Previously (Inhibitive nature of prohibition) I have written of the racist nature of cannabis prohibition and I am certainly not the first to do so. I, and others, have highlighted how opium prohibition targeted specifically those from India and China. The anti-Italian sentiment of alcohol prohibition has been pointed out, and many are familiar with the initial anti-Hispanic nature of cannabis prohibition, and the use of the word ‘marijuana’. An earlier piece, Decolonizing Cannabis touched briefly on this word, as did A Woman Who Knows Her Place, but to fully explain the reasons prohibitionists chose ‘marijuana’ over say ‘Ganga’ or ‘Mah’, I need to tell a different story. One I promised in the above article to tell. It is a story of revolution, it is a story of cannabis, but mostly, it is story of cockroaches.
Pancho Villa. The name itself conjures images of Mexico, of revolution and anti-authoritarianism. Outside of Mexico, a century later, this is all the name evokes. A sense of rebelliousness, though against exactly what, and for exactly what, is somewhat undefined.
History is written by the victor, and yet while Villa is not viewed as a hero by the world’s America-centric culture, he hasn’t exactly been vilified by history either. The US’s stance on revolutionaries is somewhat complicated; they themselves overthrew a colonial European power after all, and this may be the informing principle of the American take: they absolutely supported Cuba over-throwing Spain, they even helped, but they didn’t very much like Castro overthrowing Battista. They appreciated Mexico gaining independence from Spain, but didn’t so much like Zapata and Villa for over-throwing Diaz first, or his successor’s appointee Caranza next. While the Zapata revolution continues to this day in southern Mexico, Villa’s revolution in the north of Mexico ended long ago. Villa, however, had something that Castro and Zapata did not – a Hollywood contract.
Between 1912 and 1916, four or five films were made starring Francisco Pancho Villa. The famed D.W. Griffith even shared a producer credit with him on one of these, a silent war documentary entitled Life of Villa. The Hollywood connection goes further, with no less than thirty six films about Pancho Villa over the last hundred years, starring such actors as Yul Brynner, Telly Savalas, Hector Elizondo, and Antonio Banderas. Despite this relatively high prominence in film, Villa’s biggest impact ultimately would not be in the world of film, nor on the Mexican government, nor would it be in the US Army’s military training. No. His biggest impact would be felt in Legislatures all across the US as an unwitting inspiration for one of the longest, most effective propaganda campaigns in history – cannabis prohibition.
Understand, I personally believe Pancho Villa was a brilliant, visionary man. Revolution doesn’t just happen in the political realm. When you and your entire nation are in the process of realizing that things don’t need to keep being the way they are just because that’s the way they were — this can lead to outside of the box thinking that has much wider-ranging repercussions.
Yes Pancho Villa was a political revolutionary, but he was one who went from being a runaway, to a bandit in a small backwater town of Mexico, to governor of that same backwater and still becoming a world historical figure, and he did it in an extremely modern way. Yes, he had old-school military skills, but his novel approach to tactics would be studied by generations of US Military leaders. Further to all of this though, he saw and acted globally in a way that had never really been done before. This was a man who delayed an attack on Juarez to avoid a conflict in the news cycle with the World Series thirty years before television. Oh, and that Hollywood contract, not only were the films a great way to garner world-wide support for his cause, they received cloths, boots and weapons that would look better on film, twenty five thousand dollars US, and fifty percent of the profits. A Hollywood film studio was raising money for, and supplying, a Mexican revolutionary. He was also supplied with arms by the US, for a time.
After years of public support for the revolution, a change in US government led to a change in this policy. Not only would they support the sitting president, they would allow his troops to move by US rail, safe from attack by revolutionaries, safe from attack by Villa. The US would commit two betrayals worse however. The first was that the last few shipments of arms to Villa’s men contained defective weapons and ammunition. The second was supplying power to a Mexican outpost which enabled the use of searchlights. These two acts caused an utter rout of Villa and his men, men who had been unstoppable and unbeatable to this point. In retaliation, Villa would attack the power plant that supplied electricity for the lights, a power plant that just happened to be located on US soil. The US would then retaliate by sending no less than General Pershing after him. While he may have a tank named after him and be remembered as a great general, Pershing was not able to catch Villa or his men. After a year of trying he gave up, saying “Villa is everywhere, and Villa is nowhere.”
So what does all of this have to do with cannabis prohibition and the reefer madness campaigns that both led to, and followed it? Pancho Villa was not only revered in film, but in song. In particular, a version of one very ancient song that would become probably the most recognized Spanish melody in the world.
La Cucaracha, the Cockroach, is a very old song. Much like some songs in other cultures, the melody would remain the same, but the verses could be updated, modernized, and amended. Originally, the song’s lyrics (about a cockroach missing one of his is sex legs) simply reflected its meter: 5/4 achieved by removing a beat from a 6/4 meter. By 1492, the satirical potential was becoming apparent, and two versions exist in writing: one depicting the reclamation of Spain from the moors, and one discussing the war in Granada. During the Mexican Revolution however, this song would enjoy its highest popularity, as both sides would adapt it to their own political messages. Pro-establishment songs would ridicule the rebels, pro-revolutionary ones would discredit the government, or were meant to raise morale. It would be the latter, morale boosting verses sung by Pancho Villa’s men that would become the most popular and gain world-wide recognition. In particular, the most commonly quoted verse of the song came from one particular group in Villa’s camp: la cucaracha, la cucaracha, ya no puede caminar, porque no tiene, porque le falta, marihuana que fumar.
the cockroach, the cockroach,
can’t walk anymore,
because it doesn’t have,
because it’s lacking,
marijuana to smoke.
This song would be performed by Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Judy Garland, Liberace, Bill Haley and the Comets, the Gypsy Kings, and Los Lobos, and while I stated earlier I believe Pancho Villa was a visionary, I don’t think there is any way he could have seen what was coming in terms of the effect he and his men would have on US cannabis prohibition.
Re-published with permission from Canlio: