Attempted removal of Pancho Villa Statue, “Tucson’s Welcoming Mat”

Attempted removal of Pancho Villa Statue, “Tucson’s Welcoming Mat”

The Washington DC-based extreme right-wing legal group, Judicial Watch, is demanding from the Arts Foundation the removal of the Pancho Villa statue from downtown Tucson. While the statue cannot be removed at the Arts Foundation meetings, it would be the first step to do so. The bizarre justification by Judicial Watch the statue, which was donated in 1981, is that there is virtually no support for it in Tucson. When it was unveiled, some 1000 people showed up in support. Will keep everyone posted as developments merit. The following is a thorough analysis of the struggle and falsehoods and myths surrounding efforts to bring down the statue.

– Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez
Associate Professor, UA-MAS

Truthout: Public Intellectual Project:


The Francisco “Pancho” Villa Statue: Tucson’s Welcoming Mat

By Lydia R. Otero

The Department of Mexican American Studies University of Arizona (2008)

To motorists entering Tucson’s central business district on either of its two principal thoroughfares—Broadway Boulevard or Congress Street—a tree-lined, triangular grassy median, surrounded by modern concrete buildings of varying designs, inevitably becomes the focus of their attention. Here, in one of the city’s most visible, and formerly most celebrated, public squares, the site of the old, but not forgotten, San Agustín Church, stands a seven-ton, fourteen-foot bronze equestrian sculpture’.1 Astride his wild-eyed, rearing mount, the rider seems to be either in the midst of a violent fight or triumphantly celebrating a victory. Those familiar with of the history of United States- Mexico relations and folklore immediately recognize the likeness of Francisco “Pancho” Villa on his horse, Siete Leguas (Seven Leagues). For nearly three decades, this statue has found itself caught up in a tempest of debates among the citizens of Tucson and throughout the U.S.-Mexico border region, the most recent being the movement to restrict immigration and suppress the freedoms of migrants from south of the border.

In 1916, the revolutionary made headlines across the world when his troops crossed the border and killed seventeen people in Columbus, New Mexico.

Newspapers widely reported that during this rampage, Villa roared, “Death to the gringos!” fanning the flames of fear throughout the border region. In response to the bloodshed and blatant violation of an international boundary, President Woodrow Wilson violated that same boundary by dispatching General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing and five thousand troops into Mexico to apprehend and punish the “villain.” The “Punitive Expedition,” whose ranks swelled to more than 10,000—some twenty times the number of Villa’s forces—also possessed a distinct technological advantage: a squadron of eight airplanes. Though Pershing’s troops penetrated 350 miles into Mexico, they failed to capture Villa, a failure the general credited to the Mexican people, whose allegiance and assistance tipped the scales in Villa’s favor. Indeed, Villa’s “underdog” status, his unrepentant stance, his ability to elude Pershing’s forces, and his masterful horsemanship made him a legend throughout Latin America and the U.S. Southwest and earned him the epithet “Centaur of the North.”2

Although it is obvious that Villa is being memorialized in downtown Tucson, information that attempts to contextualize the revolutionary’s history, his relationship to the United States and to the city is nowhere to be found near the statue. Instead, visitors find only a simple marker indicating that Mexico gave Arizona the statue as gesture of friendship in 1981. Some public historians argue against synthesized and standardized explanations on historical markers that influence what observers take away from the experience. Commemorative plaques usually provide uncomplicated narratives that prevent spectators from actively engaging critically with commemorated sites and these signposts also represent attempts to control memory. In contrast, as a public piece of art, the Villa statue invites spectators to construct their own narratives, based on their subjective understandings of history and reckon with the most immediate question of why this statue and why this location? Undoubtedly, the Villa sculpture serves to “deritualize and dematerialize” memory by raising key questions regarding the meaning behind commemorations and speaks to the larger issues, albeit controversial issues that frame Mexican-U.S. relations. 3 To those observers accustomed to commemorations that enforce worldviews grounded in maintaining strict geopolitical boundaries, and historical narratives that erase the past in order to press U.S. exceptionalism, the Pancho Villa statue indeed looks and feels out of place.

In Tucson, sixty miles from the Mexican border, these subjective responses have run the gamut, triggering interethnic hostility and, on occasion, even mental and physical distress. When veteran Jack Frost from Show Low learned of the statue in the papers, he is reported to have said, “It put me in a state of shock. I’ve been pacing the floors since.”4 And yet many Mexican Americans, migrants and immigrants rights activists, of whom Tucson has many, understand that the statue defies simple explanations of borders and history in a city with an inextricable Mexican past and that has served as a main gateway to migrants from the south.

They see the statue as more than “a goodwill gesture and as an honor for a hero.” 5 For them, it acknowledges the more fluid characteristics of territorial boundaries, and also represents a tangible affirmation of cultural and historical linkages to Mexico in the U.S. Thus, clearly, this commemoration speaks differently to different publics.

