Ringside Seat to a Revolution

The following excerpt is adapted from Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez: 1893-1923 (Cinco Puntos Press, 2005) by David Romo.

I was raised in both Juárez and El Paso, but I’ve spent a large part of my life trying to get as far away from both of these cities as possible. If you walk through downtown El Paso after 5 p.m., you’ll find that the place is dead. Mostly there’s just a lot of loan shark agencies and trinket shops inside neglected old buildings. There’s more action in Juárez. But it didn’t appeal to me either. There was too much suffering there.

So pretty much from an early age I wanted out. I wanted to go some place where things were happening—where matters of significance occurred. I didn’t want to live on the border, on the edge of the world. I wanted a cosmopolitan cultural center, a city with a busy nightlife, museums, bookstores, theaters, lots of history and no Border Patrol. I didn’t know back then that the Border Patrol is everywhere. But as soon as I graduated from high school, I split. I spent four years in northern California, two-and-a-half in Jerusalem and five years in Florence. But something kept drawing me back to this desert, this place that so many consider nothing more than a vast cultural wasteland. My family and friends had a lot to do with me coming back, of course. But there was something else. If geography is destiny, as they say, then I felt I had to come to terms with my own geography.

I’ve been looking for Pancho Villa for the last four years. I didn’t intend to. When I began writing this book, it was meant to be a psychogeography, not a history. In 2001, I was the artistic director of El Paso’s Bridge Center for Contemporary Art and had just received a grant to chart the underground cultural life of El Paso and Juárez. The first rule of psychogeography is to walk through the streets without preconceived notions; just drift and let the city’s underground currents take you where they will. The areas that drew me the most at first were the Tex-Mex dives along Alameda Avenue, neglected cemeteries, the Santa Fe International Bridge, the seedy hangouts on Avenida Juárez, and the old buildings around downtown El Paso. Almost everywhere I went, Pancho Villa had been there before me.

I ordered an elote and a lemonade near a Korean-owned store on Mesa and Texas Streets where everything costs a dollar. It had once been the Elite Confectionary. Villa and General Pascual Orozco, who headed Madero’s troops during the Battle of Juárez, had been there in 1911. Pancho and Pascual didn’t like each other very much, but they had posed for Otis Aultman’s camera anyway, sitting stiffly next to each other. Pancho, famous for his sweet tooth, had ordered the Elite Baseball, a scoop of chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream, for ten cents. Pascual didn’t want anything.

I walked two blocks down from the Elite Confectionary to the First National Bank Building on the corner of Oregon and San Antonio. In 1914 Villa had his Consulado de Mexico there. El Paso Detective Fred Delgado, who moonlighted as Villa’s secret agent, worked out of Room 418. When the U.S. recognized Venustiano Carranza in 1915, Pancho Villa shut the consulate down. I looked around the place, maybe something had been left behind. Villa’s offices were empty. The whole building was empty. No one had even bothered to at least put up a little sign reading: “Pancho Villa was here.”

Pancho Villa had been across the street at the El Paso del Norte Hotel as well. That’s where my Latin Jazz band, Fronteras No Más, used to play at the hotel’s Dome Bar every Saturday night for tourists and hip Latinos. Villa didn’t like that place too much though. He thought too many perfumados—sweet smelling dandies—stayed there, like the Guggenheims (who owned one of the ASARCO smelters Villa threatened to confiscate in Chihuahua), General Pershing, Alvaro Obregón and the Terrazas clan.

He preferred to lodge at the Roma Hotel, on the corner of Paisano and El Paso Street, during his American exile in 1913. It was a more down-to-earth place. Villa and his number one wife Luz Corral stayed there after he escaped from a Mexico City prison. She had a soft spot for El Paso too. Pancho would walk around coddling pigeons in his arms. People thought he was a little eccentric but he told them pigeons were the only thing he could eat, on account of his delicate stomach. The truth was he was using them as homing pigeons, to send messages to his rebel friends in Chihuahua.

Almost every evening, Pancho Villa would walk downstairs to the Emporium Bar, which was also a little strange since Pancho was a teetotaler. He would order nothing but strawberry soda pop, his favorite drink, and hang out with all kinds of characters. One evening, he met with alleged German secret agent Maximilian Kloss at the bar. Apparently, the agent wanted to buy the rights to some submarine bases in Baja California just in case Germany went to war against the United States.

After a few months of walking through the city, I realized my aimless wanderings had transformed themselves into an obsessive, very focused manhunt. I’d somehow entered a zone I couldn’t leave. I followed every clue, no matter how insignificant.

