Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.
Robert Frost, Mending Wall
The Borderland is about as far away from the stone walls of Robert Frost's New England as we can think to go and still be in America. But out here in the Southwest, we have walls -- and wall issues -- of our own.
Yesterday, March 10, 2017, was one of those days when the locals -- people who actually live along the border -- addressed their wall issues. Call it a local statement about a national issue, if you want to see it that way. But the way people in Columbus, New Mexico, and Palomas, Mexico tend to see it, it's a party -- a chance to catch up with neighbors and take a mannered horseback ride of three miles across a troubled international boundary.
The annual March celebration in Columbus, in fact, marks a dark day in the town's history. A day in 1916 when Francisco "Pancho" Villa and his band of Mexican soldiers actually brought this town, in the four-year-old state of New Mexico, USA, under attack. In retrospect, it was an ill-conceived idea, poorly planned and haphazardly executed. Both sides drew blood in the attack. Ultimately, Villa and his forces fled south, back into Mexico with little satisfaction and a major military force in hot pursuit.
Narcisco de Jesus Martinez, aka Pancho Villa, slips out of history and into Columbus to check out the ceremonies recognizing the 101st anniversary of his raid on the village.
History records a great deal of uncertainty about Mexican casualties, but more than 90 Villistas were certainly killed in the battle. Ten U.S. civilians and nine soldiers were killed on the American side during a pitched pre-dawn gun battle. While Villa claimed a major victory, his move proved to be a bad one in the long term. Americans were outraged. President Woodrow Wilson launched General Black Jack Pershing and a punitive force on an extended foray south of the border. Villa evaded our modernized army of motorized trucks, Harley Davidson motorcycles, and early Jenny aircraft, but at great cost to his cause.
Over the subsequent one hundred and one years, Columbus has blossomed -- with the creation of the expeditionary force to chase Villa -- faded, and rebounded to become a small community of a few hundred. Palomas boasts 5,000 residents. It's a typical border town in many ways. You can find some Americans living there, many of them school-age children born in the USA of Mexican parents and now exercising their right to ride the school bus north for an American education. Some residents make a living in pharmacies, dental offices, optical shops that cater to locals and to U.S. citizens coming across the border to take advantage of more reasonable prices. Perhaps the most famous Palomas business is a place called "The Pink Store," which offers Mexican-made tourist goods, mariachi music, and a good Mexican meal. May I recommend the Pancho Villa combo plate?
Vaquero in training.
In both towns, there is a strong consensus that changing immigration policies, a larger, more expensive wall, and deteriorating relationships between the leaders of the two countries are not good things. I witnessed that yesterday, as neighbors from the two communities acted out their annual pageant, a "cabalgata," or cavalcade of more than 100 horses. About eighty horses from the Mexican side of the border are met by dozens of U.S. riders just north of the existing border wall. They travel together, at a stately pace down U.S. Highway 11 to Columbus. It is a serious procession, with national flags and police escort, and at the same time a light-hearted affair.
Mothers and fathers bring their sons and daughters along, sharing the saddle. Here and there a veteran grandfather rides with a wide-eyed grandchild in his lap, the child taking in the sights and sounds on his or her first cabalgata.
In Columbus, the parade continues.
In Columbus, the parade continues through town. Then riders dismount at several corrals to enjoy a variety of speeches and the chance to break bread together in the town park, ringed by food trucks and vendors. An estimated one thousand visitors snap photos of the crowd. Genuine cowboys and genuine vaqueros, outfitted re-enactors representing Mexican and American soldiers (including Pancho Villa), Native Americans, and other historical figures, young Mexican women dressed in pueblo-style skirts, blouses, and shawls, and young men outfitted in the dark suits and sombreros of the Mariachis all mingle and mix in the town center.
The political speeches drone in the background in English followed by Spanish translations, or vice versa. In the park, the buzz is mostly in Spanish, but many in the crowd are conversant in what I consider the amazing tongue we call "Spanglish." They speak rapidly and enthusiastically, jumping among topics and at the same time jumping back and forth from English to Spanish without even realizing they are doing it. I've tried to learn other languages, but never dreamed of that kind of bilingual command.
One of the speakers, Columbus Mayor Philip Skinner, is often called upon to answer questions of news reporters covering the borderland. A school bus driver, hotel owner/manager and mayor, married to a Mexican woman, Skinner is quick to note that the success of Palomas is critical to the success of Columbus. If the gates close at Palomas, Columbus becomes a tiny city at the end of the road, he says. But the model that exists elsewhere along the border, American towns making use of lower cost labor from Mexico, may not be available to Columbus if the present arc of diplomacy continues.
South of the border at the Pink Store, I have one selfish personal item on the day's agenda. I inquire as to whether I can at long last buy and carry to the U.S. a genuine Cuban cigar. It has been some years since I last smoked one and that smoke was in Canada. Sadly, I am told Cuban cigars are still forbidden north of the border. The Pink Store no longer sells them because too many of our fellow citizens were buying them and smuggling them back, or at least trying. The border patrol prevailed on Pink Store ownership to stop stocking the cigars.
A photo op with some of Columbus, New Mexico's historic figures.
You would think, I told one of my favorite Pink Store managers, that improved relationships between Cuba and the U.S. might now allow this kind of trade. I intertwined my fingers as I spoke of the concept of improved relationships. The young clerk took her hands and placed them over mine. "There are a lot of things that should be happening," she said. "But right now, we are taking two steps backward instead."
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
After the Columbus parade and my visit to Palomas, I have a better grasp of what we will be walling out and walling in when the construction workers come to complete the new border wall. Although Frost presents his parable of the rock wall from the viewpoint of one of the neighbors, in fact, he subtly does not take sides in the dispute. He merely shows us how entrenched both neighbors are. I can't be that objective. I've chosen a side in our great wall debate. It is the side of the people of Columbus and Palomas. They face difficulties with dignity and hard work. They persevere. I pray whatever happens at the level of our governments, these good people do not have to pay for the consequences.