In a four-part series, policy consultant Jamie Shaw explores the role infamous political renegade Pancho Villa played in American cannabis prohibition and the Mexican Revolution. Check back on August 6, 2018 for part three, which delves into the cultural and political shifts that redefined the legend of Villa. Find part one of the series here.
Previously, we were camped with Pancho Villa and his men, listening to them sing of how a cockroach could no longer walk because it didn’t have any marijuana to smoke.
Pancho Villa was known to some of his friends as ‘the cockroach’, but we do not sing of him. A particular band of men within his group were also known as ‘the cockroaches’, but we do not sing of them either. The cockroach in the song we sing is the Huerta government. Its lack of cannabis is why it cannot walk and why it cannot keep up with the times and the people. This is the deeper meaning that led to rebellious Jazz-age covers of the song, but it is also one that reflects the beliefs of these cockroaches.
Villa’s army was made up of American mercenaries, bandits, revolutionaries, and local residents of what was then called New Spain? The ones known as cockroaches, however, represented a local Native American tribe, the Hiaki, known in English as Yaqui. They are one of only two tribes that still speak a language today in an otherwise extinct group of languages called Cahitan. While most of the tribe converted to Catholicism early in the colonization of Mexico, its members have retained many ancient ways and beliefs as well, such as Peyotism. It was men of this tribe who would gain further notoriety with Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan series of books on spiritual drug use. It was men of this tribe who had created the most often quoted verse of ‘La Cucaracha’. It was men of this tribe who would have a profound impact on the way cannabis was used around the world. It was men of this tribe who would be used mercilessly by prohibitionist advocates to have an even more profound impact on drug policy first in the United States, and then around the world.
The impact the Hiaki followers of Pancho Villa had on the way cannabis was used cannot be understated. While cannabis had been smoked out of pipes, water pipes, hookahs, or simply inhaled as incense for a very long time in the rest of the world, the idea of wrapping dried plant material into a stick, lighting one end, and inhaling from the other was developed in the Americas. The south of Mexico and northern half of Central America saw the rise of the Mayan civilization, and while they may not be the inventors of what we now call the cigar and cigarette, their pottery and artwork contains many depictions of people smoking both. And they didn’t just puff on tobacco. Other herbs and psychoactive substances were also smoked in this way, both by the Mayans and the Aztecs, a civilization that would rise to prominence following them.
The Aztecs’ territory was north of that usually attributed to the earlier Mayan civilization, and would have brought them into heavy contact with the Hiaki, as well as most other peoples in what is now northern Mexico, the southern United States, and the Caribbean. When the Spanish arrived, they called it a papelate, and it would be the French that would give the lasting monikers cigar and cigarette. It made sense the Europeans didn’t borrow local words, as the local words did not specifically mean tobacco. Tribes smoked not only tobacco, but purple sage, desert parsley, and other Indigenous herbs for spiritual, social, and medicinal reasons.
Cannabis historians focus a lot of attention on France’s hemp fields in Quebec, and England’s hemp fields in its American colonies and later in what became eastern Canada. But Spain also relied on its colonies for substantial hemp fields to maintain its navy.
With the arrival of cannabis in Mexico, the birth of the joint was all but guaranteed. With all these cultures already seeing spiritual and social use of smoked herbs, it couldn’t have taken long. The European cultures took to smoking tobacco, and some even added opium to it occasionally. And even though we know there was some limited use of hash smoked in pipes, the idea that a European first thought of smoking cannabis like tobacco (i.e. in a joint), is highly unlikely. The Indigenous people—who very much would have experimented with it—likely didn’t have access to flowers to smoke, as cannabis was being grown primarily as an industrial crop for fibre by the Spaniards. A short time later however, due to vigorous hemp-growing campaigns by the colonial powers, wars disrupting farms and communities, and the very nature of cannabis itself, it would have started to become easier to access by those with an inclination to experiment. It is possible that one or more random tribes discovered it independently.
The likeliest possibility, however, lies with the Hiaki. Positioned between California, with its influx of Chinese and Indian workers who were already familiar with the smoking of cannabis in hookahs and pipes, and the culture that literally invented what we now mean when we say ‘smoking’, the Hiaki are the perfect candidates to have invented the ‘joint’, only they called it mota.
They also did not use the terms cannabis or hemp. For them, it was marijuana. This word, along with Mary Jane, is often ascribed origins in the brothels of Pancho Villa’s camp. While it is likely that Americans in his camp coined Mary Jane, it is also likely that marijuana was a Hiaki word before these men rode with Villa.
Even if the Hiaki were not the originators of the word marijuana or the concept of smoking a joint, it was they who would popularize both. Villa was seen as a leader, and as such, his legend (and spotlight) would include his men.
Hollywood made Villa a star with its five-film series of live war documentaries— reality films a century before the rise of reality television. They made him a household name, and he was known as a scrappy fighter for freedom, and good friend of the U.S., which had supported him. In 1910, when Mexican president Porfirio Diaz had his opponent in the election arrested, the U.S. backed Villa’s revolution. In 1911 the Americans ousted Diaz and had an acceptable president in place to both them and Villa. In 1913, Villa was named provisional governor of Chihuahua, a Mexican state bordering the U.S. that covered an area slightly larger than the United Kingdom. In 1914 he was still a friend to the U.S. when he achieved some of his greatest victories. With the successful overthrow of the government, two rebel factions then fought for power in 1916, with Villa and Emiliano Zapata on one side, and Venustiano Carranza on the other. In 1916, the U.S. chose Carranza.
At that point the U.S. government had an issue. With having been portrayed as a hero for so long, it was embarrassing. While these American betrayals and his subsequent attack on U.S. soil certainly helped the American side, it wasn’t enough. Even with his assassination in 1923, the Pancho Villa legend lived on, and it went directly counter to U.S. policy.
But while Pancho Villa had certainly become known around the world, so had his men. In particular, a group of men from the Hiaki tribe. Despite these men’s ethnicity, long hair, and exotic cannabis smoking, they were still seen as heroes. While those features could (and would) all be used to make these heroes less appealing to the general public, the U.S. government needed to tap into a deeper vein to raise real fear and alarm. It would find it in the old-school frontier hysteria that still thrived in what is now the southwestern United States. A vein of fear and loathing that stretched back a century earlier, through a hundred years of conflict with Spain and her colonies.
Original story published by Canlio