Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission

John Reed in Mexico & Latin America
By David Milholland © 2000

    The 4-months of reporting which resulted in John Reed's book Insurgent Mexico, first a series of front-line dispatches to the Metropolitan Magazine and New York World, was his first foray into the world beyond the borders of the US, and his first attempt to measure himself up against "verdaderos hombres --real men" and their time-honored code of male or macho values. So out of date today, those values snonetheless defined the territory he was reporting, and a test for this sickly young man to truly come of age. This work begins staking out the claim to his being the father of modern journalism.

    Reed was just 26. He got the job due to the fortuitous combination of his verve and energy, Lincoln Steffens recommendation of Reed to editor Carl Hovey of the Metropolitan, and rebel leader Pancho Villa's decisive November 1913 victories in Chihuahua and Ciudad Juarez on the border next to El Paso, Texas. Reed left his tearful lover Mabel Dodge behind in New York, stating over her objections: "I will take you with me in my heart. But we must be free to live our own lives." Mabel caught up with him by Chicago, and rode south to El Paso on the train, celebrating a kind of honeymoon in their compartment.

    Reed describes himself en route: "With me in my bright yellow corduroy suit, and Mabel in her orange hat and satin-lined tiger-skin hunting jacket --with...an expense account, and a roll of blankers and 14 different kinds of pills and bandages...we shall descend upon El Paso." It was a world of spies, arms salesmen, smugglers, and cow punchers, secret agents and Texas Rangers...Reed called it "the Supreme Lodge of the Ancient Order of Conspirators of the World." His good humor masked a far grimmer reality. Mexico was being turned upside down by this insurrection, which pitted wealthy interests on both sides of the border against a history of injustice that had driven brave women and men to fight for their rights and land on which they could make a living.

    Soon after arriving Jack (his contemporaries called him Jack) proposed an interview with General Mercado, the commanding federal officer. Mexican government officials saw no value in US coverage, which had generally been unfavorable to the corrupt Daz regime. Mercado's subordinate, General Orozco replied: Esteemed and Honored Sir: If you set foot inside of Ojinanga, I will stand you sideways against a wall, and with my own hand take great pleasure in shooting furrows in your back.

    Reed "was afraid of death, of mutilation, of a strange land and strange people whose speech and thought I did not know." Yet he had "a terrible curiosity...I felt I had to know how I would act under fire." Finally, tiring of these initial impressions, Reed took Mabel for one last look across the border into Juarez. There they saw some 2,000 dark, Indian looking horsemen, many of them teenagers, members of the revolutionary army, "nondescript, tattered men, on dirty little tough horses, their serapes flying out behind, their mouths one wild yell...They had very little discipline but...what spirit!"

    Mabel returned to NYC; Reed went south to meet Pancho Villa in Chihuahua.

     Francisco "Pancho" Villa was born Doroteo Arango June 5, 1878 in the village of Ro Grande in rural Durango state, the eldest of 5 legitimate children born to Agustn Arango and Micaela Armbula. It's not uncommon for Latino boys to have names derived from a feminine family member or friend. Doroteo became head of his family when he was a boy, taking care of his mother, two brothers, and two sisters. At the age of 16, one account has it, defending his 12-year-old sister Martina from the advance of his employer or patrn Agustn Lpez Negrete, Doroteo was captured after firing shots at Lpez Negrete, and soon thereafter escaped to the sierra, the mountains which are the characteristic feature of Northern Mexico. There he transformed himself into Pancho Villa and began an off-again, on-again life as a bandit and hunted criminal, which he alternated with brief periods as a butcher, tanner and horse trader, natural careers for a man of his time and place.

     How does this supposedly illiterate man, riding in and out of the sierra, practicing both banditry and honest professions, become the feared revolutionary, military leader (John Reed several times compares him to Napoleon in Insurgent Mexico), and more than once he was close to becoming President of Mexico? In his stimulating book Pancho Villa and John Reed (University of Arizona Press, 1984), author Jim Tuck gives great credit to Chihuahua intellectual, and briefly governor of that northern state, Abraham Gonzlez, a follower of revolutionary and first post-Daz president Francisco Madero.

