Only recently, I learned that the community of Columbus, New Mexico, U.S.A., is home to Pancho Villa State Park, which lies immediately south of town. Since I lived in Las Cruces, 80 miles away by road, for two years in the late 90’s and have paid more than one visit to Columbus and the Mexican hamlet of Las Palomas across the international line, where I had a beer or two under the faintly suspicious gaze of the tabernero and a few solitary drinkers, how I managed to miss Pancho Villa State Park is something of a mystery, the equivalent of overlooking a putative Mohammed Atta State Park at Ground Zero. The website suggests it hardly amounts to much, like Columbus itself—a drab relic from postmodern America’s reprobated frontier past (population approximately 1,700 souls) that survives like the billion half-dead cactus plants on the flat creosote bush and sotol desert surrounding the town. One wonders to what extent the city fathers who agreed to—or, more likely, lobbied hard in Santa Fe on behalf of—the park were acquainted with the details of the story of General Villa’s raid on Columbus on the night of March 8, 1916: Before September 11, 2001, it was the sole armed invasion of the continental United States since 1812. For those with a sketchy knowledge of the affair, here are a few facts.
For 90 years, historians have argued Pancho Villa’s purpose in attacking Columbus. The most likely ones were: to embarrass his rival for the Mexican presidency, Venustiano Carranza, who was finally supported by Woodrow Wilson after his early enthusiasm for Villa had waned; to provoke the United States into foolishly invading Mexico (“The United States wants to swallow Mexico; let’s see if it doesn’t get stuck in their throats”); and to create a wave of antigringo feeling throughout the northern states that would recreate, through enlistments, Villa’s old División del Norte and revive Villismo as the most powerful political movement in the region. (Another, more proximate, explanation is Pancho Villa’s hatred for gringos, in general, and Wilson, in particular, after the President allowed General Calles’s army to be reinforced from the Arizona side of the border, thus ensuring Villa’s defeat at the Battle of Agua Prieta in November 1915. “From this moment on,” he swore, “I will devote my life to the killing of every gringo I can get my hands on and to the destruction of all gringo property.”) Speculation aside, the historical record describes Villa pulling his little army of 399 men out of the town of Namiquipa in Chihuahua State on a northward march to a destination unknown to the troops, traveling mainly by night and keeping cold camp to avoid betraying their presence to the local villages and whatever Carrancista forces might be in the vicinity.
The Centaur (so nicknamed in recognition of Villa’s superb horsemanship) took whatever civilians he happened upon prisoner; later, he released the Mexican ones but maltreated or executed the gringos. By the evening of March 6, the army found itself only a few miles south of the border. That night, a party of soldiers brought into camp the hysterical widow of an American rancher, resident in Mexico, whom they had shot to death on the steps of his house after he had spotted them at a distance. The woman, Maude Wright, was kept with the army for a few days and later released to tell her story.
The gringos the Villistas encountered the following day were not so lucky. Villa was in camp drinking coffee when he spied three riders sitting on their horses on a rise a few hundred yards away. One of the men waved in recognition, and then all three put their horses forward and rode on toward the camp. While the other two watched from a distance, the first rider trotted straight up to the campfire where Villa sat cross-legged on the ground. He was Arthur McKinney of the Palomas Land and Cattle Company and an old acquaintance of Pancho Villa. McKinney asked cordially how the revolution was going. Villa told him it went very well and ordered one of his men to pour Señor McKinney a cup of coffee. The two men continued to chat about this and that, while the cowboys at a distance smoked cigarettes from the saddle. Suddenly, Villa remarked in a conversational tone, “You know, Arturo, I’m making war against the gringos, too, and I guess I’ll just start right here with you.” Quick as a rattlesnake, a Villista looped a strand of barbed wire around the American’s neck. McKinney, thinking it was all a joke, was starting to laugh when his eyes bulged and his tongue protruded. The other end of the tightened wire went over a cottonwood branch and McKinney was lifted, kicking and spinning, from the ground while the tin cup he had been drinking from rolled in the dust. Seeing this, his colleagues took a deep seat and galloped away. They were roped from their saddles before they had gone a hundred yards and dragged to death behind their own horses by the Villistas. The following night, General Villa and his army attacked Columbus and Camp Furlong, where a U.S. garrison was posted, going in at 4:45 in the morning. They killed 17 Americans and set fire to the town, losing over 100 men themselves and failing in their attempts at robbing the stores and bank and obtaining arms from the garrison’s arsenal. Even so, the attack on Columbus did fulfill the Centaur’s larger purpose, greatly enhancing his personal prestige and reviving Villismo in northern Mexico.
