Writing Pancho Villa's Revolution

[ Latin American Studies ]

Writing Pancho Villa's Revolution

Rebels in the Literary Imagination of Mexico

By Max Parra

How Mexican culture after the Revolution created an enduring literary legacy surrounding the famed revolutionary leader Francisco “Pancho” Villa.



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6 x 9 | 197 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-70978-2

The 1910 Mexican Revolution saw Francisco "Pancho" Villa grow from social bandit to famed revolutionary leader. Although his rise to national prominence was short-lived, he and his followers (the villistas) inspired deep feelings of pride and power amongst the rural poor. After the Revolution (and Villa's ultimate defeat and death), the new ruling elite, resentful of his enormous popularity, marginalized and discounted him and his followers as uncivilized savages. Hence, it was in the realm of culture rather than politics that his true legacy would be debated and shaped.

Mexican literature following the Revolution created an enduring image of Villa and his followers. Writing Pancho Villa's Revolution focuses on the novels, chronicles, and testimonials written from 1925 to 1940 that narrated Villa's grassroots insurgency and celebrated—or condemned—his charismatic leadership. By focusing on works by urban writers Mariano Azuela (Los de abajo) and Martín Luis Guzmán (El águila y la serpiente), as well as works closer to the violent tradition of northern Mexican frontier life by Nellie Campobello (Cartucho), Celia Herrera (Villa ante la historia), and Rafael F. Muñoz (¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa!), this book examines the alternative views of the revolution and of the villistas. Max Parra studies how these works articulate different and at times competing views about class and the cultural "otherness" of the rebellious masses. This unique revisionist study of the villista novel also offers a deeper look into the process of how a nation's collective identity is formed.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. The Politics of Incorporation: The Calles Era, 1925-1935
  • 2. Villa and Popular Political Subjectivity in Mariano Azuela’s Los de abajo
  • 3. Reconstructing Subaltern Perspectives in Nellie Campobello’s Cartucho
  • 4. Villismo and Intellectual Authority in Martín Luis Guzmán’s El águila y la serpiente
  • 5. Soldierly Honor and Mexicanness in Rafael F. Muñoz’s ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa!
  • 6. The Battle for Pancho Villa during Cardenismo, 1935-1940
  • 7. Villismo's Legacy
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index


On March 6, 1913, Francisco Villa and eight followers crossed the border into Mexico from El Paso, Texas, with the aim of overthrowing the dictatorship of Gen. Victoriano Huerta. They had nine rifles and nine horses, "500 cartridges per man, two pounds of coffee, two pounds of sugar, one pound of salt." By the end of that year, Villa's forces had swelled to several thousand well-equipped men. The former social bandit was now chief commander of a loose coalition of revolutionary forces known as the Division of the North and controlled most of the state of Chihuahua. Six months later, Villa's Division of the North crushed the federal army in the city of Zacatecas, in central Mexico. After a brief truce with competing revolutionary factions from other regions, Villa and his army continued their advance south, unopposed, to Mexico City.

The impressive rise of the Villistas from a grassroots movement to the undisputed masters of the country in the period 1913-1914 is a military phenomenon still being unraveled and debated by historians. There is general agreement that no other revolutionary mobilization in Mexico had "the popular intensity and mass following" of Villismo, nor did any other arouse such feelings of pride and power among the rural poor. The unmistakable message of Villa's military success was that the years of living in fear were over. The time had come to take by force what rightfully belonged to the historically disenfranchised. This had a profoundly liberating impact on the psychology of the downtrodden. The rural masses' bold acts of social transgression, unimaginable a few years earlier, became commonplace.

The change in popular mentality stunned the wealthy landowners and the "decent people," those who "dressed well, were rich, and were not too dark." The colonial structures of Mexican society, still in place even after a century of independence from Spain, were shaken to the core. Arturo Warman summarizes the new social reality: "The ethnic barrier was torn down. To be a dandy or to look like one ceased to be a privilege and became a risk. The revolutionaries killed some citizens because of their manners and appearance. Skin color, attire and manner had been instruments of oppression that, to a certain degree, functioned as a dividing line between the opposing groups."

