Monday, March 21, 2005


“Is there war in the United States now?” he asked.

“No,” I said untruthfully.

“No war at all?” He meditated for a moment. “How do you pass the time, then …?”

— a conversation between Reed and Juan Sanchez, one of Villa’s soldiers. From Insurgent Mexico

In 1913 and 1914, John Reed rode with Mexican guerrilla fighters in Chihuahua, witnessing several major battles and living off the land with the peasant rebels. From a series of articles that included an interview with Mexican president Venustiano Carranza, Reed crafted the best seller Insurgent Mexico, describing his experiences in Mexico with a poetic style that brought the Mexican Revolution to life for American readers.

Reed also reported on the character and activities of Pancho Villa, interviewing the bandit-turned-revolutionary several times and traveling with Villa’s army during the crucial campaign against the city of Torreon.

When Reed arrived in Mexico, Villa had already attracted the fascination of the American press, which simplistically characterized him as a vicious bandit taking advantage of the chaos in northern Mexico for his own personal gain. Reed, young and idealistic, depicted a more complex Villa — vain, boisterous and capable of great cruelty but also a man sincerely concerned with both the welfare of Chihuahua’s peasants and the future of Mexico.

As the self-appointed military governor of the state of Chihuahua, Villa faced a monumental task in bringing order and reform to a huge chunk of northern Mexico, home to 300,000 people. Reed’s Villa, seeking practical solutions for complex economic and social problems, confronted his labors with uneducated bewilderment and supreme confidence. To solve a financial crisis brought on by a shortage of currency, Villa responded: “If all they want is money, let’s print some.” Two million brand new pesos — guaranteed by nothing more than Villa’s name across the center — quickly provided a short-term stable currency for the peasants.

The articles also described Villa’s enthusiasm for building schools and his views on a number of topics, including women’s rights and socialism.

Villa’s effectiveness as a politician and a warrior were not neglected by Reed, but the descriptions of his social concern elicited the most surprise from readers.

Reed did not make Villa famous, but his articles for Metropolitan magazine and the New York World — and their publication in book form as Insurgent Mexico — recast the bandit Pancho Villa as a Mexican Robin Hood, a champion of the poor and powerless.

The young journalists’s sojourn in Mexico brought literary acclaim to Reed, who died of typhus in Russia in 1920 at the age of 33, the first martyr of American Communism. Villa died in an ambush in Parral in 1923, killed by political opponents. Both had played an important part in the generation of the other’s legend.


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