The statue’s visibility and central location magnifies contested and discursive meanings making this site a fertile location for examining issues of space, ethnicity, national affiliations, belonging and territoriality. Environmental historians, along with cultural geographers, make it clear that space functions to produce, enforce, and reproduce social relations. Latina cultural critic Mary Pat Brady urges more thoughtful considerations of space, and for the purposes of this article speaks to the cultural and subjective aspects that have contested or welcomed the statue: “Hidden, or visible [spaces], have an enormous effect on subject formations—on the choices people can make and how they conceptualize themselves, each other, and the world. Interactions with space are not merely schematic but also highly affective; places are felt and experienced, and the processes producing space therefore also shape feelings and experiences.”6

Increasingly, our post-9/11 conservative political climate has idealized polarized sovereignties evident in an often stated refusal to recognize the reality of conflated nationalist sentiments, and of transnational identities that have proliferated and thrived along the border region since its inception. Although Tucson originated as an Indian, Spanish, and, later, Mexican place, twentieth- century boosters consciously attempted to distance themselves from this past in order to solidify Tucson’s image as an “American” city. Civic leaders targeted for destruction the most densely populated area in the city, occupied mostly by Mexican Americans and Sonoran-style structures, as part of their urban renewal agenda in the late 1960s. Tearing down the oldest neighborhood also obliterated much of the physical evidence of the city’s strong Mexican presence and past.7 Many in Tucson, however, remember that the site on which this bronze statue now sits as venerated and communal space, the former church plaza known as “La Placita,” demolished by the city three decades ago to “revitalize” downtown.8 Since 1981, the overt, but less explicit, political implications of a Mexican revolutionary prominently displayed in the center of a U.S. city surfaced in the public sphere, the media, and even the courts. Contrasting historical narratives, as well as individual and collective memories of Villa’s character and legacy, often appeared in the newspapers. In retrospect, the city’s two major papers, the Arizona Daily Star and the Tucson Daily Citizen, strongly influenced the public debate through their selective and often biased coverage, which attempted to impose a narrative of fear and that the Villa statue represented a stated infraction of territorial boundaries. What they considered newsworthy and whom they sanctioned as authorities to speak on behalf Mexico, Mexican Americans, and Tucson also became critical in unraveling the history associated with Villa and the statue. In the end, however, the media’s power and even the shunning of the statue’s unveiling by Tucson’s mayor could not dissuade large numbers of Mexicans and Mexican Americans from rallying to embrace and celebrate the statue’s arrival and its installation at its permanent location.

Although the Arizona-Sonora border area played an important role in the Mexican Revolution, no definitive history of the Villa-Tucson connection exists. News of Mexico’s bloody civil war (1910–20) and Villa’s notoriety as an armed revolutionary consistently appeared in the mainstream media across the United States. The armed conflict occasionally crossed over into Southern Arizona.

Although some prominent hardware and sporting goods merchants in Tucson profited handsomely from selling legal and illegal arms to various factions of the revolution, these lopsided commercial exchanges that benefited the U.S. economy were rarely mentioned in the press.9 A few accounts assert that in the midst of revolution in 1913 Villa spent four days in Tucson the early part of January of that year to ensure his safety and arrange for purchase of more arms.10

Villa’s Columbus attack served to heighten fear and distrust of Mexican people on the U.S. side of the border. Villa’s defiance combined with suspicions about Tucson’s large Mexican American population and its substantial Yoeme or Yaqui population, known to be strong Villa supporters in Mexico, convinced Tucsonans that their city might be Villa’s next target. Indeed, many in Southern Arizona came to admire Villa’s actions and openly supported the revolution, most notable among them, the mayor of nearby Nogales, Arizona. For all these reasons, some Tucsonans feared they were surrounded by villistas and at risk of imminent attack. Protectionist groups sprang up to defend the city. As evidence of the pervasiveness of these fears, male faculty members, believing the rumor that Villa planned to attack the University of Arizona, formed a volunteer militia to guard the campus. “We used to get into long arguments,” recalled history professor Howard Hubbard, “over whether we would march down the Nogales road and meet the Yaquis outside town or stay on campus and fight a defensive battle. The question was never settled.”11 Anti-Villa sentiments also account for the admiration bestowed on Pershing by University of Arizona officials.

A half a century later, Villa exploits again became feeder for local new stories as the Mexican government began to rehabilitate Villa’s legacy in 1967. Despite some minor protests, his name appeared in gold letters on the wall of the Federal Chamber of Deputies in Mexico City.12 Villa was officially granted an additional honored place in Mexican history in 1976, when President Luis Echeverría Àlvarez ordered that his remains be placed in one of the pillars of the Monument to the Revolution in Mexico City along with those of other revolutionary heroes. With this monument, which has become “a sacred temple of the nation,” according to historian Thomas Benjamin, Mexico sought to “heal the wounds of memory”; as President Echeverría proclaimed: “We have consolidated one Mexican revolutionary thesis above the divergences of the past.”13 The Republic of Mexico presented the Villa statue to Arizona as a gift of friendship in 1981, a time when Arizona sought to enhance its trade and commercial relations with Mexico. An identical statue of Villa is located in a traffic island on Avenida División del Norte in Mexico City, where at least five streets, among countless others throughout the country, are named for Villa. For decades after the revolution, however, Villa remained a controversial enigma.

