Villa, Francisco (Pancho)
Villa, Francisco (Pancho) 1878–1923
The memory of Francisco (Pancho) Villa evokes contradicting sentiments. Villa has been extolled as a trustworthy revolutionary. He has also been vilified as a cruel, dishonest bandit. Nevertheless, Villa remains a significant figure in Mexican history. His memory remains alive through Mexican ballads known as corriodos, poetry, and film. This article examines the life of Villa—the bandit and the revolutionary—and his contributions to Mexican political history.
Villa was born José Doroteo Arango Arámbula on June 5, 1878, in the northern state of Durango. (In The Life and Times of Pancho Villa, Friedrich Katz states that baptism records show he was baptized as Doroteo Arango, while Francisco Caudet Yarza claims in Pancho Villa that he was baptized as José Doroteo.) Villa came from a poor background. His parents, Agustín Arango and Micaele Arambula, worked as sharecroppers on one of the largest haciendas in Durango. Villa’s father died when Villa was young. Consequently, Villa, the oldest of five children, had to work to support the family at the expense of a formal education.
Villa was a bandit by the 1890s. The reason he decided to live the harsh life of a bandit in the mountains of Durango is unknown. In his memoirs Villa recounts that he fled into the mountains of Durango when he was sixteen years old out of fear that he would be incarcerated for shooting and injuring Agustín López Negrete, the owner of the hacienda on which he lived and worked (Katz 1998, p. 3). Villa allegedly shot the owner to protect the honor of one of his younger sisters.
However, some biographers question whether or not Villa’s attack on the hacienda owner actually took place (Braddy 1948, p. 349; Garfias, 1985, p. 15; Katz 1998, p. 65). Celia Herrera, whose relatives had been killed by Villa, recorded that he became a bandit upon murdering a friend during an altercation (Katz 1998, p. 6). Regardless of its validity, the incident remains a part of Villa’s story.
Doroteo changed his name to Francisco, or Pancho, Villa as an outlaw. The new name was probably an adoption of the name of his biological grandfather, Jesús Villa, and changed to evade the federal army and state authorities in Durango. Legendary tales impart that Villa adopted the name of a famous bandit, Francisco Villa, who died after being severely injured during an attack by local citizens in the mountains of Durango.
The description of Villa’s life during this time has varied. Some individuals viewed him solely as a violent, ruthless bandit. Celia Herrera’s Francisco Villa ante la historia describes Villa as one who led a life of crime and vengeance in which he killed friends, beat women, and tortured those who refused to cooperate when he demanded their money (Katz 1998, p. 6). Villa admitted to killing many men in his memoirs but denied being a cold-blooded murderer. Rather, the men were killed in self-defense or out of retaliation for betrayal (Katz 1998, p. 5).
On the other hand, Villa has been perceived as a benevolent champion of the poor. His memoirs reveal that he had stolen money and given it to the poor, including family members. These altruistic acts earned him the label of “Robin Hood of the Mexicans” (Brandt 1964, p. 153; Caudet 1998, p. 35; Katz 1998, p. 7).
By 1910 Villa had transformed from a bandit into a revolutionary. Abraham González, the leader of the Anti-Reelectionist Party in Chihuahua, recruited Villa and a military leader, Pascual Orozco, into the revolutionary movement against President Porfirio Díaz (Katz 1998, p. 73). González’s decision to recruit an outlaw to support the revolutionary efforts of Francisco Madero remains questionable. Regardless, the revolution was successful. President Díaz was forced to resign after thirty years of dictatorial rule, and Madero became the president of Mexico. Villa earned a promotion to honorary general, and he fought against the counterrevolutionaries, led by Orozco, in 1912.
Villa was also an important figure in U.S.-Mexican relations. His relationship with the United States was initially amicable. The United States allowed arms to be smuggled to Villa in January 1914, and President Woodrow Wilson ended the U.S. arms embargo against Mexico shortly thereafter, which allowed Villa to buy ammunition legally from the United States (Katz 1998, p. 250). President Wilson even offered Villa political asylum in the United States in 1915 (Katz 1998, p. 535). These actions illustrated the United States’ confidence in Villa’s abilities as a leader.
The positive relationship between Villa and the United States took a turn for the worse by 1916, when Villa attacked Columbus, New Mexico. The reasons for Villa’s attack remain under debate. A letter from Villa indicates that the attack was meant as revenge for an act of betrayal by President Wilson during his war against the troops of President Venustiano Carranza of Mexico (Katz 1998, p. 552). Whatever the reason, the attack caused Wilson to send American troops to Mexico to capture Villa and destroy his forces (Sandos 1981, p. 303).
Villa was murdered on July 20, 1923, while driving to a village in Chihuahua. Two weeks after Villa’s assassination, Jesús Salas Barraza claimed sole responsibility for Villa’s murder. He said he killed Villa on behalf of the many people in his district, El Oro, who had been victimized by Villa (Katz 1998, p. 773). Salas was sentenced to twenty years in prison on September 13 but was pardoned and released a few months later. No one else was accused or arrested for Villa’s murder.
An examination of Villa’s life reveals that he probably was neither the devil nor the angel that many chose to label him. Instead, he is a complex figure whose memory continues to flourish in both Mexico and the United States.
SEE ALSO Mexican Revolution (1910–1920); Revolution; Social Movements; Zapata, Emiliano
Braddy, Haldeen. 1948. Pancho Villa, Folk Hero of the Mexican Border. Western Folklore 7 (4): 349-355.
Brandt, Nancy. 1964. Pancho Villa: The Making of a Modern Legend. Americas 21 (2): 146-162.
Caudet Yarza, Francisco. 1998. Pancho Villa. Madrid, Spain: Dastin.
