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UNPUBLISHED DRAFT
Written in 2008

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

By Lydia R. Otero
The Department of Mexican American Studies
University of Arizona
Email: lotero@email.arizona.edu

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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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.
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
13

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,
14

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.
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.
15

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.
16

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.