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THE MEXICAN REVOLUTION, DON LUIS, AND PANCHO VILLA

The Mexican Revolution fired up the entire country, from north to south, roughly from 1910 to 1920, and changed forever the history, the culture, and the political landscape of Mexico (though not in the way many revolutionaries would have hoped for).

It began in Chihuahua.

In this border state, so far from Ciudad de México, and seemingly marginal and peripheral, much of the Mexican major history was made, at least its first hundred years (from 1821, the date of independence from Spain, until 1925).

The revolution broke out in Chihuahua and immediately after in the neighboring states of Northern Mexico. Moreover, during the revolution, Chihuahua was a central battleground. Peasant revolutionary general Francisco “Pancho” Villa fought throughout Chihuahua, demanding that the peasants be apportioned land and be recognized as legitimate participants in Mexican politics. Villa’s famous División del Norte (Northern Division) was first assembled in Chihuahua.

Last but not least, Norteños, Northerners, were several revolutionaries:

  • Francisco Madero (born in a very rich and wealthy family of Coahuila) was an enlightened landowner, an advocate for social justice and democracy, and President of Mexico from 1911 until shortly before his assassination in 1913.
  • Pascual Orozco (born to a middle-class family in Chihuahua) was a Mexican revolutionary leader of the first phase, killed in 1915.
  • Abraham González (born in one of the richest and best-educated families of Chihuahua) was the state governor from 1910 to his assassination in 1913.
  • Francisco “Pancho” Villa, aka the “Centaur of the North” (born in a very poor rural family in Durango, lived most of his life in Chihuahua) was a legendary revolutionary general, the governor of Chihuahua state in 1913-14, where he was assassinated in 1923.
  • Venustiano Carranza (born in an upper-middle-class family of rancheros in Coahuila) was head of state from 1914 to 1916, promulgator of the Mexican Constitution of 1917, and President from 1916 to 1920. He was killed in 1920.
  • Alvaro Obregón (born in Sonora in an impoverished noble family) was President of Mexico from 1920 to 1924, and an advocate for moderate land reform. He was killed in 1928.
  • Plutarco Elías Calles (born in a middle-class family in Sonora) was President of Mexico from 1924 to 1928. He died of natural causes in 1945.
MADERO
Francisco Madero standing beside his horse during the Mexican Revolution, June 1911, US Library of Congress.
Pancho Villa
General Francisco “Pancho” Villa on horseback, 1909-1919, US Library of Congress.

The only protagonist of the Revolution that in no way was linked to Chihuahua was Emiliano Zapata, the main leader of the peasant rebellion in the state of Morelos, in Southern Mexico, where he was killed in 1919.

ZAPATA
Emiliano Zapata on horseback, Morelos, ca. 1911. © Phototeca Nacional INAH, Mexico.

As Friedrich Katz (the most widely regarded historian of the Mexican Revolution) wrote: «En el norte, la Revolución fue mucho más amplia y heterogénea y abarcó a todas las clases sociales, inclusive a los hacendados» (F. Katz, La servidumbre agraria en México, see Bibliography). In Northern Mexico, the revolutionaries were a broader and heterogeneous group that encompassed all social classes, from peones to hacendados, passing from middle class people. Nicolás Fernández, foreman in a hacienda of don Luis Terrazas, for example, became one of the most notable lieutenants of Pancho Villa.

As for don Luis, he saw the outbreak of the Revolution as a catastrophic dam collapse, followed by the sudden, rapid, and uncontrolled release of violence, social chaos, destruction of wealth. For him, it was the subversion of the established order (= “his” order) and of rationality, led by the uneducated chief of a gang of thieves and bloodthirsty savages (= Pancho Villa). In a letter, he wrote to Enrique Creel to be concerned and surprised to find hacendados and educated wealthy people supporting the “sick ideas of Madero”.

For Pancho Villa, don Luis and Enrique Creel symbolized the old order, the “Ancien Régime” which needed to be wiped out. The Terrazas-Creel family was regarded as the emblem of a sick society in which a handful of privileged people was entitled to exploit, reduce to starvation and oppress the vast majority of a population. The revolution in Chihuahua was also a rebellion against the Terrazas, and the personal war between Pancho Villa and don Luis.

