A folk hero whose exploits were regularly filmed by Hollywood, Pancho Villa was a Mexican killer, bandit and revolutionary leader who advocated for the poor and wanted agrarian reform.
Born in 1878 as Doroteo Arango to rural peasant parents in San Juan del Rio – Mexico – he got on the wrong side of the law early. According to legend, aged 16 he shot to death a wealthy hacienda owner who was trying to rape his younger sister.
Little record exists of the next four or five years of his life. But it was during this time that he changed his name to Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa to evade the law and that his modern Robin Hood story began. He established himself and his bandit followers in the sierras and fought for the poor by skilfully evading the oppressive rurales.
Pancho Villa’s notoriety as a bandit and his prowess at escaping capture caught the attention of men who were planning a revolution and in 1910, he and his men joined the revolt against Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz.
The revolution succeeded, but a few years later shifting alliances made him an outlaw again.
Over the next decade he criss-crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, robbing and rustling cattle to survive, with armies from both, American and Mexican side, unable to capture him.
Villa’s sympathy for peasants and his battles against the corrupt Diaz regime made him popular with Mexico’s poor, and his exploits were heavily publicized in the U.S. and around the world.
In 1920, Villa accepted a deal with a new Mexican government, laying down his arms in exchange for thousands of acres of land in Durango. He was assassinated three years later in 1923 and his killers were never captured.
Mexicans were devastated to hear of Villa’s death: he was a folk hero for his defiance of the Americans and was seen as a possible saviour from the harshness of the Mexican oppressive administration. The ballads continued to be sung and even those who had hated him in life mourned his death.
Today Villa is still remembered with pride by most Mexicans. They have forgotten his massacres and executions and robberies. All that is left is his daring, cleverness and defiance, which continue to be celebrated nationally in art, literature and film.