On both sides of the Mexico-US border, ghosts exert an influence upon my family’s sense of the past. And as a historian, I know that the most truthful stories make room for phantasms.
My great-grandfather, Sebastián Vargas hijo, rode with Pancho Villa. He was Villa’s treasurer in the Estado del Norte during the Mexican Revolution. He traveled from Chihuahua to New York to oversee the printing of the sabanas Villa used for paying his army. Some say that Sebastián didn’t always circulate all the money he printed.
By 1916, with the US government rankled by Villa’s antics, and Villa losing battles on the field, in his paranoia he began to turn against his friends. Sebastián, imprisoned ahead of Villa’s dispatch of orders to the firing squad, turned himself into a zombie.
The drug he consumed in the jail, cocaine tucked into the gums, didn’t kill him, but made him sick enough that the guards permitted his wife and daughter one last visit. The women dressed Sebastián – now among the living dead – in their own clothing, then walked out with him into a horse-drawn wagon. They raced off from Chihuahua to El Paso, in Texas, beyond Villa’s jurisdiction.
Sebastián had a son, Sérgio, who returned to live in Chihuahua. Uncle Sy, as we called him, was one of the few men in Chihuahua in 1950 who had any medical background. Sy lived with his large family in the tree-lined neighborhood on Calle Treinta y Cinco between the cathedral and the hospital.
That year, Dolores, a housekeeper known to the family, died during the delivery of twins. Her surviving child, a young girl named Elda, fell ill almost immediately thereafter. Uncle Sy and his large family took Elda into their home, but Elda’s health didn’t improve as it should have. The family sensed her most debilitating malady was grief, and feared she was dying, too.
That is when the series of odd phenomena began. First came the scratching from under the furnace grate. Then the bumps and bangs on an adjacent wall. Days later came the sound of a door closing when everyone present could see that it remained open. Finally, the groans and whimpers began, barely audible at first, but growing more distinct into the voice of a woman in pain: the voice…of Dolores.
For weeks that summer, the poltergeist’s appearances came as regular as clockwork. Noises emerged from the walls at about six in the evening; by eight Dolores was calling to her daughter: “Elda…Elda…” By ten she was gone.
Dolores continued her visitations for more than a month, into September: scratching noises, doors opening and shutting, and the voice, calling to her daughter and asking for prayers. The family called the local bishop, and large crowds gathered around the house to gossip and peek through the windows. That’s when the local press, both the Heraldo and the Tribuna, sent reporters to record the “fenómenos ultraterrenos” or “unearthly phenomena”.
Dolores’s paranormal visits came to an end with a clear message to Elda: You will join me, but only after you live a long and rich life. Elda recovered and left the Vargas family to live with an aunt and uncle. All seemed to return to normal.
Finally, months later, on Christmas Day, as Uncle Sy’s seven children sat facing each other on the hallway floor, each heard Dolores whisper: “May God bless you for the care you showed to my daughter.”
This two-part story is true, in as much as three generations of my family attest to its telling in this way, and there exists some validation in the historical record. I had the good fortune to tell this story for the Read650 event “Haunted.” You can find me in this video of the event at 1:07:30: