Everyday People

David Dorado Romo masterfully weaves together border residents' stories of the Mexican Revolution

A hundred years ago, a massive tidal wave of blood was poised to sweep across the land 60 miles south of here.

From 1910 to 1920, a million people died violently in the Mexican Revolution. Think about it--that's more than the population of the Tucson metropolitan area. Virtually every Mexican lost someone they knew.

The scale of the slaughter is mind-boggling. A sixth of the nation's population was wiped out. Yet from this epic carnage arose the most stable government in Latin America, dominated by a single political party for 70 years. A system of patronage, corruption, co-optation and violence was crafted by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. The party drove the boat for decades, until it was gravely wounded by the election of the Coca-Cola cowboy Vicente Fox. The PRI had become a dinosaur whose excesses and failures could no longer be ignored by the populace. After years of winning by hook or by crook, the PRI was unceremoniously booted out of the president's office in the last election.

Scholars have been busy for decades, scribbling dozens of dry, dusty tomes, picking apart every aspect of Mexico, Mexicans and their bloody revolution. It's what passes for history. Much of it is crap--white people making up stories. It's a lot like what archaeologists and anthropologists do in this country to Native Americans.

But once in a while, a book emerges from the din and whacks you across the head, reminding you that history is in the end about the stories of living, breathing, eating, drinking, loving, farting, sweating, screwing human beings. Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juarez: 1893-1923 is a book that surreptitiously sucks you into the world of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, and before you know it, you're reading history and loving it--you can't put it down.

Author David Dorado Romo comes off as one of those strange, quirky, brilliant folks you read about winning some sort of genius grant. He grew up on the border he writes about, spent time in California, Jerusalem and Florence (Italy), and is an essayist, historian, translator and musician.

The book began when he received a grant to chart the underground cultural life of Juarez and El Paso. He was inspired by an obscure, defunct group of French intellectuals called "Situationnistes" who wandered the streets of Paris in the 1950s trying to chart the city's "zones and ambiences." It was avant-garde; it was wacky; it was very French, but Romo felt they might be on to something. He notes: "Their idea of the city as a koan, an archaeological dig, a puzzle, intrigued me. I too wanted to investigate the unknown nooks and crannies of my city, its hidden poetry." So he began work on what he calls a "psychogeography" of this massive border organism that calls itself Juarez and El Paso.

His wanderings through the streets of the two cities eventually focused in on an obsession with finding traces of Pancho Villa and those who knew him. He wanders into the El Paso Public Library, emerging after three or four years having just read every single newspaper published in El Paso between 1893 and 1923. This guy is hard-core.

Villa eventually led Romo to College Park, Bethesda, Bisbee, Austin, New York, Zacatecas and Chihuahua. But in the end, the book really isn't about Villa the bandit, or Villa the hero/general. It's about the previously untold story of the leading role Juarez and El Paso played in the Mexican Revolution, revealed through the lives of a collection of crazy, bizarre, offbeat individuals living there at the time, including Villa.

History as we learn it in school is about the Big Events and the Big Men who make them happen. But in real life, the majority of people go on living their lives day to day, adapting and surviving as best they can under circumstances frequently beyond their control. El Paso and Juarez were places of great cultural fermentation and activity where two extremely different cultures pressed against each other, as they still do today. Romo seeks to understand history and this fermentation from the bottom up as opposed to the top-down "official version." He calls himself a microhistorian, someone who believes "there's no such a thing as a definitive history--only a series of microhistories." His book weaves together a mosaic of stories from musicians, filmmakers, female bullfighters, anarchists, poets, spies, Chinese illegal aliens, radical feminists, arms smugglers, revolutionaries, counterrevolutionaries, counter-counterrevolutionaries and others.

Ringside Seat to a Revolution is a treat, a history book that is funny, beautifully illustrated, well-written and deadly serious. It's a highly dangerous book--the kind you might read and actually learn something from.

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