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A look at the life of John Reed, the “gringo loco” who befriended Pancho Villa

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
Born on Oct. 22, 1887, in a mansion in Portland Oregon, there was little in John Silas Reed’s early years that would hint to the life he would choose. Photo: Courtesy

John “Jack” Silas Reed was a Harvard educated Journalist who gained notoriety as a war correspondent and later became best known for his coverage of Russia’s October Revolution. 

But in Mexico, Reed is remembered as “that crazy gringo” who witnessed the Mexican Revolution and befriended Pancho Villa. 

Like Reed, Pancho Villa started his life in a way very different from how he would ultimately be remembered. Photo: Courtesy

Initially a bandit, Francisco “Pancho” Villa dominated the meeting of revolutionary generals that helped create a coalition government. He became allies with Emiliano Zapata who, like himself, saw land reform as one of the most important goals of the revolution. 

A famous photograph of Francisco Villa and Emiliano Zapata after they took Palacio Nacional on Dec. 6, 1914.

In 1913, Reed spent four months with Villa and his Constitutionalist Army when it defeated Federalist forces in the city of Torreón — thus opening the way for an advance toward Mexico City. 

During this time, Reed would record his experiences that would ultimately be published in Metropolitan Magazine and later make their way into his book, Insurgent Mexico. 

Aside from Villa himself, Reed was well-liked by the rank-and-file soldiers, most of whom had little previous military experience and referred to him as “amigazo Juan” or “Juanito.”

The admiration was reciprocal as Reed wrote in one of his journal entries, “These men lack even the most basic of education, but possess such rich poetry and folklore. During my time in Europe, I never saw men braver than these Mexicans, save perhaps the Austrians.”

A staunch Communist, Reed felt great empathy with Mexico’s revolutionary struggle and was often lambasted in American media for his stance that Washington should not offer support to the dictatorial Mexican state led by Porfirio Díaz

1917 political cartoon about the Zimmermann Telegram. Photo: Courtesy

“The United States hates the revolution because Mexico’s mines, rail lines, and oil fields have made slaves of Mexicans and barons of many Americans. It’s no wonder that every Mexican I have come across, man, woman, and child is with Villa.”

The involvement of the United States in the Mexican Revolution was varied and at times seemingly contradictory, first supporting and then opposing Mexican regimes during the first couple decades of the 20th century. 

Twice during the Revolution, the U.S. sent troops into Mexico to occupy Veracruz in 1914 and to northern Mexico in 1916 in a failed attempt to capture Pancho Villa.

During the revolt against Victoriano Huerta, Villa recruited Americans, Canadians, and other foreign fighters and mercenaries in what became known as “Villa’s American Legion of Honor.” Notable members of this legion included the American machine gun expert Sam Dreben, more famously known as “the fighting Jew,” and Swedish artillery expert Ivor Thord-Gray. 

Members of Pancho Villa’s American Legion of Honor. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Pancho Villa was assassinated in an ambush while visiting Paral, most likely under orders of a political enemy, newly elected President Alvaro Obregón. 

Reed died in Moscow of typhus on Oct. 17, 1920.  After receiving a hero’s funeral he was entombed in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis, one of only three Americans to have been granted such an honor.  Photo: Courtesy
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