THE SCENT OF SWEET SAGE rises on a spring breeze as the sound of hooves approaches the tiny border town of Columbus, in southwestern New Mexico. Hundreds of Mexican cabalgantes (horseback riders or cowboys) have ridden over 300 miles in 12 days, across Chihuahua to Puerto Palomas de Villa, where American riders join them for the Cabalgata Binacional’s last three miles into town.
At NM 9 and NM 11 in Columbus, military veterans, motorcyclists, grandparents and children in their Western best, and regular folk snapping smartphone photos greet the procession of cowboys, who proudly carry the flags of their states and countries, in this centerpiece of the Festival de Amistad.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary March 9–11, the three-day event promotes peace and unity among those who live along the border and recognizes their complex shared history. It commemorates the 1916 predawn raid on Columbus by Mexican revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa and 400 of his men. In retaliation, General John Pershing led U.S. forces—up to 10,000 soldiers, cars, and trucks, plus a squadron of Curtiss JN-3 “Jenny” biplanes—on the Punitive Expedition, an 11-month campaign to capture Villa and prevent further raids.
“The expedition did not capture Pancho Villa,” says Ric Lambart, president of the First Aero Squadron Foundation, in Columbus. “But the field tactics gained in the borderlands would be essential to helping American troops win World War I.”
These days, the Festival de Amistad begins on Thursday with a memorial lecture by Central New Mexico Community College history professor Brandon Morgan at the Columbus Railroad Depot Museum. Regional cowboys begin to arrive and set up camp on Friday evening in anticipation of the next day’s friendship ride, parade, and fiesta, which features dancing, music, and historic re-enactors. “Today, the two sister border communities of Columbus and Palomas, Mexico, relate only as good neighbors,” says Lambart.
In addition, Pancho Villa State Park hosts its Camp Furlong Days, with lectures and other activities on both Friday and Saturday. Be sure to check out the Jenny airplane and 1916 Dodge touring car identical to the one used by Pershing, advances which helped usher in the era of the “mechanized cavalry.”
“It isn’t only about the past,” adds Norma Gomez, event organizer with the Columbus Chamber of Commerce. “It’s about our future.”