Sunday, December 15, 2013

Pancho Villa's Death: Or, Parallel Histories in Different Languages

If you're here for the alternate history part, skip to the last two paragraphs. If you want "legitimate" alternate histories, here's the most recent one.

History often seems to have gone differently, when you read accounts of the same events in different languages, especially (obviously) when the people who speak these languages are on opposite sides of the events in question. Even on Wikipedia the differences between articles are often striking. A shining example is the article about Pancho Villa, and in particular the section about his death, in Spanish and English. In particular, the less a detail supports national identity, the more likely it is to be glossed over (how many Japanese can talk in detail about Pearl Harbor; how many Americans can talk about the causal events of the War of 1812 or the Mexican War?) Do note in the English version (later) Villa's self-conscious and self-referential last words, among the best in history. But first, the Spanish version:
Álvaro Obregón became president of Mexico and when he had consolidated his position, he promoted and openly tolerated some plans to rid himself of Pancho Villa. During Huerta's rebellion that sought to prevent the imposition of General Calles, fearing that Pancho Villa again took up arms, he decided to kill Villa.

Villa was assassinated in an ambush on the afternoon of July 20, 1923 on his way to a family party in Parral. Calles asked Col. Lara to carry out the killings, and as a result, he was promoted to general and received fifty thousand dollars. No doubt American elements intervened in the elimination of Villa.

Neither did they let Pancho Villa rest at death. They beheaded his desecrated corpse and local helpers intervened with necrophilia, and the American Handal was paid five thousand dollars by the king of the American press Hearst for Villa's head, changed into a gruesome trophy.


Somehow the necrophilia and Hearst head-collecting are missing from the English version, which is a lot heavier on the type of mundane and sordid details that often turn out to explain much of history:
On Friday, 20 July 1923, Villa was killed while visiting Parral. Usually accompanied by his entourage of Dorados (his bodyguards) Pancho Villa frequently made trips from his ranch to Parral for banking and other errands. This day, however, Villa had gone into the town without them, taking only a few associates with him. He went to pick up a consignment of gold from the local bank with which to pay his Canutillo ranch staff. While driving back through the city in his black 1919 Dodge roadster, Villa passed by a school and a pumpkinseed vendor ran toward Villa's car and shouted "Viva Villa!" - a signal for a group of seven riflemen who then appeared in the middle of the road and fired over 40 shots into the automobile. In the fusillade of shots, nine Dumdum bullets hit Villa in the head and upper chest, killing him instantly.

One of Villa's bodyguards, Ramon Contreras, was also badly wounded but managed to kill at least one of the assassins before he escaped; he would be the only person who accompanied Villa during this assassination who survived. Two other bodyguards, Claro Huertado and Villa's main personal bodyguard Rafael Madreno, who were with him also died, as did his personal secretary Daniel Tamayo and his high-ranking Colonel Miguel Trillo, who served as his chauffeur. Villa is sometimes reported to have died saying: "Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something." However, there is no contemporary evidence he survived his shooting even momentarily, and his biographer, Katz, confirms that Villa died instantly; Time Magazine also reported in 1951 that both Villa and his aide (Tamayo) were killed instantly. The next day, Villa's funeral was held and thousands of his grieving supporters in Parral followed his casket to his burial site while Villa's men and his closest friends remained at the hacienda in the Canitullo armed and ready for an attack by the government troops. The six surviving assassins hid out in the desert and were soon captured, but only two of them served a few months in jail, and the rest were commissioned into the military.


While it has never been completely proven who was responsible for the assassination, most historians attribute Villa's death to a well planned conspiracy, most likely initiated by Plutarco Elías Calles and Joaquin Amaro with at least tacit approval of the then president of Mexico, Obregon. At the time, a state legislator from Durango, Jesus Salas Barraza, whom Villa once whipped during a quarrel over a woman, claimed sole responsibility for the plot. Barraza admitted that he told his friend Gabriel Chavez, who worked as a dealer for General Motors, that he would kill Villa if he were paid 50,000 pesos. Chavez, who wasn't wealthy and didn't have 50,000 pesos on hand, then collected money from enemies of Villa and managed to collect a total of 100,000 pesos for Barraza and his other co-conspirators. Barraza also admitted that he and his co-conspirators watched Villa's daily car-rides and paid the pumpkinseed vendor at the scene of Villa's assassination to shout "Viva Villa!" either once if Villa was sitting in the front part of the car or twice if he was sitting in the back.

Despite the fact that he did not want to have a sitting politician arrested, Obregon gave into the people's demands and had Barraza arrested. Barraza was originally sentenced to 20 years in prison, The following month, however, Barraza's sentence was commuted to three months by the Governor of Chihuahua; Barraza eventually became a colonel in the Mexican Army. In a letter to the governor of Durango, Jesus Castro, Barraza agreed to be the "fall guy" and the same arrangement is mentioned in letters exchanged between Castro and Amaro. Others involved in the conspiracy were Felix Lara, the commander of federal troops in Parral, who was paid 50,000 pesos by Calles to remove his soldiers and policemen from the town on the day of the assassination, and Meliton Lozoya, the former owner of Villa's hacienda whom Villa was demanding pay back funds he had embezzled. It was Lozoya who planned the details of the assassination and found the men who carried it out. It was reported that before Barraza died of a stroke in his Mexico City home in 1951, his last words were "I'm not a murderer. I rid humanity of a monster."
Here's something you might not have known: that at the time he died, Villa had intentions of running for president of Mexico, or attaining the office by other means. Just imagine how just and peaceful a Villa administration would have been! And think also of all the people who said that with a time machine they would go back and kill Hitler (a unique take on that here). Maybe Barraza was a time traveler, but instead wiped out someone who was even worse than Hitler - that is to say, in the future Barraza came from, he wiped out someone who had been even worse, but in the future we're now living in, was eliminated. The question is, once you go back in time and successfully kill the genocidal dictator before they ever do their thing, and you survive - then what? Try to convince everyone that actually, you're from the future and this guy you murdered was going to turn out to be absolute evil? Or just keep things down to a dull roar and enjoy your life in an increasingly divergent alternate history, and maybe mention it in passing later in life? In any event I recommend we check Barraza's later bets and stock picks for uncanny accuracy.

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