May 16, 2011

Pancho Villa: The Storm That Swept Mexico

Enigmatic, charismatic, history-making general, Pancho Villa divided opinion even during his life-time. On both sides of the Mexican-American border, there were those who would call him hero, bandit, freedom fighter, terrorist, statesman, charro, the best or worst individual ever to come out of Mexico.

Pancho Villa

He recently made headlines again, when American actor, Johnny Depp, turned down the lucrative lead in a Hollywood movie about Pancho Villa's life. Depp, taking his cue from the campaigns of Racebending, argued that a Mexican should be cast in such a high profile Mexican role.

My dilemma is just the fact that it’s Pancho Villa. It is Pancho Villa, and it’s one of the great heroes of Mexico. And for me, I feel like it should be played by a Mexican, and not some, you know – not some mutt from Kentucky, you know what I mean? I think I still feel very strongly about that.
Johnny Depp, actor

Last night, American television audiences were treated to another airing of the docu-drama, 'The Storm That Swept Mexico'. It chronicled the life and times of Pancho Villa. So who is this man?

TRAILER - The Storm That Swept Mexico from Paradigm Productions on Vimeo.

Back in September, we ran a series of blogs on the Mexican War of Independence. It would have been nice to write that that was the end of the story and that Mexico then settled down to a lovely couple of intervening centuries. Unfortunately, it wasn't like that at all. The next 100 years were some of the most turbulent in Mexico history. Heads of State came and went, some lasting no more than days or weeks at most.

There was a crippling war with the USA, which resulted in the border being repositioned, cutting Northern Mexico off from the rest of the country. Central Mexico became (and still is) the new north. The French invaded and were repelled, in the events still celebrated as Cinco de Mayo. They returned and ruled Mexico for three years, until another revolution threw them out again.

Yet still there was no stability in the reappointed Mexican government. Some presidents lasted mere hours, before being replaced. None of this was good for the country's economy and it certainly wasn't great for the people. Porfirio Díaz

The War of Independence had left such high hopes, but the reality had seen more war and oppression than had been felt under the rule of the Spanish. Poverty was rife and still the guns blazed.

Then, in 1877, Porfirio Díaz (pictured left) became President of Mexico on a ticket of 'no re-election'. He was ousted, but returned. When he was sworn in, in 1884, he was there to stay. Díaz held office for the next thirty years. For some, that was stability; but, for most, that was a dictatorship.

It was a particularly bitter pill to swallow, when it is considered that only the ruling elite got the perks during this regime. The poor became poorer and few opportunities for advancement went on. Wealthy landowners became mini monarchs of their own sprawling haciendas. The mass of people worked, practically as slaves, upon them. It was like the War of Independence had never happened.

It was into this world that José Doroteo Arango Arámbula was born, on June 5th, 1878, on the Rancho de la Coyotada, Rio Grande, San Juan del Río, in Durango. He was to become better known to the world as Pancho Villa.

Pancho Villa
Pancho Villa, in later life, on horseback.

The young José was the eldest son of hacienda workers, Agustín Arango and Micaela Arambula. Life was tough and became even tougher when Agustín died, while José was barely out of puberty. Nevertheless, he did his best to be the man of the house, helping his mother with his four younger siblings and working hard to bring a bit of money in.

Haciendas were like petty kingdoms of their own, with the owners calling the shots and doing what they would upon their own land.Rancho de la Coyotada Lopez Negre, who ruled the Rancho de la Coyotada, was no exception and, in 1894, his gaze fell upon José's 12 year old sister. As he pinned the girl down, in an attempt to rape her, José raced for a gun and shot the man dead.

He might have saved his sister, but he had just about condemned himself and his family. At just sixteen years old, José fled into the Durango mountains and hid out.

Capture meant instant, summary execution. His family were being watched. Without a main wage-earner, they teetered on the edge of starvation. Then José was found.

It wasn't Díaz's countryside police who found him; nor was it the marauding bands of men from the hacienda. It was members of a bandit group headed by infamous outlaw, Ignacio Parra. José was taken to meet their leader, who instantly took him under his wing. The boy was advised to change his name, to further avoid capture. He decided to take his surname from his grandfather, Jesus Villa. As a first name, José chose Francisco.

From now, until 1910, Francisco Villa was one of many Robin Hood characters, roaming the Durango countryside. Their aim was to raid rich haciendas and to redistribute the gains to the poverty-striken common people. To many, they were merely criminal gangs, intent upon breaching all facets of law and order. But in this way, Villa managed to keep his family fed.

But his major role in history was just about to come.

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