Historical time accelerated in a matter of months. The rural oligarchy abandoned its haciendas in the countryside and moved to the cities or left Mexico altogether, seeking a safe haven abroad from the ragged armies of hungry campesinos. Members of the rural oligarchy sensed that the revolution was as much an attack on the city and urban culture as it was a war against the dictatorial Huerta government. Well-to-do city dwellers, terrified by the news of revolutionary soldiers looting stores and residences, barricaded themselves in their homes. Few images better illustrate the dramatic changes taking place than the photograph of Villa seated in the presidential chair in Mexico City's national palace alongside Gen. Emiliano Zapata, the legendary agrarian leader from the south. Widely reproduced in newspapers, the photograph of the uneducated but astute revolutionaries was an eloquent statement of the people's empowerment, a visual reminder that the social order had been turned upside down.

Villa's remarkable rise to national prominence, however, was short-lived. During the course of the civil war that ensued among various revolutionary factions after Huerta's fall, Villa's military power and social appeal were severely eroded. Villista defeats in central Mexico (the Bajío region) during the spring and summer of 1915, as well as defections and betrayals within his own camp forced him to retreat to his home base in the northern states of Chihuahua and Durango.

Back in Villista territory, the former cattle rustler and social bandit disbanded what was left of his once-powerful Division of the North. A few hundred faithful soldiers, determined to continue fighting, followed him to the mountains. Taking advantage of Villa's enviable knowledge of the terrain, they waged a bloody guerrilla war against the newly installed revolutionary government of Venustiano Carranza.

Villa's weakened and regionally confined military activities diminished his influence in national affairs, but his daring guerrilla actions and popular appeal continued to have a formative effect on the country's social and cultural imaginary. In March 1916, Villa crossed the border into the United States and raided Columbus, New Mexico, in a calculated move to exact revenge against a former ally (the United States) that now sided with the popular leader's foes and officially recognized Carranza. Washington reacted to the attack on Columbus by organizing the so-called Punitive Expedition to search for and capture Villa in Mexican territory.

After ten months of fruitless searching, the U.S. expeditionary force withdrew, and the legend of the indomitable Villa continued to grow. The Hearst newspapers in the United States portrayed Villa as a symbol of south-of-the-border lawlessness and made him and Mexicans in general a target of racist commentaries. In Mexico, however, Villa's raid on Columbus made him a popular symbol of nationalism, forcing President Carranza to intensify his campaign to discredit the rebel leader.

In 1920, Venustiano Carranza was assassinated while fleeing a military revolt by his own forces. With the death of Villa's personal enemy and unrelenting persecutor, the Villistas agreed to an armistice. The new regime gave the "Centaur of the North," as the Mexican press had christened him, the hacienda of Canutillo in the northern part of the state of Durango. Although occasional statements to the press continued to make the Mexican government uneasy about his intentions, Villa lived peacefully in Canutillo for the next three years. On a July morning in 1923, he was ambushed and killed along with his escort in the nearby city of Hidalgo del Parral. Personal and political enemies, with the acquiescence and support of prominent government officials, were behind the assassination (perhaps including Pres. Álvaro Obregón himself).

Henceforth, Villa's place in the history of the revolution and the military and cultural legacy of the Villista movement would not be disputed on the battlefield, but on the terrain of the discursive and ideological struggles of the postrevolutionary period.

Politics and Culture

The meaning of Villa's rise and fall, the vicissitudes and ultimate neutralization of Villismo, were hotly contentious issues in the politics and culture of postrevolutionary Mexico. The official government version of events discounted Villa as a revolutionary leader. His marginalization was due in part to the new ruling elite's unwillingness to rehabilitate a military enemy they had personally fought. According to Ilene O'Malley, however, the decisive factor behind the official neglect of Villa was his popularity. Popularity "carried in it reminders of the power of the popular classes when mobilized," undermining the regime's quest for hegemony. The public's enthusiasm for Villa irritated the country's rulers, and they reacted by shrouding his name in silence, an act of "implicit denial of Villa's importance" and "the only means to counteract his fame."

