Pancho Villa, My Grandmother, and the Revolutionary History of the BorderBreaking News
tags: oral history, Pancho Villa, Mexican American history, Mexican history, mexican revolution, borderlands
Carlos Sanchez is director of public affairs for Hidalgo county, Texas. He was a journalist for 37 years and has worked at the Washington Post and Texas Monthly magazine, as well as eight other newsrooms. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
My maternal grandmother was a head nurse in a hospital in the northern state of Chihuahua during the Mexican Revolution – an epic event that affected both sides of the border and caused my family to permanently move to the United States to escape the violence.
Grandmother worked at the hospital, family lore goes, when the infamous general Pancho Villa seized the facility and left his wounded troops to the hospital’s care. Mama, as we called her, took it upon herself to watch out for the female nurses amid all the soldiers, some of whom made unwanted sexual advances to them. She reported them to Villa’s officers. That’s when Villa showed up and asked Mama to point out the offending soldiers. When she did, he drew his pistol and summarily executed the men, astonishing the witnesses and delivering the message to his army that this behavior would not be tolerated.
I’ll never know the truth of this incident, but hearing this tale as a child ignited my imagination, and I devoured everything I could read about Pancho Villa. Yes, there was a debate over whether he was a hero or villain. Yes, he executed people unmercifully. Yes, he ordered his troops to rape women in a town he captured. And, yes, his army was only the second foreign army to invade the United States since the British in the war of 1812. The invasion of Columbus, New Mexico, notwithstanding, he had been an ally of the US and a Hollywood favorite because he allowed movie crews to film his battles and even shoot retakes.
At the height of his influence, Villa was a brilliant wartime tactician, one of the first to use trains as mobile army surgical hospitals. Although he used my home town of El Paso, Texas, as an important trading post for smuggling arms and other contraband to his revolutionary Division of the North army, I never learned a thing about him in school. What I learned was prompted by Mama’s stories.
She was born in Arizona, but her life was spent on both sides of the border, like so many people for generations. Their stories of the revolution often only live on in family lore, not in school history books. Like thousands of other refugees from Mexico, Mama came to the US to escape an agonizing, decade-long revolution in which the state of Chihuahua and the city of Juárez, across from El Paso, were strategic focal points of the war and the sites of several pitched battles. Yet the only reference to Villa was when we learned about General John “Black Jack” Pershing, who commanded Fort Bliss, located in El Paso, and unsuccessfully invaded Mexico in an effort to capture Villa after the Mexican general entered New Mexico.
After Mama made her permanent home in El Paso, she applied her midwife skills in Hispanic neighborhoods along Alameda Street, on the south side of town near the border. Many of the babies she helped deliver came from families that were also refugees from years of fighting in Mexico. As a child, I would engage in debates with Hispanic schoolmates over whether Villa was a hero or a villain. Years later, I figured out that those who idolized Villa came from the peasant class in Mexico and those who declared him a bandit had upper-class relatives before the revolution.
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