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.