Living La Vida Grande

(Dissent, winter 2000)

John reed once asked Pancho Villa his opinion of socialism. "Socialism – is it a thing?" Villa retorted. "I only see it in books, and I do not read much." But Villa possessed his own image of utopia: military colonies consisting of veterans of the revolution, who would subsist together in rural harmony. "My ambition is to live my life in one of those military colonies among my compañeros whom I love, who have suffered so long and so deeply with me," proclaimed Villa. "I think I would like the government to establish a leather factory there where we could make good saddles and bridles, because I know how to do that; and the rest of the time I would like to work on my little farm, raising cattle and corn. It would be fine, I think, to help make Mexico a happy place."

But Mexico is not a happy place, and Villa's was an impossible dream. Eventually he got his colony, but it was an ephemeral victory: in 1923, in one of the innumerable acts of fratricide that propelled the Mexican Revolution, he was gunned down in one of the dusty streets of Chihuahua, the sprawling border state where he spent most of his life. And what a life it was: born in squalor, deprived of education, Villa passed his early years in shadowy disrepute, and, if not for the revolution, might have languished in prison for a series of petty crimes committed in his youth. But the 1910 revolution captured his imagination, and unleashed within him hitherto unknown talents both military and political. With astonishing speed and efficiency, and with unyielding discipline, this "semiliterate former peon" fashioned the División del Norte, which, in Friedrich Katz's estimation, was "probably the largest revolutionary army that Latin America ever produced"; he presided over "the only social revolution ever to occur along the border of the United States"; and he became the only foreigner since the War of 1812 to invade American soil and get away with it.

Villa's reputation, formidable in his own lifetime, ballooned to legendary proportions after his death. Shaped by folklore, Hollywood movies, and the cynical rhetoric of the Mexican state, divergent images of him took root in public consciousness: Villa the bandit, Villa the executioner, Villa the friend of the poor, Villa the military genius. He was, in fact, all of these things: a man who adored children and rescued orphans from the streets, but also a man who shot priests and butchered civilians. Katz's biography strips away the mythology and enables us to see Villa in the cold light of reality. In a Herculean effort, the author, a distinguished historian at the University of Chicago, visited more than sixty archives in nine countries, conducted hundreds of interviews, and mastered the voluminous literature on Villa. The resulting book is full of insights and new information, and it is remarkably comprehensive.

Until this biography, the most acclaimed English language text concerning Villa was probably John Reed's Insurgent Mexico, published in 1914 and recently restored to print by the Modern Library. Reed's book, which emerged from his travels with Villa's army in 1913 1914, suffers from certain defects: the author had a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish; his writing exhibited a youthful penchant for high adventure; and his assertions were sometimes erroneous. Yet it remains an astonishing feat of writing, one that Neal Ascherson has described as a "triumph of reportage literature, a work whose empathy, humor, descriptive talent and sheer verve are not matched by the far more famous Ten Days."

The book soars from the very first page:

Mercado's Federal army, after its dramatic and terrible retreat four hundred miles across the desert when Chihuahua was abandoned, lay three months at Ojinaga on the Rio Grande. At Presidio, on the American side of the river, one could climb to the flat mud roof of the Post Office and look across the mile or so of low scrub growing in the sand to the shallow, yellow stream; and beyond to the low mesa, where the town was, sticking sharply up out of a scorched desert, ringed round with bare, savage mountains.

Insurgent Mexico evokes the eerie desolation of the Mexican landscape, the terror and chaos and anarchy of warfare, and the solidarity and dignity displayed by ordinary Mexicans in the face of violent upheaval. It is a book of reportage, but also a work of art, and it has a pungent wit and immediacy absent from Katz's text: "When the army was entraining or detraining," Reed writes, "Villa personally would be on hand in a dirty old suit, without a collar, kicking mules in the stomach and pushing horses in and out of the stock cars."

Superior works of history, Octavio Paz once wrote, combine "rigorous investigation" with "an imagination that makes the past and people and events come alive." Katz has fulfilled the first half of that injunction to breathtaking effect; it's with regard to the latter that his book falters. The Life and Times of Pancho Villa, for all its virtues, is tedious and repetitive, bloated and lifeless. It's a cold, clinical exercise: a project of the mind but not the heart. It is utterly lacking in narrative momentum, a major flaw in a book of this size; in contrast to Reed's atmospherics, it is completely devoid of landscape and physical description; and the characters rarely come to life. As Paz understood – and demonstrated in Sor Juana, his extraordinary life of the seventeenth century Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz – a successful biography must transport the reader to a distant time and place, and recreate them in a way that will make us want to remain there for a while. Katz's book reads like a massive compendium of bound index cards, not a seamless tapestry, and it's hardly surprising that some of the liveliest pages are those that contain extended excerpts from Insurgent Mexico. Villa's career intersected with those of scores of noteworthy historical figures, but Katz, with a few exceptions, fails to render them with acuity and precision. Even Villa himself, who is at the very center of the narrative, never quite materializes as a living, breathing individual. The brief but penetrating psychological portrait of Villa in Enrique Krauze's 1997 masterpiece, Mexico: Biography of Power, is superior to the one offered by Katz, in no small part because Krauze, one of Mexico's preeminent historians, writes with the virtuosity and omniscience of a master novelist.

