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I thought the Hollywood glorification of Pancho Villa was been thrown into the garbage can of history as serious scholars came to realize that the Mexican Revolution was a terrible tragedy. The appearance of a massive biography of him, Friedrich Katz, The Life and Times of Pancho Villa (Stanford University Press, 1998, pp. 985) was therefore a surprise. It is a work of detailed scholarship, but it really adds up to a rehabilitation of Pancho Villa, as the Conclusion makes clear.
This did not surprise me, since Katz must have begun his research at the time the Villa legend was making money for Hollywood. I saw Katz often at Mexico conferences at the time McCarthyism was rampant, and we had cordial relations. He was deeply worried that, as a German Jewish refugee, his left-wing ideas might get him into trouble with the U.S. government. I tried to reassure him.
There are many odd things going on in Mexico, one being the appearance of a revolutionary organization calling itself Frente Popular Francisco Villa. It has been involved in clashes with the police. The recent tendency in Mexico has properly been to give much more credit to Emiliano Zapata, who was much more educated and humane. Why this revival of the cult of Pancho Villa?
Heaven knows. There are, especially in the United States, a strange crowd of Mexico-watchers. They are interested only in Mexico, and within Mexico, in the revolutionary movements, and especially in the Chiapas revolutionaries. Disappointed by the collapse of the pro-Castro euphoria, they place their hopes on Chiapas, where the revolutionary movement of Subcomandante Marcos has the backing of Castro.
They have become directly involved, and Mme. Mitterrand, the widow of the French President, is the best known of the visitors there. The village of Oventic proclaimed itself independent and became a focal point for assistance to the independence movement. A San Diego schoolteacher, Peter Brown, organized the construction of a school, and was not deterred by being expelled from Mexico. He is a still a spokesman for the movement.
The Maya uprising began in 1994, and at the turn of the century New Years celebrations were held to mark its sixth anniversary. Many foreigners attended the event, some under the auspices of Global Exchange, a San Francisco human rights group. The Mexican government decided to clamp down and expelled 43 foreigners, including 34 Americans. It had reason to be concerned, since one activity of the rebels had been to prevent the building of roads which the natives wanted. Their aim was to create an inaccessible region like Cuba's Sierra Maestra.
The role of the Catholic Church in all this is not clear. The Vatican removed the bishop of San Cristóbal who had just replaced Samuel Ruiz, and apparently assigned him to Tapachula on the Guatemalan border. The troubles is the south organized by the Zapatistas are moving out of the area associated with Zapata into central Mexico. In Mexico City, the focal point is the national university UNAM, where the student strikers faced down the pathetic faculty representatives and rejected the more than reasonable offers which had been made.
The creation of the Frente Popular Francisco Villa suggests that the plan is to spread the troubles to northern Mexico and more precisely to Chihuahua (where I once met Villa's widow); the governor is in a confrontation with the national petroleum (PEMEX) workers, who are behind the unexplained shortage of the bottled gas which would keep the people warm. It is a kind of blackmail.
Beyond saying that American Mexico watchers are a strange crowd, it is hard to give precise information about them. Their activities may have merit or they may not. In any case, it behooves us to pay attention to a potentially explosive situation.
Ronald Hilton - 1/8/00