January 24, 2024 555 PM
OJINAGA — Last Friday night, the Consejo Ciudadano de Cultura Ojinaga (Municipal Cultural Council) hosted an evening of monologues, documentary film and music to celebrate the 110th anniversary of the Battle of Ojinaga. Officials from City Hall filled the front row to take in performances and remarks by historical experts, local musicians and young performing talent.
In 1910, the Mexican Revolution began, eventually ending a 30-year dictatorship in Mexico and establishing a constitutional republic. The revolution was led in part by Pancho Villa, a controversial figure regarded by some as a bandit and by others a freedom fighter. His legacy is honored throughout Ojinaga in sculptures, murals and events like Friday’s performance revue.
In 1913, Villa captured the city of Juárez and gradually started pushing the Federales out of cities down the road in Chihuahua. On the morning of January 10, the Villistas gathered around the border town of Ojinaga and fighting began in earnest the next evening.
The battle was devastating to the Federales, who suffered around 3,500 casualties versus the rebels’ 35. Surviving soldiers and civilians crossed the border into Presidio and headed to Marfa in a column of refugees rumored to be 12 miles long. “The tattered line of former Mexican federal soldiers, women and children, followed by horses, burros and dogs, as they straggled over the mountain roads in clouds of dust, was a sufficient picture of an army in retreat,” reported the El Paso Herald on January 14.
The Federales’ loss marked not just a tactical turning point in the war but a cultural one as well. Earlier that month, Villa — who found himself strapped for cash — signed a contract with the Mutual Film Corporation to take a cash advance in exchange for his help in making a biographical film about his life. (The footage has since disappeared.)
A documentary screened at the show on Friday featured a clip from The Life of General Pancho Villa, a film that attempts to recreate the vanished biopic. In the scene, onlookers on the American side of the river tossed back beers and took in the battle through telescopes and binoculars.
The general himself — played by Antonio Banderas — emerges from the chaos, peacocking for the cameras. “It’s the dread Robin Hood of Mexico,” one of the spectators whispers.
A still from the original Life of General Pancho Villa — a photograph of Pancho Villa in Ojinaga astride his horse, Siete Leguas — would go on to be what Professor Juventino Juárez describes as an “icon of the revolution.”
In his book The Battle of Ojinaga, Juárez — who gave remarks at Friday’s event — compares Villa’s conquest of northern Chihuahua to the Greeks’ mythological overthrow of their enemies in the Trojan Horse. “In Ojinaga he solidified his stature as an invincible warrior,” he wrote in the book’s foreword.
While the battle was cause for celebration among the revolutionaries, the American press reported nothing but fear and dread. “There is something hideously shocking, outrageously at variance with the spirit of peace and humanity in the sight of this carnival of blood at our very doors,” the Leadville, Colorado, Herald Democrat reported on January 12.
The Battle of Ojinaga was the region’s first taste of life in what would become known as the “Bloody Bend.” In March 1916, fighting spread across the border in a raid on Columbus, New Mexico; two months later, the Villistas would topple Glenn Springs, a U.S. military outpost in what is now Big Bend National Park.
On Christmas Day in 1917, the Villistas raided the Brite Ranch outside of Marfa, resulting in four deaths. The raid would go on to spark a wave of anti-Mexican violence in the region — most notably the Porvenir Massacre, in which 15 Mexican American boys and men were executed by a posse of local ranchers and Texas Rangers.
Villa was assassinated on July 20, 1923, marking the end of a tumultuous life that permanently transformed the country he called home.
The goal of Friday’s event was to remind the audience how critical the city of Ojinaga had been in the making of modern Mexico. “Chihuahua was the center of the revolution,” explained Jorge Carrera Robles, director of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) of Chihuahua, who made the three-hour trek to the border for the event.
“In this region there were the first stirrings of revolutionary change,” he said. “The Battle of Ojinaga marked the possibility of a democratic and populist government.”