Pancho Villa statue

The Pancho Villa statue in Veinte de Agosto Park downtown has been there since 1981. There have been several requests over the years to have it removed.

The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

Reflecting on the daily drumbeat of shocking news concerning the Trump administration’s policies on immigrants and refugees, I thought back to the many stories I have read about groups of refugees who had sought shelter in Mexico: Sephardic Jews eluding the Spanish Inquisition, African Americans escaping slavery, rebellious Irish American soldiers switching allegiance from the U.S. to Mexico and devoted Mormons fleeing religious persecution. Indeed, the Mexica (Aztecs) themselves arrived in central Mexico to find refuge amid the marshes of Lake Texcoco. Much has been written about the experiences of those groups.

Less well known, however, is the story of the many hundreds of Spanish orphans who found refuge in Mexico and several other countries in the 1930s, during the Spanish Civil War. In the summer of 1937 one group of Spanish orphans, totaling 463 children, departed from France on the Mexique and arrived at Veracruz, Mexico. Most of the children were 14 or younger, except for one 17-year-old boy who had a special talent for art and who went on to produce two of Tucson’s most iconic statues. His name was Julián Martínez Soros.

Martínez’s artistic ability was quickly recognized by his Mexican teachers, and he received the opportunity to study art in Mexico’s National Academy of Art and later in New York City. In addition to his paintings, he developed a fascination with sculpture, eventually becoming one of Mexico’s best-known sculptors. By a curious twist of fate, he left a lasting—and in one case controversial—legacy in Tucson in the form of two bronze statues: one of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino and another of General Francisco “Pancho” Villa.

Although Villa himself made only one brief visit here (in the spring of 1913), his statue has now stood in Tucson for nearly 40 years. It depicts Villa astride his famous horse, Siete Leguas (Seven Leagues), seemingly about to leap into a gallop. It is not clear how Martínez may have felt about Villa personally. Detractors and defenders of Villa’s legend have a wealth of evidence for creating either a cartoonish villain or a mythologized savior.

Villa was, in fact, a confoundingly complex man—at once a cruel militant and a generous protector, a murderous outlaw and patriotic martyr, a womanizing rapist and a devoted father, an uneducated vulgarian and a passionate believer in the value of education. Martínez the artist and Villa the fighter had little in common, except perhaps this: their lives were forever altered by wars against fascist dictators: Porfirio Díaz and Victoriano Huerta on one hand, and Francisco Franco on the other.

Whether or not Martínez knew how controversial the statue would be, I suspect he would have hoped that we Tucsonans would interpret his work as an opportunity to consider how art reflects or distorts our understanding of history. Teachers in Tucson sometimes use field trips to the statue, or images of it in the classroom, as a way to introduce students to the study of the Mexican Revolution or to examine how art interprets reality. You see, the stories we tell have real consequences. They can inspire and uplift us or divide and degrade us. In the end, how we interpret historical facts reveals more about ourselves than about any objective truth.

Salvador Gabaldón is a master teacher in the Tucson Unified School District.