The Folk Hero of San Juan de Ulua
and Text by John Todd, Jr.
Here are more details about the fascinating life of Chucho El Roto.
Over the Bridge of the Last Sigh
Our guide leads us over the drawbridge, called the Bridge of the Last Sigh where hundreds of people perhaps crossed for the last time. The mortality rate was high in those days. According to one account, the conditions were so bad in those days, that the guards passed out from the smells, when they opened the wooden doors. Our guide told us that the prisoners didn´t just sit around all day.
||They had work to do. Some were sent out to work long hours in the sun on public works projects in Veracruz, or on maintenance at the fort. In addition to the overcrowded conditions, the food probably wasn´t nutritious either. Some say the tides at night rose high into the cells to a level of a foot or two. Plus there was the ever present dripping of condensation from the ceiling to the floor. Other cells, of course, were for punishment and torture, but just being here in the remote prison of San Juan de Ulua was enough punishment for most.|
The Times of Chucho el Roto
Our guide told us that the cities of Mexico in the 19th century were not large, and only 4 cities had a population of more than 50,000. Guadalajara had around 100,000; Puebla, 90,000; Monterrey, 60,000; and San Luis Potosí, 60,000. Mexico City was the largest city with approximately 550,000 inhabitants. Over half the population consisted in people who had not been born there. According to census statistics of the day, the migration of people from the small rural towns to Mexico in the 19th Century was phenomenal. On the other hand, migrants were scarcely missed from the countryside. By as late as 1900, a little over 70% of all people still lived in communities of less than 2,500 inhabitants which was down from about 90% a century earlier. From some five million inhabitants in 1800, Mexico grew to eight million by 1855, and to over 15 million in 1910. Over 70% of the working class continued to depend upon agriculture for a livelihood. It is also estimated that 75% of the middle classes lived in towns and cities. Despite their small size these small towns offered migrants better opportunities for work, schools, and a more open society than in the countryside. Bandit Novels Become Popular
After 1880, there began to appear books about the highway bandits in the region that became very popular. The "Los Bandidos de Río Frío" by Manuel Payno was one of many such novels. They took place in local settings, and many times incorporated well known events of the day, and made for interesting reading for the people of the day. Around 1888 a short novel called "Chucho el Roto, o la nobleza de un bandido mexicano" was published anonymously, and quickly became very popular. It was different from the other books of the day, in that it was about a bandit who stole from the rich to give to the poor, similar to the legend of Robin Hood. By 1895, local newspapers picked up the legend, and even suggested the "Chucho el Roto" be pardoned so he could run for Congress. According to legend, "Chucho el Roto" lived in this time period from 1858 to March 25, 1894. Back to Chucho El Roto
"Chucho el Roto", was born in Santa Ana Chiautempan, Tlaxcala, about 20 miles north of the present day city of Puebla. The town is very old and its name comes from the Nahuatl or Aztec language. "Chiatl", means "swamp", "tem" is from "tentli" which means "shore" and "pan" means "place". Chiautempan means "place on the shores of the swamp". It is almost in the shadow of one of Mexico´s tallest mountain peaks, El Malinche. Born Jesús Arriaga
His original name was Jesús Arriaga. His childhood was probably like many children of those days, but Jesús was unique in several ways. From a very early age, it was noted that as soon as he learned to speak, his pronunciation was perfect. He would imitate the voices and accents of the people around him. His mother and grandmother probably had a small place in the Friday market where the Indians speaking different dialects would come to sell their wares. Young Jesús could imitate the words of their dialects perfectly and would learn the meaning of the vocabulary words later. Perhaps he was like many children in Mexico whose parents work in the markets. He probably made money doing odd jobs around the market and helping people carry their bags or unloading merchandise. Skills Learned from the Circus
When the circus came to town he was happiest. He especially loved watching the ventriloquist and his dummy, and learned how to "throw his voice." Once the circus had left town he would delight in playing tricks on people in the market with his "new voice". He made the heads of lettuce could talk and sometimes invented conversations between Mr. Carrot and Mrs. Radish. Magicians
He was even more fascinated by the magicians, and how they did their tricks. Because of his outgoing personality, the young man gained the confidence of the magicians and spent hours with them after the show learning their tricks. Back in the market, he found it was fun entertain the people around his mothers vegetable stand with his new magic tricks. Stealing Was Easy
One day he found he could steal. It was easy to take little things that weren´t worth much and most of all he enjoyed the little thrill or excitement of the act. It wasn´t necessarily the value of the object that was stolen, but the sensation of not getting caught. His mother often admonished him for stealing, saying that in life we have "pagos" and have to pay for our misdeeds. To ease these payoffs in life, we should help the people who are less fortunate than we are, and never steal or take advanatage of someone who is poor or in need. Chucho´s family didn´t have much money, but in those days, there were many people who were less fortunate, and he began to give to the very poor to help make their lives a little better. His mother told him to never shed the blood of another man, and according to legend, he never did. Travelling Theater Troupes
