Curator's Choice Lecture Series continues Saturday

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FARMINGTON — If you're not quite sure what to make of Franciso "Pancho" Villa, the early 20th century Mexican revolutionary, military figure and bandit, you're not alone.

Although he's been dead for nearly 100 years, Villa remains an enigmatic figure, says Jeffrey Richardson, who will deliver a presentation on Villa and the Mexican Revolution he helped spawn this weekend at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park. Richardson — the museum's curator, and a noted Western author and historian — said Villa has a complicated legacy that is directly tied to the relative success of the revolution.

"I think his legacy is the fact that the revolution itself never really came to fruition," Richardson said. "The revolution was never able to meet all its goals. And he is a microcosm of the revolution in that he experienced times of success and also significant failures."

Richardson's presentation, "Atencion Gringo: Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution" will examine the entire revolution, which lasted from 1910 to 1920. Considerable attention will be paid to Villa, a general who commanded the celebrated División del Norte from Chihuahua, but Richardson also will examine the role other figures played in the upheaval, including his fellow general Emiliano Zapata.

But Villa differed from his fellow revolutionary leaders in that he did not adhere to a strict dogma, Richardson noted, explaining that Zapata, for instance, was primarily concerned with agrarian reform. Villa's position on many issues was flexible, and that makes his legacy more clouded, Richardson said, adding that the popular perception of Villa's contribution to the revolution may be overstated.

"He is still the embodiment of the revolution," Richardson said. "He was a major figure, but actually, he was not the most important player in the revolution."

While he ultimately came to be reviled in the United States for leading an attack on the New Mexico border village of Columbus in 1916, Villa initially was regarded by many American officials — including those in the administration of President Woodrow Wilson — as a positive figure, perhaps even someone who could bring stability to the Mexican government, Richardson said.

His populist message resonated with many working-class Americans, as evidenced by a recruiting poster from which Richardson's presentation takes part of its name. The document, which characterizes Villas as "El Liberator of Mexico," seeks volunteers from north of the border for Villa's army, an offer that was sweetened by the promise of payment in gold. It was a recruiting effort that apparently met with at least limited success.

Later, of course, Villa fell from favor with not only Americans, but many of his own countrymen as his military failures mounted and the brutal nature of the conflict became more apparent. Atrocities committed by Villa's troops were widely reported, despite the general's efforts to manage and massage his own image by signing a contract with a newsreel company to have some of his battles filmed for posterity.

As American support for Villa wavered and then shifted to his rivals, Villa's attitude toward his northern neighbors changed, as well, perhaps leading him to conclude that the attack on Columbus was one way for him to restore some luster to his fading reputation.

By the time he led his Division del Norte across the border into New Mexico in the early-morning hours of March 9, 1916, Villa's once-feared unit had been reduced to a lackluster, tattered army, battered by recent defeats and forced to scrounge for supplies. American officials were aware of his army's presence on the border, and some feared he might try to bring the Mexican Revolution to the United States, but few figured he had the huevos to actually try it.

Villa proved them wrong, though accounts differ as to whether he led the assault on Columbus or simply watched the battle from a nearby hilltop. In any event, the attack caught the sleeping townspeople by surprise before elements of the 13th Cavalry stationed nearby quickly repelled the raiders.

"It was the first and last ground invasion of the continental United States since the War of 1812," Richardson said, describing the battle's significance, adding that, in that respect, it even surpasses the attack on Pearl Harbor or the events of 9/11.

What is much less clear, he said, is Villa's motivation for picking a fight with the United States.

"We don't really know why he did it," Richardson said, though it was obvious that Villa's thoughts on the United States had changed as the revolution went on.

There was also some speculation that Villa may have been seeking revenge on a man reported to be living in Columbus who had double-crossed him in a munitions deal, Richardson said. Still, he said, that doesn't explain what Villa hoped to accomplish by attacking a rather insignificant outpost of a military power with which he had no obvious complaint.

The consequences of Villa's decision would mean the end of his significance as a rebel leader. Angered by the loss of American lives and the destruction of property during the raid, the U.S. government dispatched a unit across the border to pursue Villa's fleeing army. Although American troops were unsuccessful in capturing him, he was kept on the run long enough to see the remains of his army crumble and his place in the revolutionary movement evaporate. Seven years later, his importance greatly diminished, he was assassinated in Parral.

It was an ignominious end for a man who once aspired to lead his country. But Richardson still marvels at Villa's popularity when he was at the height of his fame – and even afterward.

"I think what's so intriguing about Pancho Villa is the loyalty he was able to garner from his supporters," Richardson said, noting that stories about the general literally giving the shirt off his back to one of his shivering soldiers abound. Though those tales of Villa's humanitarian side are countered by accounts of the cruelty he often displayed toward his enemies, Richardson said those who sided with Villa seemed to do so without reservation.

"His supporters would follow him anywhere," he said.

The presentation, which is part of the Curator's Choice Lecture Series at the museum, begins at 3 p.m. at the museum, 3041 E. Main St. Admission is free. Call 505-599-1174 for more information.  

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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