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Pancho and Woodrow… and Lyn and Luz and Ramon Novarro

20 February 2005

Pancho Villa is STILL causing problems for us foreigners. Nah… not the “Frente Pancho Villa” marxist groups here in Mexico City… just thinking about the guy. I’d set out to write Mexican history years ago, but bumping into folks like Pancho can lead to some strange detours into folklore and modern legends, Masonic conspiracy theories, Woodrow Wilson’s family tree and… Hollywood!

And to think all I had to do was translate an obituary about an old Zapatista. Zapata – Villa… can’t talk about one without someone bringing up the other. Lynn Keelan send along her remininces of an encounter with Luz Corral, Villa’s “official” widow (probating the will of a man with 23 wives, 320 children and seveal mistresses must have taken some doing). James B. Baker’s 1967 account of his adventures as a hacienda manager for the Hearsts, and his own encounters with Villa and Luz Corral are the source for the photo of young Luz. Luz in 1974 is from “Calfornia Native Newsletter”, a link included in Lynn’s original piece for Lonely Planet Thorn Tree.

The Mexican Robin Hood
(from “Mexican History for Gringos”)


Pancho Villa by Jose Clemente Orozco (oil on canvas, 1931)

It wasn’t so much the intellectuals, but the Romantics who tried to “claim” Pancho Villa. Villa was an astute businessman – of sorts – who understood the value of good public relations. For good or bad, he was the public face of the Revolution in the United States. He operated closest to the United States border, was willing to cooperate with foreign reporters, and “looked” like a Mexican revolutionary. Never mind that he normally wore a standard army cap, or sometimes a British Indian Army style solar topee. North Americans expected someone like Zapata, with a sombrero and a big mustache. But Zapata operated in the south, far from California. Pancho Villa was much more available. Villa had the big mustache, and he was willing to wear a sombrero for the cameras.


Not all Villa’s press in the United States was favorable. William Randolph Hearst, the media mogul of his day, also owned extensive cattle ranches in Chihuahua and Sonora. Villa financed his army through cattle sales – the cattle belonged to Hearst. Driven across the border into Arizona, the cattle were sold to small ranchers who didn’t ask questions, and didn’t like rich California newspaper owners either. In Hearst’s newspapers, Villa was nothing but a bloodthirsty bandit[1].

Hearst’s greatest rival was the New York Times. To the Times, Villa was a Mexican Robin Hood. George Carrothers, the Times reporter, was treated more as a foreign ambassador than a war correspondent. With good reason: Carrothers had a cousin named Woodrow Wilson: Villa was hardly the simple bandit chief he sometimes seemed. His staff included social reformers, anxious to try out new theories in Villa controlled territories, politically astute civilians, competent financial advisors, adventurers, military men (Villa paid his army regularly, and attracted willing soldiers and professional officers to his side), and more than a few cold-blooded killers.

But what impressed Carrothers’ cousin Woodrow about Villa was that he was winning, and Wilson concluded someone – anyone – would run Mexico better than Huerta. And Wilson had seen the pictures of Villa in action. There had been battle photographers before 1910, but cameras were too bulky to carry. Most war photos were staged after the battle. Portable cameras, and movie cameras were available by the time the Mexican Revolution started. Also, there had been advances in printing, so photographs could now be printed in the newspapers. Finally, people had begun going to the movies. People were still amazed to see films of President Wilson taking a walk. A real battle was something only soldiers (and a few adventurous tourists – or unfortunate bystanders, like those in El Paso) ever saw. Raoul Walsh, a pioneering Hollywood film director, claimed he only wanted to bring the reality of war to the people. The closest battlefield to Hollywood was just across the border from Arizona, where Pancho Villa was attacking the Federal Army. Walsh found a cooperative Pancho Villa ready to help. Walsh’s The Life of Pancho Villa was one of Hollywood’s first international hit. Who used who is an open question, but Villa did become the world’s first film star[2].


When the light at dawn wasn’t good for Walsh’s cameraman, executions would be rescheduled for later in the morning. When Walsh wanted to film a battle scene, Villa was willing to oblige. Furthermore, he added that the Federal Army would cooperate, so they could stage a battle. Unfortunately, Villa just didn’t have enough ammunition to make the thing look real. If Walsh could just buy the ammunition, they would have a great newsreel.

Villa, of course, hadn’t told the Federal Army a thing about the “staged” battle. With the cameras rolling, the Division of the North overran the Federal positions. It was an unimportant battle, and as bloody as any in the Revolution, but notable for being the first battle ever captured on film and, the first battle most moviegoers ever saw. Villa’s staff showed real creativity on several occasions, not just when the cameras were rolling. They employed a “Trojan Horse” strategy when they captured Ciudad Juarez.

Taking over a telegraph station, they convinced the Federal garrison in the city that they were Federal reinforcements. It was imperative to keep the tracks clear. The Army cleared the tracks, and Villa’s forces arrived in record time.