I wanted to know about Villa’s eating habits: He loved canned asparagus and could eat a pound of peanut brittle at a time.

I wanted to know where his offices and headquarters were: the Mills Building, the Toltec and the First National Bank in El Paso. In Juárez, his headquarters were in the Customs House and on Lerdo Street.

How much money he had in the bank on this side of the line: $2,000,000.

What kind of jewelry his wife wore to high-toned Sunset Heights tea parties: five diamond rings, a double-chained gold necklace with a gold watch and diamond-studded locket attached, a brooch, a comb set and earrings with brilliants.

Villa’s musical tastes: He enjoyed “El Corrido de Tierra Blanca,” “La Marcha de Zacatecas,” “La Adelita,” and “La Cucaracha.”

Pancho Villa took me to places where I never expected to go—I traveled throughout the United States and Mexico. But although Villa is everywhere in this book, it’s ultimately not about him. He’s merely my tour guide. Instead Ringside Seat to a Revolution is about an offbeat collection of individuals who were in El Paso and Juárez during the revolution. Many crossed Pancho Villa’s path at one time or another. More often than not, they were both spectators and active participants during one of the most fascinating periods in the area’s history.

This book is about insurrection from the point of view of those who official historians have considered peripheral to the main events—military band musicians who played Verdi operas during executions in Juárez; filmmakers who came to the border to make silent flicks called The Greaser’s Revenge and Guns and Greasers; female bullfighters; anarchists; poets; secret service agents whose job it was to hang out in every bar on both sides of the line; jazz musicians on Avenida Juárez during Prohibition when Villa tried to capture Juárez for a third time; spies with Graflexes; Anglo pool hustlers reborn as postcard salesmen; Chinese illegal aliens; radical feminists; arms smugglers; and, of course, revolutionaries, counterrevolutionaries and counter-counterrevolutionaries. Ringside Seat to a Revolution deals not so much with history as it does with microhistory. A surprisingly large number of the events related to the Mexican Revolution took place within a five-square-mile area between downtown El Paso and the Juárez customhouse.

Microhistory at its best is more about small gestures and unexpected details than grand explanations. It’s a method of study that focuses more on the mysterious and the poetic than on the schematic. It’s like prospecting for gold or exploring underground mazes—those honeycombed tunnels underneath Oregon Street in El Paso’s Chinatown that the U.S. customs officials raided during the turn of the century. Elderly Chinese immigrants opened secret doors for them. In one underground chamber the border agents found cans of opium; in another, they found a young man playing an exotic stringed instrument the American officials had never heard before.

Several excellent historical works about the Mexican Revolution on the border served as my guides. But the one historian who is perhaps the most responsible for getting me to write about my own city is Leon Metz. I’ve run into him a few times at historical conferences. The former law enforcement officer turned historian is an amiable man. He looks a little like John Wayne and a little like Jeff Bridges. Everybody likes Leon Metz. He’s almost as popular as the UTEP football coach. His books sell very well too. If you go to the history section at any Barnes & Noble in El Paso you probably won’t find any of the books that served as my guides to the revolution. But you’re likely to find more than a dozen books written by Leon Metz about local gunfighters, sheriffs and Texas Rangers—John Wesley Hardin, Pat Garrett, John Selman and Dallas Stoudenmire. Occasionally Metz writes about the Mexican Revolution too from that Wild, Wild West cowboy perspective of his.

Let me give you an example. In Turning Points of El Paso, Texas, he is highly critical of the revolutionary Spanish-language newspapers that flourished in South El Paso around the turn of the century. Metz—who doesn’t read or speak Spanish—denounces many of them as badly written “handbills” full of “emotional, oftentimes hysterical overtones” whose content “sounded impressive only to other social-anarchists.” He expresses displeasure with these publications that “frequently denounced the United States (which protected their right to publish) as savagely as they did Díaz.” One of those anarchistic newspapers he mentions is Regeneración, which Metz claims was published out of the Caples Building in El Paso by Ricardo Flores Magón. (I’m not sure how Magón—who established his headquarters in El Paso in 1906—could have published his newspaper out of the Caples Building. The Caples wasn’t constructed until 1909.) The Old West historian describes Magón as a friend of “bomb-throwers,” a man with “enough real and imagined grievances to warrant psychotherapy for a dozen unhappy zealots.”

Ay, ay, ay! Talk about bomb-throwers.