    Gonzlez was a small scale agitator when Villa met him, but he sensed in Villa a true commitment to social justice, and the iron will needed to bring that about. Madero essentially was little more than a reformer, whose principal concept was effective suffrage and no reelection of presidents. Strongmen throughout the Americas used corruption and fear to be endlessly reelected. It was the essence of democratic window dressing.

    Like Madero, Gonzlez had broken with early revolutionary Flores Magn who emphasized the violent overthrow of the Daz government. But once Gonzlez had planted the seed of revolutionary zeal, Villa's own pent-up violence and the evolution of the revolution made him one of its most effective leaders and fighters.

    Let's step back a bit. Mexico, like most of its Latin American neighbors, had long periods of internal turmoil followed by extended reins of caudillos or dictators. They're often known as hombres fuerte...strong men. Porfirio Daz had ruled Mexico for 35 years, from 1876 through his fall in May of 1911. As is often the case, he was initially a generally positive influence. In his first years, Daz developed a modern, export economy, dredging harbors, building roads, railroads and telegrams. European interests controlled significant industries, but Anglo-Americans controlled oil, mining and public utilities. The Rockefeller, Hearst and Edward Doheny interests were allied with the great landowners of Mexico in keeping this status quo, and US Secretary of State Elihu Root called upon the world to "worship" that hero Porfirio Daz.

    Similar patterns characterized US relations with nearly all of Latin America, which had become principally a resource feeder for the growing industrial might of our nation. Whether it was bananas from Central America, black gold from Venezuela and Mexico, or tin and copper from the high Andes of Columbia south through Chile, we used our Monroe Doctrine to justify repeated military incursions into these sovereign nations, in some cases literally occupying a country such as Nicaragua for a decade at a time. It's no secret why some of the best talent in our American and National Leagues are named Hernandez and Alomar. Our soldiers taught the US national game to natives of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Panama, etc. And when they departed, employees of United Fruit and Standard Oil picked up the bats and kept on playing.

    John Reed was born 9 years later than Villa, October 22, 1887, at the Green Estate above present-day Zupan's Market at 23rd & Burnside, into a decidedly prosperous family. His father C.J. Reed was an agricultural implement dealer, and his mother Margaret Green Reed was the daughter of the 2nd wealthiest family in Portland. Reed's grandfather Henry Green owned city utilities. At the time, Portland was the West Coast's 2nd city to San Francisco.

    A sickly child, John fantasized about a life of adventure, and was regaled with stories by his mother's brother Ray, himself "a romantic figure who played at coffee planting in Central America and mixed in revolutions."

     Such "heroes" were known as filibusters, close cousins of the pirates or Freebooters who had roamed the Caribbean before them. Some came out of the failed Confederacy, others were gold seekers who'd already followed the rushes from the Sierra Nevadas of the 49ers, the mineral frenzies which swept across the Western US, up to the Klondike, and back south again. The Americas were filled with young, footloose, valiant men hoping to make their fortune and mixing in revolution whenever the opportunity presented. Hearing such dashing stories from his own uncle might have pushed young John into a similar path, had it not been his own father C.J.'s fall from grace.

    Portland historian Kimbark MacColl described the NW Timber frauds and trials against many of Portland and our region's leading citizens. They led to 33 convictions of 34 indictments. C.J. Reed was made U.S. Marshall by then president Teddy Roosevelt, and the juries he swore in for the nationally reported trials exposed corruption right up through the political ranks --mayors, city attorneys, sheriffs, judges, US Attorneys, members of Congress --unseating among others US Senator from Oregon John Mitchell.

    Jack made a hero out of his father --"He was a great fighter...who smashed the Oregon Land Fraud Ring; which was a brave thing to do in Oregon then." Back east on his own, first at Morristown Academy and then Harvard, by the time he reached Greenwich Village Jack Reed had been groomed for some kind of greatness. His father's fall out of the upper classes set John off on a brief, life-long quest to invest his energies in an adventurous life that had real meaning.

    So here he was in Mexico, face to face with the bandit revolutionary Villa, who nicknamed Reed chatito (pug nose). Reed in turn called Villa: "the most natural human being I ever saw -- natural in the sense of being nearest a wild animal." He saw this man of the people as he truly was, with eyes "absolutely hot and steely," a man who could and would kill to accomplish his goals.

