He was the terror of northern Mexico, a revolutionary par excellence, the man who led the last foreign incursion onto U.S. soil. And now Pancho Villa is being honored with that unique American tribute–a look-alike contest. It’s to take place in a Pilsen restaurant.

Before it begins, I do a little research. A barbershop a block from the restaurant displays in its windows dozens of photographs of the Mexican revolution. Villa stands out in a number of them–leading a cavalry charge, posing with his troops, sitting beside fellow revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. The pictures show a stocky, puffy-faced man (unkind punsters might have called him “Paunch-o”) with mangy hair, a walrus mustache, a heavy growth of beard, and an almost constant scowl–in short, not exactly game-show host material. Why anyone would want to be Pancho Villa’s look-alike escapes me, until I learn that the contest winner receives a free trip to Mexico. That should prove an inducement.

I enter the restaurant directly behind Carlos Cortez, a local artist. Cortez wears a white shirt, jade necklace, and thick blackrimmed glasses. He sports a heavy mustache more white than black. A straw hat, the type Mexican rancheros wear, covers a thick, white ponytail.

This is the place for a Pancho Villa party, all right. Lining the walls are woodcuts of Mexican revolution scenes and cartoons showing imperial Mexican generals, greedy U.S. capitalists, and fearsome revolutionary troops. A large painting at one side shows Villa, his large face outlined by the oval shape of his hat, overlooking a quintet of soldiers.

Contest organizer Jose Gonzalez is ready to greet people as they enter. Gonzalez, a short, stocky man with a wrinkled face and salt-and-pepper mustache, is clad in jeans, a poncho, and a ranchero hat similar to the one Cortez has on. Gonzalez has been organizing artistic and cultural events in Chicago for years. A colorful poster–a montage of revolutionaries, including Villa–for sale at a side table recalls one of his successes, a show of photography from the Mexican revolution held a few years ago at the Field Museum.

So far, this event doesn’t appear to be one of his greater efforts. Money anticipated for promotions failed to come through until the last minute. Only a handful of people–Jose, Carlos and his wife, and a ticket taker–have shown up. Gonzalez remains optimistic nonetheless. “We’re expecting seven or eight contestants,” he claims. “Chuy Negrete, the folksinger, said he’s coming, and somebody named Beto. One of the contestants has already arrived. He’s in the bar in the next room now. Why don’t you talk to him? You can’t miss him.”

The dimly lit bar contains only three patrons. A man in his 60s and a woman companion sit at one end, and at the other is a middle-aged man watching a telenovela, a Spanish-language soap opera, on the bar’s television. He has wavy hair, an aggressive look, and a nose that appears to have been broken at least once.

“Are you excited about your chances?” I ask him.

“What are you talking about?” he asks, making it obvious that I’m interfering with his viewing.

“Aren’t you entering the Pancho Villa contest next door?”

“What contest?”

Fine thing! Only two men in the bar, and I pick the wrong one.

The other man–the contestant–is named Alfredo Arroyo. He recently came out of retirement to serve as acting director for Casa Aztlan, a Pilsen social service agency. He has brushed-back, graying hair and a mustache and wears a jeans jacket, faded Levis, and wing tips.

“Do you think you can win the look-alike contest?”

“No, not really,” he says, “but I’m gonna try. Jose said he needed contestants. And if no one else enters the contest, I win a trip to Mexico.” He turns to his companion. “Do you want another tequila sunshine?”

“Sunrise, hombre, sunrise.” She laughs, “And you want to be Pancho Villa?”

I return to the restaurant. Things haven’t picked up much. A Lion’s Club meeting in a back room has nine people. The contest–including organizers, contestants, reporters, photographers, and children–has drawn only 26. There can’t be any more than a dozen people who have paid the $10 admission charge.

Marta Ayala, a friend of Jose’s, has come dressed for the occasion. An employee of the city’s Latino Affairs Commission, she looks like an adelita (a woman soldier and camp follower) in her blouse, long skirt, and sash crisscrossing her chest. Ayala examines the crowd and remarks sadly, “There’s more press than Panchos here.”

She’s right. Negrete’s car broke down; he cant make it. Beto–whoever he is–is likewise a no-show. So Carlos Cortez does Jose a favor and enters the contest. It doesn’t seem much of a favor. Carlos doesn’t resemble Pancho Villa–or anybody else, for that matter.

That doesn’t stop a Tribune reporter from interviewing him. When she asks about his background, he tells her, “I am an artist and a Wobbly.”

“What’s a Wobbly?” the reporter asks innocently.

Bingo! She asked exactly the question Cortez wanted to hear. “The Industrial Workers of the World represented the common man, those not taken in by the trade unions,” he says, and continues for at least ten minutes. The Trib reporter realizes almost immediately that she’s about to learn more about the Industrial Workers of the World than she ever wanted to know. She decides to be polite and continues questioning him about the Wobblies. Every now and then she writes down a sentence on a page of her notepad, although that page appears destined for the circular file.

The third contestant, meanwhile, sits with two kids in a far corner of the room. “I hope I win. I’d like to visit my family in Toltepec in the state of Mexico,” says Raymundo Flores, a black-haired, stocky man with a large, dark mustache. He wears a yellow shirt and slacks. “The cheapest rates there now are $340 for a round-trip.” Flores works as a researcher with the Latino Institute, a think tank for Hispanic affairs. Thus the three would-be Villas are an artist, a social service director, and a researcher. One wonders if any of the three has even ridden a horse. Pancho Villa must be spinnig in his grave.

The contest is almost 20 minutes late when Gonzalez realizes he can delay it no further in the hope of last-minute entrants. Two yuppies–the man in a madras shirt and wire-rimmed glasses, the woman in a light pink sweater and freshly ironed jeans–seat themselves just before Gonzalez begins his speech.

“We were going to have a jury selection, but instead we’ve decided to have the audience choose the winner. Make your choices based on appearance, costume, sex appeal, whatever,” he says. “Think of Pancho Villa, born in 1878 and assassinated in 1923. He did not smoke, he did not drink, but he was a ladies’ man. He was a true Robin Hood who made fools of the West Point generals. Once he snuck into a foe’s stable and put the horses’ shoes on backwards.”

The three contestants walk around the room. Fred Arroyo, who has now donned a sombrero with a leather chin strap, and Raymundo Flores march. Carlos Cortez swaggers. Then each tells the audience why he resembles Pancho.

“The only thing I can tell you is that I’m the reincarnation of Pancho Villa,” Arroyo boasts. “He died on July 20, 1923, and I was born in August of that year.”

Flores, younger than his fellow contestants by at least 30 years, claims, “I’m the true reincarnation of Pancho Villa. I’m trying to create a revolution. There’s still injustice.”

Cortez declares, “I am not the reincarnation of Pancho Villa, because Pancho Villa never died. I AM PANCHO VILLA!”

The audience votes otherwise. Eight say Arroyo is Pancho Villa, seven are for Flores, and only four side with Cortez. “The winner is Alfredo!” shouts Gonzalez. Arroyo, perhaps the world’s cuddliest Pancho Villa, smiles as he chats with the press.

The man I mistook for Pancho Villa is still in the bar, still glued to the telenovela, with a “Do not disturb” look still firmly in place.

“Is this what you were expecting?” a reporter asks the yuppie woman.

“Well . . .” she hesitates. The couple stands up to leave.

Gonzalez spots them. “Don’t go yet! I’ve got a petition to change the name of ‘Pilsen’ to ‘Aztlan.'” His next project is apparent.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Allen Koss.