Papa And Pancho Villa


“Take an engine and a caboose and enough men to run them,” he said. “Treat them with all consideration, Marti’n. Their every wish must be granted.” Then, with a vaguely skeptical glance at his much younger and more handsome comrade, he added, “And don’t forget that Conchita is my girl. No monkey business, armgo .”

Early that afternoon Marti’n and five companeros chugged out of the railroad station, my father stoking the boiler of the engine and doubling as assistant porter. He was in high good spirits all the way to Jiménez, whistling “Adelita” over and over again, periodically scraping the coal shovel as accompaniment—but his spirits soared even higher when he first saw Conchita.

Her shy, tentative smile and soft voice made the men feel that she was altogether unaware of her exquisite mestizo face and lithe, slender body. On the assumption that Villa would find the girl more desirable if her shoulders were half exposed, her aunt had forced her to wear a skimpy lace blouse, but Conchita had nullified this erotic ploy by wearing a thick black rebozo that shielded her like a nun’s cape. Indeed, as she got off the caboose at Guadalupe, her entire demeanor was that of a young nun, her frightened eyes glinting now and then with helpless resentment, her naturally full lips pulled into a tight, childlike pout.

Villa, waiting on the platform to greet them, instantly realized that Aunt Clotilda had lied to him about the girl’s yearning desire to see him again; yet his ego was not prepared to admit what his eyes clearly told him. “ Bienvemdos! ” he said with determined gusto. “I was beginning to think Marti’n had kidnapped you.”

Not to be outdone by the general’s effusiveness, Aunt Clotilda, pushing the reluctant girl forward, also gushed with good cheer. “She’s here, Don Pancho. You see I’ve kept my word. But the child’s overcome with fatigue and excitement. We’ll have to rest a while.”

“Yes, yes, of course. That’s a long journey.”

Briskly assigning four aides to escort the ladies to a small hacienda nearby, Villa almost recovered his composure in the process of snapping orders. But not quite. His men, at least those close to him, could see that Conchita’s manner had deeply shaken him. And during the next forty-eight hours she managed—not with malice, nor even by the slightest intention—to bruise his pride as few women would have dared. She locked herself in the master bedroom, pushed a heavy divan against the door, and simply refused to see either Villa or her aunt.

In the end Conchita had her way. My father was far from surprised when the girl and her aunt abruptly left the hacienda on Friday morning, riding a plain buckboard wagon in considerably less grandeur than upon their arrival. While helping them with their luggage he heard the enraged aunt scolding her niece.

“You foolish child,” she said bitterly. “That man will be president of Mexico, and you could be the first lady.” Several months later Pancho Villa’s troops marched into Mexico City, and he temporarily seized the national palace, proclaiming himself president. Had she been more expedient, Conchita del Hierro would have been first lady for seventy-two hours. She might have also been shoved aside by the fickle Centauro del Norte , for he was notoriously inclined to break his word. On several occasions, for example, he promised to promote my father to corporal—one of the many promises he never kept.

José Patricio Lope?. Sepulveda remained a lowly private for three long years, after which he fled across the border to El Paso, Texas, to escape the ultimately triumphant fédérales . As a child living in a Mexican neighborhood in Denver, where everyone’s father bragged about having been officers and noncoms, I was never fully reconciled to his unique status as the only private in that famous rebel army. I, in fact, sorely resented Pancho Villa for failing to promote him. Not until recently have I come to appreciate the ironic whimsy that no doubt prompted my father’s quiet refusal to elevate himself to an officer’s rank.

I now have the suspicion that he was really a full corporal.