A hundred years ago, in the Texas counties along the U.S.–Mexico border, a decade-long flurry of extralegal killings perpetrated by Texas Rangers, local law enforcement, and civilian vigilantes took the lives of thousands of residents of the United States who were of Mexican descent, and pushed many more across the border into Mexico. This record of death and intimidation, which irrevocably shaped life in those border counties, has not been commonly taught in the state’s mainstream school curricula or otherwise recognized in official state histories. Mexican-American communities, however, have preserved the memory of the violence in family archives, songs, and stories. “To many Mexicans, contemporary violence between Anglos and Mexicans can never be divorced from the bloody history of the Borderlands,” write William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb in their history of lynchings of Mexican-Americans. “They remember, even if the rest of the country does not.”
Belatedly, tentatively, Texas has begun to reckon with this bloody history. As election-year rhetoric around the border and Mexican immigration has reached new levels of xenophobia and racism, the state—goaded by a group of historians calling themselves Refusing to Forget—has taken steps toward commemoration of the period called “La Matanza” (“The Killing”), with an exhibit at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum and three historical markers soon to be unveiled. For a state that has long refused to come to terms with those years—sealing transcripts of a Congressional investigation into the killings and waxing nostalgic about the Texas Rangers despite their involvement—it’s something like progress, even if the legacy of this violence will require far more than exhibits to expiate.
The deaths that occurred between 1910 and 1920 are part of a longer history of lynching of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the United States—itself little-discussed in comparison with the parallel history of violence against black Americans. Carrigan and Webb identify waves of violence against Americans of Mexican descent in the 1850s (when Mexicans were forcibly expelled from many mining camps in California), the 1870s (when Mexicans and Americans both took to raiding farms and ranches across their respective borders), and the 1910s. While a mob’s stated reason for lynching black victims tended to be an accusation of sexual violence, for Mexicans in the United States, the reason given was often retaliation for murder or a crime against property: robbery, or what was sometimes called “banditry.”
Property—in the form of land—was the underlying cause of the Texas border violence that took place in the second decade of the 20th century.