At a cost of some $260,000 to the Mexican government, the massive statue traveled nearly 2,000 miles from Mexico City,14 only to be damaged in a fall when a cable hoisting it onto a truck at snapped. President José López Portillo, his cabinet, military units, and an Arizona delegation had assembled there to “escort” the statue to the border.15 Because the fall caused the figures of Villa and his horse to separate, the escort ceremony had to be rescheduled. News reports in Mexico compared this incident to the desecration of Villa’s corpse. In 1926, three years after his death in Parral, Chihuahua, robbers broke into Villa’s grave and removed his head, which has never been recovered, but is rumored to be somewhere in the United States.16 When the emerging Chicano movement looked for heroes, they turned to Villa. Indeed, in the mid-1960s, playwright Luis Valdez wrote a comedy “The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa,” staged by many local community theater companies throughout the Southwest, including some in Tucson. Designed to capture the turmoil and the search for direction by Chicana/o activists who faced mounting societal challenges and barriers in the late 1970s, they turned to a decapitated head of Villa, which provided social commentary, encouragement, and guidance.17

After further mishaps, a much-reduced ceremony to dispatch Villa’s statue to the United States through Chihuahua, with the Mexican president in attendance, finally took place on April 29, 1981.18 Under the title “Pobre Pancho!” the Star ran a prominent editorial, which read: “A good many people are puzzled by the statue of Pancho Villa being presented to Arizona by the Mexican National Association of Newspapermen       But if it is a gag, it backfired when the bronze Pancho was knocked off his horse in an accident. When they got Pancho back in the saddle, he was too tall to get under a couple of highway overpasses on his journey northward. Newspaper people being who they are, don’t be surprised if the American press comes up with a statue of Gen. John J. Pershing and presents it to Mexico. The gringos will be sure to check the height of the overpasses. It is something Old Black Jack would have done.”19

Large crowds congregated to greet the statue “with enthusiasm” on its way to Tucson in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and El Paso, Texas, where it arrived in time to be part of the cities’ Cinco de Mayo celebrations.20 At the welcoming ceremony, a representative of the Mexican National Press Association, which sponsored the trip, reiterated the intentions behind the gift: “Villa, who once brought violence to the United States, now in bronze brings a message of peace.” Despite Mexico’s public sentiments emphasizing harmony, and Villa’s popularity among Mexicans, the Star and Citizen published detailed accounts of Villa’s barbarous exploits and cruelty during the revolution. They left no doubt that they recognized that the statue symbolized attempts to rehabilite Villa’s historical image and that installing his statue in Tucson represented a definite celebration of his legacy and they refused to participate. “From atop his horse,” proclaimed the Citizen, “the fierce warrior could see the tall buildings of El Paso in the country to which he brought death and destruction 65 years ago.”21 Thousands of Mexicans accompanied the statue as it crossed the Rio Grande into the United States to meet a delegation of local, state, and federal officials. Representatives of both nations exchanged kind words, and some even embraced during this rare binational exchange.22

A month before its arrival, the Tucson City Council finally decided to place the statue downtown.23 The official announcement declared that it would be placed in Eckbo Park, between Broadway and Congress, which confused many, even some city officials, who did not recognize a park by that name. A San Francisco landscape architect, Garrett Eckbo, had designed portions of the Tucson Community Center during urban renewal in the late 1960s. No one could explain how his name became linked with the park, but it is indicative of the types of individuals that city officials chose to celebrate in the late 1960s.24

When Mexico offered the statue to Arizona, the governor had first searched for a suitable location in the Phoenix area. A group of prominent Mexican American Tucsonans, which included Alex Jácome Jr., intervened and asked that the governor consider their city instead.25 When the statue arrived at the city maintenance yard for repairs on May 14, the predominately Mexican American crowd of workers cheered. Some of Tucson’s citizens expressed hostility, however, prompting Governor Bruce Babbitt to defend his decision to accept the statue by saying, “I think history is always going to be quarreled over, written, and rewritten. When the people of Mexico offer us with enthusiasm a really magnificent statue of one of their genuine heroes, I think it would be fairly small of us to relive a lot of grievances.” His representative in Tucson, Augustine Garcia, echoed the governor’s sentiments: “There is no question that it’s a controversial issue, no question at all. But we’ve emphasized the fact that it’s a gesture of friendship by the Mexican government.” Garcia also made it clear that his office had received about twenty calls objecting to the statue, but that “very, very few were from Mexican-Americans.”26

A month and a half before the unveiling, the Citizen featured a long article titled, “Villa’s Statue: Disgrace or Honor?” which provided those opposed to the statue the opportunity to voice their opinions. Focusing on two individuals who placed Villa beyond rehabilitation, the article began: “A statue of Pancho Villa, the famed Mexican revolutionary who was also a notorious bandit and ruthless killer will be a disgrace here, according to a noted University of Arizona historian and other Tucsonans.” It went on to highlight the sentiments of Bernard Fontana, a university ethnographer and historian, who said, “Villa did to some people in Sonora what Hitler did to people in some of those Polish towns. He massacred people. I think it’s a mistake to put up a statue in his honor.  If you were to wander around the barrios, you would find that Villa is not popular with Sonorans and people who have roots in Sonora. It’s going to upset enough people that I wouldn’t be surprised if the statue would be in for a rough time.” The same article also featured comments by Bernardo R. Acedo, a bilingual education student at the University of Arizona and one of the few people of Mexican descent in Tucson who publicly denounced Villa. He told the media that he had “studied the ‘murderous’ activities of Villa in Sonora in the years following the 1910 Mexican Revolution and [had] come to the conclusion that Villa was more heartless villain than hero.” His research indicated that at least 74 people had been killed in cold blood in the San Pedro de la Cueva Massacre. “I don’t think the statue should go up in Tucson. When a gift is offered by one country to another, it is difficult to say no. But a gift of a statue of a man who murdered and raped the people of an innocent village of Sonora? What is the meaning of such a gift?”27