Villa fought brilliantly, but what exactly he fought for was not always clear. “Exterminating justice” is what Villa told John Reed. Social and economic reforms introduced in Villaista-controlled territories were usually successful, but did not seem to follow any particular plan or philosophy. The reforms in Villista territory seemed to have as much to do with whether the person in charge read socialist or communist or capitalist literature as anything. Or if they even read. In some places, “justice” meant destroying the debt records in the local hacienda office and lynching unpopular businessmen and priests.

Originally, Villa had rebelled to avenge Madero. But, as the Revolution dragged on, he ignored his putative leader, Carrenza, and joined forces with Zapata. The Zapatistas had some social program and it looked, for a time, that either Zapata or Villa would become President. Zapata didn’t want the job. There is a famous photograph of the two, and their aides, gathered around the “throne” Porfirio Diaz used in the Palacio Nacional. Villa is sitting in the chair, laughing at the joke. The unsmiling Zapata was asked to also sit in the chair, but suggested instead that the burn it.

For Zapata, “justice” worked from the bottom up. To Villa, “justice” came from the man in charge. A few years later, the Russian Revolution ran into the same conflicting visions in the fights between the “soviets” (village units) and the Communist Party. Foreigners have always expected Mexico to follow European models, and forget that Europeans sometimes follow Mexican ones. John Reed, the American Communist, saw the Villa-Zapata forces as Communists. So did a lot of American businessmen. Villa certainly attracted Communist supporters, and is still seen as a Communist revolutionary[3].

More important than the political labels was the simple fact that the Constitutionalists were winning. The United States began shifting support to Carrenza. Zapata was eventually murdered, and his rebellion collapsed. Obregón turned his attention to destroying Villa, reducing his armies to guerrilla bands. Villa eventually launched attacks on the United States, which ended his foreign support. Eventually, he was persuaded to end his rebellion and retire to a hacienda. Psychologists have speculated on Villa’s mental condition. He could kill people without a second thought, even civilians. How many he personally murdered is still unknown[4].

Perhaps hundreds. On the other hand, the man betrayed very real emotional depth. At a memorial service for Madero, he broke down and wept. His admiration and love for the little landowner was genuine. He loved women – all too much. The stories of him raping rich men’s daughters and wives are exaggerated, but he was sexually hyperactive. He married again and again and again. He went to the trouble to obtain marriage certificates for at least 23 wives, making him one of the champion bigamists of all times. None of his wives ever spoke of him as anything but loving and gentle. His many children, both by his wives, by several girlfriends, and one-night stands, all remember a particularly fond and doting father.Villa loved children. It wasn’t unusual for wealthy Mexicans then – and to some extent now – to shelter and educate homeless children. Melichor Ocampo, who was abandoned as a baby on the local hacienda’s doorstep, was unusual only in inheriting his foster mother’s fortune. Madero had 12 orphans living on his hacienda. Part of Villa’s “retirement package” when he agreed to surrender to the new Constitutional government included a hacienda. He brought a trainload of street children from Mexico City – 300 of them – to the hacienda to be given a decent home and the Villa name. And, most importantly to Villa, an education: never having a chance to go to school, the “Mexican Robin Hood” took to education with a vengeance. Adult literacy was Pancho Villa’s last campaign. He had always understood the value of propaganda. Photographs of the ex-guerrilla leader taking classes along with the children, or reading to them, were used across Mexico to advertise educational programs.

Villa’s life is largely a mystery, and so is his death. He had made his hacienda a model farm along the lines of Madero’s visions. It had the schools, clinics, decent housing, its own electrical plant, and telegraph office. Like the old haciendas, it had a company store, but with a twist. The hacienda was too far from Parral for the workers to go shopping, so the hacienda bought wholesale and sold items below retail to workers and neighboring villages – a sort of Revolutionary “Sam’s Club”. Obregón’s last surviving important rival was regularly featured in the press, and was hardly forgotten. When the government, hoping to revive the economy, offered to lease some old haciendas to American companies, Villa’s loud and public objections to the anti-revolutionary idea forced the government to change its mind. And, Obregón’s government hoped to re-establish diplomatic relations with the United States: one minor issue with the United States was lingering resentment of Pancho Villa. His attack on New Mexico, and a few raids into Texas, could not be forgiven. After all, he had successfully attacked the gringos, and might still cause problems.

So, what happened in Parral on July 20, 1923 isn’t a complete mystery. Villa was driving home from a christening when an unknown group of men – in a house rented the day before, then barricaded – opened fire on the car, killing all 8 occupants. The men rode out of town on horseback, and were never seen again. What happened three years later is even stranger. Someone dug up Villa’s body and cut off the head. Who, or why? Theories range from probable (old enemies still out for revenge – and their own ideas about “justice — or ghoulish souvenir hunters), to implausible (a favorite with American newspapers of the time had Villa’s head stolen by California gangsters in the pay of an Oklahoma spinster with an unrequited love for the ex “movie star”). There are other gringo suspects: Yale University and Laurel and Hardy.