Them’s fightin’ words, as the Hollywood gunslingers used to say. They’re the kind of outrageous distortions that would spur any self-respecting microhistorian worth the name to reach for his laptop and write his own version of the past. Which I did.

But I guess I shouldn’t be too irritated by Metz’ take on things. Historians are like the blind men who touched different parts of the elephant and thought it was either a wall, a snake, a tree trunk or a rope, depending on what they touched. We all have our biases and our limited viewpoints. It all depends on where we stand. Microhistorians, I think, are just a little more honest about it. We tend to believe that there is no such thing as a definitive History—only a series of microhistories.

El Paso probably had more Spanish-language newspapers per capita during the turn of the century than any other city in the United States. Between 1890 and 1925, there were more than 40 Spanish-language newspapers published in El Paso. They provided a counternarrative of the border not found in the mainstream press on either side of the line. The periodicals printed not only news and political manifestoes but serial novels, poetry, essays and other literary works. The cultural milieu created by a large inflow of political refugees and exiles—which included some of Mexico’s best journalists and writers—set the stage for a renaissance of Spanish-language journalism and literature never before seen in the history of the border. The first novel of the revolution, Los de Abajo, was published in serial form in 1915 in the Spanish-language daily, El Paso del Norte. Mariano Azuela, a former Villista doctor, wrote it while he lived in the Segundo Barrio.

Yet politics was indeed most of these publications’ bread and butter. Because they were published on the American side of the border, the Spanish-language press could be aggressively anti-Díaz. Many publications were openly revolutionary. Victor L. Ochoa, the first El Pasoan to launch a rebellion against the government of Porfirio Díaz in 1893, was the editor of El Hispano Americano. In 1896, Teresita Urrea was listed as the coeditor with Lauro Aguirre of El Independiente. She had moved to El Paso that year and was already called the “Mexican Joan of Arc” because of the various uprisings her name had inspired throughout northern Mexico. In 1907, Aguirre’s press also printed La Voz de la Mujer. It was a fiery, aggressive weekly, which called itself “El Semanario de Combate,” written and edited by women who had no qualms about denouncing their political enemies as “eunuchs” and “castrados” (castrated men). The anarchist Práxedis Guerrero—who coined the phrase that is often attributed to Emiliano Zapata, “It is better to die on your feet, than to live on your knees,”—published Punto Rojo out of El Paso in 1909. Silvestre Terrazas, the black sheep of the Chihuahuan oligarchic family who at one time helped smuggle weapons for Pancho Villa from El Paso, published La Patria between 1919 and 1924. It was one of the more successful Spanish language papers in the border city. Silvestre Terrazas had been sued 150 times, imprisoned 12 and had received a death sentence under the government of Porfirio Díaz for his writings. In México, Díaz imprisoned Ricardo Flores Magón various times as well. Each time Magón and his fellow radicals got out of Mexican prison, they would stubbornly republish their old newspaper under a different name—first as El Ahuizote, then El Hijo del Ahuizote (The Ahuizote’s Son), El Nieto del Ahuizote (The Ahuizote’s Grandson), El Bisnieto del Ahuizote (The Ahuizote’s Great-Grandson) and El Tataranieto del Ahuizote (The Ahuizote’s Great-Great Grandson.)

Things were somewhat better for journalists in El Paso. But that’s not to say that the U.S. was a paradise for free speech either, as Leon Metz would have us believe. Spanish-language editors were frequently harassed, censored, and imprisoned by the American authorities for what they wrote. Flores Magón was sued and arrested several times in the U.S. for his articles. Ultimately, censorship ended up being more severe for him north of the border than south of it. He died in an American prison in the 1920s while serving a 20-year sentence for questioning, in one of his publications, the needless loss of life of American soldiers during World War I.

Spanish-language newspapers were suppressed on numerous occasions in El Paso during the revolution. In March 1916, Mayor Tom Lea, Sr., ordered the suspension of four “Mexican dailies”
ublished in the city: El Rio Bravo, La Justicia, Mexico Nuevo and El Paso del Norte. Their crime was to report on and give their own version of Pancho Villa’s raid of Columbus a few days before. The editor of El Paso del Norte, Fernando Gamiochipi, a resident of the American border city for 14 years, was thrown in jail for having written “something of a political nature.”

That same month, the El Paso City Council passed an emergency ordinance which stated:

It shall be unlawful for any persons within the city of El Paso to transmit for the purpose of publication any report about the conditions existing in the city of El Paso which would be calculated to injure the general business or reputation of the city of El Paso.

