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.