A Foray Into Short Fiction With Denver’s Own ‘Godfather of Chicano Noir’

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Photo: Manuel Ramos, Author (HV)
Author Manuel Ramos.

He's been called the "Godfather of Chicano noir." Denver author Manuel Ramos has written eight novels and won two Colorado Book Awards. His newest release is a collection of short fiction. It is called "The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories," and like his other work, these tales brim with mystery, suspense and drama -- and a bit of social commentary. He spoke with Colorado Matters host Andrea Dukakis.

Read an excerpt:

Reprinted from THE SKULL OF PANCHO VILLA AND OTHER STORIES by Manuel Ramos with permission of Arte Público Press. Copyright (c) Manuel Ramos, 2015.


You’ve heard the story, maybe read something about it in the newspaper or a magazine. How Pancho Villa’s grave was robbed in 1926 and his head taken. Emil Homdahl, a mercenary and pre-CIA spy, what they used to call a soldier of fortune, is usually "credited" with the theft. He was arrested in Mexico but quickly released because of lack of evidence — some say because of political pressure from north of the border. Eventually, the story goes, he sold his trophy to Prescott Bush, grandfather of you-know-who. And now the skull is stashed at a fancy college back East. The story has legs, as they say. There are websites about Pancho and his missing skull, and I heard about a recent book that runs with the legend, featuring Homdahl, a mystery writer, and a bag full of skulls, all the way to a bloody shoot-out ending. Haven’t read it, so don’t know for sure.

That’s all bull, of course. Oh yeah, Villa’s corpse is minus a skull but Homdahl never had it, the poor sap. The thing is that everyone overlooks one detail. There was another guy arrested with Homdahl, a Chicano from Los Angeles by the name of Alberto Corral. I’m serious—you can look it up. He was quickly released, too, and then he disappeared off the historical page, unlike Homdahl, who apparently liked the attention and actually enjoyed his grave-robbing notoriety. Corral’s role in the tale is given short shrift, something we Chicanos understand all too well. If he’s remembered at all, it’s as Homdahl’s flunky, the muscle who dug up the grave or broke into the tomb, depending on the version of the story, and who was paid with a few pesos and a bottle of tequila while the gringo made twenty-five grand off old man Bush.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Gus Corral is off on another wild hair, this time about his great-grandfather. And I could do that, easy. But that’s not it. Whatever happened eighty years ago, happened. I don’t know why Grandpa Alberto ended up with the skull and I don’t care. No one ever told me how he was connected to Homdahl or whatever possessed him to want to steal Pancho’s head, and I don’t expect to find out. All I know is that the skull has been taken care of by the Corral family for as long as I can remember. Wrapped in old rags and then plastic bags and stored in various containers like hatboxes, cardboard chests and even a see-through case designed for a basketball, you know, for sports collectors. Whispered about by the kids who caught glimpses of the creepy yellowish thing whenever the adults dragged it out, usually on the nights when the tequila and beer and whiskey flowed long and strong. 

My grandmother Otilia sang to it, the "Corrido de Pancho Villa," of course. The tiny, dark old woman, hunched under a shawl and often with a red bandana wrapped around her gray, fine hair, drank slowly from a glass of whiskey while she stared at the box that held Panchito, that’s what she called it, for several minutes, and meanwhile all the kids waited for what we knew was coming. And then, without warning, Otilia would rip off the box, grab the skull, expose it to the light, and simultaneously burst into weepy lyrics about the Robin Hood of Mexico. One of my uncles, also into his cups, would join in by strumming loudly on an old guitar. Shouts and whoops and ay-yi-yis erupted from whoever else was in the house and the little kids would scatter from the room, shrieking and crying, while us older ones were hypnotized by the dark eye sockets and crooked teeth of the skull of Pancho Villa. 

You can imagine what a jolt it was when the skull was stolen from my sister’s house. 

Corrine — she’s the oldest, and the flakiest — called me one night, around midnight. Not all that unusual, if you know Corrine. One crisis after another, I swear. One of her boys (they all got brats of their own but Corrine still calls them her boys) needs to get bailed out and do I have about five hundred dollars? Or she slipped and banged up her knee and can’t walk or drive and can I pick her up for bingo? Or the latest love of her sad life went out for a six-pack and hasn’t come back, about a week ago, and could I go look for him? 

I knew she shouldn’t have the skull but she is the oldest and when only the three of us remained — my younger sister, Maxine, is cute and naïve (I didn’t say stupid) but that’s another story — Corrine claimed rights to the skull and took it out of our parents’ house before Max or I knew what was happening. Which was ironic. Corrine always said she hated that "disgusting cosa." But there she was, all over Panchito like he was gold. I kind of understood. Panchito was one of the few things our parents left us and just about the only connection we had to the old-timers of the family.