the stories are wholly embellished beyond the truth of what really happened, and others, like the stories about Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, are part accurate and part legend -- and sometimes incomplete or vague. Whether all the tales told of Villa's escapades are factual is beside the point; by any measure, Villa was truly a revolutionary character in the history of Mexico. This paper delves into the life and times of Pancho Villa, who was a Mexican folk hero, a bandit, a charismatic leader of bandits, and indeed a revolutionary figure.
Pancho Villa -- The White Legend, Black Legend, and Epic Legend
The late professor Friedrich Katz was considered the foremost scholar of Mexican history, best known perhaps for his knowledge of the Mexican Revolution. Katz writes that there are three "basic versions" of the life of Pancho Villa. One was called the "white legend" -- and this legend is based for the most part on the reminiscences that Villa himself recounted (reviewed in the paragraphs below). Villa depicted himself as a "victim of the social and economic system of Porfirian Mexico," Katz explains in his Prologue to his highly respected book, The Life and Times of Pancho Villa.
In the white legend -- some of which history tends to back up -- depicts Villa as a young man who was driven to be an outlaw against his will. Katz explains that the white legend is reflected in the memoirs that Villa put together. The "black legend" portrays Villa as an "evil murderer, with no redeeming qualities" and the "epic legend" is based largely on "popular ballads and traditions that seem to have emerged mainly in the course of the revolution" (Katz, 2).
In fact the epic legend shows Villa as a personality that was much more prominent in pre-revolutionary Chihuahua than he is portrayed in either the white or black legend, Katz continues on page 2 of the Prologue. The truth about all three legends, Katz explains, is that they are not based on solid original documents but rather on "reminiscences, popular ballads, rumors, memoirs, and hearsay" -- and moreover, none of the three is consistent even within itself.
The Early Life of Pancho Villa
Pancho Villa was actually born Doroteo Arango on the fifth of June, 1878, in the northern Mexico state of Durango -- in the small village of Rio Grande. His parents -- Augstin Arango and Micaela Arambula -- were very poor sharecroppers who worked for a rich landlord / property owner. Doroteo had two brothers and two sisters and it is believed that he had little if any formal schooling, according to Outlaws, Mobsters & Crooks (1998).
After his father died in 1893, as the oldest son Doroteo became the man of the house and the version of the story as to what happened when he turned 16 has several versions. The Outlaws, Mobsters & Crooks article asserts that when he came home from working in the fields, which is what he did for a living, he saw the landlord of the property his family worked for threatening one of his sisters. Enraged, Doroteo hustled over to a cousin's house and got a pistol. The story goes that Doroteo then "shot the owner three times, wounding him seriously. Immediately afterward, Doroteo escaped on a horse, a fugitive at the age of sixteen"
That's not quite the same story as Villa told. "The tragedy of my life begins on September 22, 1894, when I was sixteen years old," Villa wrote in his memoirs, which were dictated to his secretary, Manuel Bauche Alcalde, when Villa was at the height of his power in 1914, according to Katz. That day, Villa explained, the "Master, the owner of the lives and honor of us the poor people" (Don Agustin Lopez Negrete) was standing in front of Doroteo's mother, who was telling him, "Go away from my house! Why do you want to take my daughter?" (Katz, 1998, p. 3).
In Villa's version, he got the gun from a cousin and shot Lopez Negrete in the foot, only once. Lopez Negrete than called for his armed guards for help; they appeared with rifles drawn and were about to shoot Doroteo but Lopez Negrete told them not to. "Take me home," Lopez Negrete is reported to have said to his guards. At that point, according to Villa's version dictated in 1914, the young man (fearing he might be arrested) jumped on a horse and "From that moment onled the life of an outlaw in the mountains of Durango relentlessly pursued by the authorities" (Katz, 3).
In his account of his life, Villa claims he was captured, jailed and put to work grinding Mixtamal dough prior to running away again, only to be caught a few months later (October, 1895). His second escape from captors was orchestrated through a clever ruse and from that point he decided to join up with other outlaws for his own protection (Katz, 4). He changed his name to Francisco Villa and changed his lifestyle from being a hunted fugitive to a "successful outlaw" (Katz, 4).
Meanwhile, during the late 19th century Villa was not just robbing and killing -- and seizing money and shipments of silver and gold from the mines in northern Mexico (reportedly giving his stolen goods to family and friends) -- he also tried to settle into more traditional roles (miner, stonemason, and butcher). But each time he was about to adjust to a productive life as a peaceful employee, the authorities would discover him and he would flee to the mountains again, the Outlaws, Mobsters & Crooks article pointed out.
How Pancho Villa Became a Revolutionary Figure in History
"Revolution: (1) An instance of great change in affairs or in some particular thing; (2) A complete overthrow of the established government in any country or state by those who were previously subject to it; (3) A forcible substitution of a new rule or form of government" (The Oxford Universal Dictionary on Historical Principles, Little, et al., 1933).
During this period in his life, Porfirio Diaz was the president of Mexico, who was not at all concerned about the horrific living conditions many Mexican citizens were subjected to. In fact Porfirio "favored the owners of the large farming estates, or haciendas" and hence the ordinary folks in Mexico were drifting deeper into poverty, they had no say-so in their government, and the rich haciendas were simply taking land away from poor people (Outlaws, Mobsters & Crooks). At this point (1910), Francisco Madero -- whose father was a rich rancher in northern Mexico -- was calling for a revolution to rid the country of the despotic Diaz. Pancho Villa -- who had empathy for the poor since he was raised in poverty and his family was at the mercy of Lopez Negrete -- was eager to joined up with Madero.
According to the Dictionary of Hispanic Biography (DHB) Madero actually formed a political party and brought in Abran Gonzalez as a running mate. When Gonzalez met with Villa in Chihuahua City, sharing with Villa what the goals of the party were, "Villa was impressed with Gonzalez and with Madero's courage and idealism" (DHB). Hence, Villa "enthusiastically joined the revolutionary army with the rank of captain" (DHB). Villa's own group of rebels included about five hundred men from all walks of life, including "rich hacienda owners" and poor peasants (DHB).
However, Diaz quickly realized that Madero's movement was gaining credibility and clout, so he seized Madero, tossed him into prison, and won the election of 1910, the DHB explains. After the election, Madero was released from prison and "escaped to San Antonio, Texas" where he started his opposition to Diaz all over again; and on November 20, 1910, Madero officially called for the armed uprising that came to be known as the Mexican Revolution. Villa's group captured San Andres in Chihuahua but Madero's army was beaten at Casa Grandes, Chihuahua by the Diaz forces, which led Diaz and his men to conclude that "the revolution has been effectively thwarted" (DHB). Diaz was wrong. When Villa, considered a "daring and ingenious leader," and Madero combined their troops they had enough firepower to take over Ciudad Juarez on May 10, 1911 (DHB).
Meanwhile Emiliano Zapata, another revolutionary leader, led his forces to several victories in southern Mexico while Villa -- promoted to colonel for his "brilliant performance" -- and Madero held court in the north. And that was the straw that broke the camel's back for dictator Diaz, who resigned May 21, 1911 and headed into exile. In October of that year Madero and Villa and their army marched into Mexico City and Madero was elected president of Mexico (DHB).
The revolution had ended, the rebels were in charge, the dictator had been ousted, and all seemed peaceful as Villa went back to his home in Chihuahua City…