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In the footsteps of a terrorist

March 20, 2008—New Mexico's southernmost state park is named, oddly enough, for a terrorist: Pancho Villa was a Mexican bandit/"revolutionary" who in 1916 raided the nearby village of Columbus, killing 24 people and putting most of the village to the torch. Naming a state park after this cutthroat seems to me a bit like renaming New York's Central Park to "Osama Bin Laden Park."

A videotaped documentary at Pancho Villa State Park's excellent visitor center brings the events to life, with local residents who survived the raid telling the story in their own words. Pancho Villa Columbus was supposedly under the protection of the local fort, Camp Furlong, but the soldiers were slow to respond to the 4:00 a.m. surprise attack. Villa lost 80 men, but escaped back into Mexico with a hundred stolen horses and mules and a good deal of weaponry. It was the only time in the twentieth century when US territory was invaded by troops of a foreign power, and of course it caused a storm of outrage.

In a striking parallel with the unsuccessful search for Osama Bin Laden, the US sent 10,000 troops into Mexico to seek out Villa. Although equipped with the latest high-tech weaponry, including armored cars and airplanes, the year-long "Punitive Expedition" was a complete failure. Villa's small, highly mobile cavalry, with the aid of sympathetic locals in every town and hamlet, were easily able to elude the US forces. The complex American equipment broke down, parts and gasoline were hard to get, the airplanes could fly only in calm weather... and the horses got sick from eating Mexican food (corn instead of their accustomed forage). Villa was never caught. He died seven years later, shot by a disgruntled Mexican.

There's some sentiment among the townspeople of Columbus in favor of renaming the park. I can certainly sympathize with that!

I was at Pancho Villa not so much for the history, and certainly not for the scenery—there's not much to see until May, when the flowers start to bloom—but because it's only a few miles from the Mexican border town of Las Palomas, where my dentist and optician have their offices.

My attitude toward Las Palomas has changed since I wrote the account of my first visit there a couple of years ago. Yes, it's still a depressingly shabby little town, with the exception of the plaza behind the Pink Store where my dentist and optician are conveniently located. I certainly wouldn't go there as a tourist. But like many retirees, I've learned to stretch my dollars by getting eyeglasses, dental care and some medications in Mexico.

Truth is, Las Palomas exists for cross-border trade. The town is mostly populated by opticians, dentists and druggists catering to gringos like me. When you can get a filling done for $35, or a porcelain crown for $150...well, it's hard to say no. Especially when the people doing the work are friendly, competent, and have the latest equipment in their spotless offices. I'll walk past two blocks of filth and rubble for that.

I'm comfortable with Mexican-made eyeglasses, but I feel more comfortable having an American doctor examine my eyes, so I'd had my annual checkup from Dr. Melissa Woodard, who has a well-equipped office in the Deming Wal-Mart, just thirty miles up the road from Pancho Villa. So with my prescription in hand, and accompanied by my friend Debbie (a fellow Lazy Daze owner who was also staying at Pancho Villa), I walked across the border into Las Palomas. Our first stop was Dior Optical, where I ordered a pair of bifocals with stepless "Transition" lenses that darken automatically ("Gradient") for $140. Then we walked to the American Dental Care office, a couple of doors over in the same plaza.

As it turned out, I didn't have to pay anything for this year's dental appointment. One of the fillings done there last year had chipped and needed repair, but Dr. Karla Marmolejo (505-494-5078, in case you're down that way and want an appointment) refused to take any money for fixing it. "Eez guaranteed," she said. That's the first time a dentist has ever offered me a free repair!

While my filling was being redone, Debbie had her teeth cleaned by Dr. Karla's husband—also a dentist—and set up an appointment for some root canal work, at a fraction of what it would have cost in the US. Then we strolled across the plaza to the Pink Store, where we browsed the huge collection of folk art. I admired this flamboyantly decorated demon, but some of the little tableaus were a bit on the unusual side... like the gory but colorful caesarian section scene, or the series of unpainted erotic clay figurines I discovered half-hidden behind some large pots.

Mexican demon

After a lunch at the Pink Store's restaurant (good food, but LOUD mariachi music), we picked up my new bifocals, and got a year's worth of prescription eyedrops at the druggist up the street. Then we walked back across the border to the parking lot across from the customs house, where we had left Debbie's rig, and drove the five miles back to Pancho Villa.

Later that week, we took a walking tour of Columbus, the tiny town that's right across the road from Pancho Villa State Park. Columbus's main street is only two blocks long, and there wasn't much open, but we did go into the public library. It turned out to be impressively modern and well-equipped for such a small town, with more than a dozen internet-connected computers available to the public. I photographed this brightly painted wall at the town's arts center, which was unfortunately closed when we were there. I love the architecture of the southwest!

Columbus wall
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