Mata de los Toros
An Old Battleground
Near Paso de Ovejas

Photographs and Text by John Todd, Jr.

3. Mata de los Toros

The Meaning of the Word "Mata"
In the area around Veracruz, you see a lot of little towns or ranchos with names like Mata de Pita, Mata Redonda, Mata de Otate, etc. There are several meanings for the word "Mata". It could come from the word "matar", to kill, or it could mean "clump of a little plant."

But, around Veracruz, it looks like it might be an old name for a land concession given out during the early days when Mexico was an important colony of Spain. Otherwise, I must confess I still havenīt found a satisfactory explanation for the word "Mata" as it relates to place names.

Two Visits to Mata de los Toros
Mata de los Toros was the first stop along the way.

I had made two visits to the site. The first time was with a friend who was my guide. Several weeks later, we went back with Juan, a friend of his whose father lived near the battle site, and was there the day the ambush occurred.

As we drove out of Paso de Ovejas to Mata de los Toros and there were several the reasons walk the old battle area.

Map for the first Leg of the Trip

To Mata de los Toros
The First Visit
The road was paved and it wasnīt bad.

Just outside of town, within sight of the towers of the church in Paso de Ovejas, there was a small hand painted sign, "Mata de los Toros."

My guide said, "Here we are," so we pulled of to one side of the side of the pavement and stopped.

As we got out of the car, there seemed to be a special silence of the countryside. Not even the wind was blowing.

Off in the distance you could see the twin church towers of Paso de Ovejas and I thought to myself,
The Towers of Paso de Ovejas
"This must be where the ambush and massive killings had happened."

As we got out of the car, I remembered some of the details of the story Doņa Conchita had told about her visit to this same place, a long time ago when she was a child.

When her mother wasnīt watching, Doņa Conchita used to go to Mata de los Toros, but she didnīt have permission. Her mother was fearful of evil spirits of those who had died there in the ambush.

So, on this slightly cloudy day, it was still a little creepy.
Down the Hill at Mata de los Toros
Down the Hill at Mata de los Toros
Up the Hill at Mata de los Toros
The Stories Old People Tell
You can learn a lot from the old people in Veracruz because their stories are true.

Doņa Conchita had been a good friend for several years, and she still enjoys talking about her childhood which was about 70 years ago.

She was born in San Martín (Tlacotepec de Mejía) in the "tierra fría", and as a little girl, she grew up in Paso de Ovejas.

Before electricity came to town, her mother made tortillas by hand before dawn to sell to the people in town before breakfast, and Doņa Conchitaīs job was to bring the firewood to stoke the fire under a huge "comal".
Lots of Thorns
The Story of a Little Girl
When her mother wasnīt looking, she would cross the river and climb over the barbed wire fence to wander among the old "trenches" looking for wild "Chile Piquines" to pick to sell in the market in town.

The reason she remembered her trip that day is because she scratched her leg crossing the barbed wire fence.

On the way back across the river she met some friends and went swimming in the river for awhile before she went home.

She didnīt want to tell her mother where sheīd been because she knew she would be punished.

Later that night, she said, her leg began to hurt and became infected from the river water where sheīd been swimming.
Lots of Thorns
A Dry Pasture
Mata de Los Toros
An Infected Leg
She said that night the swelling was bad and she had a high fever, and finally had to tell her mother she didnīt feel well.

Instead of being upset, her mother immediately took little Conchita to the doctor and after administering injections and medicines, they succeeded in saving her leg from being amputated because of the infection.

Thatīs why Conchita remembered Mata de los Toros. She never went back there alone again.

"Chile Piquín"
It is said the original "Chile Piquín" was really "Chile Pekin", and it originated in China.

The first seeds were brought over on the annual Nao fleets from the Spanish colony of Manila in the Philippines several hundred years ago by the Spanish traders of those days.

Later Cony Sigüenza, who has a PhD. in Botany, wrote to tell me that the name "Piquín" means "really picante", and they arenīt from China! (Thank you, Cony!)
Mata de Los Toros

Las Trincheras
"Las Trincheras" means the "Trenches."