In that same issue, the Citizen ran another front page article featuring Acedo, who again described the San Pedro de la Cueva Massacre, except the paper set the tone of the article with a short piece about Lidice, Czechoslovakia. Reminiscent of Fontana’s comments, it read: “On June 10, 1942, the village was destroyed by the Nazi army. Its people had been accused of complicity in the assassination of a German officer. All men, nearly 200, were shot.”28 Although the Citizen gave greater prominence to the three articles mentioned, it included a few brief comments from a small number of supporters such as Thomas O. Price, city operations director, and also of Mexican American descent, who said, “I have no problem with it. Hundreds of people have seen it already, and many of those have been Mexican-Americans. I don’t think I have heard even one derogatory remark about it.” Ernesto Portillo, manager of bilingual language radio station KXEW, was quoted as saying, “I think it is a positive step in reference to the improvement in international relations.”29 Clearly, the Citizen understood the power of history and of historians in enforcing selective narratives. The newspaper anointed Fontana as its historical authority, who would tell readers the “truth.” No historians in favor of the statue were ever interviewed or even consulted, although Fontana and other experts adamantly opposed to the statue reappeared in subsequent articles to “moderate” the debate. Under the guise of objectivity, the press acted to impose a narrative that demonized Villa and that refused to acknowledge changing historical conditions and diplomacy.

In the United States, commemorations customarily are reserved to honor those who conquered the area or who rose to defend the nation. The heroic-sized Villa statue located in the central business district of a U.S. city raised questions, and tempers. Historian Fontana correctly warned that a “rough time” awaited the statue, but it did not come from the barrios, Sonorans, or Mexican Americans. One Villa hater, wielded history to legitimate his opposition by claiming to have descended from “an old Tucson family” and filed a complaint in the local court.

Claiming the misuse of taxpayer funds, businessman Byron Ivancovich hired legal consul and filed a lawsuit on June 2, 1981 to prevent the statue from being placed on city land and at “city expense.” His lawyer justified his client’s actions as “…based on Ivancovich’s feelings as a longtime Tucson resident with a knowledge of Southwestern history. He is quite versed in history, and he is unhappy with it from a historical viewpoint. He appreciates the fact that a lot of Mexican people look highly on Pancho Villa. But his historical viewpoint is different.” This lawsuit generated its share of publicity prompting the governor’s aide Garcia to remind taxpayers that funds to install the statue came from “privately donated money in a special governor’s fund.”30

Once the lawsuit made the headlines, other municipalities stepped in and asked the governor and city officials for the statue. In an article titled, “Move Unlikely: Others Willing to Put Pancho on a Pedestal,” Garcia told the Star that “despite a less than hearty welcome from Tucson residents, Pancho Villa appears to be quite a popular fellow We got all kinds of calls—from all over the place.” He singled out northern California and Texas and said, “El Paso was really adamant.” F. D. Fontes, the mayor of Nogales, Arizona, much closer to the border and able to gauge Sonoran sentiments toward Villa more fully, sent a letter to Tucson Mayor Lew Murphy that read, in part, “Since the city of Nogales has innumerable suitable locations, may I suggest that we come to your aid…………………………………………….. with an offer to assume responsibility for this imposing creature.” This message was accompanied by a letter from the Nogales–Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce, which volunteered to pay the transportation costs for transferring the statue to its city. The chamber wrote, “We would welcome this gift from Mexico.” Garcia claimed that the lawsuit was no real index of the general sentiments toward the statue and stated that, “At this point, the opposition is fairly limited. There don’t appear to be a great number of people really opposed to it.”31

Elected officials usually jump at the opportunity to preside at major city ceremonies, but Republican Lew Murphy refused when it came to Villa statue’s unveiling. He alerted the City Council, “I will be unavailable to attend the unveiling ceremony in any circumstances.” When asked if he would be out of town, Murphy advised, “No, I’ll just be unavailable. If you’re smart, you won’t attend.” Democratic Councilman Rudy Bejarano went on the record as saying he was proud to represent the city. At his urging, the council voted to take a three- hour recess so that they could attend the ceremony.32

The statue was finally unveiled on June 30, 1981, before an international audience that included notables from both sides of the border. Twenty of Villa’s former comrades joined the crowd of over one thousand in the cry of “¡Viva Villa!” One of these was 86-year-old Adan Uro García, who insisted that “although he is aware of conflicting views about the revolutionary, in his mind Villa was and is a hero and great Mexican. The ideas Villa fought for were not just his own, but were the will of the Mexican people.” Mexican government representatives, along with two representatives of the Mexican Congress, were joined by one of Villa’s widows, two of Villa’s sons, and one daughter. General Raúl Madero, former Villa chief of staff and brother of former Mexican President Francisco Madero also attended, as did the president of the Mexican Press Association. Arizona Governor Babbitt took the podium, and five members of the Tucson City Council attended.

