Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2013
by Brad Rath
As sweat bedewed men's foreheads, the uncomfortably hot summer of 1878, passed sleepily over the north-central Mexican state of Durango. The peasants, like their forefathers, worked the fertile soil of the "haciendas." However, the summer of 1878, would prove to be a time when a leader would be born within the muted multitude.
The leader would be named Doroteo; later, he would change his name to Pancho Villa. Villa emerged from the peasant class as the son of Arango and Micaela Arambula. The fact that his birth was legitimate was always a laurel upon which Villa rested. In a time when illegitimacy was rampant and marriages between ranch hands were too expensive, Villa was blessed with married parents.
To obtain an accurate account of Villa's life, one should look at the factors that shaped him into the infamous, rebel leader and, sometimes, notorious killer. The monikers which are often used to describe this man may have some accuracy. On the other hand, one readily should not associate Villa with images that reflect ruthless slaughter of innocent people . . .to do so would imply one's overlooking of Villa's upbringing. Perhaps, one should attempt to see Villa as a product of his environment.
As an illiterate farmhand, Villa was never presented with the opportunity to attend school. His education was derived from elsewhere. Villa worked the land and, in turn, came to understand the surrounding nature. He familiarized himself with the landscape through his daily chores of attending to cattle and horses on the hacienda. By observing the practices of the older farmhands, Villa learned how to slaughter cattle and dry the meat for purposes of preservation. As one will see, these skills served him better than anything he could have learned from a schoolbook.
Villa was raised on the hacienda and saw firsthand the abusive labor practices applied against his family and others in his social class. Villa watched as the debts of the laborer-father were inherited by the son. The self-propogating system of oppression deeply disheartened Villa. He seemed to notice that regardless of outside influences, he would always be forced to work the land.
Needless to say, Villa's destiny did not rest on the hacienda. Returning from the fields one afternoon in 1894, Villa entered his home to find his mother and sister cowering in fear of don Agustin Lopez Negrete. The local "gentleman" desired certain favors from Villa's tweleve-year-old sister, Martina. Villa could not bear the thought of his sister being dishonored; with little choice, Villa did what was necessary. Quickly, he procured a gun and championed the cause of Martina. As the mortally wounded Lopez Negrete fell to the floor, Villa gathered his thoughts and decided to begin the life of a fugitive. He headed for the Sierra de la Silla in order to evade the "rurales," rural police. The aforementioned survival skills maintained Villa during his time on the run.
As Villa played dangerous games of hide-and-seek in the mountains, a sense of stability was emanating throughout Mexico. The programs of Porfirio Diaz (in the early part of his career) placed the economy on relatively solid ground. Though free from Spain's control, ambitious self-interest (on the parts of the hacienda owners and churches) showcased the idea that "one could not eat freedom" (Rouverol 9). People were starving.
Meanwhile, Villa remained on the opposite side of the "law." He was a survivor; if situations called for him to murder or steal, then hesitation was not an option. Villa had reasons for his opposition to the current regime. His reasons were grounded in his childhood experiences. He watched helplessly as the owners of the large plantations abused the workers and took advantage of their beleaguered situation. As he had never enjoyed the priviledge of wealth and affluence, he did not see a need for it presently.
With minor exceptions, Villa good-heartedly sought to raise up his fellow peons to a somewhat higher standard of living and opportunity. He desired schools for the children and private ownership of land for the working adults. Villa wanted to see his people removed from under the tyranny of the hacienda owners and placed in a more independent work environment.
The revolutionary years of Mexico produced numerous political leaders. With the leaders, different theories developed concerning the management of the country. The constant changing of power resulted in a political soup. However, through all of the changes, Villa remained a figure of constancy. He embodied the needs and desires of the poor, working class people of Mexico. Regardless of his political affiliations, Villa always seemed to place the needs of the Mexican people at the top of his agenda.
By the middle of 1920, Mexico had been ravaged by years of civil wars. Fields were untouched by workers and a large portion of the livestock had been sold to support various revolutionaries. On the homefront, families found themselves missing fathers, brothers, and sons, who had been killed in combat. The overall condition of Mexico was poor.