Doņa Conchita talked about the trenches.

"Who built them and what were they for?"

"Well, the old people say that in the time of the Mexican Revolution there was an ambush there and the soldiers built the trenches."

"Later there was a big battle and many people were killed."
Mata de Los Toros
The Mexican Revolution has always been an interesting topic, so that bit of information was saved to check out later.

A Visit to the Casa de la Cultura
During a first trip to Paso de Ovejas for the first time, I went looking for more information about Doņa Conchitaīs story about the "Trenches" and the ambush.

Most of the larger towns in the state of Veracruz have a "Casa de Cultura" where the have information about the local area.

Maybe this is true of other towns in Mexico.
The Carrancistas
Photo courtesy of Jorge Herrera Velasco in his article in www.sepiensa.org.mx
The man at the Casa de la Cultura was helpful, and he went back into the stacks of old books and brought back an old manuscript written by a local author which told the following story:

The Killing Field
Across the river from Paso de Ovejas is a ranch called "Mata de los Toros" and here is how the ambush came about.

During the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20, many of the bandit gangs in the countryside called themselves "revolutionaries".

They gave themselves the names of some of the well known political leaders of the day but they were still bandits.
Photo courtesy of Jorge Herrera Velasco in his article in www.sepiensa.org.mx
There were: the Carranzistas who followed their namesake, Venustiano Carranza; the Zapatistas were named after Emiliano Zapata; and and the Villistas after Pancho Villa.

Each of the groups was self supporting and lived off the land.

Difficult Times
They also frequently fought among themselves and from accounts of their activities, the lines of their political philosophies were often blurred.

People in the countryside around Veracruz have told me the stories their grandparents told them about the Carrancistas riding into their small hard-scrapple ranches to take all the food in town.
Carrancistas Marching into Veracruz
Photo courtesy of Jorge Herrera Velasco in his article in www.sepiensa.org.mx
All the Food Was Gone
They would kill all the cattle and chickens to eat and make the people cook for them. When they left they told the people if there wasnīt any food when they returned, they would kill all the people.

Because of this, much of the population fled the countryside to the cities where they would be safe.

As a consequence, people stopped planting or raising cattle, and by 1916, there was a massive famine in Mexico.

Perhaps one of the important reasons the Revolution stopped was there was no food left in the country.
Las Crucetas de Mata de los Toros
The ambush at Mata de los Toros happened on March 5, 1917, one month after the Constitution of 1917 was signed, Venustiano Carranza was the official President of Mexico and the "Carrancistas" were the "government."

These were rough times and these "revolutionaries" were greatly feared and, in many cases, hated by the people not involved in the conflicts.

It makes you wonder if the motives for the ambush at Mata de los Toros that day might have been more about local issues, and perhaps revenge, rather than anything on a national scale.

In politics, most issues are local anyway.

Meeting a Friend
A Second Trip to Mata de los Toros
Three weeks later, I met my guide and we took off for a second visit to Mata de los Toros.

As we drove to the edge of town my guide said,

"I want you to meet a friend of mine. His father was there the day the ambush happened."

Soon we pulled over in front of what looked like it used to be an old gas station, or maybe a police station at the edge of town. Now it was being used as a corral for cattle.

My guide introduced me to his friend, "Juan".
"My Father was There"
Planning the Trip
Refreshments and Talk
Juan had grown up in the area and had taken mules in the back country.

He knew the names of all the villages, many of which I had never heard of.

So, I went back out to the car and got out the detailed INEGI maps in order to follow him along.

In the meantime, he sent out for some refreshments.

The Zapatistas Won
When the refreshments arrived, Juan and some other friends who had dropped by sat on an over turned plastic bucket and began to tell the story of the ambush.

On March 5, 1917, 300 zapatistas hid behind the rocks along the Camino Real at "Mata de los Toros".

They were waiting to ambush a caravan of 1,500 Carrancistas on horseback.
Answering Questions
"At the time, my father lived on a nearby farm and heard the shooting when it started", Juan said.

