Once a Bad Guy, Now a Folk Hero: What Pancho Villa has in common with Osama Bin Laden

The Seattle Times
September 3, 2002
By Alex Tizon

COLUMBUS, New Mexico — From the sandstone valleys of the Navajo Nation, a world far removed from September 11, the Expedition journeyed south to this dusty border outpost where townspeople recall their own Ground Zero. It happened 86 years ago, and the bad guy, in the end, won. His name was Pancho Villa, a Mexican bandit-revolutionary who laid waste this town, killing 18 Americans and seriously hurting a dozen more, in what historians say was the last invasion of the United States by a foreign army. Yet here and throughout the Southwest, Villa is celebrated more as a folk hero.

Richard Dean, a resident and local historian, wonders how yesterday’s “terrorist” can become today’s hero. If this dot in the desert called Columbus can add anything to the post-9/11 discussion, it might be to remind us of the malleability of history.

“The word ‘terrorist’ didn’t exist then. They were called bandits, but the outcome was the same,” says Dean. He is 68, tall and weathered, erudite, dressed like a cowboy professor in his pressed jeans and button-down Western shirt. His family owned property here for generations. His great-grandfather, a store owner named James Todd Dean, was killed by Villa’s men, his body found with 17 bullet holes and a cut throat. “Villa’s attack was a terrorist attack,” Dean says. “My family and many, many other people were in total terror.”

Since September 11, Dean has campaigned to re-name Pancho Villa State Park, in the heart of town, to Camp Furlong State Park. Camp Furlong was home of the Army garrison that gave chase to Villa. The park, a 49-acre desert botanical garden designated a National Historic Landmark, is by far the town’s most immaculately maintained property and its only tourist draw. The park’s name has never sat well with Dean. Imagine, he says in so many words, if New York’s Central Park was renamed after Osama bin Laden. The cowboy-professor has appealed to any and all, and has received perfunctory letters of sympathy from a few state legislators. But around Columbus, he is a lone voice on the issue. A lone voice in a lonely outpost.

Barely hanging on

Columbus has been a ghost town in the making for decades. The last census says about 1,700 people call it home, but residents say the real number is closer to a thousand, most of them retirees. They live in a motley assemblage of ranch houses and trailers connected by dirt roads that kick up a storm with each passing car. Cacti give the flat of the land its only character. Downtown is paved, with a few shops and a gas station, but only because it functions as a pass-thru to the other side of the border, to the much livelier Mexican town of Palomas. Only three dusty miles and a quiet U.S. Customs checkpoint separate the two towns.

At the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the U.S. Cavalry stationed soldiers in Columbus, then a bustling border town, as protection from the unrest. But in the early morning of March 9, 1916, the soldiers were still asleep as Francisco “Pancho” Villa and his army of 500 to 800 revolutionaries swept into town. In 2-½ hours, most of the town was looted and burned. Killed were 10 civilians — including the pregnant wife of a railroad worker — and eight soldiers, with another dozen injured.

The attack, Dean says, was proportionately more devastating to the town of Columbus, which had a population of 350, than the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City. The town never fully recovered.

Villa at the time had an underground following among the peasant masses of Northern Mexico, and even with many Americans who read about his exploits in newspapers. Mexico was a country where wealth and land belonged to a tiny few; everybody else struggled to live. The landless peasants along the border were sandwiched between oppressive Mexican elites to the south and exploitative gringo ranchers to the north in New Mexico and Arizona. Villa was regarded as a Mexican Robin Hood who took from the rich (and occasionally killed them) and gave to the needy.

Biographers depict him as complex and multilayered as any historical figure of the 20th century. He married 26 times. He was a bad-ass, a thief, a cunning general, a champion of the poor. The raid on Columbus was said to be revenge for U.S. support of his rival who had taken over the Mexican government. The violence of the attack stunned America. Despite his popularity among romantics, Villa became the U.S. government’s Public Enemy Number One, much in the way bin Laden is regarded today. The day after the attack, President Woodrow Wilson ordered Villa’s capture, sending 10,000 troops into Mexico, led by Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing. They chased Villa for 11 months but never caught him. Four years later, Villa was assassinated while driving, betrayed by some of his own followers.

Today in Columbus and Palomas, Villa stands as a revered figure. A giant bronze statue of him towers in front of Palomas’ City Hall. In Columbus, across from the park bearing his name, a museum displays artifacts from the raid. Not much is said on either side about Gen. Pershing.

One opinion

“Pershing was a wimp!” says 92-year-old Phoebe Watson, a silver-haired widow who has lived her entire life within 45 miles of Columbus. We ask why she thinks this. “What are the qualities of a wimp?” she retorts, sternly, like the former schoolteacher and principal she was for more than three decades. “Pershing had them.

“He. Was. A. WIMP!

Watson, a former rancher, former mayor and former head of the Border Belle Cowbelles, the premier women’s social club, is one of the most prominent and respected residents in town. When she talks, people listen, or at least pretend to. Holding court from a rocking chair that has creaked longer than most of us have been alive, Watson says she doesn’t approve of what Villa did in 1916. She offers this perspective: “It was terrible but it was nothing personal.”

Watson’s father, Robert Vernon Moorhead, a ranch foreman, knew Villa well, and regarded the revolutionary as honorable in his own way. The elder’s regard rubbed off on Phoebe Watson.

The fact is, she continues, Columbus would not even be on the map if not for Villa. The land proved too barren for farming or ranching, and Columbus would have certainly joined New Mexico’s impressive list of ghost towns had the entire place not been designated a National Historic Site in 1975. The sole reason for the designation was Villa’s raid.

Cowboy historian Dean does not dispute this. He says he has talked candidly with state legislators, who have told him off the record the designation was partly a business decision. The persona of Villa as a 20th-century robber-knight could ignite the public imagination and draw tourists in a way the name Pershing never would, especially from within the heavily Latino-populated Southwest.

“It’s simple. It’s a fact,” Watson says. “Columbus wouldn’t be here today without Villa. He’s a part of history, and we’re a part of history because of him.”

So the one-time enemy of the state, for reasons that transcend the labels of good and evil, evolved into a figure worthy of tributes. If his story doesn’t prove the moldable clay of history, it at least points to the fickle nature of memory.

Though Villa suffered more casualties in the Columbus raid — some 150 of his men were killed — and though his army eventually was disbanded and he died an inglorious death, the bad guy, through the alchemy of time, commerce and imagination, gained the poetic higher ground. He won.