Of the great leaders of the Mexican Revolution, Villa and Emiliano Zapata best represented Mexico's dispossessed and forgotten, and The Life and Times of Pancho Villa has already been favorably compared to John Womack, Jr.'s 1968 classic Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. For an understanding of the colossal bloodbath that was the Mexican Revolution, both books are essential, but Womack's is the more appealing. From its splendid opening sentence – "This is a book about country people who did not want to move and therefore got into a revolution" – to its lyrical denouement, Zapata is the work of a shrewd, gifted storyteller. Unlike Katz, Womack knew what to leave out: the life spans of Villa and Zapata are nearly identical, but Womack managed to recount Zapata's life in a relatively compact 436 pages, while Katz takes 985 closely printed pages to tell his story. Because of Stanford University Press's refusal to edit this book, only the most energetic and determined reader will finish it.

Villa was born in 1878 in the frontier region of northern Mexico – a "ferocious and pitiless environment," in Krauze's words, a "school of life for the man whose epic incarnates a profound area of the Mexican soul, its darkest and most vengeful anger, its most innocent aspirations for the light." Villa's early years are shrouded in mystery, but Katz's investigation reveals that the young revolutionary engaged in "a strange coexistence of legal and illegal" activities: he was a soldier, small time bandit, cattle rustler, butcher, mule driver, and trainer of fighting cocks. In contrast to the dominant figures of the Mexican Revolution, Villa was politically inexperienced. But he was well acquainted with the decadence and cronyism of Chihuahua's political class, the violence and lawlessness of everyday life, and the massive concentration of wealth and land in the hands of the state's tiny aristocracy, which forced much of Chihuahua's population to live in quasi servitude. Not surprisingly, it was Chihuahua, in 1910, that spearheaded the revolt against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, who had clung to power since 1876.

At the center of the upsurge was Francisco Madero, a courageous aristocrat who spent years building grassroots opposition to Diaz. Villa, thirty-two years old and already renowned as a gunman, was recruited by one of Madero's deputies, who may have promised him amnesty from past crimes should the revolution succeed. An American doctor who knew Villa well provided the following description:

He is about 5 feet 10 inches in height, and weighs about 170 lbs., is well developed in a muscular way; has a very heavy protruding lower jaw and badly stained teeth; a rather dandified moderately heavy moustache of a heavy villian variety; crispy kinky black hair of the Negro type, which is generally tousled. He has the most remarkable pair of prominent brown eyes I have ever seen.

Villa's ruthlessness and charisma, his dexterity with horses and weaponry, and his deep personal connection to his soldiers made him an essential asset to Madero. When the dictator capitulated and fled to Europe in 1911, Villa, in a choice he would make again and again, shunned political power in Mexico City and instead returned to his beloved Chihuahua, where he built a house, settled down with one of his many wives, and acquired a chain of butcher shops, which he outfitted with the latest American refrigeration technology.

Madero remains an enigma. Born to one of Mexico's wealthiest families, imbued with mystical beliefs and nineteenth century liberal values, he was appalled by the poverty, repression and illiteracy of Porfirian Mexico. But when he finally attained the presidency, he put his faith in the army and the aristocracy, and was betrayed by them: in 1913, Madero was assassinated in a coup spearheaded by General Victoriano Huerta and encouraged by the U.S. Ambassador, Henry Lane Wilson. Before the coup, Huerta and Wilson had pressured Madero to imprison Villa in Mexico City, where he languished for months. After Madero's death, Villa escaped to El Paso, Texas, where he immediately began to organize armed resistance to Huerta. In March 1913, Villa returned to Mexico with eight men; a year later, he was virtually in control of the state and immediately began to engage in what Katz calls "Robin Hood type acts of social justice": Seizing one of Chihauhua's largest haciendas, Villa swiftly executed its administrator, a man renowned for his cruelty.