No Escape from the Deadly Fire
Across the Camino Real was a hillside that made sharp shooting an easy task as people tried to run up the hill to escape the deadly fire of Mausers and Gatling guns.

The Carranzistas lost. There were 150 dead, 300 wounded, and 50 horses were killed.

The Zapatistas lost 6 men and a small number were wounded.

It is said that for 3 next months, the smell was so bad that the townspeople couldnīt use the Camino Real, and had to detour around area using the road that crossed the river bed.

Finishing up the refreshments, Juan said he would take us to Mata de los Toros and show us where it had happened.
Once a Wall and Now a Little Mound
At Mata de los Toros
When people drive by on the paved road, they whiz by without giving it a second thought.

There wasnīt much traffic, and Juan told us to pull over about half way up the hill.

"Letīs climb through the barbed wire fence and Iīll show you the old Camino Real."

"Itīs down there," he said as he pointed to down the little hill to what looked like a ravine.

"This little mound used to be a wall of rocks about one meter high and itīs where the Zapatistas hid out to fire on the Carrancistas down on the Camino Real."

"But, several years ago the owner sold the rocks and all thatīs left is this long little mound."
The Cornstalks
Cut Down Like Cornstalks
Juan, looked down for a moment and said reverently,

"That day over 150 men and 50 horses were cut down like those cornstalks over there. There were also 300 wounded."

"My father told me that before the ambush, the point men told the townspeople walking on the road not to pass."

"But there were 3 men with mules laden with oranges and bananas on the way from San Martin who didnīt pay any attention and were caught in the middle of the gun fire. "

One man shouted to the others,
Man with a Donkey
"Cut the Mules loose, cut the mules loose and run for your lives!"

Juan told us that 1 of the 3 men died that day, and they placed a cross on the spot where he died.

"Iīll show you where the cross is."

As we crossed over the brow of what used to be the rock wall the Zapatistas hid behind, you couldnīt see much of anything that looked like an old road.

It looked more like a small ravine.

Down below the embankment there was a man was saddling a donkey. He probably lived near by.

Where the Ambush Happened

The Old Camino Real
Walking the Walk
As we walked down the embankment, it almost looked like scenes from some of the old movies about the Mexican Revolution.

"Viva Zapata" and "The Old Gringo" were good, but many of the old movies made in Mexico in the 1940īs and 1950īs in black and white seemed to be more authentic.

When these old movies were made in Mexico, you couldnīt get too far away from the real truth because there were too many people who were still alive who had been there, and these were legends passed down to their grandchildren.
The Old Camino Real
The Camino Real Emerges
When we got to the bottom of the ravine, the Camino Real began to take shape, in spite of many years of being abandoned.

In spite of the tropical rains of many decades, the boundaries of the old road became clearer.

Looking back up at where the wall must have been, and you could almost feel a twinge of fear. You could almost imagine what it a surprise the ambush must have been to the superior forces of the well armed Carrancistas.
Soldaderas Posing with Booty
The Mexican Revolution 1910-1920
This battle is something that shouldnīt have happened according to some historians.

The Constitution of (February 5) 1917, was more of a pact signed among the groups fighting for control of the country.

Perhaps here, near Paso de Ovejas, the people hadnīt heard about it, or had completely ignored the new constitution.

Emiliano Zapata was gunned down in April of 1919.

The Death of Gen. Aureliano Blanquet
Two years later a counter revolution sponsored by Felix Díaz and spearheaded by Aureliano Blanquet was quashed when they drove Blanquet over a cliff near Chavastla, a small rancho near Huatusco.

Finally, Venustiano Carranza, the President and the supposed "winner" of the Mexican Revolution was killed in May of 1920 when he tried to escape the country in secret.
Soldaderas on a Train in the North
The ambush here at Mata de los Toros, was a minor event for those dangerous days.

Rather than a Revolution, it seemed more like a civil war.

As we walked along the ravine that was once the Camino Real these images came to mind, and I wondered what it had really been like.

