Hooves Across the Border
This month's annual Cabalgata Binacional in Columbus turns a battle anniversary into a ride of friendship.
By Marjorie Lilly
It was 4 a.m. on March 9, 1916, that members of Pancho Villa's famous elite fighting force, Los Dorados, slipped across the border into Columbus, NM, and began their pre-dawn attack. Eight US military men of Camp Furlong and 10 townspeople were killed in the massacre. Over a hundred Mexicans were killed by Camp Furlong soldiers in their subsequent rout of the attackers.
The annual Cabalgata Binacional commemorates Pancho Villa’s 1916 raid on Columbus.
(Cabalgata photos courtesy Pancho Villa State Park)
Villa's raid has been studied microscopically by historians because it was the first battle by foreign soldiers on US soil since the War of 1812. One thing that is clear is that Villa was angry because US allegiance had just shifted from him to General Venustiano Carranza.
Since 1999, Mexican riders have commemorated Villa's attack by riding up from the border over the same route to appear in the annual parade in Columbus. This year is the 16th anniversary of the cross-border ride, sometimes known as the Cabalgata Binacional.
The horsemen participate in the ride up from the border by a miscellaneous collection of wagons and old cars and trucks driven by people wearing uniforms of both Mexican and US soldiers, which parade around the village plaza.
There will be several speakers on subjects related to the raid this year at Pancho Villa State Park on Saturday, March 8, the day of the parade. The Columbus Historical Society is holding its 98th annual memorial service on the actual date of Villa's raid, March 9.
Columbus resident Allen Rosenberg was one of a handful of people who initiated the cross-border ride, and one of the only remaining witnesses of the process.
"Cabalgatas in Mexico had existed for years and years," Rosenberg recalls. "There were different historical routes." But no one had ever brought the Chihuahua riders across the border.
In 1998, Rosenberg was the president of the Columbus Historical Society, when a Mexican official named Alex Orozco stopped by the museum on a vacation and struck up a conversation with him. Rosenberg says he was a "liaison from the Mexican government who was working out of Chicago."
Orozco invited him and two Columbus friends, the late Bob Clarke and R.L. Curtin, to the town of Bachiniva, west of Chihuahua City. They went to see the Hacienda San Jeronimo, the place where Pancho Villa allegedly launched his attack on Columbus.
The four men talked about the idea of restoring the hacienda and starting a cabalgata from there to Columbus. Orozco invited them to visit with the brother of then-Governor Patricio Martinez in Chihuahua City. So they got in a few cars and drove there.
The Americans were surprised to find themselves the focus of a flurry of media attention. They were the subject of two newspaper interviews and a radio interview. The governor's brother was surrounded by Secret Service men "who talked up their sleeve" and "cleared the whole street" before they went to dinner at a restaurant, which turned out to be empty because they had called ahead.
The governor left a large audience he had been addressing to speak to the Americans. (He burst through a couple of double doors that led to his office, according to Rosenberg.) That year they had a couple more meetings, and then in 1999 they launched the cabalgata from the Hacienda at San Jeronimo.
"We thought maybe there would be 15 or 20 people at San Jeronimo," says Rosenberg. "But there were 3,000 people at the party the night before."
The next day before the ride, a band played the Mexican national anthem, and everybody sang it. The Americans were startled again when "all these people that were there sang 'The Star-Spangled Banner' in English. I couldn't believe it," says Rosenberg.
Long-time Columbus resident R.L. Curtin was the only man from the US who both started and finished that first ride on horseback. Rosenberg says that Curtin was "kind of a visionary" for the cabalgata.
A bedridden Curtin was interviewed for this article. "I rode up from San Jeronimo — we had so much fun," he recalls.
The original ride from San Jeronimo took nine days, according to Rosenberg, and the number of riders who arrived in Palomas was about 200. The trip has taken different routes almost every year. At least 300 riders have arrived in Palomas some years.
Allen Rosenberg helped initiate the cross-border ride in 1999.
(Photo by Marjorie Lilly)
There were problems at the beginning. "The agent in charge of the station for US Customs was totally against it," says Rosenberg. But fortunately this had no effect on the event, and was only temporary.
There was also a phoned-in threat from the Ku Klux Klan, which meant that the Border Patrol, the FBI, the sheriff and the State Police were all on alert. "They closed down the elementary school," Rosenberg says. "But a teacher opened a window and the class went over the fence." They had been given an opportunity to make statements at the festivities about what the border meant to them.
"A public-spirited citizen from the Gomez family slaughtered a cow that fed all the people that came across," Rosenberg goes on. "A Mexican state band never stopped playing. It went all day long. The first year there were 600 visitors, the second 1,200, and the third 3,000."
