Gilly writes that Villa’s army “was a pole of attraction for the insurgent peasants, their women, their families. Its officers had all sprung from the same peasantry: audacity, bravery, and fighting capacity were the criteria for selection. . . . On train or horse, accompanied by their women (who if necessary, would also shoulder a rifle) and their children, the soldiers of the Northern Division embodied the irresistible force of the revolution” (2005:105).
Villa’s soldiers found meaning and empowerment in an armed struggle dedicated to the just distribution of land. “The vast multitude of northern peons and landless peasants found life-purpose in Villism: for the first time they could express themselves, fighting to win and take control, not to suffer repression and defeat” (Gilly 2005:105).
And they identified with Villa, who expressed to the fullest the characteristics of the Mexican peasant-in-arms, combining hatred and cruelty toward exploiters with tenderness and solidarity toward the poor. “It was Villa’s own personality, as the best soldier, horseman, and countryman, that came to represent the insurgent peasantry. The soldiers saw themselves in Villa, and he inspired them with absolute confidence. He raised to a heroic level the characteristic features of them all: courage, hatred and mistrust of the exploiters, implacability and cruelty in battle, astuteness and candor, tenderness and solidarity toward the poor and oppressed, and also their instability” (Gilly 2005:105-6).
Gilly also notes that Villa was a brilliant military strategist who demonstrated a great audacity in military maneuvers as well as a capacity to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the contending forces. He also was a master organizer, and he constantly showed concern for the conditions of his troops (2005:107-8).
Villa’s political program and vision, however, was limited to the countryside, and it had little formulation beyond the basic principle of land redistribution. His legacy does not include the development of alternative structures of local government, as does that of Zapata, as we shall see in a subsequent post. And like Zapata, Villa did not have a plan for the nation as whole. As result, when Villa and Zapata were in a position of political and military control of the nation in December 1914, they turned power over to the petit bourgeoisie, facilitating the triumph of the ascending reformist petit bourgeoisie, which was becoming a new bourgeoisie (see “Peasant armies occupy Mexico City, 1914” 2/5/2014).
With the triumph of reformism in 1915, Villa continued to lead guerrilla activities in the North until 1920. By mutual agreement with the government on July 28, 1920, Villa laid down arms, and he took up residence in a hacienda deeded to him as part of the agreement. He worked the hacienda for three years, and he established a primary school for the children of the hacienda and the region (Gilly 2005:205, 209-10, 317-18).
Francisco Villa and five of his men were assassinated on June 20, 1923 by government agents (Gilly 2005: xiii, 318).
Gilly, Adolfo. 2005. The Mexican Revolution. New York: The New Press. (Originally published as La Revolución Interrumpida by El Caballito, Mexico, in 1971).
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