In those days, there were troupes of travelling actors. Jesús was fascinated by the actors and how they could play multiple roles with different accents by just changing clothes. After the show was over, Jesús made friends with the actors and learned many tips from them, as well as new accents. When the French occupied Mexico from 1862-1867, Jesus often did odd jobs to help the soldiers, and picked up an excellent grasp of the French language. His photographic memory, his power of imitation, and charming personality helped him to gain the confidence of the soldiers. After awhile he began to act like a French soldier, and would go around the town market speaking French to his mother and her friends. A Friendly Carpenter
One of Chucho´s neighbors was a friendly carpenter, and on days when the weather was bad, he would talk to his neighbor and watched while he carefully worked with his tools. Young Jesús was fascinated how the man could transform a piece of wood from a tree into a beautiful piece of furniture or a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe. "Every man should have a trade", the carpenter used to say. The friendly neighbor helped Jesús learn the carpentry trade which he was told would be useful to him later on. The Railroad Comes to Santa Ana
On September 16, 1869, President Benito Juarez inaugurated the Mexico City-Apizaco-Puebla portion of the national railroad line. Young Jesús enjoyed hanging around the railroad station looking at the different people coming and going. Besides doing odd jobs like carrying luggage, and or performing his magic tricks while the train was in the depot, it allowed him to observe people from Mexico City, how they dressed, and their manner of speech. Later as a young man, he took the train to Mexico City to look for work as a carpenter. Later around 1885, he would return with his gang to rob the same train station in Santa Ana. In Mexico City
In Mexico City, he got several jobs, one of which was with Don Diego de Frizac. It is at his wealthy mansion that he met his niece Matilde who is fascinated at once by him, and some of his magic tricks. Later she discovered his clever acting abilities, and how he can imitate accents, and his knowledge of languages. It is said one time, she invited him to a party dressed in her uncle´s clothing, and no one suspected that he was a "Roto", or someone from the lower classes masquerading as one of the wealthy. On Sundays, it was common for people to stroll the Alameda Park in Mexico City, and dressed in an elaborate disguise Matilde and Jesús would take a stroll complete with top hat, silver tipped cane, and a dashing monocle. As time went on, they fell deeper in love, unbeknownst to her uncle, don Diego de Frizac. Later when she became pregnant, she was sent to her uncle´s plantation where she had a daughter they named María de los Dolores. Because of this Don Diego had Chucho arrested on false charges of robbery and was thrown into infamous the Cárcel de Belén in Mexico City. There Chucho learned how to read and write from a political prisoner. He later escaped with his friends, "La Changa", "Juan Palomo" and "Lebrija", and began his life of crime that lasted 10 years. He was able to utilize his innate skills in acting, languages, magic tricks, as well as what he learned while he was in jail. What made "Chucho El Roto" different from ordinary thieves of the day was he robbed the rich and gave to the poor. His high sense of justice made him give most of what he stole to the very poor in Mexico City, and the small towns and surrounding "ranchos". Perhaps the words of his mother were always in the back of his mind. Each of us have our own talents and defects of character, but we must always help those in need. Many Stories Become Part of the Legend
Some say that the stories of Chucho going to parties with Matilde are fiction, since after she became pregnant while Chucho was working as a carpenter for her uncle who sent her to his finca to have the baby. Some of these stories say she never had anything to do with Chucho again. One widely popular story is that Matilde taught Chucho how to ballroom dance, and they frequented many of the high society balls of the day. One time President Porfirio Díaz was in attendance. When Chucho and Matilde were introduced to the President, Chucho stole his pocket watch. Later that evening, Chucho asked Don Porfirio for the time. It is reported that he looked for his watch and remarked, "It appears someone has stolen my watch!". Matilde hurriedly excused them from the dance and they left with Chucho smiling behind his monocle and false moustache. He escaped from jail by stealing a visitors hat and cane and cape and walking out the door. One article says that after escaping the Belén prison, he kidnapped his baby daughter Dolores, and took her to live with his mother in Tlaxcala. And thus began his life of crime. One article mentions some of his most famous robberies, always involving disguises. Once they robbed a shipment of silver dressed as indigenous women. He once robbed a wealthy woman in DF by entering the house dressed as a bishop, called the family into the living room to bless them, of course, including the servants. While this was going on the gang cleaned out the house. Another time he planned a robbery on a store by hanging around as a deaf street sweeper to get information. Chucho is Caught
In 1885, after several years of stealing from the rich to give to the poor, he was finally captured. This time he was sent to the grim dungeon of San Juan de Ulua which was then an island in front of the port of Veracruz. Nobody had ever escaped. But with the help of a cellmate, Chucho El Roto made a daring escape by hiding in a "cuba" which was a large bucket or vat used for the disposal of sewage. Later, he was picked up by a boat and got away. Nine years later, he was again caught, near the Cumbres de Maltrata which borders the states of Veracruz and Puebla near Orizaba and was returned to San Juan de Ulua. This time when he tried to escape, he was betrayed by a cellmate called "Bruno".