The popular revolutionary leader was, indeed, regarded by all segments of Mexican society as a vivid and forceful expression of the people's power, pride, and resilience. Even those who opposed him took delight in mythologizing his controversial life and military feats, and the postrevolutionary regimes' slight did little to diminish Villa's massive appeal.

Banished from the official memory of the revolution, it was in the realm of culture, not politics, where Villa's political and symbolic meaning for the Mexican nation would be appraised and discussed. The government's dismissal left the field open for Villa's "image to be shaped more by popular tastes, fiction writers, and journalists than by official propagandists." The Villistas' legendary violence and terror inspired curiosity, fear, and admiration among the urban population, and the print media gleefully exploited these sentiments. Tall tales ranging from the critical to the folkloric, from the bizarre to the sympathetic, fueled the public imagination. Hyperbolic accounts proliferated about Villa's days as a social bandit, about his arbitrary killings, brutal popular justice, unexpected generosity, or improbable survival. His famed ruthlessness and charisma along with his followers' deeds and excesses were recounted in the oral culture of legends, corridos, and popular myths.

The collective fascination with Villa and Villismo was fruitful for literature. The epic spectacle of warfare and Villa's adventurous life and rise from poverty and banditry to revolutionary leader inspired novels, novelized memoirs, short stories, and biographies. In the 1920s and the 1930s, decades of national reconstruction, over twenty books on Villa and Villismo were published, an unprecedented number in a country characterized by the paucity of its publications. The peak year was 1931, when five works appeared—one biography, three novels, and one collection of short stories.

Villista literature was, by and large, the work of educated people who had witnessed the revolution at close range and wrote about it based on personal memory. Yet, more often than not, writers created their own authoritative discourse and mythology about Villa and the revolution by drawing on information from elite and popular sources, such as testimonials, oral culture, military reports, and newspaper articles. These accounts were written in a style accessible to the common reader; nevertheless, they were, to greater or lesser extent, elite versions of the historical agency of subaltern groups that had participated in the revolution.

Representations of Villa's grassroots insurgency and of his personality articulated different and, at times, competing views about the class and cultural "Otherness" of the rebellious masses. These views, in turn, were symptomatic of a larger cultural war taking place: a war fought over the dead, over how the Mexican people should remember their fallen revolutionaries at a time when the meaning of the war, and therefore its legacy for the present, was still unresolved. How should the dead be remembered? What was the meaning of popular violence? Whose memory would prevail? These were critical questions because the answers touched on issues of societal restructuring (e.g., the place of the uneducated masses in the new order) and political legitimation (who has the right to speak for the nation). Villista literature participated, directly or indirectly, in this cultural war.

Violence was a recurrent, often dominant, theme for Villista writers. Their work, unlike other writings on the revolution, called attention to the brutalities of war and the emotions associated with it: fear, anger, hate, revenge, guilt, denial, and so on. "There is no record of the culture of violence and disruption in the many monographs dedicated to the revolution, although it is registered in a masterly way in the novels, stories and memoirs of the writers," notes Enrique Florescano. Villista literature, then, furnishes a privileged site from which to explore the popular revolution's culture of violence and how it was represented, debated, and incorporated into postrevolutionary culture.

This book examines the cultural and political construction of Villismo in postrevolutionary literary discourse. It focuses on narratives that highlight the different aesthetic and ideological positions taken toward the movement during the years of national reconstruction (1925-1940), when literature became another battlefront in the social struggle for hegemony. A dominant concern throughout the book is the treatment of popular consciousness, understood as "politicized forms of knowledge and popular identity." How did writers represent popular consciousness? What role did these representations play in discursive and ideological wars of the period? What did they do for the creative process of imagining a nation's collective identity?