Hacienda San Diego
Francisco Madero and his troops at the Hacienda de San Diego during the beginning of the Mexican Revolution, ca. 1911. This Hacienda, located between Nuevo Casas Grandes and Pearson, was owned by don Luis Terrazas who had fled to El Paso, Texas. The revolutionaries called it “don Jacobo’s Ranch”, from the name of Jacobo Anchondo, the administrator who at those times was in Texas as well. Today this Hacienda belongs to the Acosta family. Photo source: US Library of Congress.

In 1911, Pascual Orozco, Toribio Ortega, Pancho Villa lead the revolutionary forces in Chihuahua. In February, Francisco Madero returns to Mexico to guide the armed struggle: he passes the border between Texas and Chihuahua. In Casas Grandes, the early morning of March 6, he attacks the federal garrison, and although wounded and defeated, he’s the last to withdraw from the battlefield. Among his men, at the head of all foreign volunteers, there’s colonel Peppino Garibaldi, the grandson of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the “Hero of the Two Worlds” and one of the fathers of the Italian nation. Madero and his insurgents retreat and are sheltered by the peones of the nearby Hacienda de San Diego, owned by don Luis Terrazas (fled to El Paso). In April 1911, the Italian colonel Peppino Garibaldi creates a troop training center in Pearson, near Nuevo Casas Grandes. He knows that the main weakness of the revolutionaries is the lack of artillery and turn the railroad repair yard of the hamlet into a cannon plant by using the very same machinery. After a few weeks, Madero and his troops can defeat the garrison and take Casas Grandes with little resistance.

Villa and Staff
Francisco “Pancho” Villa (at the “X”), Calixto Contreras (4th from left) and Fidel Avila (3rd from right) at the Hacienda de Bustillos, near Chihuahua city.
Photo source: US Library of Congress.

In March 1911, at the Hacienda de Bustillos, owned by Pedro Zuloaga (related to the Terrazas family), a meeting is held among the main revolutionary chiefs in Chihuahua: Francisco Madero, Abraham Gonzalez, Francisco Villa, Pascual Orozco. Villa has a relationship of affection and gratitude with the Zuloagas (they defended and helped him when he was young) and during the Revolution, he will never affect their land or their cattle, as he did with all the estates of don Luis Terrazas and Enrique Creel.

2 Villa Portraits
Two portraits of General “Pancho” Villa (1878/1923), Ciudad de México, 1914-16. © Phototeca Nacional INAH, Mexico.
In the portrait on the right, Pancho Villa – a man who hated alcohol, cigars, cigarettes, and marijuana, but loved as many women as he could – wears the carrilleras or doble cananas cruzadas al pecho, two bandolier belts full of bullets crossing over the chest.

Francisco Madero is elected President of Mexico on October 1911, but in February 1913, a reactionary coup took place in the Mexican capital led by General Victoriano Huerta. President Madero and his vice-president are killed on February 22.

In March 1913, while Abraham González is governor of Chihuahua and the state is in full revolutionary ferment, Pancho Villa, in his advance to Ciudad de México, enters the Hacienda del Carmen, an estate of don Luis Terrazas. The peones show him the tree where they were tied and ferociously whipped for minor faults. They tell him about the derecho de pernada as well, the right to rape girls of early age exercised by the hacienda administrator Salvatierra. Pancho Villa has him shot immediately. The story of the legalized rapes on girls reopens in him a non-healing wound: when he was only 16, a hacienda owner’s son, Agustín López Negrete, raped his 12 years old sister Martina. Pancho shot the man in a leg and then had to escape, leaving his family, and survive thanks to an intense cattle rustling activity.

At the Hacienda del Carmen, he also orders his men to give the keys of the warehouses and stores to the peones «so they can take what they need to live». The same he’s going to do at the Hacienda de San Lorenzo, another estate of don Luis Terrazas. Later in June 2013, he will get the Hacienda de Bustillos, his preferred shelter and his base of operations.

RIVERA
Diego Rivera, LIBERATION OF THE PEON, 1931
Fresco on reinforced cement in a galvanized-steel framework, 73 x 94 1/4″ (185.4 x 239.4 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Cameron Morris, 1943. © 2011 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, México, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of www.diegorivera.org.

In August 1911, the revolutionary leader Abraham González becomes governor of Chihuahua; in March 1913, he is assassinated by the officials of the Victoriano Huerta regime. In December of the very same year, Pancho Villa is elected provisional governor of Chihuahua.

