Above: Texas Rangers parade down Elizabeth Street in Brownsville, circa 1916. Photograph: Courtesy Robert Runyon Photograph Collection. Life and death on the border: effects of century-old murders still felt in Texas.
Many reporters have described the recent mass shooting in El Paso, Texas as the worst modern-day massacre of Mexican-Americans in American history.
The qualifier here is “modern-day,” because it is not the worst massacre of Mexican-Americans in American history.
Our schools don’t teach this in American history classes, but the La Matanza (the massacre) was a series of state-sanctioned attacks and lynchings of Mexican ethnics by Anglo vigilantes and law enforcement, including the Texas Rangers, that took place between 1910 and 1920 in the midst of tension between the United States and Mexico during the Mexican Revolution and World War I.
La Matanza was “some of the worst racial violence in United States history”. This history was acknowledged only in recent years by the state of Texas. The Texas Rangers Killed Hundreds of Hispanic Americans During the Mexican Revolution (January 2016):
“Well essentially, La Matanza resulted because of reprisals by state and local authorities against a guerrilla uprising that had occurred,” says John Morán González, associate professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin and part of the group of scholars.
He says the guerrilla uprising was small and not very well organized, made up of bandits or Mexican revolutionaries. Nevertheless, the Texas Rangers were called in to control the situation. The repression, however, was not just directed at the bandits, but at the Texas-Mexican population as a whole. Morán González says that between 1915 and 1919, hundreds – if not thousands – of Mexicans and Tejanos in South Texas were killed by the Rangers and other vigilantes.
“So in that sense, the project of policing throughout much of this era was also about the establishment of a racial order, of white supremacy,” Morán González says.
For the first time, this part of history will be acknowledged by the state of Texas through an exhibit at the Bob Bullock Museum called “Life and Death on the Border, 1910 to 1920.”
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This violent period spurred what would become the Mexican-American civil rights movement. One important document on display is the complete transcript of the 1919 Texas Legislative Investigation that looked into the Texas Rangers’ actions, and found them guilty.
“This was the first time that the Texas Rangers had ever been called to be held accountable for atrocities against the Texas-Mexican community by the legislature,” Morán González says. “Prior to that, the Texas Rangers knew pretty much anything goes.”
The group of scholars – which includes both Gonzales and Morán González – have named their project Refusing to Forget. Their goal is to commemorate this forgotten period of Texas history by making it known to a wider public. Currently, it’s not part of the Texas public school curriculum. The exhibit is just one part of their efforts: They are also working to erect historical landmarks and develop a traveling exhibit to tour Texas, and eventually, the country.
That historical landmark was placed in October 2017. Texas Finally Recognizing History of Violence Against Mexican Americans:
Between 1910 and 1920 Mexican Americans living on the Texas-Mexico border were targets of state-sanctioned violence.
Although historians estimate that several thousand Mexican nationals and American citizens were killed, this period of violence has received little public attention until now.
“[Rangers] were killing the Mexican Americans in particularly for land left,” said Christopher Carmona, Assistant Professor at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
“Part of what they were doing was a systematic taking of land from the Mexican land owners to force them to sell their lands cheaply to the American corporations that we’re coming in during this time,” Carmona said.
“The Rangers were basically hired to help terrorize the population further into Mexico and off their lands,” he said.
The historical marker, which will be erected between Brownsville and San Benito, will be the first of a series of historical markers that the Refusing to Forget Project is getting across Texas.
As the U.S. prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of “Red Summer” — a period in 1919 when white mobs attacked and murdered African Americans in dozens of cities across the country — some historians and Latino activists say now is the time to acknowledge the terror experienced by Mexican Americans around the same period. Mexican Americans faced racial terror from 1910-1920:
In towns, villages and cities in the West, Mexican Americans were subjected to torture, lynchings and other violence at the hands of white mobs and law enforcement agencies such as the Texas Rangers. Historians say that from 1910 to 1920, an estimated 5,000 people of Mexican descent were killed or vanished in the U.S.
Often the violence was so barbaric it attracted the attention of newspapers abroad and the fledgling NAACP.
Then, it was forgotten.
“When you talk about villages and small towns being wiped off the face of the earth … that’s what happened to Porvenir” said Valencia, 67, a leader of a teachers union in El Paso, Texas.
Monica Muñoz Martinez, the author of “The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas” and an American studies professor at Brown University, said Mexican American families often kept stories of violence from their children out of fear because the perpetrators and their offspring remained in key law enforcement positions or elected offices.
“Now there’s a new generation that’s saying, ‘We need to make these histories public and we need a public reckoning,’” Martinez said.
As with attacks on African American men, the mob violence usually stemmed from rumors about a crime that was pinned on Mexican Americans with little or no evidence.
In 1910, a white mob in Rocksprings, Texas, lynched 20-year-old Antonio Rodríguez and burned the body after he was accused of killing a white woman. He never received a trial; instead, he was kidnapped from jail.
Four years later, Adolfo Padilla, jailed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on suspicion of killing his wife, was seized by masked men and chopped into pieces.
In 1915, brothers Jose and Hilario Leon were beaten and hanged by two white Arizona police officers during an interrogation. Their bodies were left to rot in the desert gulch. The officers were later convicted of murder, but that was a rare outcome.
Mexican American families sometimes went to local and state authorities to complain and often suffered violent retribution, historians say.
It was the bloodshed in the ranching community of Porvenir that stirred the most outrage among Mexican American reformers and in the international press.
On the early morning of Jan. 28, 1918, the Texas Rangers and four local white ranchers surrounded Porvenir on the suspicion that villagers were sympathetic to bandits or cattle raiders. The men, with the help of a U.S. cavalry regiment, woke up the residents, seized 15 able-bodied men and boys and killed them.
“For perhaps ten seconds we couldn’t hear anything, and then it seemed that every woman down there screamed at the same time,” cavalry Pvt. Robert Keil later wrote. “We could also hear what sounded like praying, and, of course, the small children were screaming with fright.”
The Army returned to the village days later and burned it to the ground.
A Texas legislative committee investigated, and Rep. J.T. Canales, the only Hispanic member of the legislature, called witnesses who told stories of terror. But defenders of the Rangers branded Canales delusional, the committee absolved the law enforcement agency, and Canales lost his bid for re-election in 1920.
Nine years later, he helped found the civil rights group the League of United Latin American Citizens, which exists today.
Recently, a group of academics, activists and journalists formed a group called Refusing to Forget to educate the public about violence against Mexican Americans and set up historical markers to memorialize the most brutal episodes.
John Moran Gonzalez, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas, said the group has faced resistance from local historical societies. “They say things like, ‘Why are you bringing this up now? Why are you inflaming racial tensions?’” Gonzalez said. “They are embarrassed.”
Valencia eventually got a historical marker near the site of the Porvenir Massacre, about a four-hour drive east of El Paso. Nothing remains of the village, and the bodies of those killed rest in shallow graves across the Rio Grande in Mexico.
In researching the massacre, Valencia found an affidavit by her great-grandmother describing the killing of her husband and her search for justice. But justice never came.
“She committed suicide,” Valencia said.
Her surviving great-uncle, Juan Flores, who was 13 at the time of the massacre and would later describe how he found his father’s mutilated body and other corpses, had nightmares for the rest of his life and eventually underwent shock treatment.
Flores hadn’t told his immediate family of the massacre until Valencia asked him about it.
“Everyone just thought he was crazy,” she said. “But he was living with a secret that was killing him from the inside.”
Americans have yet to come to terms with our long history of white supremacy and white terrorism against ethnic minorities.