It would be natural to conclude that the honor paid to this man by the creation of an American state park in his name reflects the demography of present-day Columbus (83.3 percent Hispanic, 45.9 percent foreign born, 45.8 percent Latin American origin), were it not for the fact that Pancho Villa has been a legendary figure for many Americans as well as for most Mexicans, from his time down to our own. John Reed, who worked as a news correspondent in Mexico during the early years of the Mexican Civil War and knew the general intimately, believed that Villa was laying the groundwork for a socialist society in Chihuahua. His dispatches were avidly read by President Wilson, who invited Reed to the White House, where he intimated a desire to see Pancho Villa elected President of Mexico in the interests of agrarian reform. Mary Jones, the organizer for the United Mine Workers of America, adored Villa, who once proposed to Wilson a prisoner exchange in which Mother Jones would be swapped for the Centaur’s old enemy, Luis Terrazas, Jr. Tom Mix, another admirer, traveled from Hollywood to the battlefields of Chihuahua State, where the Mutual Film Company was recording Villa’s troops (and the Centaur himself) in action and making an almost wholly fictitious movie, The Life of General Villa. And Ambrose Bierce, after crossing the Rio Grande from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, rode south with Villa and later became an actual combatant in the battle of Terra Blanca, in which he is said to have killed a federal soldier. According to a Mexican army engineer who knew Villa well, Bierce was eventually murdered on orders from the general after he insulted Villa at dinner and threatened to go over to the Carrancistas.
Traveling by bus on Federal Highway 85 from Juárez to Ciudad Chihuahua some months ago, I experienced a frisson myself on beholding the vast Chihuahuan Desert, gazing between its blocky ranges of naked rock lifted above the creosote plain into the mysterious reaches beyond, where the hard-riding Villa with his Villistas had pursued his bloody career as “social bandit” and lain up for weeks in the Cueva de Cozcomate, nursing a knee wound suffered in the battle of Ciudad Guerrero on the long retreat south from the border following the attack on Columbus. (From this cave, through a screen of desert brush, Villa observed Pershing’s Punitive Expedition crawl past, within hailing distance on its 400-mile trek south of the border in determined but fruitless search of him.) In Ciudad Chihuahua, by far the most interesting museum is Casa Villa, which is run by the Mexican war department. Here, Villa himself lived for a year as governor of the province in company with his official “widow” from among his many “wives,” Doña Luz Corral de Villa, who remained there from shortly after his death in 1923 until her own in 1981. Among the exhibits is the black Dodge touring car, riddled from behind with .44 slugs, in which Pancho Villa and all but one of his entourage were assassinated in Parral, probably on orders from one of his political rivals—most likely Alvaro Obregón or Plutarco Elías Calles.
Frank McLynn, author of the excellent and highly readable Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution, opines that Pancho Villa was a great man. The enigma of a charismatic and forceful leader who was capable of mercy and generosity but just happened to be part monster as well is, of course, not easy to resolve, if indeed it is capable of resolution. Lord Acton, who believed that “It is the office of historical science to maintain morality as the sole impartial criticism of men and things,” also has this to say regarding the business of judging greatness in historical personages and disposing of them accordingly: “Suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong.” By contrast, Herbert Butterfield, criticizing what he called the Whig interpretation of history, while conceding that the historian’s job is not to exonerate, argued that “neither is it for him to condemn. It greatly clears his mind if he can forgive all sins without denying that there are sins to forgive; but remembering that the problem of their sinfulness is not really a historical problem at all.” Acton viewed disapprovingly Madame de Staël’s maxim that “We forgive whatever we truly understand.” In the case of Pancho Villa, McLynn—probably wisely, and more in the spirit of Butterfield than Acton—concludes that Villa suffered from an unintegrated personality, lacking a psychological middle ground between murderous rage and maudlin, often tearful, sentimentality. However that may be, one thing, I think, we must grant Pancho Villa: He was pure personality, as Henry Adams said Theodore Roosevelt was pure act—and personality, really, is the first requisite to being a realized human being at all. A few men loved him; more than a few hated him; many more feared him; and as many—often the same ones—respected him. He did much harm in his life and accomplished little, if anything, that outlived him; yet the historical record of his country is a far more interesting and colorful document than it would be had Francisco Villa (born Doroteo Arango Villa) never lived. Herbert Butterfield likely would have agreed.
“Alongside Moctezuma and Benito Juárez,” Friedrich Katz, author of the definitive Life and Times of Pancho Villa, argues, “Pancho Villa is probably the best-known Mexican personality throughout the world.” And it is entirely fitting that he should be so, since Villa—as a man, as a hero, and as a villain—was quintessentially Mexican, the individual embodiment of the collective soul of his people. His followers and admirers loved in him what the Mexican loves; those who opposed and loathed him did so in the way that only a Mexican can hate. Thus, John Reed, Tom Mix, Ambrose Bierce, and Mother Jones, though certainly they sympathized with the man and possibly even understood something of his complex nature, seem hardly to have regarded Pancho Villa as his devoted Mexican compatriots and lieutenants did.
