Pancho Villa rides at the head of his rebel army in Mexico in 1916. American soldiers pursued Villa into Mexico after the raid on Columbus, N.M., but he eluded capture. He was assassinated by political enemies in Mexico in 1923. AP file photo/Old West Collectors Series

Hollywood portrayed Bonnie and Clyde as glamorous, misunderstood killers. Tabloids treated mob boss John Gotti as a celebrity.

Richard Dean says the state of New Mexico did something even worse by elevating Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa from international terrorist to folk hero.

A state park near Columbus carries Villa’s name. Dean considers this tantamount to naming Ground Zero in New York City after Osama bin Laden, or placing a monument at Pearl Harbor to the Japanese pilots who bombed the American naval base.

Columbus is the border town that Villa’s men attacked in 1916. They killed eight U.S. soldiers and 10 civilians.

One was a pregnant woman. Another was Dean’s great-grandfather, James T. Dean, a 62-year-old grocer who previously had worked as a lawyer and a judge.

Richard Dean, himself a resident of Columbus, is 81 years old and needs dialysis three times a week because his kidneys are failing. He says he still has one mission left in life: persuading the New Mexico Legislature to erase Villa’s name from the state park.

Dean has tried but failed to generate much interest in changing the name of Pancho Villa State Park. Legislators were mostly disinterested when Dean pushed for a new name a decade ago.

But recently, Dean has been inspired to take another crack at it because of a similar effort in Northern New Mexico.

A group of residents recently convinced the Taos Town Council to briefly change the name of Kit Carson Park. Critics said Carson was a mercenary frontiersman who uprooted and brutalized Navajos. Then, the council reversed itself last week, restoring Carson’s name to the park but promising to consider a permanent change.

Even so, the confrontation in Taos has prompted Dean to try to end the mystique of Pancho Villa in New Mexico.

For years, Dean has been active in the Columbus Historical Society. He says the volunteer work has taught him that visitors to Columbus are confused about the state honoring Villa.

“We always hear the same question about the state park: Why is it named for the person who attacked the town?” Dean said in an interview.

John Read, the manager of Pancho Villa State Park, says the name is enticing, not controversial.

“I think the name Pancho Villa State Park is helpful in drawing visitors to the park, especially history buffs. I might have had three or four complaints or questions about its name in the previous five years,” Read said.

State legislators named the park for Villa in 1959. This was 43 years after his raid on Columbus, which cost America lives and millions of dollars.

Dean’s great-grandfather was shot to death by Villa’s followers, whose predawn raid caught everyone in Columbus by surprise. In addition to committing murder, Villa’s posse burned and looted the town.

Six days after Villa’s attack on Columbus, Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing led an expedition of 10,000 U.S. soldiers into Mexico. Pershing’s pursuit of Villa lasted almost a year but failed to capture the architect of terrorism.

Then the U.S. military had to mobilize for World War I in 1917, and Villa slipped away. His enemies, though, eventually caught him. Assassins in Mexico killed Villa with a hail of bullets in 1923.

Strangely, his legend grew, especially in New Mexico. His act of war has been sanitized by the government.

New Mexico’s state parks website says this: “On March 9, 1916, the soldiers of General Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa attacked the small border town and military camp at Columbus, New Mexico. Pancho Villa State Park contains extensive historical exhibits which depict this raid, the first armed invasion of the continental United States since the War of 1812 and also the last one.”

The state attacked by Villa makes no condemnation or judgment of him. Nor is there any explanation of why the Mexican revolutionary who committed mass murder in an American town was considered appropriate as the park’s namesake.

Marketing had much to do with Villa’s image and, probably, with the Legislature’s decision to name the park for him. Villa’s real name was Doroteo Arango. The stage name he chose made it easier to romanticize him.

State Sen. John Arthur Smith years ago floated the idea of renaming the state park. He thought Black Jack Pershing Park would be an appropriate change. Park administrators and fellow legislators were not interested, said Smith, D-Deming.

Smith said he would speak with Dean and might try to gauge whether the state bureaucracy would be willing to run a contest to rename Pancho Villa State Park. Such a move could spark national interest in state tourism, the way former governor Bill Richardson did in 2010 when he considered a pardon for Billy the Kid.

Regarding Villa, a more direct approach would be a bill to repeal the 1959 law that named the park for a man who invaded Columbus and killed innocent people. That appears less likely.

