“Viva la Villa!” the boys shouted from their pickup truck as they drove by. They had caught me taking this photograph of Pancho Villa’s bronze statue in downtown Tucson, Arizona, and they made it clear the sentiment towards this early 20th century bandit and revolutionary is still strong.
The statue itself is controversial, never mind the man. A replica of this statue stands in Parral, Chihuahua, Mexico, the scene of Villa’s assassination. The Tucson statue was a gift to the city of Tucson by the government of Mexico in 1981. Villa hardly looks like a fighter or a general in this monument, in my opinion, but rather looks taken aback. Perhaps he too is astonished at the longevity and strangeness of his persisting legend.
The Legend of Francisco “Pancho” Villa
Just as you helped the NEEDY in this earthly world. Just as you conquered the POWERFUL. Just as you made your ENEMIES fall back. Thus I ask your spiritual protection, that you may free me from all evil and give me the necessary courage and enough bravery to face the greatest difficulty that is sent me in this life. Amen.
– from a traditional prayer to the spirit of Pancho Villa, translated from Spanish
Born in 1878 to a family of sharecroppers, the young man later known as Pancho Villa became a bandit at sixteen years of age. During the Mexican revolution of 1910, he joined the revolutionary side, supporting Francisco Madero who later became President of Mexico. Unfortunately for Villa, Madero was assassinated not long after, and Villa rebelled against the usurper. Leading his own army, Villa became a menace throughout northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States, earning a place in history as a leader and a fighter. He eventually surrendered to the Mexican government and was granted amnesty, only to be assassinated in the streets of Parral, Chihuahua in 1923.
A true Robin Hood, Villa was always sensitive to the poor and disenfranchised, regardless of his ruthless brutality in other pursuits. He redistributed land to peasants from large cattle barons, and was generous with money. Nonetheless, his story is a complicated one, and to this day some say he was a bandit and a terrorist, and others say he was a noble revolutionary and helper of men. Who can judge?
An Unlikely Spirit Helper
After Villa’s death, some of his former soldiers began a custom of visiting his grave regularly, and it became a sort of ceremonial procession and pageant called the Jornada Villista, which involved horsemen in revolutionary dress, who re-enacted Villa’s assassination, funeral and burial over a several day span in Parral, Mexico. It became an annual event.
Thirty years after the death of Pancho Villa, anthropologists working in northern Mexico discovered that local mediums were invoking his spirit for assistance. According to many mediums who were interviewed about this, Villa likes to cuss a lot when he appears at seances, and it can be very alarming to some. They also report that women who come to mediums for healing by the spirit of Villa are often molested!
Nonetheless, Villa is still esteemed as a helper and healer and advice-giver to the poor and out-of-luck in Mexico, and healings and other forms of miracles are attributed to his spirit.
Viva la Villa!
(This sort of supernatural transformation of an outlaw or bandit is somewhat similar to the devotion to Wild Bill Hickok in South Dakota)
Reference: Folk Saints of the Borderlands, by James “Big Jim” Griffith, Rio Nuevo Publishers, Tucson, Arizona, 2003 (Big Jim is the beloved folklorist of the Southwest Folklore Center in Tucson, Arizona and I recommend his books)