On December 12, he issues a decree confiscating the assets of the Chihuahua oligarchy, listing their complicity in plots and uprisings, their guilt of methodically defrauding the state treasury department, their position as dominators of the Chihuahuan society for half a century by using deception and force. «The time has come for them to be held accountable», Pancho Villa writes (quote from Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Pancho Villa, see Bibliography). His confiscation concerns «all the movable and immovable assets, the real estate and the documentation of the following families: Terrazas (Luis) and sons, Creel brothers, Falomir brothers, José María Sánchez, Cuilty brothers, Luján brothers, J. Francisco Molinar». With only one exception: the Zuloaga family. The decree assigns a part of the confiscated land to the widows and orphans of the Revolution, and at a later time to its fighters. A part is returned to the rightful and primitive owners; the grazing and the water use rights are given back to the original local communities.

«In one fell swoop (…), Villa takes 7 million hectares away from the Terrazas-Creel family and another much to the 17 large families of landowners and ranchers who controlled <the huge part> of the immense useful territory of the state» (Paco Ignacio Taibo II, cit.).

Pancho Villa settles in the house of Amada Terrazas, the youngest of Don Luis’s daughters, and orders to destroy the Monumento a la Batalla del Mortero, a monument erected to commemorate a military success of don Luis.

He can barely read and write and has been always suffering for it. As governor, he immediately creates about fifty schools, and turns one of don Luis’s best residences, the Quinta Carolina, into an agricultural university.

He nationalizes the Terrazas’ flour mill and immediately orders to sell the flour, which was sold for $9 a sack, at $1.50.

Quinta Carolina
Quinta Carolina, built in 1896, gifted by don Luis to his wife Carolina, and turned by Pancho Villa into an agricultural university.

As governor, he founds the Banco del Estado de Chihuahua (State Bank) to manage all of the expropriated goods and properties. The Terrazas’ cattle and horses are loaded onto wagons to be sold on the other side of the border, in the US. Between December and January, thanks to the brokerage of an old of his acquaintances, Pat Quinn, 9,000 cows from the Terrazas’ ranchos are sold to Texan ranchers at $9 each: it’s just the beginning. In a short time, thanks to this revenue, Pancho Villa can «modernize his forces; purchase draft animals, cavalry horses, arms, ammunition, mobile hospital facilities (railroad cars and horse ambulances staffed with Mexican and foreign volunteer doctors, known as Servicio Sanitario), and other supplies; to rebuilt the railroad south of Chihuahua City; to recruit fighters from Chihuahua and Durango and create a large army known as the División del Norte (Division of the North)» (Friedrich Katz, The Life and Times of Pancho Villa, see Bibliography).

BELOW
General “Pancho” Villa on his famous horse Siete Leguas (Seven Leagues), maybe during his triumphant entrance to Torreón (Coahuila), October 2, 1913, or more probably after the battle at Ojinaga, Chihuahua, Dec. 1913-Jan 1914. © Phototeca Nacional INAH, Mexico.

Don Luis and all of the Terrazas-Creel family are safe in the United States, except for one of don Luis’s sons, Luis jr.: he was “asked” by the patriarch to remain in Chihuahua city and he obeyed, of course. To do what? Some say to guard the family fortune shielded by the Minero Bank; some others, including the historian Friedrich Katz, believe he was ordered to corrupt Villa (a reasonable hypothesis: throughout all of his life, don Luis has been thinking that everything and everyone had their own price and were therefore “purchasable”).

When Villa becomes governor of the state, Luis Terrazas jr. takes refuge in the British Consul residence. That’s completely naive! Does he think to stem the rupture of a dam by building a 50 cm dry stone wall?

Of course, Pancho Villa captures him and holds him hostage for two whole years, during which he put him in front of a firing squad five cursed times.

Firing Squad

It’s torture, of course, not just to get money from the patriarch (and Villa really got much money from him, at least $850,000), but also to verify the rumor that a fortune in gold had been hidden in the bank. Above all, Villa used Luis jr. as a hostage against the possibility that Chihuahuan landowners who fled to the US could sell their expropriated estates to foreigners, able to claim the seized properties through their governments. After two years (that had to be as heavy as twenty), Luis jr. manages to flee, and with the help of Venustiano Carranza (at that time First Chief of the Constitutionalist Army) reaches the border to find refuge in El Paso. He will die in 1917 in Los Angeles: at only 57, he was irretrievably broken.