To avenge Madero's death, Villa forged an army that would eventually grow to a hundred thousand men and that would alter the course of the revolution: the División del Norte. Composed of peasants, ex convicts, cowboys, miners and drifters (and their wives and girlfriends) it was a formidable military machine whose strength rested on cavalry attacks undertaken in the dead of night. Reed, who provides a marvelous description of Villa's army, was particularly enamored of the traveling field hospital: "Forty boxcars enameled inside, fitted with operating tables and all the latest appliances of surgery, and manned by more than sixty doctors and nurses." Villa instantly distinguished himself as a shrewd and unorthodox commander who, in Reed's estimation, relied on "an entirely original method of warfare, because he never had a chance to learn anything of accepted military strategy." The División del Norte reached its zenith in 1913 1914, when it engaged the federal army in a series of terrible battles at Torreón and Zacatecas, battles entailing monstrous violence and savagery. These stunning victories, which contributed decisively to Huerta's defeat, generated international headlines, and Villa found himself courted by the Mutual Film Corporation, with whom he signed an exclusive contract to film the maneuvers of the División del Norte.

The campaign against Huerta left the Villistas in control of Chihuahua and its 300,000 citizens for much of 1914 and 1915. The state was instantly transformed into a laboratory for Villa's political ideology, and Katz sees "strong elements of socialism" in the resulting experiment. The oligarchy was banished, its vast landholdings transferred to Villa's officers and soldiers (but not to ordinary Chihuahuans); the distribution of meat was taken over by the state, and its price drastically reduced; more than one hundred schools were built; free medical care was instituted; a wide range of benefits was extended to widows and orphans of those killed in battle; and the new Villista currency vastly augmented the buying power of the poor. Katz is careful not to romanticize Villista Chihuahua – "there were no elections, the press did not criticize the government, and criticism of Villa was unheard of," he writes – but he is obviously impressed by Villa's accomplishments

With Huerta vanquished, the revolution swiftly devoured itself, as warfare erupted between Villa and his erstwhile comrade in arms, Venustiano Carranza. For a while Villa and Zapata's troops occupied Mexico City, and the revolution, which was ultimately won by a corrupt elite, might have developed a more egalitarian cast had they remained there. But in the annals of revolution, Villa was noteworthy: a man indifferent to state power. Unlike Carranza, he had no desire to be president – indeed, it was his firm conviction that he was "not educated enough to be President of Mexico" – and he quickly withdrew from the capital, as did Zapata. Disregarding the advice of his generals, who urged an immediate attack on the vulnerable Carrancista army in Veracruz, Villa, in an ill fated decision, instead retreated to the north. Shortly thereafter, in a series of confrontations with Carranza's forces at Celaya in central Mexico, he met his match in general Alvaro Obregón. Obregón, inspired by the military tactics being employed in Europe during World War I, instructed his soldiers to dig trenches fortified by barbed wire and machine guns. Villa's troops – resorting, as usual, on cavalry assaults – fell into the trap and were cut to pieces: 3,000 Villistas were killed; 6,000 were taken prisoner; and 120 officers were executed. Obregón reported with satisfaction that "the Villistas have left the field strewn with bodies." Villa's decline had begun.

Beset by food shortages and disease, the División del Norte, in full retreat, clashed with Carrancista troops in the border town of Agua Prieta in the fall of 1915. It was another trap: Unknown to Villa, the U.S. government allowed Carranza's troops to pass through Arizona to reinforce its garrison, and the Villistas were taken by surprise and routed. (Katz's analysis of U.S. policy toward Villa is superb, as is his account of the rogue's gallery of con men and scoundrels who flocked to his side.) Villa, for purely pragmatic reasons, had always protected U.S. citizens and their property, so Woodrow Wilson's action came as a shock. Motivated by fury, but also by a desire to provoke a U.S. invasion of Mexico, Villa, with a much smaller force, invaded Columbus, New Mexico in the early morning hours of March 9, 1916. In Katz's fine account of the skirmish, which left seventeen Americans dead, we learn that Villa, at the last moment, had serious doubts abou the invasion, but his officers urged him to press ahead. In the ensuing debacle, Villa's troops were forced to retreat across the border, with five thousand troops under the leadership of John J. Pershing in hot pursuit.

Chihuahua was now in the hands of Carrancista forces, who rolled back the Villista reforms and reinstated the oligarchy. Using weapons and ammunition he had buried in the Chihuahuan desert during his heyday, Villa responded with guerrilla warfare. Thus began five dark years of protracted and senseless bloodshed in Chihuahua. With his greatest triumphs behind him, and with his enemies at his heels, Villa returned to his youthful roots as a bandit and an outlaw, and now permitted his dwindling group of soldiers – who consisted of sycophants, thugs, and unlucky souls conscripted at gunpoint – to steal cattle, plunder property owned by foreigners, loot stores, and terrorize civilians. The Carrancistas responded with scorched earth tactics, and Villa suffered the loss of his most cherished comrades. In one of the book's few genuinely affecting moments, Katz records his stunned response to the death of Martín López: "What? What are you saying? Martin is dead loyal and courageous boy? My favorite leader, in whom I had placed all my hopes as a warrior? He came to me when he was only eleven years old."

