Festival of Friendship

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road
on February 23, 2003

When Mexican Gen. Francisco “Pancho” Villa led an attack from Palomas, Mexico, into the American border town of Columbus, N.M., in 1916, the law of unintended consequences kicked in and decades later has helped ensure the health of both communities.

It seems that in 1966, on the raid’s 50th anniversary, the towns celebrated a Fiesta de Amistad (“Festival of Friendship”) as an across-the-border handshake commemorating those killed during the raid on Columbus and nearby Camp Furlong, an Army base established during the Mexican Revolution. Ten American civilians, eight U.S. soldiers, and an estimated 142 members of Villa’s army were killed.

The festival of friendship was largely forgotten until 1998 when a peddler came through Columbus with old copies of the magazine, The Southwesterner.

“My dad had a collection, so I bought one,” says Norma Gomez, president of the Columbus Historical Society. The 1966 issue contained a story about the Fiesta de Amistad, during which the Mexican state of Chihuahua (which includes the town of Palomas) had donated sycamore seedlings to Columbus.

“The goal was to tie both countries together in a new sense of respect: as a gesture of friendship,” Gomez says. The sycamore seedlings planted along the main avenue of Pancho Villa State Park now provide shade from the hot desert sun.

Impressed by the magazine article and its account of that early festival, Gomez started writing elected officials about reviving the event. “Let’s commemorate everybody who died. These are very real communities. We share history and a lot of ties,’’ she told them. “Let’s do this to show the government that there’s human resource potential in Columbus and Palomas to bring real economic development to the area.”

So, since 1998, the New Mexico town of 1,765 has held the Fiesta de Amistad on the second Saturday in March to celebrate peace, diversity, and friendship with the village of Palomas (pop. 15,000), three miles to the south. Brightly clothed dancers perform to the strains of Latin music, while residents of both towns enjoy a parade and a barbecue. A cabalgata of horsemen and women ride from Mexico into the United States.

True to Gomez’s vision, growth is happening in Columbus. “We’re the second-fastest growing city in New Mexico,” Mayor Martha Skinner says. Population nearly tripled from 1990 to 2000, a jump that includes retirees, artists, and those simply looking for a small-town way-of-life.

Trade is up at the Columbus/Palomas port of entry—the legal border crossing between the two towns. When New Mexico exports to Mexico increased by 215 percent from 1999 to 2000, the U.S. Congress appropriated $3 million to enlarge the port.

New water and sewer lines recently have been built, and a water treatment plant is under construction. “Both sides are concerned about water quality and sewage, and we’re working together to make that happen,” Skinner says.

It’s a concern shared by Pete Alvillar, whose three-year term as mayor of Palomas ended in November 2001. “Columbus and Palomas meet constantly looking at public health issues,” he says. “We share the same aquifers.”

Alvillar is president of the new binational Rotary Club of Columbus/Palomas, which is raising money for children’s scholarships and plans to build recreational facilities where children can play soccer, baseball, basketball, and other sports.

“We’re a border town,” Alvillar says. “We have the problems that any border town has—people who run illegal aliens, drug dealers, vagrancy, and poverty. But we are working together for the future of our children.”

That future might lie in learning the lessons of the past. “We need to learn about the history on both sides of the border in order to expand and learn,” Gomez says. “If you don’t learn it, then you’ll repeat it.”