Living La Vida Grande

Living La Vida Grande

The Life and Times of Pancho Villa
by Friedrich Katz
Stanford University Press, 1998, 985 pp., $29.95

John reed once asked Pancho Villa his opinion of socialism. “Socialism—is it a thing?” Villa retorted. “I only see it in books, and I do not read much.” But Villa possessed his own image of utopia: military colonies consisting of veterans of the revolution, who would subsist together in rural harmony. “My ambition is to live my life in one of those military colonies among my compañeros whom I love, who have suffered so long and so deeply with me,” proclaimed Villa. “I think I would like the government to establish a leather factory there where we could make good saddles and bridles, because I know how to do that; and the rest of the time I would like to work on my little farm, raising cattle and corn. It would be fine, I think, to help make Mexico a happy place.”

But Mexico is not a happy place, and Villa’s was an impossible dream. Eventually he got his colony, but it was an ephemeral victory: in 1923, in one of the innumerable acts of fratricide that propelled the Mexican Revolution, he was gunned down in one of the dusty streets of Chihuahua, the sprawling border state where he spent most of his life. And what a life it was: born in squalor, deprived of education, Villa passed his early years in shadowy disrepute, and, if not for the revolution, might have languished in prison for a series of petty crimes committed in his youth. But the 1910 revolution captured his imagination, and unleashed within him hitherto unknown talents both military and political. With astonishing speed and efficiency, and with unyielding discipline, this “semiliterate former peon” fashioned the División del Norte, which, in Friedrich Katz’s estimation, was “probably the largest revolutionary army that Latin America ever produced”; he presided over “the only social revolution ever to occur along the border of the United States”; and he became the only foreigner since the War of 1812 to invade American soil and get away with it.

Villa’s reputation, formidable in his own lifetime, ballooned to legendary proportions after his death. Shaped by folklore, Hollywood movies, and the cynical rhetoric of the Mexican state, divergent images of him took root in public consciousness: Villa the bandit, Villa the executioner, Villa the friend of the poor, Villa the military genius. He was, in fact, all of these things: a man who adored children and rescued orphans from the streets, but also a man who shot priests and butchered civilians. Katz’s biography strips away the mythology and enables us to see Villa in the cold light of reality. In a Herculean effort, the author, a distinguished historian at the University of Chicago, visited more than sixty archives in nine countries, conducted hundreds of interviews, and mastered the voluminous literature on Villa. The result...

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