The Lynching of Hispanic Victims on the Texas Border

By Sonia Hernandez

Among the least known events in the long history of Civil Rights in American history is a multi-week investigation into the behavior and actions of the Texas Rangers a century ago. In 1919 Brownsville landowner, attorney, and civic leader, José Tomas ‘J.T.’ Canales launched a thorough investigation into Ranger activity resulting in over five thousand pages of testimony (access the full version of the Canales Investigation https://www.tsl.texas.gov /treasures /law /index.html#Canales). Canales’ inquiry into Ranger behavior publicly exposed the violence committed by the Ranger force, with particular focus on the years between 1915-1919 against the predominantly Texas Mexican border community. Despite such public outcry, the actual hearings were not available to the public until almost fifty years later.[1]

Some of the worst racial violence in United States history took place along the United States-Mexico borderlands, specifically in south Texas from 1910 to 1919. In this context, violence included lynchings led by members of law enforcement, execution-style killing by members of law enforcement as well as shooting individuals in the back, also by law enforcement. Such violence did not erupt spontaneously in 1910. Typically, the Mexican Revolution is invoked as the main trigger of such anti-Mexican violence. Anti-Mexican violence at the hands of Texas Rangers or other law enforcement at the state and local level was not a direct consequence of the Revolution. While violence escalated as a result of the Revolution, there existed a legacy of anti-Mexican violence since the mid to late nineteenth century.[2] A growing historiography on the topic illustrates the historical context and racial/ethnic landscape already in place by the time physical and rhetorical violence against Mexican Americans increased during the Mexican Revolution.[3]

Once again Mexican-origin people became easy targets of violence as Mexico became engulfed in revolution. While historical documents point to the participation of Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals in the infamous Plan de San Diego (PSD)—a plan that outlined a new homeland for ethnic Mexicans, African Americans, indigenous groups, and other marginalized groups carved out of the American Southwest, among other designs, the motives behind such plan were rooted in years of socio-political marginalization. As norteño Venustiano Carranza emerged as the clear victor in Mexico by 1917, the revolution raged on in Mexico while in Texas, some of the most horrific violence towards Mexicans followed thereafter.

In late January 1918, Texas Ranger Company B led by Captain James Monroe Fox descended upon Porvenir in West Texas with scant information about a recent raid in a nearby ranch—similar to the faulty accusations about a horse theft resulting in the well-known case of Gregorio Cortez’s near-lynching attempt in 1901. Company B, in one of the darkest chapters in Texas History, without proper investigation nor questioning any of the residents, proceeded to execute fifteen people, the youngest victim was only sixteen years of age. They spared the smaller children, women, and the elderly.

Upon learning of such inhumane and cowardly action and, as pressure mounted to address the rampant misuse of Ranger authority, J.T Canales stood up in defense of the Mexican-origin community. The Brownsville native was frequently referred to in a derogatory manner as “the greaser from Brownsville,” yet, despite such portrayals, Canales had held public office and was a well-known member of the political and economic elite. While Canales’ class and ethnic biases would later surface during his participation as founding member of one of the most crucial civil rights organizations of the time, Canales publicly spoke against Ranger abuse of power. With biases and all—a complex human being—Canales stood up to the state probably aware of the grave risk he was taking. Indeed, Canales relied on the protection of his senior colleague, Sam Johnson (father of future Senator and President Lyndon B. Johnson). Johnson escorted Canales to the state capitol during the hearings—a clear indication of the degree of risk Canales (and Johnson) took.[4]

People had died unjustly—men, women, young and old, long-time and new residents and Canales as well as other like-minded individuals including Cameron County Deputy Sheriff W.T. Van and others wishing to document Ranger abuses, such as lawyer and long-time Rio Grande Valley resident, Frank Pierce, would no longer tolerate the violence.[5]

That Mexicans were killed indiscriminately was not a secret. President Woodrow Wilson had been notified by a group of Kingsville, Texas residents about the situation as well as how they feared for their lives if they spoke against the atrocities. Prominent politicians proposed putting all those of Mexican descent into “concentration camps” – and killing any who refused. For decades, people would come across skeletons in the south Texas brush with execution-style bullet holes in the backs of their skulls. The true toll will never be known, though scholars from the 1930s to the present, including the famed late historian Walter Prescott Webb, gave estimates of several hundred to five thousand killed.[6]

To make matters worse, ethnic Mexicans engaged in labor activism were frequently targeted and labeled “radical” or “bandits” to justify the violence. Ports of entry, as the historian Alexandra Minna Stern has shown, were “sites of added scrutiny” and such scrutiny translated into frequent violations of human rights ranging from invasive health examinations to horrific lynchings.[7] Labor activists frequently noted the brutality with which state authorities “handled” fellow activists. Jaime Vidal, a strong supporter of the anti-Porfirio Díaz Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) referenced the racial animosity towards Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and African Americans along the border, particularly brutal in states like Texas. In 1913, at an IWW-sponsored meeting he spoke about “the unhappy notoriety Texas ha[d] achieved in the matter of racial prejudice, especially against negroes and Mexicans; together with her record in the matter of lynchings…”[8]