Newspaper reporters who wrote negative articles about the city that the authorities deemed false were to be “punished with a fine of not less than $25 nor more than $200.”

In June 1919, the editor and business manager of El Paso’s La Republica were arrested for failing to provide an English translation of their newspaper. They were subsequently deported to Mexico.

Despite this kind of repression, the proliferation of radical journalism in El Paso helps explain why the border city was such a hotbed of insurrection. On the border, journalist and revolutionary were often synonymous. Journalists planted the ideological seeds of rebellion. They held secret meetings in their newspaper offices. They were the first to call for armed uprising. They drafted the insurrection’s blueprints. And usually, the periodistas were also the first to take up arms themselves. Yet these fronterizo journalists were more than mere agitators. Many lived lives full of unexpected twists and turns; they were often revolutionary beyond just the political sense of the term.

Despite being listed as coeditor of El Independiente, Teresita Urrea was not exactly a journalist. She also never publicly called herself a revolutionary. Yet she inspired journalists and revolutionaries in El Paso for many years to come. In many ways, the revolution on the border began with her.

A woman of many contradictions, she defied all the reigning stereotypes of a 19th-century mexicana. She was the illegitimate daughter of a rich Sonoran hacendado, Don Tomás Urrea. Her mother, Cayetana Chávez, was a poor Tahueco—part Cahita, part Tarahumara Indian—woman who had once been employed as Don Tomás’ maid. Don Tomás impregnated Cayetana when she was 14 years-old.

Teresita dedicated her life to healing the poor. She had been a healer since her early adolescence. While at her father’s ranch, Teresita had been the apprentice of a Yaqui curandera named Huila. From her, Teresita learned the medicinal uses of more than 200 herbs and folk remedies, many of which are still used among the Indian communities along Mexico’s northern border today. One observer claimed that more than 200,000 people had visited her home in Rancho Cabora, Sonora; she had healed 50,000 of them. Most of them couldn’t afford a physician. Yet she intermingled comfortably with high society on both sides of the border although she had practically no formal schooling.

The Catholic church considered her a heretic, and the Mexican government considered her a dangerous subversive. She was opposed to the spilling of blood, yet the rallying cry “Viva Santa Teresa” was heard during several uprisings throughout northern Mexico. According to a Mexican official quoted by the New York Times, Teresita was responsible for the death of more than 1,000 people killed during those uprisings. At 19, Teresita was forced into exile by President Porfirio Díaz.

She first crossed the border in Nogales, Arizona, in 1892, the year that the soldiers of Porfirio Díaz massacred and burned down the entire village of Tomóchic, a Chihuahuan village about 200 miles south of El Paso. Four years later Teresita Urrea passed through El Paso like a comet—a heavenly portent that shone brightly for a brief period then vanished.

In March 1896, hundreds gathered at the Union Depot train station to wait for the 22-year-old miracle worker known on both sides of the line as “Santa Teresa.” “But the young lady,” the El Paso Evening Telegraph reported, “did not come.” When she finally did arrive on June 13, 1896, about 3,000 pilgrims camped outside her new home on the corner of Overland and Campbell Streets. They had traveled by foot, wagon and train from all over the U.S.-Mexico border.

Soon the El Paso Herald was comparing her to Jesus Christ. “El Paso has the distinction of having a live saint within its borders. It is understood that she has commenced her work of healing, but here comes the rub. Strange as it may seem, dominant religions never welcome one that comes to do good in individual lives. The Nazarene had the experience, and Santa Teresa will find that she is no exception to this rule,” the evening newspaper predicted.

The El Paso Herald’s prophecies weren’t far off the mark. Within a year, Teresita would suffer three assassination attempts and be forced to leave the city in search of safer grounds.

The El Paso that Teresita passed through in 1896 was a booming border town. Railroad lines from the four cardinal directions—connecting it to Mexico City, Santa Fe, Los Angeles and San Antonio—had transformed the town into the main gateway between the United States and Mexico and a major center for smelting, cattle, mining and other products of binational trade. City boosters claimed El Paso’s geographic location made it “the best pass across the Continental Divide between the equator and the North Pole.” It was one of the fastest growing cities in the Southwest and had a population—according to the 1896 El Paso City Directory—of 15,568. About 60 percent were of Mexican descent. For the next few decades, El Paso’s railroad connections and the concentration of Mexican residents would make the city an ideal location from which to plot a revolution.

