Parallels
1:39 am
Wed March 26, 2014

From Pancho Villa To Panda Express: Life In A Border Town

Originally published on Wed March 26, 2014 9:12 am

Columbus, N.M., is all about the border. It's an official border crossing. Its history centers on a cross-border raid. In more recent years, it was a transit point for illegal weapons heading south into Mexico.

It's also the destination for children heading north to a U.S. school.

All the different strands of Columbus came together when we spent the day with the new mayor of the village. Phillip Skinner, former real estate developer and maquiladora owner-turned politician and school bus driver, was inaugurated early this month, on the morning we rolled into town.

Our road trip along the entire border took us westward out of Texas along Highway 9, a nearly straight, two-lane strip that unrolled before us like a carpet. Now and again we'd see the border fence running parallel to the road on our left.

The desert landscape is so flat that we saw the scattered buildings of Columbus from many miles away. The village is so small that we found city hall within minutes of reaching town.

Nearly as quickly, it seemed, we met almost everybody who's anybody who wasn't in jail.

Skinner won the first election since the previous elected mayor, the police chief and numerous other residents were arrested in 2011 for running weapons across the border to Mexico.

A Federal Raid

Skinner's sister Martha, who's an ex-mayor as well as the keeper of the bed and breakfast where we stayed, recalled the day of that federal raid.

"Boy, I'm telling you. I thought we were in Afghanistan. It was four o'clock in the morning," she said, when she woke to the sound of helicopters and explosions.

Martha Skinner calls this "the second raid." She wants to distinguish between it and the far more famous first raid, which is part of the identity of Columbus.

The first raid came back in 1916, when troops under the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa crossed the border into Columbus and burned part of the town. The raid prompted the U.S. Army to cross the border, hunting Pancho Villa. The Army never found him, but people still commemorate the raid each year.

The second raid is a more sensitive subject. When we met Skinner for lunch after his inauguration, he said the city needed a process of healing.

Skinner knows the border was the downfall of the former mayor. He also thinks the border can be part of his town's salvation.

He's a businessman who developed real estate in Columbus years ago. He sometimes crossed through the border checkpoint to Palomas, Mexico, and remembers being "scared to death all the time. I could remember almost kissing the ground when I came back across because I had fear, as maybe any new tourist might have."

But Skinner got to know people in Palomas. For a time he ran a Palomas furniture factory. Now he's talking of starting a binational festival to promote his border town.

Although he's politically conservative, he's come to wish the security at the border was less intense.

"If I could change the security thing, I'd go back to 50 years ago," he said. "We wouldn't have all the border patrolmen. ... I think it was a much better time, when we didn't have all the security fears."

And then the new mayor of Columbus headed off to one of his other jobs. It's a job that says a lot about his town's links to the border.

Kids Cross The Border For School

Skinner drives one of the school buses that, each afternoon, picks up most of the students at Columbus Elementary and takes them to the border crossing. Many children of Mexican parents who live in Mexico are U.S. citizens, and are allowed to attend the U.S. school.

Skinner dropped off the kids, watched them walk across the border to meet their families, then strolled with us through the border checkpoint into Palomas.

He introduced us to a woman with blonde hair, the mother of some of the kids he drives.

"Her husband and her have the most wonderful Chinese restaurant," Skinner said.

"You're too nice," the woman replied.

Her name is Bianka Luna. She has four kids, ages 4, 6 ,8, and 10. She said all of her kids were born in Arizona, which is where she grew up.

Why was she in Palomas?

"We came here to visit, and my kids said they wouldn't leave their dad," she said.

I had that feeling I got again and again in the Borderland — that we'd just heard the start of an unbelievable story.

Lives On Both Sides Of The Border

The children's father is in Palomas and cannot return to the United States. He was caught living in the United States without permission, and was forced to leave. To avoid being formally deported, with little chance to come back, he signed a document agreeing to leave voluntarily.

Bianka Luna told us the full story: Her husband migrated illegally to the U.S. in the 1990s as a teenager. He ended up working in several Chinese restaurants in the Panda Express chain. That's where he met his wife. But he was caught last year in an Arizona traffic stop, detained for six months, and thrown out.

He ended up here in Palomas, where Bianka joined him.

"My whole family was like, 'Oh, my God, you're going?' " she recalled. "I said 'What am I supposed to do? My kids need their dad.' He was incarcerated six months, and it tore them apart."