Did he reveal where the Terrazas’ gold reserves had been hidden?

gold bars

¿Quién sabe? Who knows? Some say that Luis Jr. blabbed and Pancho Villa got his hands on several gold bars, hidden inside a column of the Minero Bank. As Pancho used to hide dollars, gold and silver ingots in caves, basements, and clandestine burials, some say as well that in the Chihuahuan sierra, the Terraza’s gold treasure still lies, waiting to be discovered. ¿Quién sabe?

SIQUEIROS
David Alfaro Siqueiros, DEL PORFIRIATO A LA REVOLUCIÓN, detail, 1957 to 1966
Material and technique: acrylic and pyroxylin on cloth-lined wood. © Museo Nacional de Historia Castillo de Chapultepec, Ciudad de México.
OROZCO
José Clemente Orozco, BARRICADE, 1931
Oil on canvas, 139.7 x 114.3 cm. © The Museum of Modern Art, MOMA New York/Scala, Florence.
Ramos Martinez
Alfredo Ramos Martínez, ZAPATISTAS, ca. 1932.
Oil on canvas, 125.73 x 100.33 cm, Collection SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), US, Wikimedia Commons.
A Belkin
Arnold Belkin, LA LLEGADA DE LOS GENERALES ZAPATA Y VILLA AL PALACIO NACIONAL EL 6 DE DICIEMBRE DE 1914, 1978.
Mural, acrylic on canvas, 241 x 360 cm. © Museo Nacional de Historia Castillo de Chapultepec, Ciudad de México.
Mex Rev Bibl

My grandfather’s name was Víctor Longino Becerra Valdez. He was a young man as hard as iron, born in León, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, in 1895. All I have left of him is a hammer he personally forged by hand: a weird and symbolic remnant still in working order. My father, who was a tough and unaffective person, was used to say he was a terribly hard man.

At 18 years old, my grandfather became Sargento Segundo (Second Sergeant) in the Cavalry Corps under the command of Major Demetrio González. That Corps was part of the Ejército Villista, the Army of Pancho Villa.

My cousin Rebeca Becerra (one of the most active contemporary Centroamerican poets) discovered that after two years, our grandfather abandoned the cavalry corps to became part of General Villa’s selected personal guard, known as “Los Dorados de Villa”, made of elite soldiers on horseback, accustomed to hard service and indifferent to discomfort. In those years, my grandfather reached the rank of Sub-Lieutenant at the age of 20, becoming the youngest commando officer. His inner iron had to be forged into steel.

Los Dorados
On June 26, 1913, Pancho Villa formed a personal guard of elite soldiers on horseback, that he called the “Los Dorados”, the Golden Ones, chosen among the bravest and most loyal soldiers. Those “golden boys” were responsible for the life of their beloved “Centauro del Norte” (The Centaur of the North), for whom they were ready to fight until death.
This is a famous revolutionary ballad (corrido) on Pancho Villa and his Dorados. Enjoy!

My father didn’t tell me much about his father but the little he told me was related to the Mexican Revolution. My grandfather was a gun wizard: as Sargento Segundo in the Cavalry Corps, he was responsible for the proper functioning of the artillery and all of the weapons of Infantry. He knew how to forge and repair infantry rifles, revolvers, and even cannons. He was a shooter and told my father that when he was a young officer among the Dorados, he regularly took part in firing squads. My father often sang (out of tune) a song his father was often singing (out of tune, of course, ’cause this misfortune is hereditary) with mucho sentimiento: La Adelita.

This song is a corrido Villista: a popular ballad with poetic lyrics, sung by the Pancho Villa’s army. We do not know if the Adelita of this revolutionary song was a real girl or not; it is said she was the Chihuahuan lady Adela Velarde Pérez, but it’s quite uncertain. The song was so popular that Adelitas became the collective name of the soldaderas, the women that took part in the Revolution marching alongside the men and fighting as soldiers; working as distribuidoras y limpiadoras de armas (in charge of distributing and cleaning weapons), as nurses, cooks, informers. Women were a vital force in the Mexican Revolution even off the battlefield: many came from the upper classes and made an essential contribution as periodistas (journalists), intellectuals, backers, and sponsors. It was within the revolutionary forces that the voice of women claiming access to political life, universal suffrage, and the end of the old patriarchal culture, became loud and clear. The very First Feminist Congress was held in Yucatán, Mexico, in 1916, during the Revolution.

