Papa And Pancho Villa


The ensuing blast, needless to say, was not too graciously received by the 260 bleary-eyed fédérales . They were even less gracious when ordered to remove their trousers and start marching toward the next town. Thirty rebels escorted them on horseback. Two hours later, as dawn broke over the ragged foothills, the rebel escorts abandoned the shivering, trouserless marchers on a long stretch of desert plain and galloped back to Mulato. They arrived in time for breakfast. Cheerfully attended by the grateful womenfolk of that impoverished but hospitable village, Martin’s fifty men ate huge servings of tamales, huevos rancheros , hot tortillas , and frijoles refntos , after which they packed their looted rifles and ammunition on ten of the captured mules and headed back to Villa’s headquarters in the city of Durango.

Shortly after their arrival there on January 1, 1914, Pancho Villa ordered Martm’s men to join several other rebel contingents at Ojinaga, Chihuahua, where a large force of Carranzistas was heavily entrenched. This particular battle was the most disastrous event my father was ever to witness. Initially there were three days of furious fighting, the outnumbered rebels periodically picking and snapping at the well-fortified fédérales like packs of angry but toothless coyotes. Ojinaga was situated on a flat, barren desert that offered no chance of cover for an attacking group. Thus, in the absence of any clearly defined strategy, the rebels continued their fitful in-and-out forays, eighty men losing their lives in senseless assaults across wide-open areas murderously exposed to machine guns. Then an enemy cavalry unit closed in from the north in a lightning thrust that sandwiched 130 Villistas between two layers of firepower. Some of them tried to escape and were quickly shot down; the others prudently threw down their arms and surrendered. Brutally prodded with rifle butts, the prisoners were marched into the square and incarcerated in a local church. My father was among them, but somehow he managed to escape into a tiny corridor that led to a dark, narrow staircase winding up to the bell tower. There, alongside the belfry, he found a cracked and discarded bronze bell, and he snuggled into it like a frightened cat.

Long after nightfall (he never knew exactly when, for he had finally fallen asleep) he heard the staccato bark of machine guns somewhere beneath him, then a short silence followed by another brief volley, and then silence again. He simply could not imagine why anyone would be firing a machine gun inside a church, nor was he anxious to find out. Shifting his tired body into a reversed coil inside the bell, he soon managed to fall asleep again, and he was not fully awakened until just after dawn, when the dreamy silence was shattered by loud, angry voices from the plaza. He scrambled to his knees, shook the grogginess from his head, and then cautiously crawled across the roof toward the edge facing the square. Below him my father recognized some of the men from Martin’s brigade. At first he thought they had been taken captive but then quickly noticed they were carrying arms. He bounded to his feet and raced across the roof and down the narrow stairs into the main chapel.

In his wild excitement he stumbled across two inert bodies before he realized that the floor was littered with bullet-shattered corpses, many of them grotesquely sprawled over each other in pools of drying blood. Some of the faces were mangled beyond recognition. Stunned and soon sickened by the horror all around him, he backed into the corridor, and there he felt a soft comforting hand on his shoulder. It was Cousin Marti’n, standing close to him with an unutterably sad expression in his eyes.

“How did you escape?” Marti’n asked in a near whisper. “I thought you were dead, Pepe. I was just now searching for your body. And then I saw you.” My father slowly explained how he had sneaked up to the tower and slept through the awful massacre beneath him. Then Marti’n told him how the fédérales , apparently but erroneously assuming that Pancho Villa was sending a large battalion to reinforce his men at Ojinaga, had abandoned the town long before daybreak. But they had first of all murdered their 130 prisoners inside the chapel.

To my father the mass execution of Ojinaga would always represent the absolute depth of cruelty. And to Pancho Villa’s men, particularly to los dorados like Marti’n, it would serve as justification for acts of equal depravity.

Yet no war is without its lighter aspects. One need not be a Hemingway to observe that between battles there might sometimes occur a moment of sexual whimsy. One such moment came to Pancho Villa late in 1915, when he fell in love with Conchita del Hierro. They had met injiménez, Chihuahua, through the auspices of her Aunt Clotilda, a person with no discernible excess of modesty. She was, in fact, an ambitious bawd, and within three days after the Division del Norte had moved out of Jiménez she sent the general a note by personal messenger telling him that her niece had been greatly impressed with his “gentility” and was most anxious to see him again. His response was characteristically immediate and expansive. Summoning Marti’n to his headquarters tent—they were now inGuadalupe, Zacatecas- he asked him to go forthwith to Jiménez and bring back Conchita and her aunt.