Big Jim Griffith: Our Storied Desert Land

Almost five years after the siege of Naco another armed clash occurred on the border also involving the “Buffalo Soldiers” of the 10th Cavalry. In August, 1918 things were tense between the twin border cities of Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona. World War I was dragging on in Europe. The United States had joined it in 1917, following publication of the infamous Zimmerman telegram offering German support to Mexico should that nation declare war on its neighbor to the north. Americans on the border were on the lookout for German agents and spies…and felt they had identified several.

In Mexico, resentment still simmered over Pershing’s Punitive Expedition of 1916-17. Locally, new U.S. regulations limiting the amount of food brought back into Mexico, combined with increasing rudeness and arrogance on the part of U.S. Customs officials, added to the tension. At least twice American forces asked questions in English and then shot to kill. Nogales, Arizona was garrisoned by troops of the 25th Infantry, later reinforced by Buffalo soldiers of the 10th Cavalry. That stretch of border was particularly hot with rumors of German spies and military advisors. Such rumors are a long-standing tradition on this part of the border. I remember being told in the 1950s that “forty thousand Red Chinese soldiers in tennis shoes” were in the mountains of Sonora, preparing to invade the U.S.

Tension increased when Mexicans were seen digging trenches on the hills overlooking the border and when numbers of Mexican soldiers and armed civilians were reported to be entering Nogales, Sonora. Things came to a head on Tuesday, August 27, 1918 at about 4 P.M, when shots were fired, wounding one American soldier and killing two Mexican customs officials. Like so many cross-border confrontations, it began in a muddle of confused orders and misinterpreted actions. It was all that was needed to set off the tinderbox, and firing across the border became general.

Felix Peñalosa, presidente municipal (mayor) of Nogales, Sonora, approached the conflict with a white flag tied to the end of his cane, and was shot to death. American troops came under fire from the hills across the border, and soldiers of the 10th Cavalry crossed the border, captured the hills, and occupied some buildings on the Mexican side. By about 6:30, American and Mexican officials were meeting, and a truce was established. The battle was over.

An isolated, minor incident, yes. But it resulted in the building of the first of many border fences through Nogales. And here in Tucson, memories live on in a corrido (ballad) preserved in the Benton family, and in the following story that I learned from a neighbor. Patsy Sutton was staying in a hotel near the border on the Arizona side and watched the battle from a second-story window. She told of seeing a little old lady sitting on a porch on the Mexican side, with a large piece of handwork on her lap. When the American troops passed her house, she pulled out a pistol, fired a few shots, and went back to her handwork.

For el Corrido de Nogales, listen to “Heroes and Horses: Corridos of the Arizona-Sonora Borderlands” (Smithsonian Folkways SFWCD 40475, band 1.) More information on the battle can be found on the Internet under “The Battle of Ambos Nogales.”