Coming to America: Mexican refugees from Pancho Villa

Mexican Immigration 1910 – 1920

Mexican refugees

Between 1910 and 1920 during the chaos of the “complex and bloody conflict” of The Mexican Revolution nearly a million Mexicans are estimated to have died.  Another million fled from the conflict in the first large wave of Mexican immigration into the United States. The social, economic  and political power struggle even drew in the United States military to cross into Mexico in 1916 in pursuit of Pancho Villa. Villa was a revolutionary general and is a hero in Mexico, but he is considered to be a rampaging bandit by my family.

Map image from Rand McNally and Company 1914 located in the Newberry Library in Chicago (Perspectives on the Mexican Revolution)


Refugee = a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

My maternal grandparents’ family had deep roots in Mexico. During The Mexican Revolution my grandparents became refugees. They were part of the economic class targeted by the Villa revolutionaries, who seized their land and stole their property. The Villa army terrorized and killed and worse. A brave great-grandmother protected her family and home, standing off some of Villa’s forces with a rifle, before fleeing. A great-grandfather collapsed and died of a stroke watching his burning business. My grandfather hid in the hills to avoid being killed. My grandmother fled across the border by train with their young children, parents, other family and members of their household. She sewed some coins into her skirt. Arriving in San Antonio, Texas with only what they could carry, they began a new life in the United States. My grandfather was able to join them later. Some of the group of extended family eventually returned to Mexico after the conflict ended. (see addendum ***)

Below is a photo of Pancho Villa from Getty Images.

My grandparents stayed in the United States, but kept their roots in Mexico with cross border businesses and relationships living on the border in the Texas Rio Grande Valley. They raised a family and successfully integrated into the United States. Their sons fought in WWII and had successful professional careers. My mother was the youngest and born in the United States, as were some of my uncles.

Some Enchanted Evening

My father was an Indiana farm boy whose ancestors had immigrated at different points from Europe and Britain. My mother and father meeting was unlikely, but definitely kismet. In their long life together they contributed to the US economy and society in many positive ways. My parents believed in higher education. My father and mother were both bi-lingual in Spanish and English. Both earned advanced degrees, as well as making sure all of us kids were able to go to college. My grandparents and family have contributed to the United States as good citizens in many ways.

The song “Some Enchanted Evening” always reminds me of my mother and father. (1958 recording of movie “South Pacific” sung by Giorgio Tozzi)


Thankfully my grandparents and my young uncles fleeing from war in Mexico did not find a “Wall” of rules or a high fence to block their entrance. There was a legal way to arrive and to stay in the United States and work towards becoming naturalized citizens.

Thank you, Pancho Villa and Thank you, America

My appreciation for Pancho Villa is because his revolution helped bring my mother’s family to the United States. I am very fortunate to have been born a citizen of this great nation and I do not take that privilege for granted.

*** Memories from another sibling on what we were told about family story:

“I was told Pancho Villa personally shot one relative’s husband because the relative did not gather up his horses fast enough to turn them over to Pancho Villa’s men. One of Grandfather’s brothers was kidnapped and the family had to ransom him back.

I was told one of the cousin family groups (like a cousin twice removed relationship) saw a dead young woman in the streets with a little girl clinging to her trying to nurse. They grabbed up the child and kept running taking the child with them to America and making her a daughter of their family. When Grandmother was delivering identical twins (our uncles) one twin was breach. Grandfather went out to get a doctor in the town, but every time he came to a street he was asked “Who are you for? Who are you with?”. He feared being shot for a wrong answer. Grandfather was not able to find a physician to come. Grandmother’s mother managed to deliver the twins.” Only a few days old these twins were brought to America and contributed to and loved this great land, even as they also loved their original homeland of Mexico.

Immigration in the United States: New Economic, Social, Political Landscapes with Legislative Reform on the Horizon By Faye Hipsman, Doris Meissner

Library of Congress: The History of Mexican Immigration to the U.S. in the Early 20th Century

The Mexican Revolution and the United States in the Collections of the Library of Congress U.S. Relations with Mexico Post-Columbus, NM

Mexican Migration to the United States Historian Miguel A. Levario, from Texas Tech University, interviewed on 15Minute History

Perspectives on the Mexican Revolution historical collection in the Newberry Research Library in Chicago

USA Immigration and Citizenship 1865-1924 historical collection in the Newberry Research Library in Chicago

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