The final third of Katz's book contains chilling examples of what Katz, a bit complacently, repeatedly refers to as Villa's "moral decline." Early in the narrative, the author informs us that "deciding whether to execute someone was not a problem over which Villa agonized for long," and, as the war of attrition dragged on, his latent propensity for violence became more pronounced. Following a hideous battle in early 1917, Villa ordered the execution of six hundred prisoners. His elite guards, writes Katz, "lined the men up in rows of five, and in order to save bullets they were killed with one shot to the head." Even Villa's deputy, no stranger to carnage, declared that the "parade of these groups of five was something horrible to see."

The Mexican Revolution was approaching its denouement. Zapata was betrayed and murdered in 1919, Carranza met the same fate a year later, and Villa finally made his peace with the regime. His consolation prize was a fortified 163,000 acre estate in Canutillo, Durango. Villa was now in possession of the military estate he wished for. Surrounded by hundreds of his most dependable soldiers, who served as bodyguards, Villa planted potatos and peanuts, built a school in which he took enormous pride, and for the most part lived the tranquil existence of a hacendado. But military discipline permeated his utopia: Villa insisted that everyone begin work at 4:00 a.m., and when a visitor inquired about whether any robberies had taken place on the estate, Villa replied: "Look – here in Canutillo nothing is lost, for if anyone steals, I have him shot."

Katz's concluding assessment of Villa is sanguine. He minimizes Villa's "moral decline" – which, by the end of the book, is precisely what lingers in the mind – and chooses to emphasize his achievements: the destruction of Huerta and the old regime; the institution of moderate land reform in Chihuahua; and the doomed revolutionary experiment of 1913 1915, in which goods were redistributed to the poor, schools constructed, meat dispensed at low cost, expectations raised. "In some ways," concludes Katz, "it might be called the first welfare state in Mexican history." To the end of his life, Villa professed his loyalty to the ideals of Madero, but his passion for social justice seemed to recede with the years. "Equality does not exist and cannot exist," he told a visiting journalist in 1922. "It is a lie that we can all be equal...For me society is a big stair with some people at its lower end, some people in the middle, some rising, and some very high...I would never fight for the equality of the social classes." His true fidelity, it seems, was not to the Mexican people – most of whom, he affirmed at the end of his life, "were too ignorant to understand my ideas" – but to his beloved soldiers: "my compañeros whom I love."

While villa was busy tending to his crops and his cattle, a ferocious struggle to consolidate the revolution was underway in Mexico City. Villa, full of confidence and bluster, intervened by bluntly asserting his political aspirations, and he derived a special pleasure in taunting his old adversary, Obregón. Indeed, Villa's demise was probably the result of an unfortunate remark to a journalist: "Sir, I do not believe that anyone has the support that Francisco Villa has...For this reason the politicians are afraid of me...they know that on the day I decide to fight, I shall destroy them." Villa added: "I can mobilize 40,000 men in forty minutes."

In late July of 1923, Villa made a rare journey outside Canutillo, and did so by car, for, as Katz notes, "Villa had fallen in love with automobiles." In the town of Parral, a small group of assassins, probably sent by the federal government, was waiting for him. An elderly candy vendor gave the prearranged signals. "Villa was hit by nine bullets and killed instantly," writes Katz, who relates the facts in lackluster fashion. Krauze, on the other hand, notes that Parral had "an oddly mysterious quality" on the day of the assassination, and provides this account:

The vehicle was coming and Villa himself was at the wheel. The car turned the corner to meet with a massive blast of gunfire. All the occupants of that mysterious house fired at once on the Dodge. The car veered out of control and crashed into a tree. Nearly everyone was killed, almost instantly. The moans and the cries died away. One of the attackers rushed out to put a bullet in Villa's head. His lifeless body was already doubled up near the driver's door, the right hand still reaching for his gun. His skull was full of holes, and in the autopsy it was hard to find his heart. It had been turned to pulp by the expanding bullets used by his assassins.

Three years after his murder, thieves ransacked Villa's grave and absconded with his skull, a turn of events that prompts Krauze to wonder: "Did they want the bones of an angel or a souvenir of cold iron?"