My strategy engages theories of identity as they relate to subaltern positionalities and relates them to larger issues of cultural and political history. Recent critical developments in the social sciences and humanities have reopened the question of popular politics in rural movements. These theories are grounded in the idea that the inner workings of rebel identity and the modes of expression of cultural politics are far more subtle, culturally bound, and contentious than previously acknowledged. By stressing the internal logic of popular movements and thus recognizing the intricate nature of subaltern epistemology, these revisionist trends critique the conventional images presented by liberal rationalist currents. This often-patronizing tradition portrayed a popular movement beset by intellectual naïveté, political anarchy, and arbitrariness. This book's emphasis on questions of local identity, subaltern positionality, and popular politics is therefore intended to problematize idées reçues about popular violence and political consciousness. The book also reexamines the position of intellectuals vis-à-vis popular culture and social movements in Mexico's modern history.

Subaltern and Regional Perspectives

Subaltern studies is a revisionist trend in the social sciences and the humanities toward reassessing the historical agency of subaltern groups, particularly in times of social upheaval. It provides a broad, useful framework for the themes addressed in this study. Subalternist scholars are concerned with the "analysis of how subalternity was constituted by dominant discourses." They try to explore the "fault lines" of dominant discourses as a way to generate alternative accounts of popular rebellion. Ranajit Guha, a prominent member of this school, has specifically studied what he calls "the domain of subaltern politics" in popular rebellions. Guha's research on rural insurgencies in nineteenth-century India focuses on the semiotics of transgression, that is, on the rebels' radical rupture with the basic code that organizes relations of domination and subordination in society. Some historians have contemplated the applicability of this approach to the study of the Mexican Revolution.

This book is also informed by the renewed interest in regional historiography. Traditional studies on revolutionary literature implicitly privilege the conceptual framework of "nation" and modern nationalism (identification with national space and a centralized state apparatus). This is the case with the so-called literature of the Mexican revolution (Castro Leal, Dessau et al.). I distance myself from such currents by emphasizing "region" as opposed to and in dialogue with "nation."

The concept of "region" is a critical component in the study of Mexican history and culture. As Eric Van Young has explained, "the varied and difficult topography of the country . . . produce[s] an enormously complex arrangement of climatological zones, micro-ecologies, subcultures, and local histories. This luxuriant and confusing variety has played a central role in the evolution of Mexico's history and in the consciousness of Mexicans as portrayed in their politics, art, social thinking, and mentalidad." During the revolutionary war, regional and local identities, more than explicit political affiliations, were key unifying factors behind popular mobilizations. The concepts of region and regionalism (a self-conscious, cultural, political, and emotional attachment to a specific territorial homeland within the space of the nation, sometimes called "patria chica") are therefore useful analytical tools in that they place subaltern insurgencies in their own unique revolutionary dynamic, rooted in local historical processes and cultural practices. These concepts are critical to understanding how regional rebels define themselves and their participation in the war. For example, an examination of the geography and history of the northern Mexican region that became Villista territory reveals that even before the revolution there existed a violent tradition of frontier culture with its own valued forms of social identity.

Subaltern studies and regional historiography have different agendas. The former is openly political, speculative, and liberationist in its objective; the latter falls, for the most part, within the confines of conventional historical scholarship. Both overlap, however, in their effort to highlight the importance of primary networks of sociability (kinship, territoriality, local cultures) in the construction of collective identities and in understanding the epistemolgy of popular mobilizations. Regional historiography is interested in studying the array of local identities that resist or try to negotiate their integration in to the larger community of the nation on their own terms. Subaltern studies, on the other hand, includes discourse analysis and takes a critical distance from the ideology of nationalism.

My work on Villismo does not strictly adhere to either school. Both provide a critical horizon that has stimulated my thinking on the cultural politics of popular rebellion and on how subalternity is represented in cultural discourse. I have found Guha's methodology for reading dominant narratives "against the grain" particularly useful in examining the cultural construction of popular subjects in canonical works written by liberal-minded authors, such as Mariano Azuela. Regional historiography brings to the discussion a historical specificity that has been lacking in the study of revolutionary literature. This facilitates the scrutiny of how certain subaltern practices are culturally processed—how and why they are highlighted, reworked, deemphasized, or silenced in literary discourse.