    Villa is one of the most mythologized military-political leaders in Latin American history, standing alongside such Independence era greats as Bolivar and O'Higgins, and latter-day heroes including Jos© Mart of Cuba, Sandino of Nicaragua, Benito Juarez, a predecessor in Mexico, and Villa's southern Mexican counterpart Emiliano Zapata. Yet in Mexico, his bandit roots were considered so base, so threatening to even a post-revolutionary status quo, that Villa wasn't admitted to the pantheon of the Mexican Revolution until former Villistas and leftists pushed it through the Mexican Congress in 1966. At that time, a leftist deputy gave Villa his perfect epitaph: "A revolution has never been made with flowers." In fact, the Villa's power continued beyond his assassination in 1923; three years later enemies entered his crypt and stole away his head. "There. Now we're sure he's gone."

    In his day he was feared and famous, made all the more so by Reed's bold accounts. Not content with merely reporting, Reed felt it necessary to paint a picture with his words, to capture the emotional reality of the land, its people, and the undercurrent of violence and treachery which he captures in the character of Villa. Robert Rosenstone, in his quintessential Reed biography Romantic Revolutionary (Albert Knopf, 1975), says of Villa --"Earthy, passionate, uneducated and a dreamer, he is the perfect symbol of Reed's Mexico, the vessel of his inner feelings about the land and its people. What Reed liked best was that life in Mexico had all the characteristics of youth:" [remember Reed himself is scarcely 26] "impetuosity, hot blood, heroism, pose, bombast, cruelty, love, abandon, asceticism, grace, rudeness, warmth."

    Insurgent Mexico is rightly criticized for its clumsy chronology, which doesn't jive with Reed's own notes of his travels in the country, and for its novelistic touches. Poet Reed had a lifelong ambition to write a major novel, and though he never had time to produce it, this account stands as an excellent surrogate. Tuck calls the book "a 'hybrid' work, composed partly of fact and partly of fabrication." Walter Lippman, Reed's Harvard colleague understood Reed's play of settings and mood: "The variety of impressions, the resources and color of his language seemed inexhaustible...and Villa's revolution, until then reported only as a nuisance, began to unfold itself into throngs of moving people in a gorgeous panorama of earth and sky." This was also autobiography, a tale of one man's education in an arena of violence, not unlike Hemingway's later choice of the bullfight arena as a mirror into his own soul. Rosenstone calls it "an adventure yarn about how an American poet becomes a man."

     The impact of Reed's reportage gave Reed a platform and reputation when he returned that can only be compared to that of top rock and film stars today. The series swelled the Metropolitan's circulation across the US, an effect owing much to the publication's own efforts to hype the series. Reed had the ear of not only the American public, which he urged to stand firm against US intervention in Mexico's internal affairs. He also was given audiences with a president (Woodrow Wilson) and former president (Teddy Roosevelt), and their colleagues in the House and Senate. Talking with Teddy, who had become involved in the Metropolitan's editorial decision making, the two impetuous men found themselves arguing. Eric Homberger's British biography John Reed describes the following exchange: "'Villa is a murderer and a rapist,' Roosevelt said. 'What's wrong with that?' Reed aggressively asked. 'I believe in rape.' 'I'm glad,' Roosevelt granted, flashing his awesome teeth, 'to find a young man who believes in something.'"

    Roosevelt of course had been made famous by his charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba in the early days of the 1898 Spanish American War. Jack had read the Richard Harding Davis accounts of the Rough Riders. Reed's Mexican chronicles has nothing of Davis' racism and imperialist jingoism. Indeed, Jack's accounts pull readers into the point of view of the common soldiers, women and men, and capture their bravery, along with the stupidity which is a hallmark of any such war. Davis in his earlier reportage and novels followed the pattern of the day in asserting the superiority of American gentlemen against the mixed-race lower breeds. In contrast, Reed describes the five Americans he came across in Jimenez, soldiers of fortune who were "hard, cold misfits in a passionate country, despising the cause for which they were fighting, sneering at the gaiety of the irrepressible Mexicans." Davis also covered the Mexican war, and found Reed's star rising. He came to regard Reed, the 'new' Richard Harding Davis, with both professional jealousy and political distaste, Homberger concludes.

