Papa And Pancho Villa


“All right, you little bastard,” he muttered, simultaneously reaching for his heavy pistol. “Since you’re so in love with your lousy harness, you may as well stick with it. We’re going to take you both , you and your harness, into the army.” And that’s exactly what they did. In one single act my father was both expropriated and drafted.

Ordinarily, one would have expected my father to continue his resistance and raise a bit of hell once he reached camp. He had, admittedly, a stubborn nature. But he calmly accepted his new status and was assigned the duty of stable hand in a cavalry unit, to which his harness had also been assigned.

The camp itself was a rather shabby affair consisting of three wind-battered tents stolen from a hacienda, a makeshift corral of seven horses, several sacks of flour piled on a flat-bed wagon, and—with my dad’s arrival- twenty-nine soldiers, most of them younger than twenty. Their uniforms were the least uniform uniforms any army ever wore. No two men were dressed alike, although several of them wore the large, cumbersome, wide-brimmed sombreros that soon became the symbol of Villa’s troops. However, whether in uniform or not, my father had no difficulty realizing that he was now a soldier. On the very first night he was handed a heavy rifle and ordered to serve as a lookout on a nearby hill.

“If you see any fédérales chingados just wake us up, and we’ll get the hell out.” Apparently this rear-guard cadre’s sole responsibility was to shoot and run (in several different directions) and later regroup at a more southerly rendezvous.

Many years later, as we sat around the supper table in our rented flat in Denver, my father recalled in minute detail the awful fear that nearly paralyzed him as he stood guard on that scabrous hill four miles south of Bachimba. It was a quiet night, so deathly quiet that he could hear every lizard that skittered across the parched earth. And somewhere behind him—he was too frightened to ascertain its exact whereabouts—a lonely coyote moaned at fitful intervals. Yet his fear did not keep him from sitting down on a flat rock, where at last he fell sound asleep. He woke up at sunrise, stretched his cramped limbs until they felt normal again, and then walked slowly down the barranca toward the stillslumbering camp. “I’m a soldier now,” he said to himself, a slight strut momentarily creeping into his gait. “I’m a private in Pancho Villa’s army.”

A few moments later he heard an abrupt snort from the tent nearest him, followed by a petulant grumbling that quickly crescendoed into a rolling thunder of curses that would have awed Satan himself. It was the capitan, Luis Jimenez, sounding reveille in his own piquant manner.

My father, who was no stranger to pungent language, forever claimed that Capitan Jimenez had the most violent, most profane, and most imaginatively obscene vocabularly he had ever heard. He had twenty-seven different expressions for homosexual, sixteen for unnatural birth, nine for canine maternal parentage, and a vast number of dark synonyms for murder and mayhem. Right now he wanted to get his detachment away from there.

Ten minutes later the tents were haphazardly folded and stashed next to the flour sacks on the flat-bed wagon, two horses were hitched to it with the previously expropriated harness, and they quickly pulled out of camp in a southerly direction. Having wisely decided not to ask permission to inform his parents about his spontaneous induction, my father rode in glum silence on the bumpy rear of the wagon. He wouldn’t permit himself to cry, but his throat felt tight and bitterly dry.

Shortly before sunset, after long hours of tedium and discomfort, they finally caught up with the advance battalion. Pancho Villa himself greeted them as they shuffled into camp.

My father nearly gasped when he first saw Villa standing spread-legged by the huge bonfire, his voice booming a hearty “ Bwnvemdos, muchachos .” Here, then, was the legendary Centauro del Norte in the flesh! He was a big man by Mexican standards, with a head like a proud lion and massive shoulders that strained the seams of his khaki tunic. But his eyes (not his large mustache, as most people think) were his most arresting feature.

“They seemed to burn with volcanic energy,” my father later told us. “And yet there was a gentle mockery in those dark, intense eyes, a kind of teasing amusement that seemed to say there was nothing in the world that couldn’t be laughed at.” As for that famous mustache, which was to become a slobbery shank of messy hair in the movie portrayals by Wallace Beery and other actors, everyone who knew Villa insists that it was always clean and well clipped.

My father’s first impression was a mixture of surprise and speechless awe. He was so dumbstruck by Villa’s charismatic presence that he stumbled backward when the general moved forward to greet the new arrivals, bear-hugging two of the cadre leaders, shaking hands with some, and greeting others with friendly belly jabs, his rough, husky voice full of comradely warmth and cheerful obscenity. Then, suddenly noting my father shyly half hiding behind another soldier, he leaned out and grabbed my father’s arm. “So this is one of our new comrades,” he said. “What is your name, muchacho?

“José Patricio Lopez Sepulveda.” The name gushed from my father in a roll of frightened syllables.

“That’s a large name for a small muchacho , but a good one.”