However, President Venustiano Carranza (in charge from 1916 to 1920) «offered a small amount of money only to female relatives of male soldiers who had died in battle. Through his refusal to offer pensions to female veterans, Carranza essentially ignored that women played a major combat role» (The Mexican Revolution and the United States in the Collections of the Library of Congress, Viewpoints on Women in the Revolution, see Links). Post-revolutionary Mexico disappointed many of the expectations of women who will have to wait until 1953 to vote and many more years to come to eradicate the traditional Mexican machismo.

Mujer con hijos
Soldadera armada y sus tres hijos sentados en un campamento (Armed soldadera and her three children sitting in a military camp).
Photo by Casasola, Ciudad de México, 1917. © Phototeca Nacional INAH, Mexico.
Mujer con rifle
Mujer revolucionaria sujeta un rifle mientras camina por una calle (Revolutionary woman holds a rifle as she walks down a street of the capital), Ciudad de México, 1915. © Phototeca Nacional INAH, Mexico.
Mujeres Maderistas
El géneral Ramón F. Iturbe junto a mujeres maderistas (General Ramón F. Iturbe with revolutionary middle-class women fighting in the army of Francisco Madero), Durango, 1913. Photo by Casasola, © Phototeca Nacional INAH, Mexico.

AFTER THE REVOLUTION, WE COME BACK WHERE WE STARTED: TO JUAN-THE-BOY

Post-revolutionary Mexico disappointed also many of the expectations of those who fought with Villa and Zapata, claiming “Reforma, Libertad, Justicia y Ley!”(Agrarian Reform, Freedom, Justice, and Law).

The Constitution that was drafted by a constituent convention during the Mexican Revolution and approved by the Constituent Congress in 1917 is still in force today. It stated, among others, the complete separation between Church and State (article 3), and the right of labor to organize, strike, receive compensation for workplace accidents (article 123).  Article 27 led the foundation for land reform in Mexico. It asserted the state sovereignty over the nation’s subsoil rights and empowered the government to expropriate privately held resources. It was a tool thought to break up large landed estates to create both smallholdings, proved to be more productive than the large ones, and ejidos, small-scale areas of communal land owned by the state but whose usufruct rights were to be held by the community members.

However, «like most constitutions, it was a statement of what the delegates wanted for Mexicans and not what could be put in place immediately» (The Mexican Revolution and the United States in the Collections of the Library of Congress, The End of the Revolution and its Consequences, cit.).

Moreover, «the 1917 Constitution also guaranteed protection of private property, including haciendas. And a combination of loopholes, litigation, and reactionary forces slowed implementation, and an effective land reform came only after the passage of the Agrarian Code of 1934 and the sympathetic efforts of President Lázaro Cárdenas» (Elias H. Tuma, Land Reform – Mexico, see Bibliography).

Venustiano Carranza, President of Mexico from May 1916 to May 1920, and Álvaro Obregón, President from 1920 to 1924, were both disinclined to achieve true land reform and politically hostile to Villa and Zapata, who advocate for a redistribution of land and more radical agrarian policies. Carranza and Obregón did not pursue a return to a pre-revolutionary situation but tried to prevent the full implementation of Article 27 by setting up a complex bureaucracy that put a spanner in the works of any sweeping changes favorable to the peasantry.

Why?

As a large part of the post-revolutionary political elite, they were capitalists with a firm belief in private property and a deep-rooted aversion to the Villista & Zapatista “socialist” instances. Moreover, they sought a political and economic alliance with the old landowners, needed – or believed to be needed – to rebuild the country’s economy.

As to land reform, the 1920s Mexican governments implemented the minimum necessary to control and prevent further major peasant uprisings. Venustiano Carranza, who was entirely resistant to the expropriation of haciendas, returned many to their owners that had been seized by revolutionaries.

In those years, Villa and Zapata were loose canons, dangerous wild cards in the new political play. Emiliano Zapata was treacherously murdered in April 1919. Pancho Villa was killed in an ambush in July 1923.

