"A Tale Of Two Rebels"
By Mildred Boyd
January 2002 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 18, Number 5

      At times, it seemed more like a collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan and Cecil B. De Mille than a serious revolution-except, of course, that the blood and suffering were all too real. Elections became a game of musical chairs played to the tune of gunfire. Presidents and Dictators; idealists, opportunists and incompetents, followed one another with bewildering rapidity. Whoever held the National Palace when the lead stopped flying won, at least temporarily.
      Some left office feet first. Others did a moonlight flit with the contents of the National Treasury. Carranza managed both, absconding with a whole trainload of furniture and bullion, but not quite making it. When his bullet-riddled body was discovered, his successor blandly announced that the poor man had committed suicide! The gold? Who knows?
      Only two stars remained constant. Both men were in their thirties and had known poverty and oppression from birth. Both were superb horsemen, ruthless fighters and ardent revolutionists. Both died as violently as they had lived, but they had little else in common.
      Doroteo Aranga, born a peon on a large hacienda, made an early start on his bloody career. At sixteen, having murdered the son and raped the daughter of his overlord, he found it prudent to join a band of outlaws. Presumably because no one could take a badman called "Dorothy" seriously, he renamed himself Francisco (Pancho) Villa. Physically, despite the macho name, he was hardly anyone's idea of the big, bad bogeyman. Photographs show him short, chubby and bow-legged, with untidy hair and droopy mustachios framing a cherubic face. Psychologically, he was an enigma, capable of both savage cruelty and maudlin sentimentality. He was a hard-riding, sadistic bully-boy, much given to women and song but, surprisingly, he considered both drinking and smoking detestable. In battle, he was a flamboyant, dashing, courageous and, most important, successful.
      Villa took to revolution with gusto. He rides the pages of history like a cross between Ghengis Khan and Robin Hood; happily slaughtering landowners, burning their homes, raping their women, then redistributing their land with a lavish hand. Sometimes, he actually did rob the rich solely to benefit the poor.
      Still, social and agrarian reform were not his primary concerns. In fact, he seems to have had no goal beyond revolution itself, and that for the pure hell of it. He could, and often did, help put a man in office only to rebel against him. But then, loyalty was not a noticeably strong trait in any of his compatriots either. Arrested for "insubordination" under Madero, he actually faced the firing squad before a last-minute reprieve arrived. During his imprisonment he learned to read, write and type and enjoyed female companionship before escaping to Texas. Mere exile could not dim Villa's revolutionary zeal. He was soon back, leading cavalry charges, sacking haciendas, rattling over the rails singing "La Cucaracha" and winning battles with undiminished vigour. Eventually he even had his day in the National Palace. As "Political Arbiter" he managed to put his own puppet on the Presidential chair. It was during this short reign, the zenith of his career, that his only meeting with Zapata took place.
      His long-standing feud with Carranza ended in defeat, and Villa ceased to be a political power. His rampages across the northern deserts had only nuisance value until the famous raid into U.S. territory stirred up hornet's nests on both sides of the border and brought an American army roaring in hot pursuit. Only World War I and a negotiated "retirement" (amnesty plus a 25,000 acre estate in Durango) saved him.
      Villa kept his word, developing his land and acquiring a taste for luxuries. He waxed fat and content, an old war-horse in green pastures, until his crimes finally caught up with him. He died, with three of his four bodyguards, under a hail of assassin's bullets in 1923.
      Was it political? The only assassin ever arrested bragged, "I rid humanity of a monster." Yet he served only six months of a twenty-year sentence before being freed and made a colonel in the army.
      Emiliano Zapata was quite another story. An Indio from a poor southern village whose lands had been stolen, his only aim was, "Take back the land and shoot anyone who tries to stop you."
      Unlike Villa, he was slender, handsome and a bit of a dandy. He always wore sombre black charro-style outfits and huge hats trimmed with silver. Even in old photographs one feels the baleful intensity of his gaze.
      As a youth, his outspoken resentment against injustice got him arrested. His sentence? Enforced service in the Federal army! This was common practice and may account for the relative ineffectiveness of such troops. It was also great training for future insurgents like Zapata.
      Styling himself the "Attila of the South" and sporting a death's-head banner, he specialized in guerilla warfare. He was as cruel and merciless as Villa and his troops were equally given to murder, rapine and general hell raising, but never without purpose. His 'Ayula Plan,' published in 1911 and named for his lost home, demanded land for the masses. Time after time Zapata supported candidates promising land reform and promptly re-rebelled when each promise was broken. Thus, he alternated between fighting for the current incumbent and evading pursuing armies.
      The loyalty of his people, the forested mountains of his home territory and his own cunning combined to keep him and his army safe for many years. It took the treachery of an equally cunning and absolutely ruthless man to bring him to bay. Colonel Jesus Guajardo, a half-breed Yaqui posing as a deserter, offered to divert his entire command to the cause. Zapata, wary even of a fellow indio, demanded some guarantee of his intention. Incredibly, Guajardo obliged by attacking a nearby Federal garrison and, as further proof, ordering all prisoners shot.
      Zapata, convinced, arrived at the agreed rendezvous to find Guajardo's entire force lined up as if to do him honor. On command, the 'honor guard' became a firing squad. Zapata and his ten companions died instantly. While Zapata's people filed by his coffin in grief and fear, there was jubilation in the Capitol. Guajardo's receipt of both a huge monetary reward and a big promotion for his double treachery is indicative of Zapata's effectiveness. The eventual adoption of his Ayula Plan is his vindication.
      Nearly a century later, Emiliano Zapata's heroism is undisputed. To the small farmers of rural Mexico he is a candidate for sainthood. There is no such clear-cut verdict on Pancho Villa. What was he? Hero? Fiend? Martyr? Or a buffoon straight out of comic opera?
What do you think?