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Insurgent Mexico

Reed, John

Reed, John, Insurgent Mexico (1914), in The Mexico Reader, edited by M. Joseph Gilbert and Timothy J. Henderson (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002), 364 – 72.

This excerpt comes from a short biography of Pancho Villa, written by the American journalist John Reed, who was a leftist. Reed spent four months with Villa’s army in 1913. According to Reed, what was Villa’s perspective on the revolution and on what needed to change in Mexico? What was Reed’s perspective on Villa? Villa became the most prominent revolutionary leader in the northern part of Mexico. In 1914 he joined his army together with Emiliano Zapata’s southern Zapatista army and seized control of Mexico City. Villa’s Northern Division army was defeated by the army of Álvaro Obregón and Carranza in 1915, but he did not surrender until 1920. He led guerilla raids in the North and over the border in the United States. The US army entered Mexico and chased him for several months, but never caught him. He was assassinated in 1923. 



insufferable: cannot be suffered; that is, it’s so bad that no one can stand it

insolence: rude, superior behavior

procure: find, get hold of

attributed to: said to be done by

Terrazas range: the cattle range of the Terrazas family, the biggest landowners in Chihuahua

bullion: silver or gold to be used for coins

rurales: rural police

 Of all the Mexican revolutionaries, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata were the most prominent, commanding armies of the North and South, respectively. In this source, American journalist John Reed, who was sent by Metropolitan Magazine in 1913 to write journalistic pieces about the revolution, writes adoringly of Villa, the “Robin Hood of Mexico.” Reed, who spent four months with Villa’s army, describes his early experience of violence, and his social awareness, which led him to steal from the rich and give to the poor. Villa led a substantial army and commanded respect from many northerners, but he was still represented as an illiterate outlaw by many, and thus his legacy continues to be contentious. Although Reed presents Villa as an overly romantic figure, it is likely that Villa was motivated by a sense that the confiscation of lands and the poverty of Indians and mestizos was unjust. Historians point out that he felt a great deal of responsibility for his men and saw himself as a benevolent patron, giving out lands to his followers. 


Villa was an outlaw for twenty-two years. When he was only a boy of sixteen, delivering milk in the streets of Chihuahua, he killed a government official and had to take to the mountains. The story is that the official had violated his sister, but it seems probable that Villa killed him on account of his insufferable insolence. That in itself would not have outlawed him long in Mexico, where human life is cheap; but once a refugee he committed the unpardonable crime of stealing cattle from the rich hacendados [landowners]. And from that time to the outbreak of the Madero revolution the Mexican government had a price on his head.

Villa was the son of ignorant peons (landless workers). He had never been to school. … It is almost impossible to procure accurate information about his career as a bandit. … [H]is name became so prominent as a bandit that every train robbery and hold-up and murder in northern Mexico was attributed to Villa. But an immense body of popular legend grew up among the peons around his name. There are many traditional songs and ballads celebrating his exploits. … [T]hey tell the story of how Villa, fired by the story of the misery of the peons on the Hacienda of Los Alamos, gathered a small army and descended upon the Big House, which he looted, and distributed the spoils among the poor people. He drove off thousands of cattle from the Terrazzas range and ran them across the border. He would suddenly descend upon a prosperous mine and seize the bullion. When he needed corn he captured a granary belonging to some rich man. He recruited almost openly in the villages far removed from the well-traveled roads and railways, organizing the outlaws of the mountains. …
His reckless and romantic bravery is the subject of countless poems. They tell, for example, how one of his band named Reza was captured by the rurales [rural police force] and bribed to betray Villa. Villa heard of it and sent word into the city of Chihuahua that he was coming for Reza. In broad daylight he entered the city on horseback, took ice cream on the Plaza — the ballad is very explicit on this point — and rode up and down the streets until he found Reza strolling with his sweetheart in the Sunday crowd on the Paseo Bolivar, where he shot him and escaped. In time of famine he fed whole districts, and took care of entire villages evicted by the soldiers under Porfirio Diaz's outrageous land law [legislation that benefited wealthy landowners]. Everywhere he was known as The Friend of the Poor. He was the Mexican Robin Hood.

When Madero took the field in 1910, Villa was still an outlaw. Perhaps, as his enemies say, he saw a chance to whitewash himself; perhaps, as seems probable, he was inspired by the Revolution of the peons. Anyway, about three months after they rose in arms, Villa suddenly appeared in El Paso and put himself, his band, his knowledge of the country and all his fortune at the command of Madero. The vast wealth that people said he must have accumulated during his twenty years of robbery turned out to be 363 silver pesos, badly worn. Villa became a Captain in the Maderista army [those fighting for Francisco Madero], and as such went to Mexico City with Madero and was made honorary general of the new rurales.