By Lluis Lozano
Mexico City, Jul 20 (EFE).- Emblematic and charismatic hero of the Mexican Revolution or bloodthirsty bandit? Loved or hated? Exalted or reviled?
A hundred years after his death, Pancho Villa (1878-1923) enjoys a place as one of the most important figures in his country’s history, yet the murkier aspects of his existence also have been cemented into his legacy.
According to the granddaughter of the revolutionary general and a historian and author who has studied his life for more than 40 years, Villa will always be viewed as part hero and part villain.
“In the historiography, we’re always going to find that duality: the bandit or the affable (figure) concerned about the poor and children’s education. That’ll never change,” Guadalupe Villa said in an interview with Efe to mark Thursday’s 100th anniversary of his death.
Although she is often accused of justifying her grandfather’s sins, the historian said she merely acknowledges his two contrasting sides: the young outlaw and a man who was violent toward women, as well as the revolutionary leader who was a champion of Mexico’s development and its most underprivileged.
“Yes, he was an outlaw. He said that at age 16 he had to join a group of bandits because he had to join up with someone to survive (as a fugitive). If you don’t situate yourself in that era mentally, you don’t understand that,” Villa said.
And despite his brutal history as a man who ordered rapes and killings, she said these actions must be placed in the social context of late-19th-century and early-20th-century Mexico.
“There are campaigns by women saying he was a machista. And yes, he was. In that era, the men were machistas, violent, controlling. He’s being judged with today’s eyes,” the historian added.
Before his human rights record came under the microscope, historians blamed Villa for ruptures in the revolutionary coalition following the overthrow of longstanding dictator Porfirio Diaz.
He is blamed in particular for splitting with the leader of the Constitutionalist faction (liberal intellectuals and middle-class citizens) in the Mexican Revolution, Venustiano Carranza, and plunging the country into civil war.
“His figure keeps evolving. He’s being seen in a more favorable light, but there are always those who keep vilifying him. My crusade in this life is to talk about the good things he did,” Guadalupe Villa said.
HIS LEGACY LIVES ON
Born Jose Doroteo Arango Arambula in 1878 in the northern state of Durango, he became a fugitive as a teenager after shooting the owner of the hacienda where he lived for harassing his sister.
During that time on the run, he began calling himself Pancho Villa, using the surname of his paternal grandfather to conceal his identity.
After living as a bandit for many years and robbing wealthy miners and others, he was convinced in 1910 to join businessman and politician Francisco Madero’s revolutionary struggle against Diaz, whose regime was seen by many in Mexico as enforcing the country’s extreme wealth inequality.
Diaz resigned and went into exile in 1911.
Two years later, Madero was overthrown and killed in a counter-revolutionary coup, and Villa subsequently ascended to the position of commander of the revolution’s northern division.
After losing a series of battles to Carranza’s forces, Villa turned to guerrilla warfare between 1915 and 1920.
The aura surrounding Villa perhaps reached its zenith when, angered by the United States’ support for Carranza, he carried out a raid in 1916 on the border town of Columbus, New Mexico.
He later made the transition to civilian life after Carranza – Mexico’s president from 1917 to 1920 – was assassinated by supporters of Gen. Alvaro Obregon, agreeing to a peace settlement that allowed him to live on a vast hacienda in Chihuahua state with dozens of guerrillas who remained loyal to him.
Three years later, he was shot and killed on July 20, 1923, in an ambush while driving his 1919 Dodge automobile.
But he remains alive in the hearts of many Mexicans who identify with his rise from the poor son of a sharecropper to a revolutionary commander and his reputation as someone sympathetic to the plight of the downtrodden.
“Villa was born poor. He was probably a boy who was mistreated, who didn’t study, who suffered economic and emotional hardship, yet managed to overcome all that with effort, work and dedication,” his granddaughter said.
“He lives on in the minds of Mexicans because a lot of people who have suffered poverty, injustice and persecution, who feel they are not taken into account, identify with him,” she added.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the country’s first leftist head of state in more than 70 years, has declared 2023 to be the year of Gen. Pancho Villa.
His face and characteristic moustache are still seen on T-shirts, his name is invoked by protesters demanding their rights and his life story has been told in numerous movies.
Now, to mark the 100th anniversary of his death, a new television series and radio soap opera will delve into different aspects of his life.
And the National Institute of Historical Studies on the Mexican Revolution, a research institute of the Secretariat of Public Education, has organized a conference on lesser-known aspects of his life and an exhibit of 26 works of art inspired by Villa’s life. EFE