The house smelled of a rich dinner aroma at the Nieto home in Monterey Park, California. It was Andres Nieto’s modest and inviting home, the patriarch of a family deeply rooted in a Mexican past and branching out into an American future. Andres’ children and grandchildren were milling about. The playful sounds of a toddler boy erupted from the other room and the curious mind of Andres’ granddaughter, Avery, brought her to the table where her “abuelito” was being interviewed.
Her wide, 9-year-old eyes gazed at the binders, books, and yellowed documents that littered the dining room table. Was she proud of her rich family background? She shrugged her shoulders. Did she know how important her great-grandfather was in Mexican history? She looked down at her shoes. It is for Avery, her parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and future children and grandchildren for whom Andres chose to document the legacy of his father. “My goal is for my family to know who their grandfather is; it’s not to make money,” Andres says.
His ambition started in 1993 when his mother, Eulalia Nieto, turned 90 years old. The family was throwing a large celebration and Andres wanted to display much of the Nieto family history at the party. As he began sifting through the boxes and boxes of memorabilia, he thought to himself, “I could write a book.” So, over the next five years, he wrote three: Un Villista Mas, Los Olvidados; Norte y Sur, La Revolucion Mexicana; and Chihuahua, A Traves de los Anos. While the latter two contain important chronicles of Mexican history and proud acknowledgements of the contributions of the people of Chihuahua, Mexico-home of the Nietos-it’s Un Villista Mas that holds the most sentimental value to the author because it’s the untold story of Andres’ father, a Colonel in Pancho Villa’s army and trusted member of the Division del Norte.
Historic accounts vary on the history of Francisco “Pancho” Villa, born Doroteo Durango. He is touted as a charismatic leader, a military genius, and a Mexican Robinhood-stealing from the rich and giving to the poor and oppressed of Mexico. Other accounts characterize him as a murderer, robber, and bandit. Regardless of the point of view, few can argue against the fact that Villa was an instrumental and influential figure in the shaping of Mexican history.
The Mexican Revolution, the first major armed revolution of the 20th century, began to unseat longtime dictator Porfirio Diaz. Once that feat was accomplished, it progressed into a Civil War, with Villa largely fighting for the rights of the oppressed masses against the governmental powers that continued to promote autocracy.
Andres’ father, Jose Nieto, fought alongside Villa as a colonel in la Division del Norte, and although the Nieto name may not carry the same infamy as Villa’s, Jose Nieto-and the other Villistas-were no less a part of the historic change. “They were all forgotten,” Andres says. “People only talked about Villa, Villa, Villa, but who talked about the others? Nobody. Villa didn’t do all this on his own.”
The Mexican Revolution was over in 1920 when Jose Nieto was just 26 years old. The government issued official letters to the Villistas, officially announcing the end of the revolution and welcoming the soldiers to a civilian life. The letter, which Andres has a copy of, called for the Villistas to encourage peace among the people of Mexico. “They were no longer guerrillas, there was no more revolution,” Andres says about the men who fought with Villa. “They went home to their families.”
Four years later, on October 29, 1924, Jose Nieto married Eulalia. Villa attended their nuptials-the end of the revolution did not mark the end of their friendship. The couple had eight children and raised their family in Chihuahua, Mexico.
Although the days of fighting were over, Andres and his siblings were still very aware of their father’s former status as a general in the Division del Norte. Jose Nieto was not a boastful man, nor was he a hardened veteran. He never raised his voice, never hit the children, and was very peaceful and full of advise. Jose used his tales of battle to teach his children the importance of fighting oppression, the value of knowing where you came from, and the meaning of living a tranquil and consequential life.
Andres remembers his daily routine as a boy: He would return from school and play with his siblings until about 5 p.m. then his mother would gather all the children and the family of 10 would sit down for dinner, together. After dinner, the children would do their homework with their father while their mother washed the dishes. When the chores were finished, the family would again gather in the living room and listen to stories, either on the radio or told by the former colonel. “We didn’t get television in Chihuahua until 1955 and even then, we couldn’t afford it,” Andres says. “We listened to our father or to the radio. We were close. We weren’t always in front of the television-there was no Hannah Montana.”
Jose would tell of daring adventures and tragic defeats. Andres remembers the tale of the battle of Agua Prieta, when the Villistas marched into the Mexican mountains in the dead of winter. They endured hunger, frostbite, and disease for 30 days, only to suffer defeat at the hand of the opposition. “We would ask him, ‘And then what happened papa?'” Andres says. Overshadowing the tragic defeats were the success stories-not only victories on the battlefield but the overall change the country underwent as a result. Because of the revolution, the first Mexican constitution was written in 1917. The country’s rich and elite also became more aware of the power and determination of the everyday man: Men and women who were formerly looked upon as poor, second-class citizens with no social standing.
Fortunately, Jose was not a part of the oppressed population because he was the grandchild of American John Huston. Huston was the first counsel stationed in Mexico as part of his important American political position. During his time there, Huston met and fell in love with a beautiful Mexican woman. Their daughter, Juana Huston met and married Andres Nieto, to whom Jose was born.
Jose was well educated and planned to dedicate his life to the priesthood. In the last year of his studies, Jose jumped out the window and ran back home, convinced he had a higher calling, just not as a father in the Catholic Church. Not long after, Jose saw the oppression of the Mexican people and was motivated to fight for change. He joined the ranks of Villa, where he was lovingly referred to as the “gringo.” Although he was not among the oppressed, Jose knew that all men had the right to pursue happiness and success. “People don’t know why Villa and men like my father fought so hard,” Andres says. “They have forgotten. It was the end of a dictatorship: the beginning of democracy. Look at all that has changed as a result.” It is the spirit of community involvement, the power to affect change, and the simple act of leading by example that Andres learned from being the “son of a revolutionary.” Jose was a family man. He set a good example for his children and taught him the importance of social contribution.
Jose chose to stay in Mexico while Andres ventured to America with the same sense of adventure his father had. He and his wife came in 1955 and eventually settled in a house in Monterey Park, where they’ve lived for 64 years.
Andres followed in his father’s tradition, affecting change on a smaller scale in the community and at home. Andres has a poster board of some of the awards and acknowledgments he has received as an active member of society. He has raised motivated and successful children who continue the family tradition by taking on leadership positions in their own social circles, from high-profile coaching positions to lesser-publicized accomplishments of dedication and commitment to family. “I live my life for society, for the community,” Andres says. “I live my life as a family man, not one who is always in the bars.”
Family is obviously a major part of the retired aerospace machinist’s daily life. The dining room is filled with pictures of his sons and daughters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Trophies and plaques line the shelves and Andres happily points out the accomplishments of his offspring.
Avery came back to the table, curious as to why a stranger was still talking to her grandfather after nearly two hours. She looked at the documents again inquisitively. She sat at the table and listened to her grandfather’s stories and watched his proud expression as he spoke of discipline in the home, the significance of turning off the television and talking, the lost practice of eating together as a family. He regaled in his times with his father, mother, and siblings and he remembered the countryside of his native Chihuahua. “For me, Mexico is a beautiful memory of my youth and my upbringing,” Andres says. “I don’t have one regret.
Avery ignored the distractions of the other room and started to flip through the pages of one of the binders. She sees all the documents are written in Spanish. Finally she chimes in, “All my uncles speak Spanish but not me. I’m trying to learn from my grandpa.” Andres smiled. Inspiring curiosity about where they come from, learning about their roots, ancestry, and language is his purpose. Goal accomplished.