After Church a couple of Sundays ago, a man by the name of Paul Palmer approached me, introduced himself and said, “I heard tell that you have connections to the Mormon Colonies in Mexico.” I told him that I did. He went on to say that he, too, had great grandparents who had lived in “the Colonies” but that they had been forced out of Mexico by Pancho Villa.
I informed him that my people had been chased out in 1910 but not by Pancho Villa. I told him that the Mormon “exodus” had taken place at the hands of a revolutionary faction under the command of one General Inez Salazar. “All of my research,” I told him, “has demonstrated that contrary to legend, Pancho Villa was never hostile toward the Mormons.”
He was skeptical. “Why then,” he asked, “has it been told in my family for generations that our forefathers were run out by Villa?” “Probably,” I said, “because Villa has always been considered one of the most notorious outlaws ever raised up. His name is well known on both sides of the border and conjures up exciting mind pictures of marauding armies, shoot-outs and danger. I told him I would search my library (which is in boxes right now after moving it from El Paso) and that I would give him the true story. He seemed a little disappointed.
A couple of days ago, quite by coincidence, I received an email from a long-lost cousin who had attached an excerpt of an unpublished autobiography of a Mormon colonist, long since deceased, by the name of Glen Whetten. In it he gives a first-hand account of his encounters with Pancho Villa.
Villa was born and raised in the Mexican state of Durango. Life was hard under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz when those of Spanish descent owned all the good land and the poor people, or “peones” had to work hard from daylight to dark, almost like slaves, on the big landowners’ haciendas.
When Villa was 16 or 17 years old his father died. Not long after, he shot and killed a land owner who was abusing his sister. He became a wanted man and hid in the mountains. He joined a revolutionary band led by Venustiano Carranza who was trying, along with others, to overthrow the oppressive Diaz regime and to divide up the land among those who actually worked it. He became one of Carranza’s generals but eventually became the leader of his own revolutionary army.
While doing missionary work in the mountains of Chihuahua in the midst of the Revolution, Glen Whetten was taken prisoner for several days by Villa’s army. He became personally acquainted with Villa and had the opportunity to talk at length with him and some of his aides. He learned his story and what he was trying to accomplish.
For a long time, he said, Villa had the support of the United States government. But when the U.S. went back on its word and threw its support to Carranza, Villa attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico, and raided the military arsenal there. His line of retreat back into Mexico pointed directly at the little Mormon settlement of Colonia Dublan occupied by Anglo settlers mostly from the United States.
Remarkably, Villa’s army, instead of going through Colonia Dublan and ransacking the town, gave it a wide berth in the middle of the night and continued on its route southward.
According to Whetten, Villa had great respect for the Mormons and their hard work, self-sufficiency and industriousness. His only desire was to overthrow an oppressive regime and to establish a government based on that of the United States. He admitted to doing many things he should not have done but Whetten was convinced of the man’s sincerity. At the end of the Revolution, Villa settled down to work the land but was assassinated by those jealous of and in fear of his popularity.
Inez Salazar, on the other hand, was a ruthless man with visions of self-aggrandizement and power. He threatened the Mormons with destruction if they refused to turn over their weapons, horses and homes. A deal was worked out between the two groups that allowed the Mormons to leave the country rather than remain unarmed in the midst of a violent Revolution. They, along with many others, became refugees from the armed conflict in Mexico. It was Salazar, not Villa, who ran the Mormons out of Mexico.
When the Revolution ended and peace was again restored to the region, my forbearers returned to their homes in “the Colonies” where some of their descendants still reside. Many chose not to return and settled in towns and cities throughout the western United States.
What do I think of Pancho Villa? I’m grateful to him for leaving my people alone in the midst of armed upheaval. He was a product of his times and did what he thought he had to do in his generation—and that was not always pleasant. History will have to judge the man. I do believe that his reputation for being the bad guy may be overstated.
Did he drive the Mormons from Mexico? No, he did not. They did leave. But they’re back in that country, more than a million strong!
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