My approach to Villista literature engages critical and theoretical discourses that position subaltern and regional subjects as central foci of analysis. I concentrate on literary works that represent the key positions and narrative strategies adopted by authors who wrote about the theme of Pancho Villa and the Villista armed movement in the age of reconstruction. Villista literature during these years can be divided into three periods. The works of all three periods express the distinct ideological and aesthetic positions toward Villismo at the time during which they were published and illuminate the status of the debate and the evolution of the dominant cultural politics toward popular revolutionary subjects.

The first opens the debate on Villismo in the nation's literature during the presidency of Plutarco Elías Calles, from 1924 to 1928. Mariano Azuela's Los de abajo (The Underdogs, 1916; 1925) and Martín Luis Guzmán's El águila y la serpiente (The Eagle and the Serpent, 1928) are thematic and stylistic breakthroughs that, I will argue, are nevertheless still enmeshed in the intellectual mores of the prerevolutionary period in terms of their portrayal of the rural masses. Both, Azuela and Guzmán, I contend, wrote works that in the act of representing rebel subjectivity simultaneously tried to control and suppress it by employing a social philosophy anchored in notions of private property, individuality, and bourgeois nationhood. Azuela and Guzmán represent two modalities of urban, liberal, postrevolutionary thought (populism and elitism, respectively).

The second stage, from 1929 to 1935, the years of the Maximato (when General Calles, no longer the president, remained Mexico's strongman), signals a shift toward a more radical view of Villa and the revolution and draws heavily on the popular myths of regional culture. Rafael F. Muñoz's ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! (Let's Ride with Pancho Villa! 1931) and Nellie Campobello's Cartucho: Relatos de la lucha en el norte de México (Cartridges: Tales of the Struggle in Northern Mexico, 1931; 1940) are the two works from this period that illustrate this new emphasis, despite their different objectives and styles. Unlike Azuela's and Guzmán's early work, these writers' work explicitly makes Villista forms of cultural and political community the centerpiece, albeit for very different purposes: Campobello, to defend a regional identity under siege (popular regionalism); Muñoz, to enhance and capitalize on the brutalities of war (market-oriented sensationalism). Both, however, delve into the internal conflicts, contradictions, and limitations of what one critic has called the "alternative rationality" of subaltern culture.

The third period covers the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas, from 1934 to 1940. Villista literature during the Cárdenas years was in many ways a by-product of the state's cultural populist policies and attempted to incorporate Villa into the official memory of the nation. Martín Luis Guzmán's "new" Villa in the monumental (and apologetic) Memorias de Pancho Villa (Pancho Villa's Memoirs), and Celia Herrera's reaction to the official effort to institutionalize Villa, Villa ante la historia (History Judges Villa), are contrasting narratives representative of this stage.

The relationship between literary production and historical context is critical to my analysis of the cultural construction of popular subjects. Because of this, I present as much as possible of the circumstances under which each author wrote. This is particularly necessary since I do not study the works in strict chronological order: I pair Azuela with Campobello and Guzmán with Muñoz in order to highlight the contrasting alternative narrative strategies and positions vis-à-vis popular subjects.

Chapter 1 locates the production of Villista narratives in the context of the social struggles for hegemony during Callismo. It summarizes the Callista politics of national reconstruction and its contradictions, with an emphasis on the Mexican state's endorsement of the social leadership of the emerging middle class and the importance of official nationalist cultural policies in shaping the literary trend toward social and revolutionary themes. I discuss Villa's regionalist, anticentralist politics and how, after the revolution, his position (antagonistic to Calles's) continued to be a fundamental point of contention in the debates over the incorporation the rural population into national life.

Chapter 2 provides a revisionist reading from a subalternist perspective of Mariano Azuela's Los de abajo, one of the classic novels on revolutionary Mexico. I begin by briefly discussing the "discovery" of this work by Mexico City's intellectuals in 1925 and synthesize the conventional reading of the novel. I then assess the contribution made by Azuela's novel to the process of suppressing popular political subjectivity in the dominant discourses of the postrevolutionary period. In the last section of the chapter, I read the novel "against the grain" in order to examine marginal areas of knowledge as they bear on the domain of popular politics. By exploring textual spaces that reveal the presence of an alternative popular politics centered on General Villa, I critically reassess Azuela's thesis regarding popular subjects' lack of political rationality.