Warning: the next pictures are graphic in nature and are meant for a mature viewing audience.

The killing of Emiliano Zapata
Emiliano Zapata surrounded by his comrades after being killed by Mexican government agents in the town of Cuautla, state of Morelos (Mexico) on April 1919. Photo by Casasola Archives. © Phototeca Nacional INAH, Mexico.
The killing of Villa
Pancho Villa is assassinated in his Dodge automobile near Parral, in Chihuahua, after a well-planned conspiracy approved by President Álvaro Obregón in July 1923. After his death, his body was beheaded and probably buried in a mass grave. No one knows where his bones are. Photo by Casasola Archives. © Phototeca Nacional INAH, Mexico.
Lila Downs – Zapata Se Queda (Zapata is still here) from the album Pecados y milagros, 2011
Lila Downs is a famous Mexican singer, songwriter and actress. This song, that she composed and wrote together with Paul Cohen, Aneiro Taño y Celso Duarte in 2010, is a tribute to Emiliano Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. The song recalls his assassination and tell us about that dream of justice, peace, freedom and hope that the people of Mexico inherited from the “Caudillo Mayor”. Some scenes of the video, directed by Argentinian Gustavo Garzón in 2012, were shot in the atrium of the church of San Juan Bautista de Tlayacapan, in the state of Morelos.

As to don Luis Terrazas, Carranza nullified the expropriation of his assets carried out by Villa. Obregón urged him to come back to Mexico: he was 90 at that time, and two of his sons, Juan and Alberto, managed his return.

«He never regained his political omnipotence», Mark Wasserman writes, nor his economic empire. The Terrazas-Creel clan paid a heavy toll to the Revolution: their economic loss was considerable (millions of dollars). However, not all was lost.

In 1922, don Luis could enjoy an incredible privilege: he was not dispossessed of his landholdings, as required by some decrees, but was allowed to sell 6.6 million acres, except for Quinta Carolina, to the Caja de Préstamos. In one fell swoop, he cashed in 13.6 million pesos. He was blatantly overpaid for his land, and many protested. In vain, of course.

«During the 1920s, the family repurchased the best of its landholdings. (…). The total of the repurchases was nearly 500,000 hectares (= 1,235,000 acres), a little less than 20% of the original landholdings» (Mark Wasserman, Strategies for Survival, cit.). It was only 20%, but it was the best land. The worst – a tiny part to tell the truth – was distributed to ejidos.

«The enormous urban properties of don Luis and Enrique Creel were untouched by the expropriation decree (…). The Terrazas economic comeback was led by Luis Terrazas grand-children (…). The family based its economic activities on old strengths – landowning and cattle raising, real estate, textiles, banking and utilities – to which they added a new business, construction» (Mark Wasserman, cit.). Today the Terrazas-Creel is a powerful and wealthy family of Chihuahua. After the Revolution, its members have served for a total of 67 terms in Chihuahua’s state legislature and 23 terms in the Congress of Mexico.

Enrique Creel, who during the Revolution fled to Los Angeles and at a safe distance «pumped substantial money into the reactionary movement of general Victoriano Huerta» (M. Wasserman, Enrique C. Creel, see Bibliography), came back to Mexico in the early 1920s, and «became an important financial adviser of the government. He died in 1931 in Ciudad de México» (M.W., cit.).

Don Luis passed away quietly in 1923, one month before its 94th birthday and the killing of Pancho Villa. His remains were buried in the atrium of the Sanctuary of Guadalupe, in Chihuahua city.

Some Mexicans say that Pancho Villa and don Luis Terrazas passed away hermanados por la muerte (fraternized and united by death).

What a mawkish lie!

Perhaps, it’s the legacy of a certain Catholic popular culture. There’s indeed an old Neapolitan poem that reads ‘A morte ‘o ssaje ched”e?…è una livella (Death. You know? It’s something that levels out all of us). It’s a commonplace, filled with servile idiocy. Death is like life (of which is a part): it is not at all the same for everyone. Death does not unite us, nor does make us brothers. Death can be as unjust and scandalous, painful and merciless as certain lives. But death in itself is like water: it has no shape. It is the man who shapes it for himself and sometimes, infernally, he did it for some others. It is against this kind of men, and not against God, that Christ cries on the Cross.

