Borderlands History is pleased to host this guest post by Brandon Morgan, based on his dissertation research and a distillation of some of the themes he discussed in his October 11, 2012 lecture at the Center for Latin American and Border Studies at NMSU. Brandon is currently a Full-Time History Instructor at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque. He is also a PhD student in Modern Latin American and American Western History at the University of New Mexico. His dissertation “Columbus, New Mexico, and Palomas, Chihuahua: Transnational Landscapes of Violence, 1888-1930,” considers Mexican revolutionary movements in Palomas and Columbus (including Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s 1916 raid) as well as capitalist redefinition of land tenure and community labor in the region. He argues that these various forms of violence were constructive as well as destructive, serving to forge the racial and social relations of the modern border region.
Mexican Revolutionary General Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s raid on Columbus in the early morning hours of 9 March 1916 put the small New Mexican village on the national (and international) map. Newspapers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border placed the story of Villa’s attack on the front page. Although from our present-day perspective Columbus (when it is mentioned at all) is remembered as the site of the only organized Mexican revolutionary attack on U.S. soil, boosters had been at work for over a decade to bring the border village to national notoriety. Agents of the Columbus & Western New Mexico Townsite Company published pamphlets and flyers to promote the up-and-coming town. In the weekly Columbus News and its successor, the Columbus Courier, references were routinely made to the projected growth of the town. At times editor Perrow G. Mosely even argued that Columbus would exceed El Paso, Texas, in size and notoriety within only a few short years. These activities were concentrated efforts to create what geographers have termed a place myth. Such myths were aimed at overcoming negative stereotypes about a given town or region in order to recreate it as a place attractive for settlement and development. In my dissertation, I argue that between 1888 and 1916 boosters, settlers, and capitalists attempted to create a place myth in and around Columbus that would redraw it as the pinnacle of American development and modernization along the international border between New Mexico and Chihuahua. The construction of this place myth illustrates the ways in which elite actors attempted to recreate the Columbus area as a space firmly controlled by white Americans, private property, and capitalist economic exchange. Through the new place myth, Columbus elites sought to erase, or at least redefine, their town’s intimate social and historical connection to Las Palomas (the town directly adjacent to Columbus). Their place myth was a manifestation of violence in that its goal was to silence a significant portion of the area’s populace. The construction of such a myth, however, was denied by the physical violence of Mexican revolutionary actions beyond their control.
Capitalists, led by German-Mexican millionaire Luis Huller, in northwestern Chihuahua gained access to the two-million acre Palomas Tract in 1888. Their efforts to develop and colonize townships, as well as build railroads through the tract, resulted in efforts to build a place myth for Las Palomas and Columbus that redrew them both as attractive sites for agricultural development, adorned with “inexhaustible” supplies of water. As elites attempted to control resources and recast the area, local people in Chihuahua used the legal system and then violent insurrection to communicate their opposition. The Villa raid of Columbus is the most famous attack by Mexican revolutionaries in this section of the border, but it was not the only one. Mexican insurgents in Chihuahua attacked the Las Palomas Customs House in 1893, 1896, and 1908 to protest the economic and political policies of the Porfiriato. The movements of the 1890s, led by Santana Pérez and Victor L. Ochoa (the former was a former member of the Mexican military, the latter ran a printing enterprise in El Paso) were cast as the actions of bandits rather than expressions of grievances against the government. Despite the Mexican government’s ability to suppress news and control the stories of the revolts of the 1890s, the 1908 attack on Las Palomas was the work of the Flores Magón brothers’ Partido Liberal Mexicano—an expressly anti-regime political movement which was not suppressed by the government and that is considered one of the major precursors to the Revolution of 1910.
Although elites sought to control the definition of this section of the New Mexico-Chihuahua borderlands, other members of Chihuahua society used violence as a means to contest the capitalist accumulation of local resources. The revolutionary movements of the period from 1893-1916 presented a counter-narrative to elite place myths and contested one form of violence with another.