Crime and grit: A retrospective collection from the don of Chicano noir

An uneven but often rewarding collection from one of the West’s masterful storytellers.

 

The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories is the first collection of short fiction from the Denver-based writer Manuel Ramos, often called the “Godfather of Chicano Noir.” Their settings range from El Paso to rural Colorado and the megalopolis of Los Angeles, and from the Mexican Revolution to the 1950s and the present. The mostly Chicano characters include lawyers, veterans and a prostitute, with a guest appearance by Jack Kerouac. Written between 1986 and 2014, the stories reflect the stylistic development of Ramos, author of the Edgar Award-nominated The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz, among other acclaimed crime novels.

General Pancho Villa leads his troops during the Battle of Ojinaga in 1914, which was filmed for the movie The Life of General Villa. The film included scenes of genuine battles from the Mexican Revolution. Villa’s skull was stolen from his grave in 1926.
John Davidson Wheelan /Archivo General de la Nación (Mexican General National Archive)


Standouts include the eponymous “The Skull of Pancho Villa,” in which the skull, nicknamed “Panchito,” that supposedly belonged to the “Robin Hood of Mexico” is stolen in an act of revenge. In “Bad Haircut Day,” an ambitious but heretofore ethical Denver attorney finds himself covering up a murder. A wheelchair-bound former baseball player thwarts a burglar in “Sentimental Value.”

Almost without exception these stories involve crime, law enforcement and desperation. Ramos is a master at creating atmosphere, especially a 1940s private-eye feel, moodily cinematic in black and white and more than 50 gritty shades of gray. You can almost hear Bogie growl at the end of  “No Hablo Inglés”: “When it snows, my shoulder aches, and I smell copal and marigolds.” And what could be more “Guy Noir” in flavor than the first sentence of “When the Air Conditioner Quit”: “When the air conditioner quit, Torres shot it.”

Most of the stories reflect a cynical humor. From “White Devils and Cockroaches”: “Gonzalez made a living representing crazies, weirdos, misfits, losers and plain folks who got taken. … Each morning he reminded himself he was not a burned out liberal who took up space on legal aid’s payroll. … He was an ace attorney for the underdog.”



This collection is uneven, but that’s not surprising in a literary retrospective that represents a considerable body of work from its beginning through its coming of age as Ramos becomes a master storyteller. He tells the stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, their lives often complicated by prejudice, just doing the best they can in los Estados Unidos.

The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories
Manuel Ramos
181 pages,
softcover: $17.95.
Arte Público Press, 2015.
High Country News Classifieds
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • VERDE RIVER PROJECTS TECHNICIAN
    The Verde River Projects Technician (VRPT) provides technical assistance to Verde River Program staff in implementation of the Verde River Streamflow Monitoring Protocol. This consist...
  • 8 FIELD PROJECT SPECIALISTS (POSITION FORMERLY TITLED TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISOR)
    Are you passionate about environmental conservation and connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with outdoor leadership...
  • SOUTHWEST REWILDING ADVOCATE
    WildEarth Guardians is seeking a full-time advocate in our Wild Places Program to advance a new paradigm of forest management and protection based on the...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....