June 12, 1977
By Tom Butler
El Paso Times
CIUDAD CHIHUAHUA, Mexico – She is in her 95th summer now, and a crippling pain has settled in her legs, but those old eyes are as lively and bright as when she was a young girl dancing.
There is a mischief there, and the merriment of mariachis, and a wisdom as mutely eloquent as the blue and red and silver Sacred Heart above the bed she might never leave again.
Dona Maria Luz Corral Viuda de Villa has secrets in her eyes and in the gold-flecked brown of them you can see the reflected forget-me-nots of revolutionary campfires.
It was in July 1923 that a firebrand bandit by the name of Francisco Villa, a hero of a revolution that altered history, was shot to death in the driver’s seat of a 1919 Dodge traveling through the dust of Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua.
He is nearly a saint now, canonized by war and the affection of the poor, and the only woman who ever got him to the altar has outlived the eight others he took to his bed in what passed in those days for wedlock.
Is there satisfaction in that for this proud woman who once moved alone to San Antonio rather than share Pancho’s Canutillo home with the other wives?
“I would have changed nothing,” she says in the joyful noise of a voice that has music in it still, the song the wind plays among the lonesome, naked hills.
“Six decades have not diminished her love,” wrote Jose Vasconcelos in his preface to Dona Luz’ 1948 memoir, Pancho Villa en la Intimidad. “He was everything in her life.”
“I am sitting in front of a window through which pour the tired rays of a passing winter. I am in front of the window; through its panes I can see the shoulder of a mountain called Santa Rosa.”
-Pancho Villa en la Intimidad
Dona Luz sits today, as well, before a window, this one opening onto the sun-caressed courtyard of the rambling home Pancho bequeathed to her at 3014 Calle Decima in Chihuahua City.
If she leans far forward from the side of the overstuffed bed to which she is confined now, she can see the plump, inedible bitter fruit hanging voluptuously from a spreading orange tree.
She does not have to lean forward at all to behold the curious faces of tourists who cluster outside the window, like puppets in a mad Punch and Judy, to stare at this monument of a woman and thrust in their scraps of paper for her spider’s-scrawl of an autograph.
A few of the more lobotomized push their way into the bedroom itself, chattering like magpies, cameras clicking and flashing, stealthy fingers exploring the private bric-a-brac of a lifetime.
It is a horrifying spectacle, this rude assault on a stately lady’s privacy, reminiscent of the blood-curdling scene in Zorba the Greek when the cackling crones of a Cretan village ransack the exiled matron’s room even as she lied dying, watching them in furious, terminal helplessness.
But Dona Luz seems not to object to the daily intrusions. The autographs flow at a rate of perhaps 5,000 a month, and the gracious smile accommodates every flashcube.
After all, her home is a museum with a five-peso (25-cent) admission fee, and this is how she makes her living. What can one say to a visitor who has paid for the privilege of poking about in the hallowed detritus of a legend?
“To pay homage to a woman who dedicates herself to the defense of her husband’s name, it is not necessary to be a revolutionary.”
- Nemesia Garcia Naranjo
On foot, by van and coach and private car, the tourist begin arriving before 9 a.m., their day structured around visits to Chihuahua’s most popular shrines the Casa Villa and the Cruz Blanca brewery.
From the street, the Villa home is large but unprepossessing. Its sand-colored façade flush with the elevated sidewalk, flanked by a presidio of hovels and something called The Rock Shop, 3014 Calle Decima more resembles an abandoned Honduran consulate than the Lourdes of the Mexican revolution.
Once inside, however, one steps back 60 years or more in an instant, to a rough-and-tumble time of internecine turmoil when Pancho Villa was, in the opinion of a contemporary historian, “surely one of the 10 most important men in the world.”
To the left is a small study-like room that serves as the museum office. It is furnished in dark, heavy period style, and its walls are plastered with yellowing photographs and copper-plate daguerreotypes, many of them of the rebel himself at war.