Teresita soon became the most famous woman in El Paso. Her name appeared regularly in the gossip columns of the local newspapers. El Pasoans couldn’t get enough of her. One postcard salesman did a “hefty business” selling pictures of Teresita throughout the area, as far as the neighboring town of Las Cruces. It wasn’t just “Mexican peons”—as the Anglo press called them—who gathered around Teresita. The sick of all races, the curious, the insane, thieves, peddlers, upper-class admirers, anti-Díaz rebels, newspaper reporters, law-enforcement officers and paid government informants from both sides of the border, all hovered around Teresita’s Segundo Barrio home. The newspapers kept their readers informed about every new development. They published regular dispatches about her healings, her dress, and about every important guest who stopped by to chat with her—such as El Paso Mayor Richard Campbell or the ex-governor of Chihuahua, Lauro Carrillo.

Reading about Teresita in the El Paso newspapers was almost like watching a modern day soap opera, except with an added dose of international political intrigue. News of the young lady’s suitors immediately made the front pages. But Teresita was not just a celebrity at the local level. Her fame spread like wildfire throughout the rest of the United States as well. Newspaper correspondents came to the border from San Francisco, Austin and New York to interview the young Mexican miracle worker. Later, when she left El Paso and toured throughout the United States, she also made headlines wherever she went. Many of the out-of-town journalists that visited Teresita in the Segundo Barrio reported that they thought some kind of healing was actually taking place, but they all had different explanations for this phenomenon. A news correspondent from Austin, for example, declared that without knowing it, Teresita was using the techniques of some of the best known hypnotists in the world. Many of her healing methods, however, were grounded on the indigenous culture that she had grown up with. When many of her predictions came to pass, the villagers took it as another sign that Teresita was divinely inspired.

In the fall of 1896, when a rebellion broke out in several towns along the U.S.-Mexico border waged in Teresita’s name, rumor had it that the young miracle worker had used her powers of astral projection to lead the revolt against the soldiers of Porfirio Díaz. Although she was hundreds of miles away in El Paso, federal soldiers claimed they saw Santa Teresa leading a group of rebels at Nogales, Sonora. They said she was riding upon a white horse that hovered above the ground.

Acclaimed Chicano-Irish-German-American author Luis Alberto Urrea—a fellow research freak whom I consider a friend—sent me an e-mail when he found out that I was going to write about Teresita Urrea’s revolutionary activities in El Paso. He’s Teresita’s great-nephew and was working at the time on a historical novel, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, that focuses on Teresita’s life before her American exile. He heard that I was looking into rumors that Teresita, while in El Paso, not only helped prepare an uprising against the government of Porfirio Diaz but even blessed the revolutionaries’ rifles. Luis Alberto didn’t believe that Teresita could have ever done such a thing. In Mexico she was all about compassion and healing. She opposed bloodshed. It’s just not possible that she could have ever blessed rifles, he argued. He warned me to be careful of what I wrote. He’s seen terrible things happen to people who have written about her in the past. One woman who wrote a fictionalized novel about his great-aunt—with a few passages that weren’t entirely flattering—ended up getting kidnapped in Mexico. Others have suffered serious injury. It must be the avenging spirit of the Yaquis, who were devout followers of Teresita during her life, Luis Alberto explained.

With Luis Alberto, it’s not always easy to tell how much of his rollo—that part-college professor and part-mixed-blood-vato-loco spiel of his—is up front and how much is tongue in cheek. I thanked him anyhow for the warning about the curse of the Yaquis. I assured him that I wasn’t about to libel his Great Tía. I told him I thought his Tía Abuela comes off smelling like roses—literally. (People said that during a healing Teresita smelled like roses.)

But at the same time Santa Teresita is a lot more complex than some of the hagiographical accounts that have been written about her in the past. Teresita may have been a pacifist during her Mexican period, but by the time she reached El Paso she was no longer the same woman. It appears that the massacre of Tomochic radicalized her, like it did many other fronterizos. There are just too many firsthand accounts—from many different sources—about her underground activities in support of the revolution. It could be that they’re mostly just rumors, puro chisme. But those historians who completely excise this chisme from their accounts leave out an important part of the picture.

With Teresita Urrea, fact and rumor often blend into one. I’ve explored the zones where Teresita left her mark as carefully as I could, but I must admit that I can’t always distinguish clearly between the two. At the risk of life, limb, and incurring the wrath of the Yaquis, I’ve given it my best shot.

David Romo, the son of Mexican immigrants, is an essayist, historian, musician and cultural activist. He lives in El Paso. This is his first book.

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