In 1916, the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa led a cross-border raid on Columbus, New Mexico—killing nineteen and burning down buildings before being chased off by American soldiers. As a result of the raid, the Wilson administration sent a contingent of troops into Mexico, led by General John Pershing, to capture Villa. Historians still dispute the reasons for the original raid, but both contemporary accounts and oral histories taken decades later mention that he was looking for a Russian Jewish immigrant named Sam Ravel, who fortuitously was in El Paso at the time. Stacey Ravel Abarbanel, Ravel’s granddaughter, writes:
Sam Ravel was born in the shtetl of Shaki (Sakiai), Lithuania, in 1885, the eldest of six children, during a period of Russian rule. . . . He arrived in Galveston, Texas, on September 11, 1905, and headed to El Paso, where his uncles . . . had already settled. . . . Soon after Sam arrived, he and his uncle Joe opened the City Loan & Jewelry, a pawn shop on South El Paso Street.
According to the oral-history interview with [his cousin] Vincent, one day a Mexican man walked into the shop to purchase guns and ammunition. A small crowd formed outside, peering into the store windows. The Mexican paid in cash and departed. Later that afternoon the authorities showed up at City Loan & Jewelry. “Do you know who that was?” they asked. “That was Pancho Villa.” It was likely the first of many times that Sam’s and Pancho’s paths would cross.
In 1910, two years before New Mexico became a state, Ravel moved to Columbus, where he bought the local hotel and opened a dry-goods store and later the town’s first movie theater.
[Ravel’s shop] was a typical “Jew store,” as these ubiquitous small-town establishments run by Jewish immigrants were known. They sold food, clothing, hides, shoes, hats, appliances, fuel, cleaning supplies, guns, ammunition—you name it. Their customers were as diverse as the merchandise: Americans, including families of the 13th Cavalry Regiment stationed at [nearby] Camp Furlong, and Mexicans, some representing revolutionary armies that were jockeying for power. It seems likely that Villa was a customer and, if family lore is true, a once-in-a-while player in the poker games held at night in the back of the store.
Theories abound as to why Villa raided Columbus. . . . Numerous accounts repeat a rumor that Villa had paid for, but never received, weapons from Sam. Others contend that Sam sold faulty weapons to Villa, or that Sam had ceased selling goods to Villa because the revolutionary leader’s fluctuating currency was valueless. [One history] quotes the Villista Juan Muñoz as follows: “We went to Columbus to take Sam Ravel and burn his properties for the robbery and treason which he committed. Èsa es la verdad.”