Garfias M., Luis. 1981. Verdad y leyenda de Pancho Villa. Mexico, D.F.: Panaroma Editorial.
Herrera, Celia. 1981. Francisco Villa ante la historia. 3rd ed. Mexico, D.F.: Costa Amic Editores.
Katz, Friedrich. 1998. The Life and Times of Pancho Villa. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Sandos, James A. 1981. “Pancho Villa and American Security: Woodrow Wilson’s Mexican Diplomacy Reconsidered.” Journal of Latin American Studies 13 (2): 293-311.
Sarita D. Jackson
Pancho Villa was born Doroteo Arango on June 5, 1878, in San Juan del Rio, Durango. His life as an orphaned peasant ended, according to tradition, when he defended his sister against the hacienda owner. He became a bandit chief and horse trader, changed his name, and finally joined the maderistas in Chihuahua under Abraham González.
Without formal education, Villa was to learn revolutionary goals from association with Francisco Madero and his movement. Villa rebelled against the Porfirio Díaz regime and, because of successes as a guerrilla fighter, his knowledge of the terrain, and his skill as an organizer, was given the rank of colonel. On May 11, 1911, his forces and those of Pascual Orozco attacked and captured Ciudad Juárez contrary to Madero's orders. The victory marked the triumph of the Madero revolution.
After Madero assumed the presidency, Villa returned to civilian life as a businessman, but the Orozco rebellion in 1912 brought him back to the fray, defending the Madero regime first independently and then under Victoriano Huerta's orders. Imprisoned and about to be shot by Huerta for insubordination, Villa was saved by the intervention of Raúl Madero, the President's brother. Imprisoned for a while, he escaped to the United States. He reentered Mexico with a handful of companions to fight the usurper Huerta after Madero's death. By September 1913 that handful had become the nucleus of Villa's Division of the North.
In the struggle against Huerta, Villa was in uneasy alliance with Venustiano Carranza and Emiliano Zapata. The villistas took Torreón and won the crucial battle of Zacatecas (June 23, 1914). By then the irritations had built up and made conflict inevitable once the common foe had been vanquished. In part the differences were ideological, but more significant was the clash of personalities—the stubborn Carranza, proud of his prerogatives as first chief, and the indomitable and undisciplined Villa.
After Carranza's abortive Convention of Generals in the capital removed to the "neutral zone" of Aguascalientes, the zapatistas managed to dominate the gathering ideologically while the villistas held military control. Villa was made chief of Convention military operations against Carranza and with Zapata occupied Mexico City in December 1914. The Convention government could not command its own commander. Villa lived according to his own personal code, beyond authority and law. He took what he pleased whether it was women or the lives of men.
Coordination between the zapatistas and villistas proved difficult if not impossible. The Convention government was forced to leave the capital as Álvaro Obregón advanced from the southeast. Villa retreated northward, there to be defeated in the most massive battles of the revolution, at Celaya and León in the spring of 1915. The power of the Division of the North was broken, and the myth of invincibility of Villa's cavalry (the famous dorados) was exploded.
Villa withdrew to Chihuahua, which he continued to control, and is credited with introducing reforms including some land distribution. In March 1916, angered by United States recognition of Carranza, Villa attacked Columbus, N. Mex. For almost a year Gen. Pershing's punitive expedition sought unsuccessfully to capture or destroy the "Centaur of the North." Some villista groups were dispersed, and Villa himself was wounded, but the uncooperative posture of the Carranza regime and the apparent inevitability of war with Germany speeded the withdrawal of the forces.
Villa continued guerrilla harassment of the Carranza government until the regime was overthrown by the rebellion of Agua Prieta in 1920. The interim administration of Adolfo de la Huerta reached an agreement whereby Villa agreed to lay down his arms and accept rank as a division general and the ranch of Canutillo, Durango, to support him and his escort.
Pancho Villa was killed on June 20, 1923, in Parral by obregonistas apparently fearful that he might emerge from his retirement to oppose the election of Plutarco Calles. More than four decades later the Mexican Congress voted to inscribe his name in gold on the chamber walls with other heroes of the Mexican Revolution.
Two works by Martín Luis Guzmán are especially valuable for understanding Villa: The Eagle and the Serpent, translated by Harriet de Onís (1930), and Memoirs of Pancho Villa, translated by Virginia H. Taylor (1965). Other biographies of Villa are Edgcumb Pinchon, Viva Villa ! (1933), and Haldeen Braddy, Cock of the Walk … The Legend of Pancho Villa (1955). Ronald Atkin, Revolution! Mexico, 1910-20 (1970), an excellent popular history by a journalist, contains a fine characterization of Villa and his contemporaries. Robert E. Quirk's specialized study, The Mexican Revolution, 1914-1915; the Convention of Aguascalientes (1960; repr. 1970), underscores the villista-zapatista contribution to the social program of the revolution. Villa's relations with the United States are treated in Clarence C. Clendenen, The United States and Pancho Villa: A Study in Unconventional Diplomacy (1961). Pershing's expedition into Mexico is described in an exciting study by Herbert Molloy Mason, Jr., The Great Pursuit (1970), which includes excellent photographs, maps, and bibliography. □
Pancho Villa ★½ 1972 (PG)
Savalas has the lead in this fictional account of the famous Mexican, He leads his men in a raid on an American fort after being hoodwinked in an arms deal. Connors tries to hold the fort against him. The finale, in which two trains crash head on, is the most exciting event in the whole darn movie. 92m/C VHS, DVD . SP Telly Savalas, Clint Walker, Anne Francis, Chuck Connors, Angel Del Pozo, Luis Davila; D: Eugenio (Gene) Martin; W: Julian Zimet; C: Alejandro Ulloa; M: Anton Abril.