La Diana Ranchera: Pancho Villa’s Secret Weapon

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

Los Escamillas street band belts out a peppy version of Villa’s battle song.General Villa nods to his snare drummer, who starts beating out out a long, machinegun-like roll of ratta-tat-tats. Next, some trumpets, trombones and tubas fire up, then more and more horns kick in -- all to hype up Villa's rag-tag troops to charge the cannons of the government federales. The song ends with a chilling bullfight victory flourish, the signal for the attack to begin.

“Villa used the song to pour red-hot chili sauce in the veins of his troops,” says Mexico City-based historian Jaime Capulli.

The song, called La Diana Ranchera  (a reveille-like Mexican military tune mixed with traditional folk music), most likely comes from the western Mexico state of Sinaloa, perhaps from the city of Mazatlan. You’ll hear it now and then at Mexican fiestas, in cantinas, at village festivals and even at floor shows at luxury resorts. “Most tourists who hear the song have no idea they’re listening to a battle warm-up,” says Capulli. “It’s been around so long a lot of Mexicans don’t know what it’s about, either.”

Mexican patriot leader (later to become president) Francisco Madero sparked a national revolt against a corrupt, oppressive government in 1910. Villa, who led the revolutionary army of the north, was one of Madero's two top generals during the nearly 10-year-long war against the federales. The other was General Emiliano Zapata, who led the army of the south.

The song is sometimes played during concerts in village squares such as the Plaza Machado in Mazatlan.

You can see and hear the song, played by a Mazatlan street band called Los Escamillas, on You Tube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1mMrMawRPUE

Marching to a Different Drummer

Fast-forward to 1847, and Mexico’s military tunes have been drowned out by the songs of U.S. troops marching through Mexico City. Among popular ditties of the lads from north of the border were “Green Grow the Lilacs” (sung by an Irish brigade) and “Green Grows the Grass (of Kentucky).” Picking up on the same color in the songs, anti-U.S. crowds are said to have shouted “Greens Go Home.”

Main square in Mexico City is readied for a celebration marking the  anniversary of the Mexican revolution.

Such reports from the Mexican-American War are among all kinds of stories –some going back as far as the 1780s – on the source of the tag “gringo” for non-Latinos. Originally used as an expression of contempt, the word has mellowed out over the years to become more or less non-derogatory.

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