Democrat, city Councilman Tom Volgy spoke on behalf of the City of Tucson. Despite the participation of so many dignitaries, the mayor and City Councilman Roy Laos, both Republicans, refused to attend. Some of those present at the ceremony expressed their displeasure with Murphy’s boycott. A sign hanging from the footbridge that crosses over the park read, “¡Villa sí, Murphy no!”33 Local columnist Leyla Cattan, who emphasized the jubilant spirit that prevailed at the unveiling, correctly predicted that, from that day forward, the small park would become known as “Pancho Villa Park.”34

All the prominent people who had seized the headlines to prevent Villa’s commemoration remained silent on that day, but they continued to publically complain and hatch new plans to replace or relocate the statue, and do so to this day. Of course, in 1981, some still held out hope that the pending lawsuit would lead to removal of the Villa statue. As an indication of its power to disrupt power relations and undermine traditional conceptualization of proper boundaries, Ivancovich contended that “the statue caused him emotional distress” and that “it had caused downtown properties, in which he [had] a personal financial stake to lose some of their value.” On April 6, 1983, nearly two years after its filing, a Pima County Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit, declaring that he found no basis for claims that the city was “glorifying a murderer and rapist and thus corrupting public morals, driving consumers out of downtown Tucson and creating an eyesore.”35 In effect, this court ruling, denied the opposition a legal recourse toward remove the statue.36

Many Mexican Americans, however, continued to welcome the Villa statue, and some, like Edward Tapia, became its unofficial guardians. Tapia’s story appeared in the local papers and on local television news in 1983 when he personally responded to the statue’s defiling. Vandals painted a yellow stripe down Villa’s back and the word “trash” on his horse. Passing the statue every morning on his way to work, Tapia made several calls to the Parks and Recreation Department requesting that it intervene and remove the paint. The director remembered that Tapia had called, but explained that “because of the storm damage throughout the city, the statue cleanup was assigned and forgotten.” With no other recourse, Tapia took the matter into his own hands. On his day off work, he and his two young sons packed cleaning solvents and other equipment onto their truck and headed to the park. They managed to scrub the paint off the horse, and had just climbed their ladder to clean the yellow streak off Villa’s back when the police arrived. The officers immediately contacted the “right” people, and a work crew arrived later that afternoon. “I just got tired of seeing people laugh at the statue,” recalled an angry Tapia. “And I got tired of people passing the buck.” His momentary celebrity status brought him several anonymous and hostile phone calls. According to Tapia, they said “things like why don’t you get on the horse and ride off to Mexico?” Tapia said this was not the first time the statue had been vandalized and that he had seen remains of dried eggs and tomatoes on it. Raised in Tucson, Tapia explained what the statue meant to him and his family, “I’m sure [Villa] was not a saint. But, my father-in-law said he was a great general as far as military tactics were concerned. He fought for the campesinos [peasants], and anybody who fights for the poor is great. We don’t have many people like that anymore.”37

Tapia’s individual sentiments regarding Villa reflected the collective memory and consciousness of many Mexican Americans who, lacking other Mexican or Mexican American heroes, appropriated the Villa’s transgressive reputation in response to generations of discrimination. Tucson writer Silviana Wood based her fictional story “And Where Was Pancho Villa When You Really Needed Him?” on her experiences in a local public school. In Wood’s story, teachers unabashedly exchange stories of their Mexican American students that highlight “low expectations, low achievement, inflated grades, unrealistic goals.” After enduring discrimination and ridicule, the story’s protagonist seeks to escape from the hostile learning environment that envelops her. She remembers her teacher’s rationalization and absolution for violence and death when it served U.S. interests. With regard to dropping the A-bomb and annihilating more than 100,000 Japanese, her teacher had told the class, “Sometimes you have to destroy in order to end the destruction.” With this foremost in mind, and in the hopes of destroying an actively racist system, the protagonist understands that she needs to call upon a daring hero. “So I waited for Pancho Villa to come charging into the room,” she recalls. And the next day, students and school administrators return to find her classroom in ruins.38 Southwest folklorist James Griffith has extensively researched Mexican people’s sentiments along both sides of the border, particularly those who have elevated Villa to sainthood. “They ask Villa dead,” he reports, “to do what the living Villa legend was famous for—stand up for the underdog and confound his oppressor.”39 On a larger scale, the Mexican and Mexican American struggle for place and memory in the U.S. parallels that of the statue.

In contrast to these welcoming sentiments, four years after the statue’s unveiling, the Star continued to remind Tucsonans that they had failed to defend the border from intruders and protect their city from a Mexican invasion: “What Villa did not accomplish in life, he was able to do in death—he got to Tucson. Hubbard and the rest of the professorial troops were just six decades ahead of their time.”40 Opposition to remove Villa’s likeness from the downtown area took another turn in 1987. This time combatants inserted morality into the debate as they chose to highlight those forces that they considered has escorted a higher civilization into Southern Arizona. In a move designed to offer the city an alternative to the Villa statue, Charles Polzer, a local historian and Jesuit priest who specialized in the Spanish period, helped raise the money to bring a statue of Eusebio Kino statue to Tucson. The Jesuit priest who arrived in Southern Arizona in the 1690s is credited with bringing Western civilization into the region. He founded twenty-one missions to Christianize the Indians of northern Sonora and Southern Arizona. The ambivalent history of Kino’s role as a colonizer and missionary efforts affects on various Indian communities did not trouble Polzer (who died in 2003) and ethnohistorian Bernard Fontana, mentioned earlier, the main crusaders who hoped to propel Kino to sainthood and who sought resanctify the downtown landscape.41