Nellie Campobello's approach to Villismo in Cartucho differs from that of Azuela in that her narrative style re-creates a vision of the past that is not external to the world of the characters themselves. In Chapter 3, I argue that three subaltern perspectives are at work in Cartucho: the regional (as opposed to the national); the domestic/maternal (as opposed to the public/male); and the child's (as opposed to the adult's). These interlocking perspectives reinforce each other and reaffirm, albeit not without contradictions, the collective identity of a community under siege by supraregional military forces. A key element discussed in this chapter is the author's elaboration of a discourse that counters the ideology of centralism through the use of poetic devices that originate in oral culture.

The focus in Chapter 4 is the reconstruction of authority in elite culture through the description of subaltern themes and subjects in Martín Luis Guzmán's El águila y la serpiente. My analysis focuses on the author's aesthetic approach to the revolution (atelismo) and his use of the "civilizing code" as a narrative strategy of domination, which, I argue, produces overdetermined pronouncements about subaltern subjects. A second section examines the dual construction of Villa: as the necessary "low-Other" on whom the narrator constructs his own self-identity and status; and as the epic hero whose legendary attributes represent "positive" qualities associated with a popular Mexican identity. Insofar as the epic Villa is defined by his antagonism to the Mexican state, he represents a contradiction to the narrator's civilizing project. Yet this contradiction is rearticulated and ultimately deflected by subordinating the stories of the epic hero to the dominant discourse of integrative nationalism.

¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! by Rafael F. Muñoz is a by-product of urban readers' demand for blood-and-glory tales about the revolution in newspapers and magazines. The author's narrative strategy, based on the exaggerated treatment of soldierly male bonding, was designed to appeal to the reading public's craving for morbidly violent anecdotes. The process by which Muñoz put readers vicariously in touch with a world that was both "uncivilized" and "natural," and the relevance of this Otherness to the formation of the country's cultural identity, are the subjects of Chapter 5. Like Martín Luis Guzmán, Muñoz exploits the military mythology of Villismo to shock and horrify his readers; unlike Guzmán, however, Muñoz approaches and judges General Villa in this novel through the eyes of Villa's soldiers, thereby placing the logic of violence within the region's radical military culture and mythology. In doing so, Muñoz is able to move beyond Azuela and Guzmán's liberal views on violence and introduce popular images of frontier war culture that will be integrated as valued features in the cultural construction of "Mexicanness."

Chapter 6 discusses the role of Cardenismo in the efforts to rehabilitate General Villa. This provides the context for analyzing Martín Luis Guzmán's monumental Memorias de Pancho Villa and Celia Herrera's Villa ante la historia, both outgrowths of Cardenista policy. I study the stylistic qualities that make Guzmán's apologetic Memorias the greatest piece of populist literature of the period and contrast the author's "new" Villa with the "old" and more critical representation of him in El águila y la serpiente. The chapter ends with a brief review of Celia Herrera's Villa ante la historia. This work, originally written to prevent Villa's institutionalization and as a response to Guzmán's Memorias, summarizes the anti-Villista views of a regional middle class and is an important domestic source of Villa's black legend.

The final chapter discusses General Villa's fate in official historical memory after 1940 and summarizes my subalternist-regionalist reading of Villista literature. I conclude that representations of subaltern subjects in this body of work reorganize our understanding of the past in that it obliges us to reconsider forms of identity and community that have been partially suppressed or discredited in the process of modern nation-building. These forms are particularly relevant, in the age of globalization, to the collective task of reconceptualizing Mexico's identity, culture, and politics. I also propose that this conceptualization of Otherness produced two distinct narrative genealogies in postrevolutionary Mexico—one canonical, the other marginal. The latter needs to be further explored if we are to have a more comprehensive understanding of Mexican literature and its evolution.

Max Parra is Associate Professor of Latin American Literature at the University of California, San Diego.