U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland makes an interesting point about words shaping the image of public places.

Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, says white people turned “squaw” into a derogatory term. She is beginning her effort to remove the word from the names of some 650 valleys, lakes and other places on federal property.

“Our nation’s lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage — not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression,” Haaland said in a statement.

Too bad she doesn’t have any power to change the names of properties controlled by New Mexico politicians. If she did, Pancho Villa State Park would be on the endangered list.

Pearl Harbor has no memorial to Japanese Emperor Hirohito. New England villages don’t aggrandize Charles Cornwallis, a British general in the Revolutionary War. And New York City would never name anything after terrorist Osama bin Laden.

New Mexico legislators stood alone by naming a park after an enemy of the state.

Members of Villa’s militia stormed the border town of Columbus in 1916. Mostly on foot, the attackers killed eight U.S. soldiers and 10 civilians in a predawn raid. Columbus only had a population of 300 at the time.

Even professional historians don’t understand the homage New Mexico pays to Villa.

“It’s peculiar that we named a state park after someone who attacked the United States,” said Jon Hunner, an emeritus professor of history at New Mexico State University.

The decision dates to 1959, some 43 years after Villa’s raid. New Mexico lawmakers engaged in long, loud debate before voting to name the park near Columbus after Villa. Democratic Gov. John Burroughs signed the measure into law.

Another Democrat, U.S. Sen. Dennis Chávez, objected from Washington. The march of time had dimmed the viciousness of Villa’s attacks, Chávez said.

As more years rolled by, Columbus resident Richard Dean often was a lonely but persistent voice in asking state politicians to remove Villa’s name from the park. Dean’s great-grandfather, James T. Dean, a 62-year-old grocer, was one of the Columbus residents killed by Villa’s militia.

A rough frontiersman chasing greater power, Villa warred against Mexican President Venustiano Carranza. With U.S. President Woodrow Wilson supporting Carranza in Mexico’s Civil War, Villa’s crew was routed in the battle of Agua Prieta.

Villa retaliated against Wilson by targeting vulnerable Americans.

His followers in January 1916 kidnapped 18 Americans aboard a train in Mexico and mulilated them. Villa’s men raided Columbus and the town’s small military post two months later.

New Mexico’s website of state parks offers a terse paragraph about Villa’s violence in Columbus.

“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 parks department states.

From a promotional standpoint, the name Pancho Villa State Park no doubt grabs the attention of tourists. But marketing strategy is not a reason to name a park after someone who committed an act of war against the state.

State Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, said he’s no expert on Villa but is uncomfortable in portraying notorious figures in history to draw tourists.

“In the past, we’ve done a lot to glorify Billy the Kid, who was a criminal,” McQueen said. “Whether the park should carry Villa’s name is worth discussing.”

Former state Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, once mentioned a possible name change for Pancho Villa Park. Smith said it would be more fitting to call it John “Black Jack” Pershing Park, for the U.S. general who led 10,000 soldiers on a mission to Mexico to capture Villa.

Pershing’s troops didn’t trap Villa, but the expedition pioneered the use of planes and trucks in combat. It was valuable training for World War I.

As for Villa, he was assassinated in Mexico in 1923. His exploits were romanticized to legendary levels by the time New Mexico named the park in his honor.

The deaths of innocents in Columbus were forgotten or minimized. Also glossed over was Villa’s real name — Doroteo Arango.

History can turn on a title. Had Villa stuck with what he was called at birth, he might not have been glamorized.

It’s probably a safe bet no tourist-conscious politician would have risen to advocate for Doroteo Arango state park.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

(18) comments

Khal Spencer

It does seem odd that NM would name a park after someone who invaded the state and killed or "mutilated" Americans. But a lot of things are odd. I wasn't aware of this oddity before reading Milan's piece.

John Haynes

The park name is deeply offensive.

Mike Johnson

But you are probably a white guy, that doesn't count.

John Cook

Poor, little, helpless, victimized white man. For a guy who says he voted for Biden you sure have the Trump odor on you.

Janet Eduardo

You have obviously never spent much time in the southern US, there are TONS of tributes to traitors against the US there. And people are willing to kill to keep them too.

John Cook

I'm with you on this one, Milan. Thanks for raising the issue.

Mike Johnson

Yes indeed, this just shows the hypocrisy that operates when Native American's object to something, and anyone else does.

Shannon Jameson

I used to travel for work to the NM border areas including Columbus. I never viewed the park as homage (def. special honor) or in a heroic sense to Pancho Villa. I viewed the park as a historical marker. It was memorial to the event not memorializing Pancho as a hero in the event. Using the Bin Laden example is comparing apples to oranges. The article selectively leaves out the the full history>primarily the why Villa attacked U.S. forces. It focuses on the act itself not the circumstances surrounding it. Villa was a bandito at one time, but he became a prominent Mexico political figure. He briefly was the governor of Chihuahua. Civil war broke out in Mexico when Carranza challenged Villa. The U.S. aided Carranza against Villa. Villa small force retaliated against American troops for their interference. He wasn’t just a bandito doing a random act of violence. Was he a hero for his act? No. But as a visitor of the park, I never felt it was meant to be. Everyone has a different perspective and two sides to the story. That’s mine. Let the good people of Columbus decide if the park should be renamed. It’s in their backyard.

John Cook

It's a State park. Let's let the good people of the State decide. Through their elected representatives in the legislature.

Emily Hartigan

Thanks for the history. It's always more complex, isn't it?

And where would we be without "Pancho and Lefty" to sing of outlaws and Federales?

LeRoy Sanchez


John McDivitt

It does seem strange to have a state park names after a murderer. There must be far more deserving people in New Mexico's history for such an honor. Bataan death march survivors perhaps?

david cartwright

another moment of shame for our political establishment in this state.

Stefanie Beninato

You know Milan maybe you should be talking about the US targeting civilians with drone strikes--it would be more timely IHMO.

David Ford


LeRoy Sanchez


Khal Spencer


LeRoy Sanchez


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