    Yes it was in with Reed, the chronicler and supporter of a people's revolution, with all its rapine violence, disorder and appalling confusion, the hopeful start of something more promising for the peons and peasants who made up the ranks. It was out with Roosevelt friend and admirer Davis, whose support and romanticization of earlier imperial adventures had decayed, by 1914, into the embodiment of militarism and and imperialism.

     So why is Reed remembered and generally honored in the Latin America of today? I maintain that his inside account is nearly unique in the chronicles of US reporting south of the Ro Grande. Heroizing not only Villa but the fighters and followers of the revolution was a complete break with European and American reporting and novelistic accounts which proceeded Insurgent Mexico. Though Reed himself figures prominently throughout the account, the author admits to fear and resists an American solution for this very Mexican conflict. He imagines a Mexico free on its own terms, struggling through to its own solutions, which in fact largely happened for the next 30 years. And of course Reed wrote the definitive inside account of the Russian Revolution, introduced by Lenin himself, Ten Days that Shook the World and founded the American Communist Party in his last two years before dying in Moscow. Left politics permeate the educational and governmental sectors of most Latin American nations, so that Reed, so out front with his politics, is appreciated by even moderate socialists.

    Finally it is Reed's powerful, visionary writing which carries the day. After draining a bottle of tequila to impress the soldiers, Reed says:     "I am very fond of Mexico. I like Mexicans too. And I like sotol, aguardiente, mezcal, tequila, pulque, and other Mexican customs!" They shouted with laughter.

    Captain Fernando leaned over and patted my arm. "Now you are with the men (los hombres). When we win the revolucin it will be government by the men, not by the rich. We are riding over the lands of the men. They used to belong to the rich, but now they belong to me and the compaeros." "And you will be the army?" I asked. "When the revolucin is won," was the astonishing reply, "there will be no more army. The men are sick of armies."

Insurgent Mexico
At noon we roped a steer, and cut his throat. And because there was no time to build a fire, we ripped the meat from the carcass and ate it raw.
"Oiga, meester," shouted Jose, "Do the United States soldiers eat raw meat?"
I said I didn't think they did.
"It is good for the hombres. In the campaign we have no time for anything but carne crudo. It makes us brave."...

...The sharpshooter running in front stopped suddenly, swaying, as if he had run against a solid wall... He shook his head impatiently, like a dog with a hurt ear. Blood drops flew from it. Bellowing with rage, he shot the rest of his clip, and then slumped to the ground and thrashed to and fro for a minute... Now the trench was boiling with men scrambling to their feet, like worms when you turn over a log."

America 1918

By my free boyhood in the wide West,
The powerful sweet river, fish-wheels, log rafts,
Ships from beyond the sunset, Lascar-manned,
Chinatown, throbbing with mysterious gongs,
The thunderous Pacific, blaring sunsets,
Black smoking forests on surf-beaten headlands,
Lost beaches, camp-fires, wail of hunting cougars...
By the rolling range, and the flat sun smitten desert,
Night with coyotes yapping, domed with burst of stars,
The grey herd moving eastward, towering dust,
Ropes whistling in slow coils, hats flapping, yells...
By miles of yellow wheat rippling in the Chinook,
Orchards forever endless, deep in blooming,
green-golden orange groves and snow-peaks looming over,
By raw audacious cities sprung from nothing,
Brawling and bragging in their careless youth...
I know thee, America!

This may have been John Reed's last poem:

A Letter to Louise

Rainy rush of bird-song
Apple-blossom smoke
Thin bells water-falling sound
Wind-rust on the silver pond
Furry starring willow wand
Wan new grasses waking round
Blue bird in the oak...
Woven in my word-song

White and slim my lover
Birch-tree in the shade
Mountain pools her fearless eyes
Innocent all-answering
Were I blinded to the Spring
Happy thrill would in me rise
Smiling half afraid
At the nearness of her

All my weak endeavor
Lay I at her feet
Like a moth from oversea
Let me longing lightly rest
On her flower petal breast
Till the red dawn set me free
To be with my sweet
Ever and forever...

  • The Art of Grit, M. Gilbert Porter, University of Missouri Press, 1982