I won’t forget tonight. About an hour ago I shook the hand of Emiliano Zapata’s grandson, and shortly thereafter, the hand of Pancho Villa’s daughter, who is in her mid 90’s.
It went down at the premier of a new Mexican documentary, “Pancho Villa: La Revolución No Ha Terminado” at Cine Morelos in Cuernavaca. The signs have been omnipresent across town for the last week, proclaiming in bold letters “¡DESPIERTA MEXICANO! CONOCE TU HISTORIA.” (“Mexican, wake up! Learn your history.”) This afternoon I tore down one of the ton that have become like beautiful wallpaper in the mercado, and had it on my desk to remind me. Nevertheless, it took the mob outside the theater to really make me realize that this wasn’t to be missed.
The director, Francesco Taboada Tabone, seeks to relate the story of Francisco Villa, the famous Mexican revolutionary, as “told by those who knew him.” The resulting portrait is decidedly different from the two-dimensional national hero that is celebrated throughout the country around November 20th, Día de la Revolución. Villa’s compañeros and familiars present him as he was: a populist hero born of la tierra, born of dirt, of adobe, of injustice. Indeed, early in the film various people relate the indignities that he and his family suffered at the hands of the hacienda-owning family where he was born.
Some of the people interviewed clearly see Villa as a type of populist saint, similar in practice—if not in stature—to la Virgen de Guadalupe. One ancient and inspiring woman clutches a porcelain cartoon-like representation of Villa to her chest as she describes her belief in him. Clearly, a grain of salt is to be taken with all facts relating to the life of Villa—whether they’re being told by a President of the Republic or a now-ancient Villa contemporary.
A frequent criticism of the political party currently in power, the PAN, is that they downplay the Revolution as an irrelevant thing of the past. On the other hand, the PRI, who held power from that revolution until 2000, belligerently celebrated their vision of the same events. Mexicans are used to hearing about the revolution after 70 years. So a party that does not continually parade it in the national spotlight comes as something of a surprise.
It doesn’t seem to surprise Tarbone, who says about the movie “today in Mexico we live in a colonial system headed by an extremely corrupt minority who serves an American business consortium. In Villa’s time, it was exactly the same.” He has a lot of evidence to point to, including the coming swearing-in of Felipe Calderón on December 1st, the staunchly pro-business and pro-American PAN president-elect.
It seems that it is impossible to talk about the Mexican Revolution without talking about the intense events currently gripping the country. Which is why, Tarbone seems to say, it is critical to remember the revolution now, as it really was, to remember it as it exists in the minds of the people, not in the standardized memory of government institutions.
The characters in the film haven’t forgotten, even if at their age they find it hard to articulate the words to describe their passion (indeed, in some places their Spanish is near unintelligible). So many quotes could be taken from the film, which speaks not only to the passion of the interviewed, but also the skill of the interviewees. The editing and filming are similarly inspired: 8mm cameras were used in production, which allows Tarbone to better blend archival footage with modern interviews.
There is a certain current of antigringoism that runs through the film, as there probably should be. After all, it was Villa who “on the morning of March 16th, 1916, ... invaded the village of Columbus, thus undertaking the first invasion of American territory by an Latin American army,” according to the filmmakers. In one memorable (especially for a gringo) sequence, a third generation resident of Columbus, New Mexico and “archivist” tells the story from the American side of the border. His great-grandfather was killed in the taking of the village, and the archivist’s segment ends with his calling Villa nothing less than a “terrorist.” From the American perspective Villa could certainly be seen that way, but perhaps owing to the Bush administration’s recent love affair with (and overuse of) that word, the New Mexican’s words drew laughs tonight in the Cuernavacan theater.
Tarbone: “our goal is to show Latin Americans that the time has come to break with this undignified destiny and to remember that we are heirs of men and women who throughout our history have fought for a continent where social justice is a reality.” And in that, the filmmakers have been very successful. Now all that’s left is to bring this work of highly relevant art to a mass audience, which could definitely be as difficult in modern Mexico as making the film itself.
And it never hurts, when drawing a crowd, to have the daughter of Villa and the grandson of Zapata on hand to inspire some additional awe. For the record, this grandson of Zapata—who addressed me with a warm “¿qué tal?”—is the spitting image of his hero grandfather. It is true, in more ways than one that “la revolución no ha terminado.”