To the right, a shabby Louis XV salon that has seen better days is dominated by a wedding portrait of Pancho and Luz. She appears rather stern and substantial, as though having just caught a preview of perdition. In one corner is a small arsenal of Mausers, pistols and bandoliers of ammunition.
On another wall hangs a photograph of Villa and fellow rebel general Emiliano Zapata, taken shortly after they and their men captured Mexico City in July 1914. They are shown in the throne room of the presidential palace, each having just occupied the seat of power for 10 minutes to demonstrate that either could serve as president. Neither ever did.
Straight ahead, beyond the cracked title vestibule, is the sunny courtyard, overlooked on two sides by two-story residences where Villa’s 50 bodyguards lived during the turbulent post-revolutionary years when the bandit chieftain is said – by historians apparently dismissing the War of 1812 – to have become the only foreigner ever to wage war on the United States within its own boundaries.
Following Villa’s famous raid on Columbus, N.M., in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson sent an army unit under Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing to capture him. For months the two generals and their forces engaged in a bizarre military minuet across the barren ballroom of Chihuahua, but they never met in combat.
In a small stone shed in one corner of the courtyard, all but consumed now by the rust of neglect, is the open Dodge touring car in which Pancho Villa died, initially paralyzed by a bullet that passed through both arms, then felled forever by a fusillade of shots that wrecked his skull.
The bullet holes in the sides of the car are large enough to pass lime through.
But that is all history, musty and slightly soiled and perhaps not quite real to many of those who come here. To be sure, it is the old woman they have come to see. She is the link with it all …
It is a bright Sunday morning, alive with the buzz of dive-bombing insects and the clang of cathedral bells. Small boys are at play in the street as Alfredo Gonzalez, who operates a tourist agency out of the lobby of the Hotel Victoria, stops by to visit with his old friend, Dona Luz.
He pauses in the Louis XV salon to admire the famous photograph of Villa on horseback pounding across the Mexican desert. It is the one you sell in all history books and encyclopedias.
“He didn’t have any infantry, you know, just cavalry and artillery,” says Gonzalez. “On a horse he was a great general, but on foot he was just another Francisco.”
Gonzalez’ eyes dart around the room he has visited so many times, and he shakes his head sadly. “It is a crime what has happened here. People will steal anything, just pick it up and walk away with it, and there’s nothing she can do about it. I have no idea how much has been taken from here.”
Dona Luz’ face creases with pleasure as Gonzalez knocks and enters her bedroom, chasing out a gaggle of tourist with a machine-gun burst of angry Spanish. She is sitting up in bed and offers a cheek to be kissed.
“Have you been behaving yourself?” Gonzalez asks. The old lady giggles like a girl but does not answer. Gonzalez explains that she does not talk too much in front of strangers.
“Tell us about your fling with Lara,” he says, nodding toward a large framed photograph of Agustin Lara, the renowned composer, singer, orchestra leader and womanizer. Dona Luz giggles again and shakes her head, rolling her eyes mysteriously.
Informed that Dona Luz lives alone in the rambling house, reputed to contain more than 90- rooms, visitor wants to know who cares for her and prepares her food.
“Oh, I have no family of my own,” she replies, “but I have many families.”
Gonzalez explains: “She allows some widows and their children to live here. They are supposed to be widows of the revolution, but there are a lot of them in their 20s and 30s. She just can’t say no to anyone. She doesn’t charge them anything, but in return for their homes they look after her.”
Dona Luz, one learns, also supports an orphanage for 50 young girls on the other side of town. All this philanthropy seems to come out of her own pocketbook, although now that her late husband has been proclaimed an official Hero of Mexico she is presumably entitled to a pension.
Dona Luz’ relations with her government have been less than cordial since Mexico City turned down her proposal that the Calle Decima home be converted into a hotel under national patronage.
“I am just going to stay here until I die,” she declared. “Then they can have it to do with what they want. But not before.”
And that will be the end of something very rare. The faded photographs and the mementos and the rusting automobile, even the bitter oranges, will endure for a time, but the life will have gone out of the legend.
There will be no one left who remembers how it was …
No more young girls dancing.