Villa, in a final quest for peace, decided to end his rebellion against the government. He settled for "twenty-five thousand acres of the Canutillo lands in northern Durango" (196). Furthermore, his men were presented with lands at Rio Conchos and military pay for one year. One may notice the irony in this settlement. Villa, a native of the Durango area, was once a peon on a large hacienda. Now, in his home state, he found himself the owner of what could easily be seen as a vast hacienda. Villa had made a transition from peon to power. However, Villa would not forget the hard lessons that he learned as a young man on the infamously cruel system of the haciendas. Villa would not make the same mistakes.
As he had always been a voice for the working class, Villa would continue in this facet as the owner of a large piece of land. He attempted tremendous agrarian reform on his land. First, he studied the new, American techniques of contour plowing and crop rotation. His agrarian reform went one step further to include not only the crops, but also the people who tended the crops. Villa remembered the unfair economics used by the hacienda owners and made refreshing changes.
To begin, he founded a bank which readily made loans to farmers. The loans were provided with uncommonly low interest rates. The low rates allowed the farmers to buy the necessary tools and seeds for their fields. In turn, the farmers were more comfortable in their work environment because they did not have tremendously augmenting debts looming over their shoulders.
The children who occupied Villa's land were provided with a school. Although Villa had never received a formal education, he realized the importance of education in the lives of the children. Education implied the opportunity for the children to raise themselves out of their dilapidated surroundings. Therefore, as one can see, Villa's management of his hacienda reflected his goals for the people of Mexico.
One may observe Villa's hacienda as a miniature example of Villa's ideal Mexico. Had Villa been successful in all of his attempts throughout Mexico, perhaps, the results would have been similar to his personal hacienda. He was capable of providing a comfortable environment for his people. Could he have done so on a larger scale? The answer will not be known. On the morning of July 20, 1923, Pancho Villa was assassinated in Parral, Chihuahua. Villa was on his way to the christening of a friend's baby when he and five of his followers were gunned down by seven armed men.
The assassination of Villa was indicative of the Mexican political system. Villa had long been removed from the political spotlight; he did not pose a threat to the current regime nor did he have any plans of a revolt. His days as an outlaw were finished and he had taken up the life of a successful, hacienda manager. The significance of his assassination and the identity of his assassins were unclear.
First, the significance of his assassination may rest in old grudges. Several days after Villa's murder "a local politician named Jesus Salas Barraza proclaimed that the plan had been his, in punishment for Villa's many crimes" (199). However, the instigator may have been higher up on the governmental ladder. The charge of guilt seemed to point at the soon-to-be president, Plutarco Elías Calles. The implication was strengthened when someone discovered that the assassins had used government-issued bullets.
As mentioned earlier, the government may have succeeded in killing a man who was capable of managing the country. However, those in power could not rise above the past and carry Mexico in a positive direction. They remained entrenched in old feuds.
Villa's life as a peon, outlaw, revolution leader, and citizen, should be viewed in relation to his adherence to unshakeable beliefs. He had lived at all levels of society running the gamut from poor to wealthy. Still, he kept in mind the needs of the working class people. Villa could not forget his upbringing on the hacienda system and his experience with the system is what ultimately shaped his goals. One may view Villa as a product of his environment. If so, one should notice that when he finally did attain wealth and power, he did not abuse his position. Instead, he used his position to alleviate the toilsome life of the class from which he was raised.
Rouverol, Jean. Pancho Villa: A Biography. Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York.
While researching the life of Pancho Villa, texts other than that of Rouverol were encountered. In regards to this project,these extra sources were considered vacuous for reasons that range from arguable idealism to the fact that some were overly specific. The Rouverol text was considered paramount due to its comprehensive, factual account of Villa's life. Nonetheless, the other books deserve mention and may be useful for a more in-depth study. They are as follows:
Braddy, Haldeen. Pancho Villa at Columbus, The Raid of 1916, Restudied. El Paso, Texas; Texas Western College Press. 1965. Clendenen, Clarence Clemens. The United States and Pancho Villa, A Study in Unconventional Diplomacy. 1961. Guzman, Martin Luis. Memoirs of Pancho Villa. Austin, University of Texas Press. 1965. Torres, Elías L. Twenty Episodes in the Life of Pancho Villa. Austin [Texas] Encino Press. 1973.