“I’m not trying to side-pedal controversy, but I don’t want to surround this in an ethnic atmosphere,” Smith said.

For Dean, time is short. The 100th anniversary of Villa’s assault on Columbus will be marked in March 2016.

“I want to get the name changed before then,” he said. “It should have been changed years ago. It’s not easy.”

Dean’s great-grandfather and the other people killed by Villa’s raiders often are treated as footnotes to a terrible day in American history.

He knows that a park name is not the most important topic the Legislature can consider. But if you are Richard Dean, you wonder every day why Pancho Villa gets top billing in the country he attacked.

Ringside Seat is a column about New Mexico’s people, politics and news. Look for it in Monday’s print edition. Follow the Ringside Seat blog at Contact Milan Simonich at 986-3080 or

(10) comments

Lee Vigil

Seems to me that Congress has more pressing issues to worry about!

Comment deleted.
James Wilson

"Pancho Villa is not a terrorist to all of us." OK, explain the benevolence of the attacks, the murders, and the arson he certainly committed.

Peter Romero

I think all history should stop today, will that stop all the issues ? I think not.

A country that doesn't remember its past will have no future. Abraham Lincoln.

James Wilson

What should stop today is the insatiable desire to feel better about yourself by banning all non-happy words and thoughts, as if the animus is destroyed when a name or word is forbidden. Some people apparently think skinheads would have their tattoos removed, grow their hair, and enroll in college courses, if we banned "the N word", etc. It would be funny, if it wasn't so plainly ignorant.


I like that park. Great pictures preserving a time in history -- the only attack on the continental United States before 9/11. I never thought the name was to HONOR Pancho Villa. I thought it was because he was the invader and that's what the park is about -- the invasion. But best of luck to all name changers!

Jake Arnold

Not so fast.

Before Pancho Villa State Park is renamed, the United States should apolgize for the 1914 (two years before the Columbus Raid) invasion and occupation of the Mexican port of Verz Cruz by U.S. Army and Marine Corp troops supported by a U.S. Navy flotilla.

Mexican resistence to that jingoistic adventure--an act of war by the U.S., which had been meddling and deviously switching sides back and forth in the Mexican Revolution--resulted in the deaths of at least 150 Mexican soldiers and scores of innocent Mexican civilians at the hands of U.S. forces (who suffered relatively minimal casualties).

Also, the state historians have it wrong regarding the 1916 "invasion" ("raid" is the better term) of U.S. soil by Pancho Villa being the first since the War of 1812 and the last.

In 1911 Mexican revolutionary forces crossed the border in what is now Big Bend National Park in Texas and fought a pitched battle with American troops (won by the Mexicans) at the mining town of Terlingua.

Also in the Big Bend country, several weeks after the Columbus Raid, Mexican troops crossed the border and fought the U.S. Army at Glenn Springs and Boquillas in Texas (across the Rio Grande from what is today the Mexican village of Boquillas del Carmen) winning the battles.

The Glenn Springs/Boquillas incidents were just as much factors in Woodrow Wilson's decision to launch the failed Pershing Expedition, as Villa's Raid, which was neither the "first" nor the "last" so-called invasion of U.S. territory.

Steve Salazar

One might think that getting rid of the name Columbus would have a higher priority.

Ginny Vigil


Anthony Bonanno

I do think Richard Dean has a very legitimate argument. It does appear to be a slap in the face to the American soldiers and civilians who lost their lives in the attack. If the US believed it appropriate to send General Pershing into Mexico in pursuit of Villa, then why are we celebrating the enemy by naming a state park after him ??

Ronald Ortiz

Gen Pershing was an American hero, My Great Grandfather chased Pancho Villa back into Mexico, he used to come over here and raid his own people trying to make it here in the United States, In my mind he is no less then the "Coyote" traffickers that exploit immigrants trying to make it to the United States.
I am appalled that the New Mexican has not done it's due diligence researching the facts that Pancho Villa was in fact financed and guided by the Kaiser and the Prussian Imperialists.
For the Honor of the 26 civilians killed in Columbus that day and the 13th Calvary that was attacked, I believe there is merit to this plight Richard Dean is pursuing, he was one of the 1st American sponsored Separatists that changed alliance after Villa had fallen out with Carranza and Obregón. Research, this you'll find more accurate accounting of who and what Pancho Villa really was.

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