Born in Spain, but known as a Mexican artist, Julian Martínez, had sculpted both the fourteen -foot Pancho Villa statue and the fifteen-foot Father Eusebio Kino statue that currently stands in a marginal location away from the city’s central core. Polzer called Martínez “the best sculptor in Mexico . . . and a man dedicated to art and honesty.” Both he and Fontana, approved of this statue and worked with Martínez to ensure an accurate representation of Kino. Polzer told the papers that “[Martínez] expressed much regret that [downtown] Tucson wound up with [Villa statue and that Martínez felt] Tucson deserved something much better, such as a statue of Father Kino. The artist always figured Kino was extremely spiritual in looking for a better world for the people he encountered.” This sentiment, according to Polzer, inspired Martínez to make Kino look like a visionary. Thus Martínez sculpted him with eyes raised toward the horizon.42

In 2003, the late Richard Salvatierra, a retired Foreign Service officer and conservative Hispanic Citizen guest columnist, fervently voiced his discontent with Villa. In a column titled “It’s Time to Give the Pancho Villa Statue the Heave-Ho,” Salvatierra urged the mayor and City Council to replace the “statue of Villa astride what probably was another of his stolen horses” with a “genuine” hero, Father Kino. Salvatierra included a list of inflated and historically inaccurate Villa atrocities to support his position. Noting that Villa was “presumably a hero in Mexico but only a bandit in terms of American history,” Salvatierra went on to say, “Mexico’s offer of the statue . . . has been explained as an attempt to ‘rehabilitate’ [Villa] in this country. I suppose sort of like trying to rehabilitate Saddam Hussein.”43 Nevertheless, Salvatierra did not ask that the statue be destroyed or put into storage. Instead, he campaigned to have it moved from the center of town and relocated it to Kennedy Park, on the city’s Southside, an area home to a large Mexican American population and, increasingly, the staging ground for Tucson’s annual Cinco de Mayo celebration and other Mexican American cultural events ever since urban renewal destroyed most of the traditional sites in the urban core. The city’s newest revitalization program, the Rio Nuevo Project, gave Salvatierra the opportunity to further advocate cleansing downtown by removing the Villa statue. The columnist again claimed that Villa served as a reminder of “a shameful ignorance of history that might best be forgotten.” And how, he asked, will the city explain his presence to tourists? As Salvatierra saw it, putting Kino in Villa’s place would imply that Tucsonans “know who truly was important in the history of the Southwest, and indeed to the early history of the Old Pueblo.”44 To Polzer, Salvatierra, and Fontana, the statue of a hypermasculinized Mexican revolutionary did not further the historical narrative of progress and Western civilization of the region they hoped to perpetuate. Instead, the Villa statue violated the spatial codes that promoted a historical narratives grounded in promoting a history of whiteness in the heart of Tucson’s otherwise Anglo central business district.

In a downtown where civic leaders actively sought to portray their city as an “American” place through their revitalization efforts, the statue reinterprets space by offering a counternarrative that disrupts imaginary delineations by focusing attention to the city’s relationship to Mexico and to Mexican people. Those who take exception to Villa’s central location, and who insist that the statue be moved, understand that this commemoration functions to reterritorialize space because it speaks to a history that they firmly hope to control and to a large degree, suppress.

That this highly visible marker of Mexican aggressiveness sits in the “headquarters” and “heart” of downtown compounds the dilemma for those who insist on binary and oppositional nationalisms. Early planning documents or “Master Plans” indicate a conscious awareness of the central business district’s importance in furthering representations of Tucson’s “character” and “the general well being of the community.”45 It is evident that the history of the Villa statue complicates spatial narratives of power simply and also speaks to larger geopolitical issues, particular the enforcement of boundaries.

Confirming these perceptions, Villa remains an evocative symbol and scapegoat for xenophobes in Arizona. In 1994, right after California voters had passed Proposition 187, Tucsonan Don Barrington held a press conference in Pancho Villa Park. The local media dutifully showed up to hear Barrington tell them of a newly formed group called “Save Our State/Arizona.” Initiated by Protect Arizona Now, and passed by voters in 2004, Proposition 200 is a more diluted version of legislation Barrington had proposed in 1994 to cut off social services to undocumented immigrants. The proposition makes Arizona the first state in the nation that requires voters to present identification at the polls.

Barrington took advantage of the meanings that the dominant culture associated with the Villa statue when outlining his vision: “As in California, illegal immigrants in Arizona were draining the economy, crowding the state’s social services, and siphoning off its tax dollars. What is more, they were responsible for the state’s increase in rapes, murders, and drive-by shootings.” Pointing to the statue, Barrington held Villa to be an early example of a Mexican with no respect for international borders who managed to find a home in the United States.46

To many like Barrington and his supporters, Villa represents the archetypical border crosser. That the statue functions as a “welcome mat” into the city, and the nation, for migrants is undeniable. In the United States, commemorations are expected to illuminate historic places that conform and reaffirm narratives of conquest. Those that continue to oppose the Villa statue voice no concerns over the Mormon Battalion who ushered in U.S. control of a formerly Mexican territory and is now located in front of City Hall. The silence and acceptance and this and the Kino statue actually confirm the Villa statue’s counterhegemonic power to illuminate a history that many chose to forget. Instead, the statue forces observers to either remember and reconcile sentiments that converge on boundaries and belonging. Historian John R. Gillis’s advice regarding commemorations that can be applied to Villa Statue and for Southern Arizona as it has become a corridor of entry for newcomers “We have no alternative but to construct new memories as well as new identities better suited to the complexities of the post-national era. . . .

