Unraveling by the Forward

When Pancho Villa attacked the U.S. in 1916, he was after the head of this Jewish merchant

When Pancho Villa and his troops raided Columbus, New Mexico in 1916—one of the only times in the 20th century that a foreign army ever invaded the continental United States— the famous Mexican revolutionary had only one goal: to bring back the head of a Lithuanian-born Jewish merchant named Sam Ravel.

Villa’s men ransacked the town, set buildings on fire and in the end, 19 Americans and about 75 Mexicans died in the attack.

That bizarre chapter in American life is now a documentary, “UnRaveling,” produced and written by Los Angeles filmmaker Stacey Ravel Abarbanel, Ravel’s granddaughter.

2021 DOC LA - UnRaveling from DOC LA on Vimeo.

It was a story, Abarbanel told the Forward recently, that she “had heard all of our life.”

At family gatherings, relatives recounted details of the legend: Sam was out of town in El Paso, but his brothers were home. One of them, Louis, hid in the family store under a pile of animal hides. “The hides saved my hide!” he famously reported. Another brother, Arthur, was only rescued when the Mexican soldiers holding him were shot. According to legend, a bullet grazed his ear.

As to why Villa went after Sam Ravel, there is no definitive answer. He was a prominent border businessman who sold goods of every kind, as well as owning a hotel and the town’s first movie theater.

There are stories that Ravel sold Villa guns and ammunition, and either didn’t deliver the goods or delivered defective ones. Arthur Ravel always claimed that although they did business with a wide variety of people, the brothers had no dealings with Villa. The true answer seems lost to time, but the fact that it was Ravel whom Villa’s men were looking for is unquestioned.

It’s clear, though, that antisemitism played no role in the attack. Ravel, having fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe, emigrated to the United States in 1905 looking for a refuge from antisemitism. He landed in Galveston, Texas, because he had family in El Paso, and soon set up shop in Columbus, where he played a major role in the life of the town and the region. Ravel was a big personality and was well known on both sides of the border.

He —and the raid— are still a big deal. An annual commemoration of the event includes both a memorial service as well as the Cabalgata Binacional Villista, a nine-day ride of Mexicans on horseback retracing Villa’s ride, joined at the border by American riders, culminating with their arrival in Columbus where they hold a festival of friendship.

And every year since 1916, local residents have held a commemoration. Abarbanel flew to El Paso for the 100th anniversary.

“And then we left,” she said, “I just couldn’t get it out of my mind.”

Although Abarbanel was never able to lock down the reason for Villa’s animus towards Ravel, she concluded her grandfather might have been one of many: anger at the U.S. for supporting a rival, a need to boost the morale of his own men, perhaps even a deal with the Germans to distract America from World War I.

“He definitely went after my grandfather, but it doesn’t seem like it was the only reason.” Arbarbanel decided to make the documentary as a way of asking questions and inspiring conversations. “I really was able to fill in a lot of the contours of my grandfather’s life,” Abarbanel said. “And in that way, I very much felt that I came to know someone I had never met, and came to care about someone I had never met.”

What she found raised issues beyond just her own family’s past. One is the idea that Jewish immigration happened only in big cities. Jewish immigrants also became pioneers in the Southwest.

“The second is the border itself. Today, if it’s in the news, it’s because of violence, illegal immigration or drug smuggling,” she said. “What I came to learn was that, whether it was in my grandfather’s time 100 years ago, or today, the border is really a gathering place. It’s a place of opportunity. It’s a place of community. Seeing the combined efforts of the people in Columbus, New Mexico and in Palomas in Mexico on the other side of the border, as they come together to memorialize what happened there, it is the defining history of the place.”

More to the point, Abarbanel said, “the confluence of border life and Jewish life was very much a part of my Ravel family history. The Ravels of my father and grandfather’s generation spoke good conversational Spanish along with Yiddish, Hebrew and English.”

That point plays out in a striking scene in the film in which the infamous “border wall” is opened wide to let the Mexican horse-riding procession into the U.S. There’s no frisking or border checks. The border is open with a tremendous respect for the visitors — a completely different picture from the usual evening news.

“19 Americans died and 75 Mexicans also died that day,” Abarbanel pointed out. “It’s quite beautiful the people coming together and saying a lot of people died, and we want to memorialize everyone who died there.”

In the end, Abarbanel’s story about her grandfather’s legend becomes a story about the borders Jews cross, and the borders where they live.

“The border is a way of life for a lot of people,” she said, “not just a spot of contention, or a place to pass through and be done with. It’s a region unto itself.”

UnRaveling will be screened at the LA Doc festival on Sunday October 24, and then is being distributed nationally and internationally by Menemsha Films.

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When Pancho Villa attacked the U.S. in 1916, he was after the head of this Jewish merchant

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