Monday, March 12, 2018

A Tale of Two Panchos

From left, Francisco Villa Campa and Rafael Celestino at Columbus Elementary School

Sometimes a great lede falls into your lap.

We do not do much breaking news reporting in Deming, but occasionally things happen.

In my first month on the job we had a pretty big freight train derailment near Lordsburg. We had a bank robbery in Deming that ended in a dramatic high-speed chase in Las Cruces. We've had some school threats, and of course we have the occasional homicide, suicide, police standoff, bad fire.

Sometimes we don't hear about things because no one calls us. We have a scanner, but we don't always have it on. When we do get a tip and I go out, there isn't a procedure for agencies to talk to press - and generally they prefer not to. The standard procedure is that I show up, officers scowl at me, I ask if anyone is authorized to speak to media, and they say, "Call the chief." Sometimes he gets back to us, occasionally not.

On Thursday, we actually got a tip that something was going on at Columbus Elementary School with multiple agencies and helicopters - including Border Patrol. Considering most of the students at Columbus are citizens living across the border in Palomas, that was intriguing.

Anyway, you gotta go. So I packed up my gear while Billy, my editor, worked the phones.

By the time I got there, the situation was over. A teacher reported hearing gunfire near the school, they went on lockdown, and the first agencies there were Border Patrol and the Luna County Sheriff's deputies. State police also responded. (Columbus has had no police force of its own for several years.)  Within an hour, the area had been swept, the school cleared, and the schedule was back to normal. There was not so much as an emergency vehicle on scene to photograph. I got interviews at the scene with the Superintendent (via mobile) and Columbus's mayor-elect, who showed up to see if he could help.

So now what? I had driven down to Columbus. And it was, coincidentally, the 102nd anniversary of the raid on Columbus led by Francisco "Pancho" Villa. We had already done stories about memorial services, fiestas, and the long horseback ride across Chihuahua, Mexico called the Cabalgata Binacional Villista. I decided to see what was up at the Chamber of Commerce, which had been busy planning these events, promoting them, and welcoming guests from two countries.

Norma Gomez, the Chamber director, was waiting for the all-clear at the school herself, because she was planning to bring two visitors to the classrooms: a Pancho Villa impersonator (Rafael Celestino from Durango) and the grandson of Pancho himself, Francisco Villa Campa.

Celestino was in full costume, complete with ammunition belt and a prop sidearm. Campa pointed to pictures on the wall and told me about them - in Spanish, which I followed as best I could. (My reading and writing are better than my auditory ability, but if the speaker goes slowly I can follow.) I took a picture of him next to a portrait of his grandmother when she was pregnant with his father.

Francisco Villa Campa, grandson of "Pancho" Villa

In our limited ability with each other's languages, we also managed to talk about cars. He drives a Jeep back home in Mexico City, and wanted to know how I liked my Renegade.

When Norma got the call from the school, we drove over with the two Panchos. Immediately on arrival, the principal asked "Pancho" to check the toy guns and bullets. The school had had an unsettling morning and, as he put it, "Everyone's a little sensitive today."

And so I watched a school principal disarm "Pancho Villa" while Villa's grandson looked on, laughing. Then the guys mingled with kids, knowing that a lot of them look up to Pancho as a hero (as opposed to the U.S. view of him as the guy who ordered a sneak attack that killed civilians), and reminded them that Pancho fought for education as a right - and that he didn't drink.

It turned into a nice story with video that got a lot of attention on March 9, also known as "Raid Day."

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