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January 27, 2010 > Ernesto Nava, last known son of Pancho Villa

Ernesto Nava, last known son of Pancho Villa

By Simon Wong

Hayward City Council adjourned its January 19 meeting in memory of 94 year-old Ernesto Nava who passed away on December 31, 2009. The city will liaise with his family to plant a tree in his honor and memory.

The Nava family has been associated with Russell City, the City of Hayward and surrounds for six generations. Ernesto Nava was born in Nazas, Durango (Mexico) on July 4, 1915 and fled to Las Cruses, New Mexico, in June 1917 with his mother Macedonia Ramirez. His father was the Mexican revolutionary general Jose Doroteo Arango Arambula, better known as Pancho Villa (June 5, 1878 - July 20, 1923).

"Some estimate Villa had as many as 20 children. He is said to have married some ladies and courted others," explained Hayward businessman and community volunteer Sam Nava, Ernesto's son. "The most-documented wife is Maria Luz Corral de Villa who established the Historical Museum of the Mexican Revolution. She died in 1981."

Initially, Ernesto took the name Ramirez but assumed his stepfather's after his Catholic mother, wishing to be accepted into the Apostolic Church, wed Juan Pablo Nava, the friend who had helped her and her son take sanctuary in Las Cruses. At the time, the boy might have become a target for Pancho Villa's enemies had they known of his existence.

Aged 19, Ernesto came to California with 50 cents in his pocket. He stopped briefly in Los Angeles before reaching the Central Valley where he worked as a crop picker. His wife, Inez, joined him in 1936/37 and his mother followed several months later. By 1939, he had moved to Pescadero where Sam Nava, now aged 69, and a second daughter were born. In 1943, shortly after his eldest daughter moved from Las Cruses, the family moved to Russell City to be close to the Apostolic Church where they worshipped and the shipyards where Ernesto worked.

His mother informed him of his true identity, aged eight, and instructed him to remain silent on the matter. Well into the 1950s, it was considered unsafe to divulge anything as there were many in Mexico and the US whose families had suffered during the Revolution.

"My father revealed his ancestry about 12 years ago. He travelled to Mexico with a half-brother and wanted to see his hometown. Word spread he was Pancho Villa's son and created a sensation. He confirmed the rumor calculating it was safe to do so four generations after the Revolution," said Sam Nava. "Thereafter, he returned annually for the week-long celebration of Pancho Villa Days. They did a lot for him."

This was not his first visit to Mexico since 1917. Aged 13, he had returned to Chihuahua from where he set off on horseback and retraced Pancho Villa's footsteps, speaking with locals and listening to their stories about his father whilst keeping his true identity a secret. As an adult, he visited Mexico City or Acapulco, occasionally, but only returned to Durango in his early 80s.

"Many people ask if he had to prove his identity. Records were lost when the church in Nazas burned down about 40 years ago. However, people saw the resemblance between Villa and Ernesto. In the 1950s, I worked with my father. Clients, some of whom had ridden with Villa, noticed the timbre of his voice and physical likeness. My father would simply tell them people always commented. Had Villa lived, he probably would've looked like my father."

Ernesto earned his living as a plasterer, the first Hispanic contractor in the area, and had a store in Russell City. His generosity toward anyone in need did not contribute to the store's success. The same was true of his restaurant and garage businesses in the 1950s. He continued his trade until he was 80 years old.

"Ernesto was a legend in his own right. He accomplished a tremendous amount without resting on his father's laurels. He was super-human. He grew up during the Great Depression. In New Mexico, they say they'd never had a stronger man as a teen. In the shipyard, he was the only man able to load railroad ties by himself. Fellow crop pickers describe him as a 'human machine.' He was a 'human forklift' before forklifts were invented. The word 'macho' didn't gain currency until I'd grown up; others use it to describe my father in the 1930s and 1940s. He was a strong, hard-working man," reflected Sam Nava who has followed his father's example.

"He never used the words 'retire,' 'tired,' 'can't,' 'don't know' or 'sick.' He maintained they should not be in a dictionary," he concluded.

Funeral services were conducted at the Apostolic Church, 33700 Alvarado-Niles Road, Union City at 6.30 p.m. on January 11 and at 10 a.m. on January 12. Ernesto Nava Villa was laid to rest at the Chapel of The Chimes, 32992 Mission Boulevard, Hayward.

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