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80 years on, Villa remains as big as life

August 03, 2003|Dave Wielenga | Special to The Times

Hildalgo de Parral, Mexico — He was a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king, not to mention a hero of the Mexican Revolution, and you can toss in Saturday-matinee movie star too. That was life for Pancho Villa. Death hasn't slowed him a bit.

In the 80 years and 14 days since being smithereened by a pre-dawn thunderstorm of bullets from ambushing assassins in this Chihuahuan mining town, the legend of Pancho Villa has expanded to the point that he may be the most famous person -- step aside, Moctezuma -- in Mexican history.

Even when somebody dug up Villa's grave and stole his head, the gruesome act just added another dramatic dimension to a resume that reads like Robin Hood, Jesse James, JFK and Jim Morrison rolled into one. Not bad for a sharecropper's son born in 1878 with the playground-target name of Doroteo Arango Arambula.

Then again, the noogies probably stopped when 16-year-old Doroteo shot the landlord for messing with his sister.

Actually, that crime of passion sent Doroteo to hide in the hills, where he changed his name to Pancho Villa and changed his ways too. From then on, his crimes were meticulously planned. Villa earned not only big money but a populace of uneasy admirers, since Villa made a show of tossing a few bones to the poor.

When the Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910, Villa parlayed his criminal skills -- the horsemanship, the marksmanship, the absolute lack of gamesmanship -- into the slightly-more-respectable field of ruthless guerrilla warfare. His reputation and charisma, as well as a budding sociopolitical philosophy that valued an educated voice for the common man, attracted a peasant army that quickly grew from a couple of dozen to several thousand, and Villa became a decisive force against the repressive regime of dictator Porfirio Diaz.

Ultimately, things didn't turn out the way Villa most wanted -- that is, he didn't end up governing Mexico. But Villa worked out a pretty good settlement with the powers that be, at least until July 20, 1923, when those assassins blew him away.

More than 30,000 people attended Villa's funeral in Parral and he was buried in Tomb No. 632 of Panteon de Luz Dolores, a cemetery on the outskirts of town. Thousands more than that paid tribute to Villa last month during Parral's annual Villa festival, although his corpse was moved from the local cemetery to a shrine in Mexico City in 1976. Or was it?

More than a quarter-century later, there are whispers in Parral that Villa never actually left. They say he is still laying low in the Panteon de Luz Dolorez -- now in plot No. 10, where his headless remains were secretly moved after that grave-robbing incident. They insist that the body that was transferred to Mexico City was that of an anonymous woman who died of cancer near Parral while traveling to the United States for treatment. They chuckle that Villa, forever the crafty general, has again outwitted his opponents.

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