Villa differed profoundly from his foreign enthusiasts; he did not differ significantly from his Villistas or their various rivals, the Carrancistas, Obregónistas, Orozquistas, Zapatistas, etc., in nature, but rather in the scale on which that nature was built. (The exception is Francisco Madero, the gentle, determined, but ineffectual Westernized liberal intellectual who began the revolution by deposing President Díaz in 1911 and was assassinated two years later by his commander in chief, Gen. Victoriano Huerta.) McLynn’s reading of Pancho Villa’s personality—that it was fundamentally an unintegrated one—holds for the generalized Mexican personality as well. The history of the Mexican Civil War, which commenced in 1910 and did not really end until the assassination of President Obregón in 1928 (he was shot six times in the face at close range during his birthday party in a Ciudad Méjico restaurant by a young, right-wing Catholic student who had been allowed to approach the presidential table in order to fill in the sketch of Obregón he had begun while sitting at the back of the room), catalogues the most appalling cruelties and atrocities, in which acts of bravery, but few of real heroism, are distinguishable. It is important to remember that, the federal troops from Ciudad Méjico excepted (and many of these, too, were impressed), most of the troops that made up the various contending armies were volunteers (including women, the soldaderas), augmented by impressment, not professional soldiers. The Mexican Civil War, like our own War Between the States, was fought by the Mexican peasantry and the Mexican proletariat, such as it was in those days—that is to say, by the great mestizo mass of the Mexican people, inheritors of a tradition of casual violence and thoughtless cruelty derived from both their Indian and their Spanish ancestry. Pancho Villa was distinguishable from his fellow Mexicans chiefly by his horsemanship, his nearly uncanny skill with a revolver (he could toss his weapon in the air, catch it as it fell, and, holding the gun upside down, knock an orange out of a tree at 30 paces), and his authority, exercised by force of personality, not by his semi-outlaw status, acts of mayhem, and murderous temper. Rodolpho Fierro, one of Villa’s most trusted lieutenants and his unofficial executioner who regularly begged his chief to “give” him the latest unfortunate whom Villa had determined should be “started walking toward the cemetery,” once carelessly drew his revolver and shot to death a passerby on a Juárez street so as to win a bet he had with his companion that a man killed by a bullet falls forward rather than backward. Fierro’s own end came at the hands of his fellow Villistas, who deliberately let the saving lasso fall short as he and his horse struggled in the fatal quicksands of a shallow lake.
It is easy to explain this by saying that a violent man naturally attracts other violent men to himself and to his cause—easy, but, in the context of the Mexican Civil War, irrelevant. In the little town of San Pedro de las Cuevas, seething over his disastrous defeat a few days before at the hands of General Calles at the Battle of Agua Prieta, Villa ordered his men to kill every male, man or boy, of whom there were 60, for the reason that a great many of that village’s residents were named Calles. (He personally shot the Catholic priest on the steps of his church when the man tried to intercede on behalf of his parishioners.) And at Torreón in November 1916, Villa was met as he rode victorious into the city by a woman who pleaded with him to spare her husband, the Carrancista paymaster. Villa investigated, learned that the man was already dead, and so informed the widow who, becoming enraged, accused the general of killing her husband and defied him to kill her, too. Villa shot her dead, then gave his Villistas leave to shoot all the other “bitches” who supposedly had collaborated with the despised Carrancistas. In consequence, 90 women were murdered by firing squad. (Even in the Mexico of 1916, this atrocity was too great to escape condemnation, with the result that Villa forfeited most of his hard-regained popular support.) Of this episode, McLynn writes: “There was a new brutality evident in Villa from this moment on. . . . As in the rest of Mexico, violence begat violence and six years of non-stop warfare had extinguished most traces of humanity and provided a kind of socialization in barbarism.” That may well be true. Yet three years earlier, when the war had been going on for as many years, an assassination of stupendous brutality had occurred 700 or 800 miles away in the capital, with Huerta’s treacherous coup. Having invited Gustavo Madero, the President’s brother, to lunch with him at Restaurante Gambrinus, the general asked to borrow Gustavo’s revolver, which he immediately pointed at the other man’s breast, telling him he was under arrest. Removed to the Ciudadela, Gustavo was found guilty of treason by a kangaroo court. On his way from “court” to another part of the Ciudadela, rebel soldiers assaulted him, and one soldier stabbed Gustavo with his sword in his good eye. Wholly blinded and bleeding profusely, Madero staggered about while the gathered mob taunted him uproariously. Gustavo Madero was dispatched minutes later by a conspirator with a revolver, on the way to the firing squad. Three days later, Francisco Madero was driven to the penitentiary and executed by a single shot to the neck as he stepped out of the car.
In the end, Pancho Villa left no legacy beyond his romantic revolutionary legend. Villa directly reflected the chaos of the society into which he was born and in which he lived, and it is impossible for even the greatest of men to leave a lasting mark on chaos. On the other hand, he was a fascinating man who lived a fascinating life, in times that were fascinating even by the standards of a fascinating and strangely attractive country. To non-Mexicans, at least, Mexico is a mystery—and not just for gringos: Think of Graham Greene and, more improbably, Evelyn Waugh. Mexico is basic, Mexico is real: Therefore, however paradoxically, Mexico is fathomless. For Americans, Mexico’s proximate Western neighbors, the lesson seems especially clear. Distant appreciation, not importation, is the appropriate and prudent response to the culture belonging to that dark and vast enigma stretching south of the Rio Grande, in the beauty of its gravelly mesquite deserts, its beckoning fins of purple rock and crimson bergs, ground to a fine edge like the blade of an Indian hatchet.