Son recounts family's part in Pancho Villa interment
By Ramon Bracamontes / El Paso Times, 07/19/2009
EL PASO -- Every year, around July 20, El Pasoan Felipe Cardenas proudly tells people that his father buried Pancho Villa twice.
This elicits the exact response he wants.
"When I tell people that my father buried Pancho Villa twice, people stop and wait for the rest of the story," said Cardenas, 78. "So I tell them my father did bury him twice, and my brother exhumed him. Only I can say that."
Villa, who was at the forefront of the Mexican Revolution, was assassinated in Parral, Chihuahua, Mexico on July 20, 1923. He and several of his bodyguards were ambushed as they rode in Villa's car in the middle of town. As soon as the gunshots rang out that Friday morning, Cardenas' father, Jose Cardenas Ponce, rushed to where Villa lay dead.
Cardenas, owner of the only funeral home in Parral at the time, was among the first to see Villa's body.
"My father would tell us the story," said Felipe Cardenas, who was not born until 1930. "He loved to talk about it. For him, when he heard the gunshots, he went out to see what was happening because it meant there might be some business for him."
As the town's mortician, Jose Cardenas' job was to distribute an obituary notice, to arrange the funeral, to prepare the body and then to conduct the service the next day. He buried Villa on July 21.
Felipe Cardenas still has a copy of the legend's obit, as well as a copy of Villa's birth certificate. It shows that Villa's real name was Doroteo Arango.
Three years after the killings, in 1926, Jose Cardenas was strolling through the municipal cemetery in Parral. He came upon a strong stench coming from Villa's grave site.
Somebody had dug up Villa's body and cut off his head. The rest of the corpse was left behind, in the open grave.
El Paso author and historian David Romo, who wrote the book "Ringside Seat to a Revolution," said no one knows who took Villa's head. Wild speculation was that it ended up at Yale University, in the tomb of a secret society called Skull and Bones.
"Depending on who you ask, you get a different answer," Romo said.
Even though the Mexican Revolution was over by 1923 and Villa was no longer fighting the establishment, he was viewed as a political threat in Mexico.
"He had made a lot of enemies," Romo said. "We may never know who dug him up."
The vandalism, however, provided the Cardenas family with a second opportunity to bury Villa. This time, to make sure that Villa's grave site would not be vandalized again, Villa's widow ordered Jose Cardenas to use concrete.
"My father reburied him, but this time he put rocks and boulders and pieces of cement on top of the casket," said Felipe Cardenas, who moved to El Paso as a young man, choosing not to work in his father's business.
"He topped off the grave with a slab of cement."
The grave remained untouched until 1976, when Mexican President Luis Echeverría had Villa's body exhumed and reburied at the Monument to the Revolution in Mexico City.
By then, Jose Cardenas had died and his other son, Octavio Cardenas Villanueva, had taken over the funeral home in Parral. It was Octavio Cardenas who exhumed Villa's body in 1976. In fact, the Cardenas family still owns the funeral home, now 120 years old.
To get to Villa's remains, the Cardenas crew had to dig on the side of grave because it did not want to break through the concrete and rocks on top of the casket.
"All the bones were placed in an urn and taken to the memorial," Felipe Cardenas said.
Now, the only involvement the Cardenas family has with Villa occurs every July 20, when the town of Parral re-enacts the assassination. The event uses props from 1923, including the original horse-drawn hearse that was owned by Jose Cardenas.
The hearse is in the museum in Parral, about 370 miles south of El Paso.
"To this day, Villa remains a hero and a larger-than-life figure in Parral," Cardenas said.
El Paso historian Freddy Morales said Villa continues to be a legend in El Paso, too. Morales wrote a book about Villa's life in El Paso and the role El Paso played in the Mexican Revolution. The book documents where Villa lived in El Paso, where he ate and where he devised his strategy of war.
"Villa planned his raids into Mexico from his home on Prospect Street here in El Paso," Morales said.
"He was working in Asarco when he heard that Mexican President (Francisco) Madero had been killed, and it was there that he vowed vengeance."
Ramon Bracamontes may be reached at email@example.com; 546-6142.