Author photo

By Pat Gracey
contributing writer 

She knew Pancho Villa

The Spirit of Tehachapi


May 13, 2023


Artist's depiction of Pancho Villa.

Isabel Cortez Cervantes was a well known and respected citizen of this community until her death in 1991 at age 87.

In 1914 when she was only 11 her father, Odilon Cortez, immigrated his family from the small Mexican village of Cosio in Aguascalientes, to Tehachapi. Much lumber was being taken from the Cummings Mountain area and sent to Los Angeles and the work was good. Another vital reason for the move was the regular raids on villages in their area by the notorious bandit, Pancho Villa; a very dangerous outlaw. The life she left in Mexico had its interesting moments, and a few incidents should not be forgotten.

After her mother, Feliz Cortez, died, Isabel and her two younger sisters, Natividad and Petra, lived with their paternal grandparents, Florencia and Mauricio Cortez. Her father was already working in the United States in Tehachapi but the children were still in Mexico. Her grandfather, before his death, had been a judge in the small community and had owned a fine farm with orchards and vineyards, which the grandmother and her sons continued to run.

Their village had been raided more than once by Villa. He would ride in with his men and kill those who resisted him, then loot and burn the stores and rob the homes of the rich leaving what they did not want in the streets for the poor to take. He would call to them saying, "Venga y tomalo!" (Come and get it!) He fancied himself as somewhat of a Mexican Robin Hood but there was a cruel streak deep within. The grandmother's home was saved from looting because some of Villa's men knew of her generosity to the poor people of the village. Isabel's duty was to give one scoop of corn and two of beans to any person coming to the door asking for food.

One day, she and her grandmother walked to the local store to buy some kerosene for their lamps. They heard sounds of horses coming and voices shouting, "Villa is coming! Villa is coming!" as the riders passed. The storekeeper told the grandmother to hurry home out the back way and hide her teenage children: sons, Thomas and Donato and daughter Mercedes.

Villa was known for conscripting both young men and women for his army. The storekeeper also left and went into hiding and escaped being killed, although his store was burned.

Isabel recalled that one day Villa sent word by his Captain to her grandmother's house and said that he and some of his officers would like to come to dinner at her home the next night; and that he would send the meat for the meal. He sent one of his men with two geese, taken from a neighboring farm, for the dinner.

Isabel said, "They made a funny sound when they walked." No doubt they wore spurs on their boots. It was not necessary for her to hide as she was just a child but she stayed in the kitchen and did not join them at the table. She could hear them laughing and conversing.

When the meal ended, Pancho Villa, thanked Florencia for her hospitality, but offered to pay for the meal. She declined and they left. "Go lock the door and the gate!" she told Isabel as she hurried to tell her teenage children it was safe to come from their hiding places.

But Isabel forgot to lock the gate and she heard them returning. "Go back!" she called. "They are coming again!" There was just enough time for the young people to hide again and Villa appeared saying to Florencia, "One of my men picked some of your pomegranates as we were leaving. When I come as a guest to someone's house, I do not take anything. I will pay for the pomegranates." The grandmother said it was not at all necessary, but he insisted. He paid her with Pancho Villa Script, which he printed himself.

Later the Mexican government officials came to assess the damage incurred by Villa's raid. They posted a notice that anyone who had any items in their homes from the local shops would be shot if they could not produce a receipt for the goods. The people frantically hid things, even throwing them down the wells. Some of the citizens were shot which elevated Villa, even further, to hero status. Many statues of Pancho Villa remain in Mexico today. Samples of his "homemade" currency can also be found in museums.

Thus, the reason to immigrate to the United States. Isabel, her sisters, her grandmother, her aunt and uncles were to come to Tehachapi. Her father had already gained his citizenship. He came to Mexico and arranged for his mother to sell the property and come to the U.S. They traveled riding in a box car to California.

As an adult Isabel was hired as a cook at Monolith Cement Company to serve the owner, Coy Burnett, and his executive officers, their meals. She retired after many years of preparing her legendary fare. She, her husband, whose name was Dolores Cervantes, and three children, Nina, Laura and Gilbert, lived in the same house, once owned by her father, on Tehachapi Boulevard. The house she came to as a child of 11 in 1914 still stands.


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