An extraordinary number of legends, corridos, reminiscences, memoirs, and hearsay has revolved around Francisco “Pancho” Villa. The best source for studying this elusive figure is Friedrich Katz, The Life and Times of Pancho Villa (1998). Many of the earlier books and other writings on Villa mix considerable mythology and legend into their treatment of Villa.

Villa is believed to have been born with the given name, Doroteo Arango, at the rancho La Coyotada in the State of Durango on 5 June 1878. He was assassinated on 20 July 1923 in Parral, Chihuahua. His parents were sharecroppers on an hacienda of one of the richest men in northern Mexico, Agustín López Negrete. Doroteo’s father died when he was very young. In his own memoirs, subsequently created into a somewhat fictionalized account by renown novelist, Martín Luis Guzmán, Memorias de Pancho Villa, he claims that he had to flee his home when he shot López Negrete in the foot upon coming home at the exact moment that his mother was protesting the abduction of her daughter that was in process.

This story and many others are most likely apocryphal since when captured some years later in 1899 at the age of 21, he was not accused of such a notable crime but rather of the petty theft of having stolen two weapons.

Doroteo Arango was forced into the army from which he deserted a year later. Realizing he could be shot as a deserter, he left his home state of Durango for the neighboring state of Chihuahua and changed his name to Francisco Villa (the nickname for Francisco is Pancho). While documentable information about Villa is scarce, he appears to have worked as a drover of livestock, horse trader, or head of a group of transporters, including of money or valuables for foreign, particularly American companies. The foreign interests considered him highly reliable, and there were never any claims of theft against him. On the other hand, he engaged in considerable livestock rustling which at the time was not considered a serious crime in Chihuahua since until the railroad came to the state in the 1884 after the Apaches were defeated and security better assured, the range was not fenced but open, and the Chihuahuan way of life included taking possession of animals that roamed the land freely. Pancho Villa despised the rise of additional haciendas, the enormous increase in land values, and barbed wire fences that were a consequence of the railroad and a direct threat to his way of life.

Villa, even more than Zapata, contrasts greatly with the other great leaders of 20th century revolutions both in Mexico (Madero, Orozco, Carranza, Obregón) or abroad, Lenin, Mao Tse-tung, Ho Chi Min, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara. All of these were learned men and even Zapata had better schooling than Villa who had barely gone to school and who came from the lowest strata of society, sharecropper stock. In contrast to most of the other revolutionary leaders, he never headed a political party or political organization.

Villa’s nature has been the most disputed of the Mexican leaders of the Revolution, although closely followed by Emiliano Zapata. Upon his assassination, the Mexico City newspaper in its obituary described him as a “gorilla” and as a “troglodyte. . . .He was canaille whose degeneration is another stain on revolutionary leadership.” The newspaper El Demócrata had an obituary closer to reality. “For the humble suffering under the enslavers whip, Villa was an avenger. For those who were preyed upon by the masters, he was justice. . . .For those whose blood still boiled by the [North American] outrage of 1847, Villa was the soul of Mexico in confrontation with Pershing. For those who speculated with land and with blood, Villa was a bandit and a monster.”