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Lynch Mobs Killed Latinos Across the West. Descendants Want It Known.

The lynching of thousands of men, women, and children of Mexican descent has gone unnoticed for generations.
Briscoe Center for American History/University of Texas at Austin

Arlinda Valencia was at a funeral when an uncle told her a bewildering family secret: An Anglo lynch mob had killed her great-grandfather.

“A mixture of grief and shock overwhelmed me since this was the first I heard of this,” said Ms. Valencia, 66, the leader of a teachers’ union in El Paso. “The more I looked into it, the more stunned I was at how many Mexicans were lynched in this country.”

Ms. Valencia and other descendants of lynching victims are now casting attention on one of the grimmest campaigns of racist terror in the American West: the lynching of thousands of men, women and children of Mexican descent from the mid-19th century until well into the 20th century.

Some victims were burned alive, like Antonio Rodríguez, 20, a migrant worker who was hauled from a jail in Rocksprings, Tex., tied to a tree and set ablaze in 1910. Other mobs hanged, whipped or shot Mexicans, many of whom were United States citizens, sometimes drawing crowds in the thousands.

Lynchings have long been associated with violence against African-Americans in the American South, and these atrocities are remembered at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. Lynchings of Hispanics have faded into history with less attention. Often, they have been portrayed as attempts to exercise justice on behalf of white settlers protecting their livestock or claims to land.

But a new movement is underway to uncover that neglected past. It has unleashed discussions about the scramble for land or mining claims that frequently influenced these lynchings, as well as the traces of such episodes in resurgent anti-Latino sentiment and the question many parts of the United States are confronting: Who gets to tell history?

“The conquest of the West is still simply a tale of incredible progress for many Americans,” said Monica Muñoz Martínez, a professor of American studies at Brown University who has written extensively about anti-Mexican violence in Texas.

“But despite the unwillingness to recognize these lynchings as a tragedy, or even recognize them at all, momentum is building to finally reckon with these events,” said Professor Muñoz Martínez, who was raised in Texas and is a co-founder of Refusing to Forget, a group committed to increasing awareness about state-sanctioned violence against Latinos in Texas.