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Pancho Villa was born in 1878 in the state of Durango, Mexico to a farmer, Agustín Arango and his mother was Micaela Arámbula. His birth name was José Dorotea Arango Arámbula. Villa told alternate versions of his family and birth. As a youth, he worked in a series of manual labor jobs in Chihuahua and Durango. An early legend was that he had killed a man who raped his sister. He is thought to have joined a bandit band while still a youth. Following an arrest around 1902, he was forced to join the Mexican Federal Army rather than be arrested. He later deserted and and fled back to Chihuahua. Around this time he is thought to have adopted the name Pancho Villa, the latter name being supposedly that of his paternal grandfather.
The foregoing took place during the 27 year dictatorial administration of President Porfírio Díaz, whose regime was opposed by many in Mexico. This opposition gave rise to the Mexican Revolution, a thumbnail account of which follows. One of the leaders of the opposition to Díaz was Francisco Madero, who declared himself to be President. After first aligning himself with another opponent of Díaz, Abraham González, Villa joined Madero who awarded him the rank of colonel. There were a number of battles in northern Mexico and Madero succeeded in being elected President, unseating Díaz. Madera’s short term as president was marked by more unrest and conflict, as he failed to enact promised land reforms, but Villa continued to support him as a military leader serving under General Victoriano Huerta. Huerta was initially in favor of Villa but later sought to get rid of him, having him arrested around 1912. Villa was incarcerated for a number of months, but escaped in late 1912. Madero’s short administration continued until he was assassinated in February, 1913, leaving Huerta to assume the role of President.
For the next two years, Villa was part of an effort to oppose Huerta as he fought battles, raided and plundered the properties of wealthy land owners in Mexico. In a sense, Pancho Villa was one of the first contemporary revolutionary figures to take advantage of the currently available media. Villa and his exploits were publicized by American journalists Ambrose Bierce and John Reed. Villa also contracted in 1913 with an American movie company, Mutual Films, to document some of his battles. His military fortunes first rose and then fell as he suffered a number of crushing defeats. After being tacitly supported by the United States, by 1915 the United States government position had shifted to support the individual who ascended to power after the ouster of Huerta, Venustiana Carranza, whom Villa opposed.
For approximately one year, continued his guerrilla tactics in Mexico until March, 1916 when he crossed the United States border to attack Columbus, Luna County, New Mexico. There he took on a detachment of the 13th United States Cavalry. Villa’s forces attacked the cavalry at 4:15 in the morning. The Mexican force was repelled by U. S. Army machine gun, rifle and small arms fire in a battle that lasted about two hours. Some buildings were burned. The United States rules of engagement forbade the troops from entering into Mexico, though a small contingent did pursue the Villa forces for a short time. In the conflict, 18 Americans were killed along with about 80 Villa troops. Some accounts have greater figures for casualties on each side.
Over the next several months, Villa carried out attacks on more United States towns including Fort Hancock, Texas but today, descriptions of these raids are difficult to find. However, these border incidents angered the Americans and prompted President Woodrow Wilson to mobilize U. S. Army forces led by John J. Pershing, acting under General Frederick Funston, to pursue him. Attempting to capture Villa for almost a year, the United States military was unsuccessful, although Villa did withdraw from the United States to continue thereafter fighting only in Mexico. In the balance, his activities in the United States were somewhat nominal in comparison to those in his native Mexico. The border issues between Mexico and the United States had been somewhat tense in the last decade, but neither nation was anxious to see hostilities increase.
Eventually, the Mexican revolutionary activities ceased. Villa was pardoned by Alfonso de la Huerta and moved to a large ranch in Chihuahua where he lived until his assassination one day in 1923 as he drove home to Canutillo. The 1919 Dodge vehicle in which he was riding was riddled by fire from a number of riflemen. Villa and several of his company were killed. Villa was initially buried in Chihuahua, but his remains were removed to Mexico City some fifty years later, enshrined in a monument dedicated to the Mexican Revolution.
A number of legends follow Pancho Villa. One was that he was illiterate, although it is understood that he most likely was not, having received at least some education via tutors while he was incarcerated. He was perceived as hating Anglos, although there does not seem to be much support for the claim, the attacks on certain United States towns notwithstanding. Similarly, there was the assumption that his raids in the United States were more extensive that they actually were. He was also viewed by some in the United States as primarily being a bandito, although the bulk of his lifetime efforts revolved around supporting one faction or another of the Mexican Revolution. Pancho Villa was an engaging figure during the time of the Revolution and thus remains a popular folk figure in Mexico today.
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