Pancho Villa is quite a famous character in history, but most people don't know much about his very interesting life.
Pancho Villa is one of the most (if not the most) famous Mexican historical characters known outside of Mexico, and it’s easy to see why. Not only did he decide to mess with the US during the Mexican Revolution, but he also had all the traits people associate with Mexican culture. He was a manly charro proficient in horse riding and shooting. He had a memorable outfit with his characteristic sombrero and the crossed bandoliers of the men of the Revolution; not to forget his iconic mustache. All in all, his figure is pretty much the idea many people had for a long time of how Mexicans were, but who was this “bandit” who attacked the US and basically got away with it?
His real name wasn’t Pancho Villa
Pancho Villa was born José Doroteo Arango Arámbula in Northern Mexico in 1878. He used to claim he was the son of a famous local bandit called Agustín Villa, but this has never been proved by historians. It’s believed that his father died when he was a kid, and later on, when he became a bandit himself, he wanted to be linked to Villa. He was really young when he decided to join a bandit gang in his home state, until he was caught by the government and forced to join the Federal Army. He deserted some months later and fled North to Chihuahua, where he officially adopted the name of Francisco Villa.
He never intended to become president
In 1910, after almost a decade of Porfirio Díaz in power, Francisco I. Madero decided to run for president in the general elections. Knowing that Madero had a strong follower base, he decided to imprison him and fix the election to win one more time. Little did he know that Madero had already predicted his moves and had gathered an army to start the revolution. In the north, the leader of the anti-reelectionist, Abraham González, asked Villa to lead a small army. They captured a big and rich hacienda as well as the town of San Andrés in Chihuahua. Then, months later, he led the revolutionary forces to Ciudad Juárez, a city they won after two days of battle. This consecrated him as one of the main figures of the movement. However, he didn’t wish for more. In fact, he was so faithful to Madero’s cause that when he was assassinated, he stopped supporting other candidates, waiting for someone worthy to come along.
He signed a contract to appear in a Hollywood film
In 1914, the movie industry in the US was growing at a rapid pace, as was people's desire to see innovative content on the screen. Film producers saw their Southern neighbors’ conflict as a great opportunity to show their audience “real” footage of what was happening, making the genre (if we can call it that) one of the most popular of the time. By then, the revolutionary movement had already spread throughout the country with different leaders and ideas, so filmmakers really wanted to show all the different sides to make the story even more interesting. Even the government was involved, and since it was known in Mexico that if the US were to intervene in one or another side it could drastically change the course of the revolution, many American filmmakers had a sort of carte blanche to go there and record as much as they needed. Villa was offered a contract, according to which he would agree to be filmed in battle and get $25,000 USD in return, besides 20% of the revenues produced by the film. Only one copy remains secretly guarded, but the movie isn’t precisely a truthful record of Villa in battle, since it was later exposed that many scenes were recreated in a studio after the fact.
He invented his own currency, which was accepted in the US
Madero named Victoriano Huerta as General of the Federal Army, and even Villa won more battles under his command. However, Villa didn’t accept Huerta as his real leader, which of course offended Huerta. The latter decided to take vengeance on the “Centaur of the North” (as Villa was called) and accused him of stealing a fine horse. He was imprisoned in 1912 and escaped in December of that year. Then, he fled to the US to gather his own army. When Madero was murdered (betrayed by one of his supporters and his successor, Huerta), Villa decided to return to Mexico and go after the traitor. He joined other anti-Huerta forces (together with a lot of American journalists who started following him and reporting his moves), and in 1913, he was named governor of Chihuahua. He was so popular that he even printed his own currency, which had so much validity that it was exchanged for pesos and dollars in Texas.
Germany’s golden ticket to win WWI
The year after Huerta took power, his opponents’ armies managed to topple him. Venustiano Carranza took the presidential seat, making Villa and other revolutionary leaders angry at him. They gathered their armies against the new president of Mexico. After many battles, Villa lost an important number of soldiers, with only 200 loyal followers remaining. In late 1915, the US government decided to recognize Carranza’s government, forcing Villa’s Division to retreat to the north and changing his status from army leader to bandit. Feeling betrayed by the US government, who had aided him in the past, in 1916, he decided to attack Columbus in New Mexico. Villa’s army attacked the 13th Cavalry Regiment, burned the town, and seized about 100 horses and military supplies. In response, the US responded with what has been known as the Pancho Villa Expedition, where they sent 5,000 men to capture Villa.
Now, you might be wondering what this has to do with WWI. Well, back in Europe, the war had been going on for two years with no apparent winner. During all that time, armies had been resisting in their trenches, advancing only a few miles, and the allies needed the US to get involved to get a faster victory over Germany and Austria, but the Americans were more worried about what was going on in their southern border than in Europe. Germany, who had an advantage of sorts, planned on using this as a distraction to keep the US from entering the war. However, it didn’t work that well. Villa refused a treaty with a German consul in which he would take the city of Tampico to allow German ships to dock and take oil in exchange for weapons. They even tried reaching Huerta in the famous Zimmermann telegram to help him get to power again, which failed terribly. As we know, the US ended up sending their troops and helping defeat Germany, and Villa kind of got away, well, until he was killed in 1924.
Pancho Villa is definitely one of the most intriguing characters in Mexico’s history, both loved and hated. He became an icon thanks to his stubbornness and great military acumen, to the point that other countries studied his tactics to apply them themselves. He was a man who never looked back when things were looking bad. On the contrary, he took every resource he had to continue fighting for his movement, even daring to attack a great world power with only 200 men (and he got away with it). He probably laughed at the many warrant posters with his face on them, while enjoying looking them try. That attitude is probably why he’s so popular around the globe.
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