In a four-part series, policy consultant Jamie Shaw explores the role political renegade Pancho Villa played in American cannabis prohibition and the Mexican Revolution.
Pancho Villa. The name itself conjures images of Mexico, revolution, and anti-authoritarianism. Outside of Mexico, a century later, this is all the name evokes. A sense of rebellion, though against exactly what, and for exactly what, remains somewhat undefined.
History is written by the victor, and yet while Villa is not viewed as a hero by the world’s America-centric culture, he hasn’t exactly been vilified by history either. The United States’ stance on revolutionaries is somewhat complicated. It overthrew a colonial European power after all, and this may be the informing principle of the American position: it absolutely supported Cuba gaining independence from Spain, it even helped, but it didn’t very much like Fidel Castro overthrowing their guy Fulgencio Batista. The United States appreciated Mexico gaining independence from Spain, but didn’t so much like Villa and another revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata for overthrowing president José de la Cruz Porfirio first, or his successor’s appointee, Venustiano Caranza Garza next. While the Zapata revolution continues to this day in southern Mexico, Villa’s revolution in the north of Mexico ended long ago. Villa, however, had something that Castro and Zapata did not—a Hollywood contract.
Between 1912 and 1916, around five films were made starring Pancho Villa. The famed D.W. Griffith even shared a producer credit with him on one, a silent war documentary entitled Life of Villa. The Hollywood connection goes further with no less than 36 films about Pancho Villa over the last hundred years, starring such actors as Yul Brynner, Telly Savalas, Hector Elizondo, and Antonio Banderas. Despite his relatively high prominence in film, Villa’s biggest impact ultimately would not be on the silver screen, nor on the Mexican government, nor would it be in the U.S. Army’s military training. No. His biggest impact would be felt in legislatures all across the U.S. as an unwitting inspiration for one of the longest, most effective propaganda campaigns in history—cannabis prohibition.
Understand, I personally believe Pancho Villa was a brilliant, visionary man. Revolution doesn’t just happen in the political realm. When you and your entire nation are in the process of realizing that things don’t need to keep being ‘the way they are’ just because that’s ‘the way they were’, this can lead to outside-of-the-box thinking that has much wider-ranging repercussions.
Yes, Pancho Villa was a political revolutionary, but he was one who went from being a runaway, to a bandit in a small backwater town of Mexico, to governor of that same backwater, into a globally recognized historical figure. And he did it in an extremely modern way. Yes, he had old-school military skills, but his creative approach to war tactics was and is still studied by generations of U.S. military leaders. Furthermore, he saw and acted globally in a way that had never really been seen before. This was a man who delayed an attack on Juarez to avoid a conflict in the news cycle with the World Series 30 years before television. Oh, and that Hollywood contract? Not only were the films a great way to garner international support for his cause, he and fellow rebels received clothes, boots, and weapons that would look better on film, US $25,000, and 50 percent of the profits. A Hollywood film studio was raising money for, and supplying, a Mexican revolutionary. He was even supplied with arms by the U.S., for a period of time.
After years of public support for the revolution, U.S. government policy changed. Not only would U.S. administrations support the sitting Mexican president, the Americans would allow his troops to move by U.S. rail, safe from attack by revolutionaries, and safe from Villa. The U.S. would commit two more betrayals. The first: the last few shipments of arms to Villa’s men contained defective weapons and ammunition. The second was supplying power to a Mexican outpost, which enabled the use of searchlights. These two acts caused an utter rout of Villa and his gang—men who had been unstoppable up to that point. In retaliation, Villa attacked the power plant that supplied electricity for the lights, which happened to be located on U.S. soil. The [‘United’] States then retaliated by sending no less than Gen. John J. Pershing after him. While he may have a tank with his namesake and is remembered as a powerful and accomplished general, Pershing was not able to catch Villa or his men. After a year of trying, he gave up, saying: ‘Villa is everywhere, and Villa is nowhere.’
So what does all of this have to do with cannabis prohibition and the reefer madness campaigns that followed? Pancho Villa was not only revered in film, but in song. In particular, a version of one very ancient song that would become probably the most recognized Spanish melody in the world.
The cockroach, the cockroach,
can’t walk anymore,
because it doesn’t have,
beacause it’s lacking,
marijuana to smoke.
‘La Cucaracha’, or ‘the Cockroach’, is a very old song. Much like the traditional songs of other cultures, the melody would remain the same, but the verses have been updated, modernized, and amended several times over the years. Originally, the song’s lyrics (about a cockroach missing one of his six legs) simply reflected its meter: 5/4 achieved by removing a beat from a 6/4 meter. By 1492, the satirical potential become apparent, and two versions exist in writing: one depicting the reclamation of Spain from the Moors, and the other discussing the war in Granada. During the Mexican Revolution, however, this song would see its highest popularity, as both sides would adapt it to their own political messages. Pro-establishment versions would ridicule the rebels, pro-revolutionary ones would discredit the government or raise troop morale. It would be the latter, the morale-boosting verses sung by Pancho Villa’s men, that would become the most popular and gain worldwide recognition. In particular, the most commonly quoted verse of the song came from one particular group in Villa’s camp: ‘La cucaracha, la cucaracha, ya no puede caminar, porque no tiene, porque le falta, marihuana que fumar,’ which translates to:
This song would be performed by Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Judy Garland, Liberace, Bill Haley and the Comets, the Gypsy Kings, and Los Lobos. While I stated earlier I believe Pancho Villa was a visionary, I don’t think there is any way even he could have seen the effect he and his men, in adapting these lyrics, would have on U.S. cannabis prohibition.