How the teetotaling hero of the Mexican Revolution became a tequila-swilling gunslinger.
In The New American Bartender’s Guide, mixologist John Poister describes the “original” way to order tequila: “Walk into any Mexican cantina, belly up to the bar and say, ‘Tequila, estilo Pancho Villa por favor,’” (Tequila, Pancho Villa style, please). Poister is not alone in making the association between Pancho Villa and tequila. Indeed, there are dozens of Pancho Villa–themed tequila brands. Besides Tequila Pancho Villa and La Leyenda Tequila 30–30 (The Legend Tequila 30-30), which refers to the 30–30 rifle used by Villa and his army, there is Viva Villa Tequila; Pancho Villa Viejo Tequila (Old Pancho Villa); Hijos de Villa Tequila (Children or Sons of Villa); 7 Leguas (7 Leagues), which is the name of Pancho Villa’s horse; and Tequila Los Arango, which is a reference to Doroteo Arango, Pancho Villa’s given name. There are even several tequila-based cocktails that draw on Villa’s namesake (the Pancho Villa, the Pancho Villa shooter, and the Pancho Villa #2).
Pancho Villa was a teetotaler who spearheaded alcohol prohibition in Mexico.
Simply put, no other figure is as closely coupled with the culture of tequila. However, there is a large disconnect between this popular perception and historical evidence. Pancho Villa was a teetotaler who spearheaded alcohol prohibition in Mexico. So why is he so strongly associated with tequila? The answer to this question lies in both tequila’s and Pancho Villa’s symbolic ties to the Mexican Revolution.
The consistent representation of Pancho Villa with alcohol is curious for several reasons, not the least of which being that he personally abstained from alcohol. In fact, because of his concern about alcoholism in Mexico, he outlawed alcohol in his home state of Chihuahua and ordered the death penalty not only for the individuals who violated the ban but also for their horses, dogs, and goats. Before his relationship with the U.S. government deteriorated, Villa publicly expressed his admiration for President Wilson in the form of a toast, but not before adding the following disclaimer: “For the first time in my life I am going to propose a toast, and for the first time in my life I am going to drink a toast, and it will be the first time that I ever willingly let liquor pass my lips.” In the famous 1914 meeting of Villa’s army with Emiliano Zapata’s army in Mexico City, Villa, a nondrinker and nonsmoker, purportedly gagged on a sip of brandy when the two generals shared a toast.
Despite his assertive temperance crusade, American media played a strong hand in forging an association between Villa and tequila. When British rancher William Benton was assassinated in 1914, the front page headline of the Los Angeles Times declared, “Blame Tequila for Execution: Benton Victim of Villa’s Lust for Liquor, It Is Said.” The article continued by stating, “Gen. Francisco Villa, with four of his cronies, were crazed with marijuana and tequila at the time Villa gave the order to shoot William S. Benton, a British subject and wealthy ranchman.” The newspaper reported that Villa and his “so-called advisors” were “more or less under the influence of the native tequila” when events unfolded. A similar image was circulated in a 1934 motion picture, Viva Villa!—well received in both the United States and Europe, which famously portrayed Villa as hostile, drunk, and misogynistic. In addition to depicting Mexican men as Neanderthal, criminal, and perverse, the script characterized Villa as immoral and unintelligent. American moviegoers were presented with distorted images that portrayed Pancho Villa and revolutionary Mexicans as consistently inebriated and out of control.
The American media’s use of tequila as a metaphor for Mexican deviance emerged from and became structured within a range of material and symbolic registers related to the changing logic of U.S. national expansion and the need to rationalize increased U.S. intervention in Mexican domestic affairs. Compounding matters, the American temperance movement, with its deep ties to nativism, was gaining political traction. The growing overlap between prohibition philosophy and anti-immigrant sentiment operated as a “symbolic crusade” that invoked the language of morality, which denigrated “one group in opposition to others within the society.” Fundamental to this binary were notions of cultural and racial superiority. Moral Americans (that is, white, Protestant) did not drink at all, while immigrants (that is, nonwhite, Catholic) drank too much. From the perspective of outspoken temperance proponents, in choosing to drink alcohol, immigrants from different backgrounds demonstrated their tendency toward depravity and rejection of American values. Amid these circumstances, tequila was frequently cited as evidence of Mexican inferiority in nineteenth- and twentieth-century newspapers, magazines, and journals.
Writing specifically about tequila and mezcal, the scientifically based American Journal of Pharmacy declared that the drinks were “very powerful in their effects. A Mexican Indian, addicted to their use, can drink a glass of any one . . . without effect; two or three glasses will set him demonically crazy.” Subsequently, journalists, travel writers, and newspaper columnists produced images of Mexico and Mexicans for Americans and other English-language readers by symbolically locating Mexican deviance within a Mexican product. Described as overindulgent and subject to demonic lunacy when consuming their “native” drink, the only solution left for Mexicans and Mexico, it seems, is the aid and intercession of the United States. Produced and reinforced through the media, the racialized connection between tequila and deviant Mexican behavior helped justify the aspirations of U.S. expansionism.
In Mexico, however, imagery and rhetoric about Pancho Villa and tequila were being mobilized to contest the portrayal of Mexicans as degenerate. Villa stood as an alternative formulation of national belonging, a symbol of resistance to the official discourse of the Mexican state and as a rejection of the debased images of Mexicans circulated in U.S. popular culture. In Mexico, Pancho Villa’s image as a gunslinging, tequila-drinking bandit-hero is a source of romance and independence. As a cultural icon, Pancho Villa evoked sentiments of a particular account of national pride in which expressions of bravery and loyalty were constructed as indelible to the country’s character. Although certain negative traits (for example, drinking, womanizing, and fighting) were promoted and mythologized in Mexican corridos, Pancho Villa, a national hero who died a violent death much like the estimated 2,000,000 Mexicans killed during the revolution, became more known for his martyrlike qualities and less associated with the abusive traits embellished by the U.S. media. With justifiable goals, honorable intentions, and the ability to relate to the experiences of less privileged Mexicans, Pancho Villa’s complicated life and brutal death tempered his disreputable attributes. The relationship between tequila and Pancho Villa was inevitable because their representations were shaped by and emerged within similar historical situations rooted in cross-border conflicts—struggles in which their images were mobilized to racialize Mexicans as foreign “others” dangerous to the well-being of American virtue and Anglo manhood.
Thus, despite his abstinence from alcohol Pancho Villa came to be conflated with tequila as he became a symbol of the revolution on both sides of the border. Simultaneously depicted as villain and hero, Villa’s characteristics were narrated through alcohol in general and tequila in particular. In the United States, Pancho Villa’s macho, tequila-drinking image established a racialized metaphor that fused notions of Mexican manhood and alcohol consumption onto dysfunctional notions of Mexican national identity that justified U.S. expansionism and validated the increased policing of the border. In Mexico, Villa’s portrayal in popular culture emphasized laudable aspects of machismo that elevated his status as an icon of resistance who stood up to the Mexican and American governments. The negative associations among Villa, Mexican identity, and tequila produced by the U.S. media, however, bolstered Pancho Villa and tequila’s symbolism as subversive expressions of lo mexicano. And now—nearly a century after Villa’s assassination, we have no less than seven major brands of tequila named for a national hero who barely drank a drop.
This article has been adapted from Marie Sarita Gaytán’s forthcoming book, ¡Tequila! Distilling the Spirit of Mexico (read more from ¡Tequila! »).