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9 Surprising Facts About Mexican Revolutionary Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa
Pancho Villa (center) with Generals Álvaro Obregón and John J. Pershing at Fort Bliss, Texas on Aug. 27, 1914. Immediately behind Pershing on the left is his aide Lt. George S. Patton. Wikimedia Commons

He's known around the world as a Mexican revolutionary and guerrilla leader, but there's a lot more to the mysterious Pancho Villa than many of us learned in school. Some have called him a modern-day hero and others consider him a bloodthirsty killer.

"His whole origin myth varies hugely depending on who is doing the talking," Paul Gillingham, associate professor of history and associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Northwestern University, says via email. "The Robin Hood version is that he is a poor sharecropper child who becomes an outlaw after defending his sister's honor against the local hacendado. The critical one is that he was a psychopathic career criminal. We don't have the information to know."

Despite the mystique that surrounds his legacy, what actually is known about the controversial figure who helped lead the Mexican Revolution and how did his efforts result in the end of Porfirio Díaz's reign and the creation of a new Mexican government? Here are nine facts you need to know about Pancho Villa.

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1. His Real Name Wasn't Pancho Villa

Born Doroteo Arango, on June 5, 1878, the Mexican native adopted the name Pancho Villa sometime around the turn of the century when he teamed up with bandits to become what some saw as a modern day Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. "His name is taken from Saint Francis of Assisi and was given to him by his neighbors," John Mason Hart, Moores professor of history at the University of Houston and one of the nation's foremost scholars of Mexico, says via email. "It means defender of the village." He was known to his friends as La Cucaracha or "the cockroach."

2. His Life on the Run Started Early

Villa's father died when he was just 15 years old, leaving him to become the head of the household. When a man began harassing one of his sisters, Villa shot him and was arrested. He managed to escape imprisonment but began life as a bandit.

3. He Was a Born Fighter

Villa joined Francisco Madero's uprising against Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz, and was made a colonel for his fighting skills and abilities as a leader. In 1912, another rebellion removed Madero from power and Villa narrowly escaped execution. During that time, he fled to the United States but later returned to Mexico and formed his own military force, Division del Norte (Division of the North). After forming Division del Norte, Villa teamed up with fellow revolutionaries Venustiano Carranza and Emiliano Zapata in an effort to overthrow Mexican president Victoriano Huerta, who had come into power following the fall of Madero. Tensions rose and over time and Villa and Carranza became his enemies.

4. He Had a Remarkably Loyal Following

"The most important discovery was the continuity between him and the people who chose to call themselves Villistas," Hart says. "They were the citizens of the pueblos of the north from Eastern Sonora to the Gulf of Mexico. They wanted the preservation of their pueblos which in many cases had more than 500 years of self-government, lands which they worshipped because of their spiritualism and adoration of heroic ancestors, places where Christ and the Virgin had been seen on their properties and which were therefore sacred."

Gillingham believes one of the most fascinating parts of Villa's legend is the number of people who loyally followed him. "Villa expressed very well what you might call the discontents of globalization version 1.1, i.e., an economic boom that favored very few, dispossessed very many, and left everyday people feeling that they had lost some form of freedom," he says.

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5. He Wasn't Any More Violent Than His Contemporaries

According to Alejandro Quintana, associate professor of history at St. John's University in Queens, New York, one majorly misreported fact about Villa is the ruthlessness of his character. "The level of his being a bloodthirsty criminal I believe is inaccurate," he says. "This view is also afflicted by politics that benefit by showing the violent face of Villa. Many other leaders (Carranza and Obregon, just to mention the most obvious ones), were as violent as he had ever been but never branded violent. Among all the revolutionaries, Villa is considered the most ruthless and bloodthirsty; executing his enemies without hesitation (while practically everybody did just that).

"There is ample evidence of heinous crimes committed by Villa. However, he was not a brute who only understood violence. The revolution forced everybody to act violently and Villa was great at speaking violence, especially when he was vulnerable. I interpret this to be a survival instinct. I believe that a person's true nature shows best when s/he is in power. Thus, Villa was among the most benevolent and merciful revolutionary leaders when he was in full control of a situation. After occupying a city, Villa generally controlled his armies to avoid looting, vendettas or even for getting drunk. For this, he managed to gain the approval of lower and middle classes wherever he ruled," says Quintana.

Pancho Villa
A still from the silent film "The Life of General Villa" by The Mutual Film Company, which contracted with Pancho Villa to produce a film about his life.
Library of Congress

6. He Did Not Have a Formal Education

Quintana says there are many things about Villa's legacy that make him a fascinating subject, but one particularly striking detail is his lack of education and the role it played in his ultimate fall. "Villa had a tremendous instinct," Quintana says. "That allowed him to become the most powerful man in Mexico, successfully creating and leading the largest army in the country. In 1914 and 1915, he was the most popular, charismatic and powerful man in the country. Yet, in 1916, he was a man on the run. I believe education was a big part of his problem. As incredible as this may sound, Villa was a self-conscious man, always feeling intimidated by educated people. Besides, the lack of education limited his capacity to see the big picture and fail to grasp how to turn his regional power into a truly national movement."

Quintana says José Venustiano Carranza de la Garza, one of the leaders of the Mexican Revolution, who ultimately became president of Mexico, was the opposite. "He was in a much weaker situation, but his understanding of geopolitics allowed him to get the best out of his meager situation and defeat Villa," he says. Despite his lack of formal education, Villa surrounded himself with highly educated colleagues. "One of the more surprising facts is his warm relationships with bookish types like revolutionary president Francisco Madero, to whom he was extremely loyal, or Felipe Angeles — who deserves a film all to himself — his academic military adviser," Gillingham says.

7. His Feelings Toward Americans Were Complicated

In January 1916, Villa executed 17 U.S. citizens at Santa Isabel, Chihuahua, and two months later attacked Columbus, New Mexico, killing another 17 Americans, all in an effort to demonstrate that Carranza did not control northern Mexico. But according to Gillingham, one commonly misreported fact about Villa revolves around his personal feelings toward those in the United States. "He liked Americans perfectly well, and did a lot of business with them — until he briefly invaded the U.S. in 1916 in the Columbus Raid, at which point things went south," he says. "In the aftermath, the U.S. Bureau of Investigation — the FBI forerunner — sent two Japanese agents to poison his coffee. They did, but the poison didn't work."

8. He Had a Dream For a Different Kind of Mexico

"There is an aspect of Villa that is little known and that is his vision for a post-revolutionary Mexico," Quintana says. "He envisioned a new social order in which workers could organize in communes to be in charge of the economy, eliminating the need for the upper class. There would be no military, but workers would receive military training that would help them protect themselves and acquire the required discipline to succeed. This was not communism, but a utopian [way] of life in the frontier — the same way frontier military colonies organized at the time."

9. The Events of His Later Years Are Unclear

In 1920, Mexican leader Adolfo de la Huerta pardoned Villa for his actions as long as the revolutionary agreed to end his independent military activities. "He is misreported to have retired on a large hacienda," Hart says. "In fact, he lived with seventy companeros and their families in a collective building full of screaming kids and ate his meals with them in a common dining room." He was assassinated while driving in a car on June 20, 1923 at the rather young age of 45 and buried in the city cemetery in Parral, Chihuahua. While there are many theories about who killed him and it was clear that his assassination was an organized hit, Villa's killers were never brought to justice.

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