He adds, "Our whole idea was to increase trade. It would help Columbus — first off, you need a warehouse, then you need more trucks, and a gas station, a repair shop, and so forth. Well, we're still waiting."
Staff at Pancho Villa State Park coordinated the crossing of Mexican riders into the US for a few years. But for seven years this task has been passed to the town of Columbus in the person of Glenda Sanchez, an elementary schoolteacher there.
Columbus schoolteacher Glenda Sanchez coordinates the crosssing. (Photo by Marjorie Lilly)
"The USDA grants permits for 100 people," says Sanchez. "But they've never met that quota." She says the riders themselves have to get their papers together.
The coordinator on the Palomas side of the border, Ignacio Montoya of the Union Ganadera (stockyards), says, "It's not just money for a visa they need but they also need to make out the application with proof of work and so forth. It's a lot of work."
No Mexican has ever tried to jump the border during the event. "I believe, and this is just my opinion," says Sanchez, "that it's the embarrassment that would be brought upon them. Plus they [the authorities] have all the documents. They're going to track them down. They won't ever let them cross again."
Those who cross have to be at the border at 6 a.m. After partying in Palomas the night before until 3 a.m., a lot of people find that schedule too hard to meet. "They're hard working, and hard drinking," says Sanchez.
US Customs checks the papers of both horses and riders, and the US Department of Agriculture checks all the horses before they cross.
There are several historical cabalgatas in Mexico listed online. Some involve thousands of riders, but have been just temporary. Nobody I talked to knows of any all-inclusive list. The Columbus ride may be the only one that crosses the US border.
Sanchez coordinates the efforts in Columbus to feed the border crossers. "The community gives me all the side dishes," she says. "We ask friends [businesses or individuals] for the meat. Thank God we've never run out of food."
Mayors along the route in Mexico provide food and sometimes shelter for riders. "The riders usually sleep outside, in horse trailers or with fires," says Sanchez.
"They form friendships with different farmers and ranchers," she adds. "There would be no other time that would bring them together. Every year they meet up for cabalgata time." Riders are often owners of ranches or businesses who have a few days free.
Ignacio Montoya says among the Mexican organizers there's a rule that there must be 10 riders from each municipio who have to ride the whole route.
"Last year it snowed a lot of the days that they traveled," says Sanchez. "For two years it has snowed. Or they rode their horses to 'no mas.' [until they can't go any farther]."
It's impossible to count how many total riders there are because the picture is always shifting. Lots of riders just ride for short stretches.
During the worst drug violence there wasn't a great decline in riders, for some unaccountable reason. But the riders sometimes avoided violent places, like Namiquipa, for example.
Sanchez says that 2013 was the first year there were more women than men riders in the cabalgata.
"I don't know!" she exclaims.
Although during the ride there are shouts of "Viva Villa!," both Sanchez and Montoya insist that the cabalgata is "a friendship thing."
Sanchez tells of being with some visitors from California or maybe Canada who came dressed as US doughboys. They wondered if maybe they should change into other clothes before going to a party with cabalgata riders in Palomas.
"They were a hit!" says Sanchez. "All of a sudden three waiters came, mostly with shots of tequila. There were guys asking if they could take their picture with them, and then there was a line of people waiting."
She says the riders love to get the certificates the Columbus group provides. "It's so beautiful — it has the US and Mexican flags. They think it's the coolest thing." They also give out kerchiefs and pins. "We have US pins to give out, and everybody's wanting one."
Montoya says that for years their logo has varied, but they've decided to maintain the motto, "Uniendo fronteras/De la sierra al desierto" (Uniting borders/From the mountains to the desert).
This year's event will bring its own unknown factors. There is an Argentinian woman who will be riding in the cabalgata in order to make a documentary of the event. There will be a Mexican historian with her, but no one at this writing knows much about the people involved.
Weather remains to be seen.
But it's known that the cabalgata will ride again and again.
The annual Cabalgata Binacional is scheduled to reach the Columbus plaza at 10 a.m. on March 8. For information, call (575) 494-1535. The 11th Annual Camp Furlong Day, commemorating Pancho Villa's 1916 raid on Columbus with historical talks and slide-shows, will be held March 8 from 1-4 p.m. at Pancho Villa State Park, South Columbus Road. For information, call (575) 531-2711. The 98th Annual Memorial Service held by the Columbus Historical Society inremembrance of those whose lives were lost during the 1916 raid, will be March 9 at 10 a.m. at the Depot Museum in Columbus. Call (575) 531-2620 for information.
Marjorie Lilly writes the Borderlines column.