A story that has taken on popularity since the 1990s is that the head was taken by members of Yale’s ultra-secret “Skull and Bones” society, which uses a human skull in its rituals. The society is connected with the York Rite Masons (Poinsett’s “Yorkistas”) and both George Bushes are members of the organization. Prescott Bush, father of the first George Bush, was also a member, and was inducted a few weeks after the head disappeared. How anyone would have known that the student joining the organization in 1926 would have a son who ran the CIA and later would be President of the United States, and a grandson who would also be President, is never quite explained. It is known that Villa fascinated, among many others, Stan Laurel, the early film comedian. Periodically, Laurel went to Mexico to get drunk, away from public scrutiny. According to one legend, Laurel looked up from his gin bottle in a Parral hotel room just in time to witness Villa’s murder. That implausible story leads to the even stranger rumor that Laurel — with or without Oliver Hardy’s assistance – took the head. Woodrow Wilson would seem a likely culprit, but he was a bed-ridden invalid by this time.

[1] It didn’t help Villa’s reputation any when Ambrose Bierce, a respected North American author, Civil War veteran and Hearst reporter, disappeared while searching for Villa’s army. Bierce was elderly and depressed. He may have committed suicide, he may have simply died, he may have gotten lost in the desert, or he may have been killed after joining the revolution – the possibility Carlos Fuentes used for his novel, “The Old Gringo”.

[2] Early films tended to “bleach out” the actors, and dark haired, dark-skinned men like Villa had an advantage. The first major Hollywood stars were the south Italian, Rudolph Valentino and the Mexican, Ramon Novarro. Valentino died before sound was added to films, and Novarro’s thick accent made it hard for him to continue working. He became a civil rights activist, fighting for Mexican-American rights in the 1940s, and gay rights in the late 1960s.
Ramon Novarro

[3] Communist banners in Mexico often show Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Pancho Villa. Unidad Habitacional Allepetlalli in Xochimilco includes streets named for Marx, Engels, Stalin and Villa.

[4] One story, possibly exaggerated, has Villa calmly gunning down an off-key singer who interrupted him during a newspaper interview.

… and now, the REST OF THE STORY…
(courtesy of Lynn Keegan)

Pancho and “official” wife, Luz Corral (E. Bryant Holman, ca. 1920)

In 1971, I was at a party in Boulder, Colorado. One of the asst. professors at CU was dancing with me and he mentioned that he had just returned from a short trip to Mexico. He went there to interview Pancho Villa’s widow. The following summer, Jim and I were in Durango and I kept noticing so many old women (dressed in long black dresses and veils) begging for alms outside the churches. Jim told me that they were the widows of the revolution. It occured to me that that era was coming to a close and I asked him if we could stop off in Chihuahua to visit the Villa Museo on our way home. I recalled watching an interview with Anthony Quinn on TV (Dick Cavett Show). He was telling stories about watching his father riding atop a train in northern Mexico with a bunch of other Villa soldiers as they headed into battle. At this time, I didn’t know diddly or squat about much Mexican history, but the Revolutionary War era sounded very romantic to me. I wanted to follow up.

We arrived in Chihuahua by bus, walked past a large prison, and finally located the Villa Museo. We walked inside, couldn’t find anyone around. So I continued to try to find a person to pay or to ask permission from. That’s when I saw a very old woman sitting in a rocking chair in a dimly lit room of the house. She didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Spanish, so I got my husband to translate for us. That’s when he told me that she was “the lady of the house”…. the widow Villa.

I asked her if she would speak to us for a little bit. She was in no condition to be the “hostess with the mostess”, but she was agreeable. She was feeble and kind. She looked like all the other widows (dressed in total black, shawl, veil, dress and stockings). Her eyesight was nearly gone and that probably explained the darkened room. After looking up on the internet for some info about Villa’s widow, I should note that I found an article and photo of Luz Corral. She doesn’t appear to be blind at all. Perhaps she wasn’t feeling well on the day we met. In this photo taken in 1974, she appears to be healthy and alert. I also noticed that she’s wearing a print blouse (not black).

Here’s the rub….. understand that we were very young and very inexperienced. My questions to her were very superficial, and I was dealing with a translator (hubby) who was feeling very embarrassed about my nerve. He felt like a trespasser and didn’t feel comfortable about doing this at all. I didn’t take any notes and can’t remember a thing she told us. We spent about 20 min. with her. In the back of my head I kept thinking about the fact that Villa was a womanizer and that he had several wives (about 8 I think), so I wanted to be very careful about what I asked. To this day, I don’t know where she fit into the time-line. All I knew was that she got the house and she was the only widow still around. :) Anybody who knows me, knows that I always travel with my camera. Problem was that it wasn’t the same one I have today. It was a cheapo kodak camera with cube flash on the top. Therein lies the second rub….. I asked her if I could take a pic of her. She said “that would be fine”. My cube was used up and there was no light in the room. So I have no notes… and two completely blackened photos to show for it.

The Museo is still in Chihuahua, but as far as I know, all the Revolutionary widows are deceased. The bullet riddled car that Pancho Villa was riding in when he was assassinated is still parked in the patio of his former home.

The article says that Dona Luz Corral de Villa was awarded the great sum of 10 pesos per day for her military pension. That’s approx. 75 cents.

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