Such disturbing reports on the violence against the Texas Mexican community reveal how anyone suspected of acting as a “revolutionary” or described as a “dangerous agitator” or “bandit” could face deportation and in some cases, death. One consular report labeled “confidential, not to be published,” included in it a summary of events related to the exodus of hundreds of families into Tamaulipas by the American consul in Matamoros as migration continued as far south as the oil fields of Tampico.[9] The consul reported that among the reasons Mexicans were leaving south Texas was not economic opportunity in Tampico. Instead, the consul pointed to “Mexicans’ fear of the Texas Rangers.” Consul G.C. Woodward reported, “The Mexicans’ fear of the Texas Rangers arise[s] from the fact that it is claimed…[Mexicans] have been fired upon and killed and it is not considered safe to reside along the border in Texas in the event that the rangers again are used for border duty….[10] This and other numerous examples evidence the brutality with which the Ranger Force handled the Texas Mexican community.

Despite a total of nineteen charges filed against the Rangers by Representative Canales, and as detailed testimony was provided in the hearings, no individual was indicted. The Adjutant General’s disbandment of Company B as well as the reduction of the Ranger force did not overturn the deeply rooted culture of violence which had shaped the very history of the Force. Yet, there are larger lessons to draw from the Canales investigation and anti-Mexican violence more generally. The Canales Investigation reveals, through countless hours of testimonials shared by both Anglo and Mexican Americans, both women and men, as well as law enforcement officials and residents and workers alike several things, among them 1) ethnic Mexicans living in south Texas were summarily executed after being taken captive, or shot under the pretext of trying to escape 2) cultural, ethnic and racial motives formed part of the much longer and deeper resentment towards this community 3) this behavior was not a consequence of several ‘bad’ officers or rouge officials, but instead was part of a larger culture of violence that formed part of state efforts to police communities of color as a key part of greater state-making 4) labeling individuals “bandits,” “revolutionaries,” or “radicals/agitators,” without linking actual behavior to such labels frequently resulted in exclusion, deportation, and/or death.

Long viewed as a peripheral moment in both history and historiography, anti-Mexican violence perpetrated by the state via Texas Rangers and the subsequent investigation of such violence sheds light on not only the resiliency of the community in the face of state-sanctioned violence, but it reveals how events that transpired along our nation’s borders were all but peripheral. The violence towards Mexican-origin people was part of the larger process of nation and border-making. What happened along the southern border was reflective of national processes involving ideologies about citizenship and civil rights, about political power, access to land, and above all else, who belonged and who could be excluded


Notes

[1] Historical Introduction,” Reverberations of Racial Violence: Critical Reflections on U.S. History, ed. John Morán González & Sonia Hernández (Austin: University of Texas at Austin Press, forthcoming).

[2] While this essay does not delve into pre-1848 violence, it does not intend to lessen its importance/legacy.

[3] See for example Américo Paredes, With a Pistol in His Hand (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1958); Arnoldo De León, They Called them Greasers (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983); David Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987); Elliott Young, Catarino Garza’s Revolution on the Texas-Mexico Border (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), among other titles.

[4] Monica Muñoz Martínez, The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018); on Sam Johnson and José T. Canales see also Julie Leininger Pycior, LBJ and Mexican Americans: The Paradox of Power (Austin: University of Texas at Austin Press, 1997).

[5] See RefusingtoForget.org, a public history project dedicated to documenting the anti-Mexican violence history during the period 1910-1910.

[6] Benjamin Johnson, Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and its Bloody Suppression turned Mexicans into Americans (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

[7] Alexandra Minna Stern, “Buildings, Boundaries, and Blood: Medicalization and the Nation-Building on the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1910-1930,” Hispanic American Historical Review 79:1, 43-45; see also John McKiernan-González, Fevered Measures: Public Health and Race at the Texas -Mexico Border, 1848-1942 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, August 2012).

[8] As quoted in Christopher J. Castañeda, “Moving West: Jaime Vidal, Anarchy and the Mexican Revolution, 1904-1918,” in Writing Revolution: Hispanic Anarchist Print Culture and the United States, 1868-2015, eds. Christopher J. Castañeda and Montse Feu (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, forthcoming).

[9] To the Secretary of State from G.C. Woodward, Consul in Matamoros, “Emigration from Texas to Mexico,” 14 May, 1917, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), p.1.

[10] Ibid, p.2-3; see also Ricardo Flores Magón, “Justice and Not Bullets,” Western Comrade (May 1916), Robert Wagner Labor Archives, Tamiment Library, NYU, PE030, Box 8, ‘Folder Ricardo Flores Magón.’