Powerful Images from Old Newspapers
One day, after reading some of the old newspapers about the death of Aureliano Blanquet, I went over to the Carranza Museum in Veracruz located inside the Naval Museum.
Old Newspaper
The Veracruz newspaper accounts of April 1919, were full of the details of Zapataīs death, then came the accounts of how the federal soldiers had chased Blanquet over a cliff.

Rather than lug the body back on a very hot day, the soldiers cut off his head and went over to the train station at El Camaron, Veracruz and took the head to Veracruz for public display.

Later, the headless body was buried in the cemetery at the Hacienda el Coyol which isnīt far from Huatusco.

In the skirmish where, Blanquet was killed, Gen. Francisco Alvarez was wounded in both legs and brought to Veracruz.

Alvarez received a death sentence that was appealed all the way to the President of Mexico, but the appeal was denied.

A few days later, Alvarez faced a firing squad, sitting in a chair.
Soldaderas on a Train in the North
The Naval Museum
My friend Maestre Vidal at the Carranza Room of the Naval Museum knows a lot about the history of the Mexican Revolution, and one day we were talking about it.

I remarked to Vidal, "The people of those days were surrounded by violence and itīs amazing how they seemed to keep on functioning in their daily lives. "

Vidal replied, "You know, if you or I were to witness an execution by firing squad, we would probably faint from the experience."

"In those days, I guess people didnīt think much about things like that."

Now the Mexican Revolution began to look a little different.
Revolutionaries and Their Women
Like a Swarm of Locusts
Then, in an old Mexican movie, after a battle the "soldaderas", or as the women following the soldiers were called, would descend upon the battlefield like a swarm of locusts looking for money, wristwatches, boots, and anything of value to take from the bodies of the dead.

As we walked along, I was remembering all that I had read about the Mexican Revolution, and the images of the black and white movies made in Mexico.

Being in a place like this was like being on the set of a movie youīve already seen.
Outdoor Cantina in Paso de Ovejas
A Postscript
My buddy told me heīd heard a story told by the old men in town that after the battle, the Zapatista General and his men went into Paso de Ovejas to celebrate with wine, women, and song.

"Itīs not a large town, and everybody in town knew where they were."

Later in the evening, some of the surviving Carranzistas entered the cantina where the general was drinking and gunned them all down.

Thatīs the final chapter in massacre of Mata de los Toros and how it all finally ended.

It is not even in the history books any more.
Looking for the Cross
The Cross is Gone
Juan led us to a certain spot near a coyol palm tree.After rustling around in the dead leaves, he said,

"It doesnīt look like the Cross is here any more. This is where it used to be."

"It was large and made of wood, but I guess it was a long time ago. You canīt expect things like that to last forever."

With that, we came back to the 21st Century. Mexico is very different now.
Donkey in the Camino Real
The Man with a Donkey
Juan knew the man with the donkey, and we stopped and talked awhile.

The man was digging a water well by hand, and wanted to show us his progress.

Juan said in this area, water was always plentiful, but in recent years somehow the source had dried up.

I looked down into the dry hole, and it was deep. The man proudly told us it was 7 meters deep, and it looked about a meter and a half wide. It didnīt look very safe either.
A Donkey in the Camino Real
Time to Go
After we had talked to the man, we realized it was time to go.

On days like this, itīs easy to let time get away from us.

As we walked back up the ravine, we could more clearly see that this was the old Camino Real, a highway that was in use in the year 1600, and probably long before that, too.

When we crossed between the wires the barbed wire, I remembered the story Doņa Conchita told me and was careful not to get scratched.
A Donkey on the Camino Real
Almost Forgotten
And somehow the Mexican Revolution looks different once you've seen where an almost forgotten event occurred.

Today many people in Paso de Ovejas donīt remember the ambush because many other things happened in later years.

Now even the cross of the old muleteer is gone, and maybe itīs better that way.

The next time you see a movie about the Mexican Revolution, you might remember a visit that day to the Battle Site of Mata de los Toros.

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Now an Abandoned Hacienda

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