So the former Panda Express workers were reunited. They really do have a Chinese restaurant in Palomas, Mexico. The sign says "El Pandita Asiatico Express."

There's a panda painted in front.

It's a simple place, where the father works over the flames in the kitchen. Miguel Angel Luna told us he's trying to figure out how to reclaim his family's life in the United States. We didn't know his prospects, but we did know where to buy dinner that night.

The restaurant served orange chicken and a dish called Hong Kong.

It was the best American-style Chinese we found in Mexico.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. When some of our colleagues took a road trip along the U.S.-Mexico border, they drove a two-lane strip of asphalt called Highway 9.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Oh, we're on the road again. It's early morning.

WERTHEIMER: MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep was looking for more stories of people, goods and culture that cross the border. This road led, mile after mile through the desert, parallel to the U.S. border fence.

INSKEEP: If you look to the east, you can see the craggy mountains in west Texas on the horizon. We've left them behind. We've just passed into New Mexico. It took us days to get across the giant state of Texas while zigzagging in and out of several Mexican states. Now we're on our way to Columbus, N.M., a border village with a storied past and a troubled recent history. They've just elected a new mayor, and we're on the way to the inauguration.

(SOUNDBITE OF INAUGURATION)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Everybody ready?

MAYOR PHILLIP SKINNER: Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK. When I say I, you say your name, OK?

PHILLIP SKINNER: OK. Do I raise my hand?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes. I...

PHILLIP SKINNER: Phillip Skinner.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Having been elected or appointed to the office of mayor...

INSKEEP: It was a simple ceremony in an office in City Hall office. A sign on the wall said: "Please, No Complaints Today. Come Back Tomorrow." City treasurer Ned Barr said a prayer.

(SOUNDBITE OF INAUGURATION)

NED BARR: Dear heavenly father, we give you thanks today that we have a peaceful transition of government. What an awesome thing.

INSKEEP: Especially awesome because of how the last elected mayor left office. He was arrested in 2011 for smuggling guns across the border into Mexico. So was the police chief and several other residents.

MARTHA SKINNER: There's one of the boys that got caught in the raid.

INSKEEP: We drove around town with the new mayor's sister, Martha Skinner, who is a former mayor herself. She also runs the bed and breakfast where I stayed. And she recalled the night federal agents took down the city government.

MARTHA SKINNER: Boy, I'm telling you, I thought we were in Afghanistan. It was 4 o'clock in the morning. It woke me up - the helicopters; and I came out the front door, and there were lights - blue and red lights, you know, everywhere. And they were throwing those bombs that they explode and they have all the light in them.

INSKEEP: Our producer Nishant Dahiya, who's actually spent time in war zones, thought he recognized what she was describing.

They're called flash bangs?

NISHANT DAHIYA: They're like, stun grenades.

MARTHA SKINNER: Oh. I'm telling you - whew. Of course, and then the news just kept going click, click, click, click, click. They took the mayor. They took the police chief. They took the people that owned the store.

INSKEEP: Martha Skinner calls this the second raid. She wants to distinguish between that and the far more famous first raid. You see evidence of the first raid in Columbus at the local museum. We visited with Ned Barr, the same official who said the prayer at the inauguration.

BARR: This room is about the Pancho Villa raid.

INSKEEP: Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary leader. He sent soldiers across the border in 1916, and they burned part of Columbus. A bank safe from the period sits in the museum.

BARR: This was a target; they wanted money, of course. A shot was fired and went through this quarter-inch steel.

INSKEEP: The raid prompted the U.S. Army to cross the border, hunting Pancho Villa. They never found him, but the raid gave Columbus its place in history. And as we moved about town, people told us they had just held their annual commemoration.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You ought to come back for the 100th year celebration. It's going to be a big-time celebration.

INSKEEP: So we heard from the morning gathering at the Columbus American Legion. People chat and drink coffee for 50 cents per cup. But if Columbus has embraced the 1916 raid, the 2011 raid was devastating. One man said there was low turnout in the recent mayor's election.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, a lot of people here are ex-felons, and we can't vote.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hey! That was a joke.

INSKEEP: In truth, it was a close election, with several hundred votes cast in a town of about 1,600. After his inauguration, the new mayor - Phillip Skinner - met us for lunch on the patio of the Patio Cafe, in Columbus. We talked about the aftermath of the second raid.