Nuevo Casas Grandes after the Revolution

The area around Nuevo Casas Grandes was the site of both one of the first and one of the last battles of the Revolution. Starting from summer 1912, many prosperous Mormon colonies were evacuated and their inhabitants took refuge in El Paso, a few kilometers away only, beyond the border with the United States.

Mormon refugees
Mormon refugees from Mexico living in a lumber yard in El Paso, Texas, 1915-20. Photo source: US Library of Congress.

Some Mormons left permanently while others returned after a few years. Many came back to the Chihuahuan colonies of Colonia Dublán and Colonia Juárez, 14 km north of Estación Pearson. Stability gradually returned; Mormon farm activities, orchards, and ranches gradually began to flourish again.

Mormon family 1950
A Mormon family in Casas Grandes in 1950.  Photo by Casasola Archives. © Phototeca Nacional INAH, Mexico.

Estación Pearson, 35 km south of Nuevo Casas Grandes, was affected by the armed clashes. The old huge lumber mill on the Río San Miguel closed and the electric power to the homes was discontinued. «It stood with its doors locked for years until 1948, when the government permitted the local people to dismantle it. (…) However, the large railroad repair facility was reorganized and helped offset the loss of the mill» (Walter P. Parks, The Miracle of Mata Ortiz, see Bibliography).

Between 1924 and 1925, Estación Pearson was renamed: its name sounded too foreign. In an outburst of Latin-Spanish patriotism, it was renamed Mata Ortiz, in honor of major Juan Mata Ortiz, the old “martyr” – perhaps executioner, probably both – of the war on the Apaches. In the 1930s, in a second outburst, this time of anti-clericalism, the Río San Miguel was renamed Río Palanganas.

In 1935, the old Hacienda de San Diego, one among the many owned by don Luis Terrazas, was expropriated: 48% of its land got to create a part of the large ejido of Mata Ortiz.

In 1941, the family Quezada Celado moved here from Santa Bárbara Tutuaca, a hamlet in central Chihuahua. At that time, Juan-the-boy was a one-year-old fat baby. We saw him wandering with the family’s skinny donkey along the slopes of the sierra searching for firewood and shard between 1953 and 1954. At that time, Mata Ortiz was a poor but fair settlement.

At the beginning of the 1960s, the large train repair facility, termed La Redonda, was moved to Nuevo Casas Grandes, a village which could boast at least a couple of paved roads, «depriving the Mata Ortiz community of most of its economic base. The occupations that remained involved cattle for those who could afford to buy cows, or day labor on distant railroad tracks, in the orchards, or to the north, across the border» (Walter P. Parks, cit.).

The electrification came in the early 1970s but it came alone: Mata Ortiz kept on being one of those remote places, plunged in a fate of poverty, silence, dust, and neglect. It was one of those places where even breathing seems to cost effort, let alone living.

Entering Mata Ortiz

It was – as Walter Parks perfectly said – a place with a past but no future.

Today Mata Ortiz is the center of one of the most interesting artistic movements in the world: it is a must-see place for gallery owners, art enthusiasts, experts of ancient and contemporary ceramics, traders and travelers. The wall of the low houses are still made of adobe bricks, the main road is still a dirty street with dogs roaming in the dust. But here, one of the most refined potteries in the world was born and is still evolving into aesthetically surprising forms. Many scholars spoke of a miracle, the “Miracle of Mata Ortiz”, others of the “Renaissance of Mata Ortiz”.

How did this happen?

It’s an incredible story. One of those stories that seem to pop out from the mind of a highly imaginative Latin-American novelist, a master of magic realism à la Alejo Carpentier. It’s a real story, though. It’s a story that spans millennia and reveals an unknown and mysterious face of Chihuahua. It’s a story whose undisputed protagonists are Juan Quezada Celado and the fire in his hands.

And that’s the story I’m going to tell you now.

Hands 2
Hands, photo by Paul Bence (multiple exposure: 5 shots).
Under Creative Commons license, Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Anix

Alyx Becerra

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Did you inherited from your aunt a tribal mask, a stool, a vase, a rug, an ethnic item that you have the faintest idea what it is?

Did you find in a trunk an ethnic mysterious item you don’t even know how to describe?

Would you like to know if it’s worth something or is a worthless souvenir?

Would you like to know what it is exactly and if / how / where you might sell it?

WRITE TO US!