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From Pancho Villa to Panda Express: Life in a Border Town

Kainaz Amaria/NPR
The village of Columbus, N.M. was raided by Poncho Villa in 1916 and federal agents in 2011.

Kainaz Amaria/NPR
Phillip Skinner, former real estate developer and maquiladora owner-turned politician and school bus driver, stands with his wife, Diana, and son, Matthew, 10, moments after his mayoral inauguration.

Kainaz Amaria/NPR
A statue of Pancho Villa in front of the municipal building in Palomas, Mexico.

Kainaz Amaria/NPR
Mayor Skinner lets children off the bus on the New Mexico side of the border, right, where they cross to waiting family members on the Mexico side, in the town of Palomas, left.

Kainaz Amaria/NPR
Bianka Luna owns a Chinese restaurant with her husband in Palomas, Mexico. She moved to Mexico from Arizona with her four children after her husband was deported.

Kainaz Amaria/NPR
The Ball family eat at Miguel Angel Luna's Chinese restaurant "El Pandita Asiatico Express," in Palomas, Mexico.

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.

The woman's name was Bianka Luna. She has four kids, ages 4, 6 ,8, and 10. She said all her kids were born in Arizona, which is where Bianka Luna grew up.

Why was she in Palomas?

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

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