Aspen Times Weekly: La Cabalgata
“We’re tired from the dancing, not the cabalgata,” one of the horsemen says. It’s early morning on Saturday, March 7 and I’m in the stockyards in Palomas, Mexico, where dozens of Mexican riders — men, women and kids — are saddling their horses and preparing to cross the border, join American riders and parade into Columbus, New Mexico.
This is the 16th annual Cabalgata Binaciónal Villista or Binational Villa Cavalcade, a very different experience than that day 99 years ago (March 9, 1916 actually) when Gen. Pancho Villa’s troops attacked members of the U.S. Third Cavalry Regiment, burned Columbus and took some 100 horses and mules as well as other supplies. Eighteen Americans were killed and about 80 of Villa’s troops. Villa had been a friend of the U.S. and had appeared with Gen. John F. “Black Jack” Pershing at Fort Bliss, Texas, a few years earlier. However, President Woodrow Wilson’s support of Villa’s rival, Venustiano Carranza, turned him against the U.S. That plus the more critical issue of needing supplies led to the raid.
President Wilson responded by sending thousands of American troops after him, using for the first time trucks and airplanes. The commanding officer was Pershing who later commanded the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. His aide was then-First Lieutenant George S. Patton. If the eleven month chase of Villa proved fruitless, at least it provided training for those future military leaders.
The influence of Villa is still powerful. Columbus has the Pancho Villa State Park and there’s a wonderful statue of Villa on his horse in front of the municipal building in Palomas. In addition, Ivonne and Sergio Romero, the owners of the Pink Store in Palomas, commissioned a statue of Villa and Pershing shaking hands which is located in the plaza next to their store.
Some 16 years ago, a coalition of Mexicans and Americans came together to initiate a different way of commemorating Villa’s raid, a way to unite rather than divide our border. At a time when the topic of immigration is so toxic and when we have invested (very wastefully, I believe) billions in “border security,” this effort to unite our borders is a welcome effort. It’s called the Cabalgata Binaciónal Villista and every year hundreds of Mexicans ride north to Palomas from communities as far south as Guerrero, about 300 miles away, with the intention of crossing into the United States and parading to Columbus on the March Saturday closest to the day of Villa’s raid. Many of the towns from which they come — Temosachic, Nicolas Bravo and Galeana, for example, are so small you can’t find them on a map. After a Friday night fiesta, those who have the necessary papers cross the border on their horses on Saturday morning, join up with riders from the U.S. and parade into Columbus where the town has prepared a welcoming celebration.
For the second year in a row, I’ve gone to Palomas on Friday to meet the riders and photograph them as they ride into tiny Palomas from the south. Then there is the fiesta in the Terraza San Vicente that night where hundreds gather to enjoy a number of extraordinary dance groups from as far as away as the states of Colima and Baja California. Midway during the evening, “reconocimientos,” or certificates of appreciation, are given out to representatives from all the communities that sent riders. To everyone’s surprise, one of the recipients was Benny Acuña, who had come all the way from Gillette, Wyoming, with his wife Becky. Apparently, they had traveled down into Mexico to find him a horse that he could ride back to the border.
Dressed as Pancho Villa was Narciso Martinez Alvarado from Durango, Mexico, who calls himself the International Ambassador of Villismo. He has a variety of military hats from the Villa era and the saddle horn on his saddle is shaped like the head of Villa.
That evening, Palomas’ main street was jammed with cars cruising up and down, and flocks of kids were at the carnival area located in the central park, more life and vitality than I’ve seen in this tiny town in years. I went to my room at the Hotel Karina Fierro at about 11 p.m. but it sounded like others were partying until dawn. Early Saturday morning, however, riders were at the corrals and registering in order to cross into the United States. One was Raul Estrada from Eagle, Colorado. He, his wife Maria Antonia (Tonia), and their daughter Mariela have a small ranch 20 kilometers south of Cuauhtémoc, Mexico, near a town named San Bernabé. They had traveled to the ranch then spent two weeks riding hundreds of miles back to Palomas for this Saturday morning border crossing.
By 8:20 a.m., the Mexican riders were saddled up, moving through U.S. customs and forming a column on the U.S. side with American riders led by Nayeli Vazquez, Miss Columbus. The whole procession then headed back to Columbus where spectators lined the streets and where Columbus’ Mayor Skinner and his wife, Diana, had organized a special reception. It was a day that focused on friendship and respect, something that is much needed on the border. Later the Mexican riders would cross back over the border, load their horses in trucks and head for home.
Ninety-nine years ago Pancho Villa’s men invaded the United States, dozens were killed and an 11-month chase initiated, involving thousands of soldiers. This day, however, was about friendship, and the Cabalgata Binaciónal Villista’s goal is to “unir fronteras” or unite frontiers rather than continuing to divide them.
Next year will be special — the 100th anniversary. I plan to be there.
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