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Ringside Seat to a Revolution

Dallas Morning News

Bloodshed on the border
HISTORY: David Dorado Romo captures the Mexican Revolution at full boil

When radical journalist John Reed arrived on the border in 1913 to cover the Mexican Revolution, he wrote that El Paso was “the Supreme Lodge of the Ancient Order of Conspirators of the World. The personnel changes from year to year, but its purpose is always the same – to destroy the existing government of Mexico.”

The revolution was at full boil. Francisco Madero had led his revolt against the country’s old and corrupt dictator, Porfirio Díaz. Victoriano Huerta then murdered Madero and seized power. Venustiano Carranza, Pancho Villa and others rebelled against Huerta. And so it went, year after bloody year, from 1910 until 1920.Ciudad Juárez on the Rio Grande was the epicenter of the tumult. And across the river, El Paso seethed with spies, smugglers, con men, soldiers of fortune, agitators and political schemers looking for a piece of the Mexican action.

In the minds and everyday lives of the two cities’ citizens, the border was almost nonexistent. But whenever politically or commercially convenient, the Texas side became an easy sanctuary for revolutionaries, reactionaries and refugees for whom “the other side” was temporarily dangerous.
Many books have been written about the revolution, and dozens more about its most charismatic, complex, controversial protagonist, Pancho Villa. He fought three battles for control of Juárez and worked out many of his plots in the hotels, offices and ice cream parlors of El Paso. He’s the central figure of this book.

But David Dorado Romo’s Ringside Seat to a Revolution isn’t really about Villa. It’s a different kind of book, perhaps unique. Even its subtitle, An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez: 1893-1923, doesn’t describe it. It’s a tapestry of many small stories of the revolution as it was played in Juárez and El Paso by a huge cast of Mexican, Mexican-American, Anglo-American, European and Asian characters, most of whom you never heard of.

They’re people, says Mr. Romo, whom “official historians have considered peripheral to the main events.” They’re jazz musicians, moviemakers, female bullfighters, anarchists, poets, pool hustlers, photographers, Chinese baseball players, radical feminists, faith healers, journalists of every political stripe, soldiers of fortune and lunatics.

Ringside Seat is about the ordinary citizens of Juárez, who suffered, and the ordinary citizens of El Paso, who bought tickets for spots on rooftops near the Rio Grande where they could sit in the shade, drink lemonade and watch the fighting across the river. El Paso’s newspapers advertised binoculars: “Stay away from the danger zone, but see everything across the river today. It is foolish to expose yourself to any danger in connection with the troubles in our sister republic.”

Death became the ultimate spectacle, in which the about-to-die often embraced their roles. “It was not uncommon for those who were sentenced to be executed before a firing squad to want to make a show of dying proudly, even with a certain sense of style,” Mr. Romo writes. “It was as if dying itself had become an art.”

Some died while bands played operatic music, some while shouting viva for their causes. But dozens of photographs in Ringside Seat reveal them crumpled in dust beside the adobe killing walls, banal and ordinary.

This is an extraordinary book. For those who love the tangled history of Texas and Mexico and their tragic border, it’s a treasure.

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