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Pancho and Tom — how the Villa statue came to Tucson

A note: Thanks to Bunny Fontana a valuable source when it comes to Tucson’s history.

The United States has been relatively free of hostile invasion by land. I can think only of two invaders: the British in 1812 and General Francisco Villa in 1916. It might seem strange that Tucson would have a monument to the Mexican invader. If you have been in this town long enough, it seems like a good fit.

It was not always so. There was a time that Tucsonans would fume over the heroic statue of Villa in the downtown Veinte de Agosto park, which is less a park and more a traffic island on Congress. But the Villa monument has endured, surviving furious critics and defacement. It is here because former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt did not turn down the gift from Mexico, and Tucsonan Tom Price — a war hero —made it possible.

I called Babbitt recently and asked him about how the statue made its way to Tucson. He told me that he had a visit from journalists who wanted to know if Arizona would accept a friendship gift — a statue of Villa. Babbitt said he did not think Maricopa County would welcome such a statue, but he said he would call around and speak to people; he wondered if Pima County might accept it.

One person Babbitt consulted was Bernard “Bunny” Fontana. Bunny said he thought it was not a particularly good idea. He explained in an e-mail:

“I don’t recall the year, but when Babbitt was still governor we were both attending what for a few years was an annual fiesta held at Coronado National Memorial on the border on the south side of the Huachuca Mountains. It was there he told me about the statue that had been offered to Arizona and asked if I thought Tucson would be the proper place for it.  As I remember the conversation, I told him most Tucson Mexicans had close ties to Sonora, especially considering that Tucson was a part of Sonora until 1854. I also said Villa, while popular in Chihuahua and probably elsewhere in Mexico, was roundly disliked by Sonorans because of his actions during the time he spent fighting there.  The most egregious example is what he visited on the people of San Pedro de la Cueva.  He executed the village priest and all the adult males, 84 people in all.”

“It’s a pretty chilling story.

“My contact with Babbitt on that occasion was very brief and informal. But I was surprised when I learned the statue was coming to town.”

Babbitt told me he got a call out of the blue from Tom Price, then the city of Tucson’s director of operations. Babbitt said Price told him that there would be no problem in bringing General Villa to Tucson. He would take care of it.

Sure enough the Julian Martinez sculpture of Villa astride a muscular horse resides downtown in what is now called the Veinte de Agosto Park where it mostly watches over the homeless. He was at ground zero during the Occupy Tucson protest. Protesters had set up a makeshift tent city in the traffic median where the statue resides.

Between 800 and 1,000 gathered for the installation and dedication of the statue. Mayor Lewis Murphy was pissed off. He boycotted the ceremony, proclaiming Villa was a bandit. Normally, Murphy would have been there because he was natural at ceremonies. He was tall, possessed a soothing baritone voice, distinguished gray hair and a George Hamilton tan. He was a hail fellow well met, a devout Republican, sort of a mayoral Warren G. Harding. He served 16 years. An overpass is named for him.

The statue is beautiful. It was created by a Mexico City sculptor, Julian Martinez.  I think the horse’s neck is out of whack in terms of perspective. But Martinez seems to have had a problem with horse necks. He also made the Kino statute on Kino Boulevard where the good priest is depicted astride a horse whose neck could not slink lower and seems for all the world about to croak.

Tom Price was a Mexican-American born in Tucson and raised on the south side. He was a burly Marine who won five ribbons in Korea, including Inchon, Chosin Resevoir and the two Chinese spring offensives.

He died in February of 1988 after an eight-month battle against leukemia. He was 57. Price presided over the city’s sanitation department where his guys developed a reputation for throwing trash fast, roaring through alleys and getting it done in time for lunch.

He ran the operations department, which included not just sanitation, but also communications, fleet and street  maintenance and care of public buildings. At the time he died, he was in charge of 801 employees and a $32 million budget. He was in every sense a public servant.

The Villa statue used to provoke protests. Now it just presides over them.