PALOMAS, Mexico – Uniting borders. What could be more important in this time of so many brutal words about Mexico and Mexicans?
But that is what hundreds of riders, mostly Mexican, did on March 12 in Palomas, Mexico, and her neighbor town, Columbus, New Mexico. They tried to unite our border rather than continue dividing it.
It’s a tradition called the Cabalgata Binaciónal Villista or Binational Villa Cavalcade, a tradition that began 17 years ago.
It always takes place on the Saturday in March closest to March 9, the date in 1916 when Gen. Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s troops raided Columbus.
Several hundred riders come north from Mexican towns, some well known like Casas Grandes or Ascención, others tiny like San Bernabé. Some ride for a week or more from as far away as Guerrero, 300 miles to the south.
They join up near Palomas on Friday afternoon, parade into town and hold a ceremony next to the huge statue of Villa with the presidente municipal, Mayor Talaco Sanchez.
There are also soldiers, a local band, brightly dressed Tarahumara Indians, a Pancho Villa look-alike named Rafael Celestino, and a cheering crowd.
That night there is a huge fiesta with folk dances, songs, a wonderful meal, reconocimientos or certificates of recognition for the representatives of each town, and a powerful sense of happiness and friendship.
On Saturday morning, they cross the border, join up with American riders and form a cavalcade into Columbus. When they arrive, there are dances, food, presentations about the actual battle, people dressed as soldiers from that era and a strong feeling of community.
This year was special – it was the 100th anniversary of Villa’s raid on Columbus. As a result, the crowds were much larger than in 2014 and 2015, when I also attended.
Several key people came, including U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-New Mexico, and more important, Helen Patton, the granddaughter of Gen. George S. Patton, and Antonio Villa, a grandson of Pancho Villa.
Patton, then a first lieutenant, served under Gen. John F. “Black Jack” Pershing, who led the 11-month Punitive Expedition that went after Pancho Villa, and also served under him in World War 1.
The visit by Helen Patton, who now lives in Reims, France, was one of the highlights of the day. She even sang the national anthem.
Another attendee was Jody Schwartz from El Paso, whose grandfather, Harding Polk, graduated from West Point in 1910 with Patton and also served in the Pancho Villa expedition under Pershing.
Interestingly, many of the riders who crossed the border were Mexicans who now live in the United States, like Miguel Marquez from Las Cruces, Monserrat Gonzales from Deming, Rigo de la Cruz from Salt Lake City and Raul Estrada from Eagle, Colorado.
Estrada, for example, has a small ranch in a town called San Bernabé, south of Cuauhtémoc. He and the others go from their U.S. homes to Mexico and then ride back. In 2015, Benny and Becky Acuña traveled to Mexico from their home in Sheridan, Wyoming to participate.
There is also political leadership. The mayors of the Mexican towns of Janos, Casas Grandes and Ascención all came on horseback. And in the middle of the Friday night fiesta, Presidente Municipal Sanchez, dressed as a charro, stood up and began singing. What a surprise his marvelous voice was!
In Columbus, Mayor Philip Skinner and his wife, Diana, once again took the lead in organizing the celebrations.
For years, these mayors have been working to promote tourism throughout the region in what’s called the Mimbres-Paquimé Connection.
Every year, “Pancho Villa” played by Narciso Martinez Alvarado comes up from Durango. He is the Embajador Internacional de Villismo, or International Villa Ambassador, and has several Villa uniforms. In fact, his saddle horn is shaped like Pancho Villa’s head.
This year’s new “Pancho Villa,” the burly, eloquent Rafael Celestino, made some of the most powerful comments. Talking to a group of children when the cabalgata arrived in Palomas that Friday evening, he said, “It’s time to exchange bullets for pencils and pens.”
Extraordinary words for a border that has suffered so much – not just from Villa’s raid a century ago but also the extreme violence in recent years.
Villa is still a powerful influence in both Palomas, with its large statue of him on horseback, and in Columbus, with Pancho Villa State Park. But thanks to the cabalgata, he has now become a symbol of unity.
Although the events in Columbus were more about what happened a century ago, those on the Mexican side were dedicated to the future – a future of unity between our two countries. If only some of our political leaders could see this sense of friendship and cooperation.
Morgan Smith lives in Santa Fe and travels to the border at least once a month to document issues there. He can be reached at Morganfirstname.lastname@example.org.