Photo: Scott Braley
Pancho Villa was born Doroteo Arango in San Juan Del Rio, Durango, on June 5, 1878. An illiterate farm hand, he tended the cattle and horses on a hacienda, thus familiarizing himself with the countryside and gaining a deep understanding of Mexico's terrain. His work on the land provided him a practical education that would later prove advantageous.
On the hacienda, Villa saw firsthand the abuse and oppression his family and others in his social class endured. Many thousand Mexicans were considered peones, farm workers much like slaves; they were always indebted to the landowners for whom they worked, and their children inherited their debts. A deep hatred for the oppressors developed over the years.
While on the run in the mountains of Durango after shooting a hacienda owner who had assualted his sister, he assumed the name Pancho Villa, often maintaining that he was in fact the son of the bandit Agustín Villa. Villa traveled to the state of Chihuahua, where he met Abraham Gonzalez, a rebel fighting against Porfirio Díaz, the president and perpetrator of oppression and suffering of those like Villa.
Gonzalez offered Villa a chance to fight for his people. Mexican author Victor C. Reyes writes that Villa's desire for revenge and the hope for his people made him accept the offer.
Villa's call to arms appealed to those suffering from extreme poverty and frustration under the economic and political centralization of power of Díaz. Villa offered his services to the rebel leader, Francisco I. Madero. Villa and Pascual Orozco led a surprise attack on federal soldiers in Juárez in May 1911.
Villa was a farmer, a soldier and an excellent horseman. He also was a cattle rustler, murderer and rebel. He did not drink liquor, and he swam and ran to keep in shape. To many Mexicans, especially those in the north, he was a hero, a great military leader and a revolutionary.