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Big Idea: Pancho Villa in History, Pop Culture, and Collective Memory

Dr. Marco Macias teaches history at Fort Hays State University.

In the early morning hours of July 20, 1923, José Doroteo Arango Arámbula stepped into his 1919 Classic Touring Dodge and drove off with his secretary and a small entourage of bodyguards. After cruising the streets of Parral, Chihuahua, the black car was ambushed by a handful of assassins who opened fire, killing everyone in the vehicle. News of the events in this small northern town quickly reached all corners of Mexico, with newspapers reporting the death and posting pictures of the bodies the next day. Of course, newspapers did not use the birth name of José Doroteo, but rather a more famous one: Pancho Villa. 

Many regarded Villa’s death as the inevitable end for the Mexican Revolution general. A strong underdog leader and visionary, he considered himself an advocate for the poor and social justice. Early 20th-century Mexico was a tumultuous period, and Villa’s alliances shifted often. But he understood the power of image and fashioned himself as a revolutionary hero in Hollywood films and newspaper interviews. For Kansans, Villa’s actions got personal in 1916 when members of the Kansas National Guard were deployed as part of the U.S. Army’s response to the sacking of Columbus, New Mexico. General Frederick Funston, who grew up in Iola, Kansas, led the U.S. pursuit of Villa through Mexico.   

Since his assassination 100 years ago, however, Villa the Legend has come to be more alive than ever. He has been portrayed in a plethora of stories in newspapers, music, comic books, movies, and other cultural ephemera. One example of the universe Villa inhabits today can be found in a 1975 tequila bottle that features him on a horse. What is whimsical about the bottle is that to access the liquor, one must behead the figurehead. Of course, this is ironic because Villa’s body was desecrated in 1926 and his skull has been missing since. Also, Villa was a lifelong teetotaler and typically prohibited his men from consuming liquor. 

What I am interested in is how the image of Villa has endured since his untimely death. His myth might have run in tangent with the epoch of the Mexican Revolution, but various mediums constructed his legend over time. During his lifetime, Villa enjoyed widespread newspaper coverage in the United States, growing stronger as he grew in prominence. This became evermore true after General Funston’s effort to track him down during the U.S. Army’s Punitive Expedition into northern Mexico. In a similar vein, political cartoons presented Villa as a dichotomy of either Robin Hood or a bloodthirsty bandit. Over time, however, other cultural mediums such as folksongs, comic books, cinema, and ephemeral objects—keychains, t-shirts, belt buckles, action figures, and board games, to name a few—visualized Villa from the historical man into one now transformed by popular culture.  

To analyze the case of Villa is to understand how collective remembrance is a process that is negotiated among different societal sectors, rather than one imposed by a homogenous group. This amalgamation explains why certain celebrations, customs, or traditions become popular, such as with Villa’s image or the Virgin of Guadalupe across Mexican communities. By consuming popular culture items such as comic books and films, people live and thrive within a shared sense of belonging to a wider community in either Mexico or internationally, such as in the United States. For the former, Villa feeds into our sense of belonging to Mexico, and for Americans, as a Robin Hood figure that we were not able to capture back in 1916. 

About Marco Macias

Dr. Marco Macias is Assistant Professor of History at Fort Hays State University. He is a cultural historian with expertise in Latin America and Modern Mexico. He earned his PhD in History from the University of Arizona.

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WATCH Pancho Villa was an early influencer, savvy in the power of the camera and early film. This historic newsreel shows the “bad bandit boss” in his hideout and U.S. troops as they search for him during the Punitive Expedition. Features footage of early U.S. Army tanks, the first aviation unit deployed into international territory, and many, many horses and mules.

READ In 1914, American journalist John Reed embedded with Pancho Villa and his rebel army in northern Mexico. Insurgent Mexico, which chronicles Reed’s experiences, is considered both a valuable historic document of Villa’s life and also a foundation of his myth 100 years later.

VISIT General Funston’s Boyhood Home & Museum in Iola. Artifacts and furniture include items that were originally at the homestead during Frederick Funston’s boyhood, as well as items pertaining to his explorations and military career.


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