Diego de Frizac Intervenes
Diego de Frizac heard about Chucho´s recapture, and told the prison director, Colonel Federico Hinojosa to give him 300 lashes. 200 lashes applied by the experienced torturer and hangman nicknamed "el Boa" were the limits of human endurance. At this time, Matilde intervened and bribed "El Boa" 1,200 pesos in gold not to kill him. He was taken to the special cell known as "El Limbo" and the punishment was applied. But, the punishment appeared to be too much, along with the bullet wound received when he was captured. Matilde paid to have him taken to the prison infirmary next door to the prison which was managed by a religious order.
|When they saw Chucho´s condition, at once they suggested he be sent to the Hospital de San Sebastian across the bay in Veracruz. A hefty donation by Matilde to the chapel probably speeded up the administrative procedures. Author´s Note: Inside the ceilings constantly drip from the humidity. After all these years, it´s still dark and creepy. These obviously were the torture rooms. They say Chucho el Roto was near death when he arrived at the Hospital de San Sebastian in Veracruz. There he was met there by Matilde, her daughter Dolores, and Jesús´s sister Guadalupe. It is said they took care of him during his final days. According to the sisters who were the nurses at the hospital, on March 25, 1894, Jesús Arriaga, alias Chucho el Roto, died and a death certificate was duly issued by the Civil Registry.|
|Later Matilde and her sister sadly accompanied the coffin by train to Mexico City, where he was buried in a quiet family service in one of the finer cemetaries. For a year, as was the custom, Matilde dressed in black in mourning. Later she was seen dating an Austrian count and awhile later, they, along with her daughter Dolores, departed for Veracruz and boarded a steamship on their way to Europe. They were never heard of again.|
The Mysterious End of Chucho el Roto
That should be the end of the story, but until sometime during the Mexican Revolution when violence overcame the country. Bands of roving bandits entered the cemetaries of Mexico City to rob the graves. One of these groups broke into the grave of Chucho El Roto. When the opened it, they found a coffin full of rocks. Can it be possible that Chucho el Roto didn´t die, and that perhaps he staged his own "death"? Could it be that on his "death bed", he was given one last chance or that Matilde had reformed him? As a master of disguise and foreign languages could he have been the Austrian count that sailed from Veracruz with his beloved Matilde? Maybe one day we will know the truth about this dashing figure from the 19th century.
This is the mysterious legend of the Robin Hood of Mexico, and perhaps this is
why many people come to visit the fort of San Juan de Ulua to look at the cell
of Chucho el Roto. You can see he is still alive in the hearts of the people.
The Legend Continues
When films began in Mexico one the first moving pictures with sound was:
Chucho el Roto (1934) Later the following films were produced: Here are some of the other adventure films about Chucho el Roto. There maybe more. La Sombra de Chucho el Roto (1944)
Chucho el Roto y Los bandidos de Río Frío (1954)
A series of 3 films
La entrega de Chucho el Roto (1959)
La captura de Chucho el Roto (1959)
Aventuras de Chucho el Roto (1959)
El Tesoro de Chucho el Roto (1960)
There was even one long running telenovela or soap opera about Chucho El Roto: Chucho el Roto (1968) Telenovela Yo soy Chucho el Roto (1970)
Tiempo de ladrones o La historia de Chucho el Roto (1980)
La Vida De Chucho El Roto (1986) (Manuel Lopez Ochoa)
El Inolvidable Chucho El Roto (1987)
La Vida De Chucho El Roto (1986) (Manuel Lopez Ochoa)
Los Amores de Chucho El Roto (Manuel Lopez Ochoa)
There have also been many novels written about the adventures Chucho el Roto, and some may still even be published today. It is said that in later years, Pancho Villa who stole from all the social classes, also gave to the poor. Perhaps he was also influenced by the stories of Chucho el Roto. The Truth
As for Robin Hood, there is some debate about whether he really existed. It happened so long ago, it is probably difficult to fully document the truth. The same is true about Jesús Arriaga, alias "Chucho el Roto". As investigation techniques are improved perhaps one day, the complete truth will be found out. In the meantime, the fort and the prison of San Juan de Ulua still exist today, and it´s a fun place to visit on the weekends, and hear the stories of Chucho el Roto from the people who come to visit from all over Mexico.
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