In the fall of 1962, I went with my father on a trip to Mexico. He was meeting a woman he had corresponded with. We arrived in Chihuahua on November 1, just in time to go with the woman’s family to the cemetery for El Día de los Muertos on November 2. In the next six weeks, we would go on a tour to Saltillo, San Luis Potosí, Mexico City, Morelia, Guadalajara, Aguascalientes, Zacatecas, Durango, and back to Chihuahua. We saw a canyon full of Monarch butterflies, peasants carrying huge loads of firewood on donkeys, farmers plowing with oxen, boys bathing naked in a small waterfall and waving to the travelers, indigenous people in native dress, rural buses with goats tied on top, barbecued cow heads, paintings of President Kennedy on black velvet, the Basílica de Guadalupe, and a million other sights. On our return to Chihuahua, we visited the small museum maintained by Luz Corral, the widow of Pancho Villa.
She was a courteous, hospitable lady. She showed us the general’s saddles and guns and swords and uniforms. She spoke English to my father and Spanish to me and my stepmother-to-be. She told us that the bullet-riddled car in which the general had been riding was a 1919 Dodge. My father, who was born in 1919, appreciated the detail. We took pictures with my father’s Polaroid, the kind that produced photos on the spot to be coated with a pungent liquid. In one picture, as I recall, Doña Luz had her arm around me, an old, well-mannered lady being nice to an American boy.
A few years later, my father and my stepmother would get into one of many escalating arguments, and this time, my father told my stepmother that if she left as she was threatening to do, he would burn everything she had. She left, walking down the country road, with me, driving alongside in the car and arguing in Spanish. My father lit the fire, and among the many things he burned were all of the pictures of the trip to Mexico.
Of the pictures I remember the best, one was of my stepmother’s sister Andrea, an attractive night-club singer, posing with a happy man with his plow and his team of oxen. Another was of me and Doña Luz standing near the car with bullet holes.
More than thirty years later, after I, too, had married a woman from Chihuahua, I told stories about my first trip to Mexico. I told how I had met the general’s wife. Oh, yes, my new friends and family told me, that was a place where everyone went. All of the things now are in the Museum of the Revolution. I nodded in interest. I have not been very enthusiastic about going to museums, as I prefer to go among the people, observe daily life, and form impressions. But my in-laws told me that the museum was only a few blocks away from the house the family has on La Avenida 20 de Noviembre (named for the day of the revolution). So one day I went by myself to see the museum.
The now-popular attraction is in a large, old-fashioned, two-story building with rooms all looking inward to a courtyard. (I understand from recent reading that it was a house owned by Villa, but I do believe that our visit in 1962 was to a smaller building with fewer items on exhibit, and residents of the city have told me as well that the earlier collection was in her home at a different location.) Not very far in from the entrance sat the Dodge. The bullet holes were on the same side as I remembered them. I remarked to one of the uniformed attendants that I had seen the car many years earlier and that it was a 1919 Dodge. No, said the attendant, it is a 1922. (The general was assassinated in 1923.) I went on, going into one room and another, seeing many different saddles and weapons and uniforms and other artifacts of life from that era. In some rooms there are portraits of men who participated in the revolution, with short biographies below the portraits. Many of the biographies end with the date and the place in which the person was executed, or fusilado.
When I finished my tour of the rooms, I lingered on the ground floor not far from the Dodge, and I saw something I had overlooked when I first went in. It was a room dedicated to Luz Corral, the general’s wife. It was made up like living quarters, with a bed and other furniture, clothing, and the like. On the wall hung a picture of the lady in black and white. I did not recognize her. But I felt an affinity with her as I stood there at the doorway with the plexi-glass partition keeping me out where I belonged. I think it would be sentimental to say that I felt her spirit, but I felt something, some kind of presence, based on my memory of having met her.
On a second visit, a couple of years later, I visited the museum again. I saw the same things, and I paused again at the doorway to the woman’s room. I felt as before a kind of solemnity in the presence of the effects of a person I had met.
My mother-in-law has told me that in the times of the revolution, most of that neighborhood, which rises up on the north side of the original city, was a bare hillside where the soldiers camped when they were in town. She has told me that in all of the towns and cities, the women and girls fled, went into hiding, whenever the soldiers were on the way. The revolutionaries were well-known for being ruthless, not only with their adversaries but with women.
Others, including my professor in Saltillo, have told me, and I have read, that the general himself was merciless with his enemies, had contempt for the gringos he killed, and mocked General John J. Pershing and President Woodrow Wilson.
I have since read that Doña Luz, in her later life, was a great defender and apologist of the general. She also knew that he had many wives, and she was known to raise some of his children by other women. She had to have known how women and girls fled from him and his troops. She had to have known how cruel he was with his enemies, even if she did not hear the story about how he sent back empty American uniforms with the taunting legend, “Here are the husks; send me more tamales.”
I have also read a few accounts of other Americans who, like my father and me, visited Mrs. Villa. Their accounts are similar to mine, as they saw the same artifacts and had the same pleasant visit. (They also report that the Dodge was a 1919 model.)
Perhaps it is sentimental of me, as I recall standing by her doorway and thinking about the life of this woman who lived in the shadow of such a notorious and controversial figure, to imagine that she was no fool. But I believe she must have been a realist. She had to have known the bad things and to have made peace with them so that she could live her life with her husband and then by herself from the general’s death in 1923 until her own in 1981. I do not think she was just making a living, taking money from American tourists and promulgating the general’s fame. She was a polite, modest woman, as so many of the people in her country are, and I believe she met her guests with sincerity and good will. I know that in this one instance, she put her arm around a young American boy and left an imprint on his life.