In this era of plural identities, we need civil times and civil spaces more than ever, for those are essential to the democratic process by which individuals and groups come together to discuss, debate, and negotiate the past and, through this process, define the future.”47 Despite assaults the Villa statue forces each spectator to reconcile the city’s Mexican past, its large Mexican American and Mexican population, and the demographic changes that have taken place across the nation. It also offers a way to confirm realities and imaginaries based on belonging in the U.S. and the possibilities of multiple nationalistic identities.


Notes

1 A nearby plaque in this square reminds visitors that San Agustín Church once stood there.

2 The best source for biographical information on Villa is Friedrich Katz, The Life and Times of Pancho Villa (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998), 560–582. The Columbus incident adds credence to the hypersensationalized media coverage of the Mexican Revolution and of Villa in particular. Although reporters claimed he led the raid, Villa stayed on the Mexican side of the border and did not take active role in the attack on Columbus. In many ways, Villa idolized the United States and attempted to stay “friends” with it. Some theories hold that Villa felt betrayed when the U.S. government intervened to aid one of his adversaries by moving troops into Sonora. Some also speculate that he attacked Columbus in response to twenty Mexicans being burned alive in El Paso. Villa had also paid an arms dealer in Columbus who never delivered the weapons and who also refused to return the money. It must also be remembered that Columbus housed a military fort, and was not just a “civilian” settlement. Over one-hundred of Villa’s troops also lost their lives in this attack.1 A nearby plaque in this square reminds visitors that San Agustín Church once stood there.

3 John R. Gillis, ed., Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), 17.

4 Joe Watt, “Villa-Plagued Veteran Wants Statue Removed,” Arizona Daily Star (hereafter Star),

June 22, 1983.

5 Michael Chihak, “Villa in Place in Downtown Park,” Tucson Daily Citizen (hereafter Citizen), June 30, 1981.

6 Mary Pat Brady, Extinct Homelands, Temporal Geographies: Chicana Literature and the Urgency of Space (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002), 8. Geographers like Edward Soja describe how space is manipulated and mapped by the dominant culture to serve and further entrench power relations. The presence of a Villa statue in Tucson, however, defies these efforts 7 I write about the erasure of Tucson’s Mexican past and present in La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwest City (2010) University of Arizona Press. See also William Deverell, in Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of its Mexican Past (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), who argues that exclusions and boundaries served to solidify systems of social control that increased the visibility or “out of placeness” of Mexican people. On consigning Mexican people to the past in promotional campaigns designed to maintain social control, see also Phoebe S. Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a

Modern American Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

8 Abigail A. Van Slyck, “What the Bishop Learned: The Importance of Claiming Space at Tucson’s Church Plaza,” Journal of Arizona History (Summer 1998), 121-140. See also my chapter “La Placita Committee: Claiming Place and Challenging Historical Memory,” in

Mapping Memories and Migrations: Locating Boricua and Chicana Histories, ed. Vicki L. Ruiz and John R. Chávez (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 44-68.

9 Don M. Coerver and Linda B. Hall, “Arizona-Sonora Border and the Mexican Revolution, 1910–1920,” Journal of the West (April 1985), 75-87. The business community followed and intervened in various degrees in the volatile politics that characterized the Mexican Revolution to ensure the safety of their investments and U.S. capital. A delegation of Arizona businessmen, the governor, and former governor, attended Alvaro Obregón’s inauguration as president of Mexico in December 1920.

10 “Tucsonan Says Dad Saw Villa Here around 1913,” Citizen, May 15, 1981 and Martín Luis Guzmán, Memoirs of Pancho Villa (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965), 90.

11 Howard Hubbard, as quoted in Douglas D. Martin, The Lamp in the Desert: The Story of the University of Arizona (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1960), 128-129.

12 “Pancho Villa Finally Official Mexican Hero,” Citizen, November 19, 1976.

13 Luis Echeverría Àlvarez, as quoted in Thomas Benjamin, La Revolución: Mexico’s Great Revolution as Memory, Myth, and History (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 135–136. See also Matt Prichard, “Pancho Villa Crosses over Rio Grande: Statue Making Its Way to Home in Park Here,” Citizen, May 14, 1981.

14 Matt Prichard, “Villa Statue on its Way Here Bringing Message of Peace,” Citizen, May 7, 1981. The title of this article is misleading. Although Prichard quotes Mexican authorities who characterized their gift as a gesture of peace and goodwill, the article makes it clear that Prichard does not agree.

15 John De Witt, “Non-Violent Pancho Villa a Gift to Arizona,” Star, March 21, 1981 and Steve Meissner, “Villa Shot Out of Saddle: Statue Presentation Folds,” Star, March 26, 1981.

