Frederick Katz, “The Life & Times of Pancho Villa”

The definitive..984 pages worth…biography of Pancho Villa

For reasons unknown…I never know why, I just follow my instincts…when I visited the Alla Bookstore in July, I told the owner Jim that I wanted a biography of Pancho. Maybe it was just the unanswered questions from a song done by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. The song, BTW, is unrelated to the real story as far as I could tell…I walked away with a small book of pictures and a promise of the real bio. That arrived a month or so later. Reading it consumed more than a month of my Metro rides to & from work, and it proved well worth it.

Considering all the other books I have read, also courtesy of the Alla book store, related to South and Central America, this was a very nice “book-end”, so to speak as it brought the story up to modern times.

Pancho was long on action and short on words. It was not surprising to find that he was considered one of the most courageous leaders on men who regularly put his own skin at risk. His skill on a horse is the stuff of legends and is still sung of. His expertise with a pistol was exceptional and accepted by all who knew him. He was one tough dude. His personal involvement with his troops reminds me of Julius Caesar.

His story can be summarized like this: start with a poor family, slaves really, to a wealthy land-owner. Add an attempted rape of a sister by the son of the land-owner, killed by the young brother. Boy runs away and tries to make a new start where he is unknown. Boy is kinda successful as an outlaw and then a merchant. Then a revolution starts and the cause is attractive because it relates to just exactly the injustices that the boy’s family endured and which effect almost all the “non-elite” population. The young man gets involved and proves to be one of those very rare persons who is a natural leader of men who instills trust and confidence and earns loyalty. He wins battles, attracts followers and rises in stature. He has his difficulties with the other leaders who are either wimps or cowards or compromisers. He is the only leader who does not enrich himself during the wars and gives generously to the people. He wins and wins and gets overconfident and then loses. But he carries on with loyal followers and finally is able to retire from the wars. Then he is assassinated.

It is an exceptional story as told by an author who explored every available source and who provides alternate renditions of the story where it gets controversial. Mexico in the 1920’s was not long on documentation so a number of events can have a variety of explanations and versions. The care that the author takes in presenting the optional paths is a rare example of how this should be done…without bias or prejudice but with a reasoned conclusion of what the most likely truth really is.

If you want to know why Mexico is so screwed up today….you need to read this.

Pancho was short on philosophy…he says at one time: “What I want is peace in Mexico. Not the kind of peace we had under Diaz, when a few had all and the many were slaves, but such a peace you have in the United States where all men are equal before the law and where any man who is willing can work to make such a living for himself and his family as only the very wealthy in Mexico can enjoy.”

Late in life he said: “The leaders of Bolshevism…in Mexico and outside of it advocate an equality of classes that cannot be attained. Equality does not exist and cannot exist. It is a lie that we all can 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….it is a stair clearly determined by nature. One cannot proceed against nature. What would happen to the world if all of us were generals or capitalists, or all of us were poor? There must be people of all kinds. The world, my friend, is like a big store where there are owners, employees, consumers and manufacturers”.

Pretty good for an uneducated peasant.

He was rough and ruthless…killed traitors and cowards by his own hand in cold blood. But it should be recalled in balance, that all the parties were cruel and heartless and killed the innocents as well as the guilty. His “Robin Hood” image is well deserved and was well earned. He sought nothing for himself (except a few wives…whose children he took care of) which alone sets him apart and makes him worthy of admiration.

Pancho was assassinated at the orders of the Mexican government on July 20, 1923. They were afraid that he might object to some of their failings and broken promises, even tho he had given his word that he was done with revolutions. Years later, his remains finally made it to the Monument of the Revolution in Mexico City. As one of the speakers noted: “There is no doubt that history is written by the victors. But it is also true that legends are written by the people….For that reason the name of Francisco Villa has remained enshrined forever in the heat of the poor.”

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