Has there been a process of getting over that in the town? Does there need to be a process? Is the town over that?

PHILLIP SKINNER: No. I don't think so. And I think there needs to be.

INSKEEP: Skinner knows the border was the downfall of the former mayor. He also thinks the border can be part of his town's salvation. He's a businessman who developed real estate in Columbus years ago. He sometimes crossed through the border checkpoint to Palomas, Mexico.

PHILLIP SKINNER: For the first few years that I was down here, I was scared to death all the time. I could remember almost kissing the ground when I came back across because I had fear, as maybe any new tourist might have.

INSKEEP: But Skinner got to know people in Palomas,. For a time, he ran a Palomas furniture factory - a maquiladora. Now, he's talking of starting a binational festival to promote his border town. And though he's politically conservative, he's come to wish the security at the border was less intense.

PHILLIP SKINNER: If I could change the security thing, I'd go back to 50 years ago, right? We wouldn't have all the border patrolmen and things like that on the border. I recognize the reason for it, OK? I think it was probably a much better time when we didn't have the security fears.

INSKEEP: And then the new mayor of Columbus headed off to one of his other jobs. It's a job that says a lot about his town's links to the border. His job involves the kids at Columbus Elementary School.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: On the day of our visit, they were holding a pep rally at the end of the day. Then they headed for the school buses.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Come on, kiddos. Walk, walk...

INSKEEP: One of bus drivers is Mayor Phillip Skinner.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUS)

INSKEEP: He steered his vehicle toward the border crossing. So we're here at the border crossing between Columbus and Palomas, Mexico, watching hundreds of school kids get off these buses. There's actually a couple of shifts of school buses to take them down to the border, to cross over. Most of the kids we saw in that gymnasium actually live in Mexico, and come to school here in the United States. As U.S. citizens, they're entitled to do so.

Mayor Skinner dropped off the kids, and they walked across the border to meet their families. Then Mayor Skinner strolled with us through the border checkpoint and into Palomas. He introduced us to a woman with blonde hair, the mother of some of the kids he drives.

PHILLIP SKINNER: Her husband and her have the most wonderful Chinese restaurant.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANKA LUNA: You're too nice.

INSKEEP: The woman's name was Bianka Luna. She has four kids, ages 4, 6, 8 and 10.

LUNA: I stand here from about 3 o'clock till almost 4 o'clock waiting, 'cause they each come on a different bus.

Oh, man.

INSKEEP: She says all her kids were born in Arizona, which is where Bianka Luna grew up.

And how long you been living here?

LUNA: I got here in December. We came to visit, and my kids said they wouldn't leave their dad. So...

INSKEEP: We had that feeling we got again and again in the Borderland, that we'd just heard the start of an unbelievable story. They wouldn't leave their dad, the mother had said.

What do you mean, when we...

LUNA: We came to visit for Christmas vacation, and we were going back to Arizona. And they told me they wouldn't leave.

INSKEEP: Because their dad is here and can't go to Arizona.

LUNA: He signed a voluntary.

INSKEEP: That means he signed a voluntary agreement to leave the United States and avoid an official deportation. Bianka Luna told us the full story. Her husband, she says, is Mexican. He migrated illegally to the United States in the 1990s. He was just a teenager. He ended up working in several Chinese restaurants in the Panda Express chain, and that's where he met his wife.

But he was caught last year in an Arizona traffic stop, detained for six months and thrown out. He ended up here in Palomas, Mexico, where Bianka joined him.

LUNA: My whole family was like, oh, my God, you're going? I said, what am I supposed to do? My kids need their dad. He was incarcerated six months, and it tore them apart.

INSKEEP: So the former Panda Express workers were reunited. And they really do have a Chinese restaurant in Palomas. The sign says El Pandita Asiatico Express. There's a panda painted in front. It's a simple place, where the father works over the flames in the kitchen.

Miguel Angel Luna told us he's trying to figure out how to reclaim his family's life in the United States. We didn't know his prospects. But we did know where to buy dinner that night. The restaurant served orange chicken, and a dish called Hong Kong. It was the best American-style Chinese food we had in Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: There's more ahead, and we hope you'll stay with us. Thanks for making NPR News a part of your daily routine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.