16 Prichard, “Villa Statue.”

17 Luis Valdez, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, in ActorPoint—Necessary Theater: Six Plays about the Chicano Experience, ed. Jorge Huerta (Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1989), 142– 207.

18 Keith Rosenblum, “Pancho Villa Back in the Saddle and Riding toward Tucson Again,” Star,

April 28, 1981.

19 “Pobre Pancho!” Star, March 30, 1981.

20 Steve Meissner, “Viva Villa! He’s Back in Bronze,” Star, May 15, 1981.

21 Prichard, “Villa Statue.”

22 Prichard, “Pancho Villa.”

23 Cindy Hubert, “Move Unlikely: Others Willing to Put Pancho on a Pedestal,” Star, June 13, 1981.

24 “A Park for Pancho,” Star, June 29, 1981. Historical preservationist Alva Torres stepped in to remind everyone of the pseudo-park’s official name. Dedicated on August 20, 1978, Veinte de Agosto Park celebrated the city’s birthday (August 20, 1775). She also reminded everyone that urban renewal plans had called for a gasoline station to be built on the statue’s site, but thanks to the historical preservation efforts of the La Placita Committee, which she spearheaded, the city agreed to preserve a small section of the former plaza.

25 Leyla Cattan, “Estatuas de Pancho Villa,” Star, July 26, 1981.

26 Douglas Kreutz, “Villa’s Statue: Disgrace or Honor?” Citizen, May 15, 1981.

27 Kreutz, “Villa’s Statue,” [PAGE(S)]. Acedo reprinted information from Thomas H. Naylor’s article, published ten years earlier, “Massacre at San Pedro de la Cueva: The Significance of Pancho Villa’s Disastrous Sonora Campaign,” Western Historical Quarterly, 8.2 (April 1977): 125–150. This massacre is generally recognized as Villa’s bloodiest strike against civilians. In the midst of a civil war, the villagers of San Pedro de la Cueva mistook Villa’s soldiers for

marauders and opened fired on them, killing several. Villa retaliated by ordering that all the adult males of the village be shot. Sixty-nine were killed. Villa then ordered the priest who begged for the life of the villagers to “never show his face again.” When he did, Villa shot the priest himself. See Katz, Life of Villa, 532–533. At various stages of the controversy, Naylor also came out against the statue.

28 “Statue of Villa Only Memorializes Murder, for Some,” Citizen, May 15, 1981. Acedo would appear in a few other newspaper accounts that sometimes would refer to him as “Bernardo ‘Asado.’”

29 Kreutz, “Villa’s Statue.”

30 Michael A. Chihak, “Pancho Villa Rides Onward to Downtown, Citizen, June 22, 1981, [PAGE(S)].

31 Hubert, “Move Unlikely.”

32 Joe Burchell, “Mayor to be ‘Unavailable’ at Villa Statue Unveiling,” Star, June 26, 1981.

33 Joe Burchell, “Villa Wins Another Campaign as Statue Gets Downtown Spot,” Star, July 1, 1981. The Star reported that 650 people attended the unveiling, whereas the Citizen put the number at “more than 1,000.” See Chihak, “Villa in Place in Downtown Park.”

34 Cattan, “Estatuas de Pancho Villa.”

35 Shannon Travis, “Villa to Continue His Ride in City: Removal Denied,” Citizen, April 6, 1983.

36 The issue of a city’s display of public monuments is still a being debated in the courts. See, Mary Jean Dolan’s, “Why Donated Monuments are Government Speech: The hard Case of

Pleasant Grove City v. Summum,” August 30, 2008). Catholic University Law Review, Vol. 58, No. 1, 2008.

37 Carmen Duarte, “Act of Respect for Pancho Villa: Statue Brings Out Mean Streak,” Star, August 19, 1983.

38 Alberto Sandoval-Sánchez and Nancy Saporta Sternbach, eds., Puro Teatro: A Latina Anthology (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000), 176-193.

39 James S. Griffith, Folk Saints of the Borderlands: Victims, Bandits and Healers (Tucson: Rio Nuevo, 2003), 100.

40 “Tucsonans Feared Villa Would Invade,” Star, February 3, 1985.

41 “Father Kino’s Intriguing Tale Gets the Fiction Treatment,” Star, December 12, 2003.

42 Tom Turner, “Historical Society Commission Sculptor to make Kino Statues for 3 Countries,” Star, August 8, 1987. It is not surprising that supporters of Kino would take exception to the Villa statue and its prominent location. When promoting a newly released book on Kino, Fontana made it clear which icons deserve to be celebrated by stating, “Just like there is room for another good book on Christopher Columbus or George Washington, there will always be room for good books about Father Kino.” This quote taken from, “Father Kino’s Intriguing Tale Gets the

Fiction Treatment.”

43 Richard Salvatierra, “It’s Time to Give Pancho Villa Statue the Heave-Ho,” Citizen, January 3, 2003.

44 Ibid.

45 City- County Planning Department, General Land Use Plan Tucson and Environs, 1960 page 52.

46 Tom Beal, “No Need for a Prop. 187 in Arizona,” Star, November 17, 1994.

47 Gillis, Commemoration, 20.

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Iris Rodriguez is an Network Producer / Digital Strategist / Musical Artist / Author at Xica Media. If you enjoy the work we do, please donate to sponsor/support Xica Nation and Xica Media networks: http://paypal.me/xicamedia

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