In Texas, Mexican-Americans the 'forgotten dead'
(published as a commentary/guest column in the February 23, 2019 online editions of the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle and in the February 24, 2019 print edition of the San Antonio Express-News )
Copyright 2019 (all rights reserved)
In recent years, Texas has made strides in addressing racial discrimination. Much of the progress has involved ethnic minorities’ access to high-level private and public offices, including state, county and city governments, as well as school districts.
But we needn’t go back too far to find blatant yet legally permitted exclusions, not only in employment but in ethnic groups’ choices of where to eat and live.
As recently as the 1960s, it was common to find segregated public facilities, such as eating counters, drinking fountains and restrooms. Eating establishments openly displayed large signs declaring that African Americans and Hispanics weren’t allowed, such as “WE SERVE WHITE’S (sic), NO Spanish or Mexicans.”
Things were worse in the early part of the last century.
Such things happened elsewhere, you might say. Of course they did, and we might add worse things―lynching, for example, especially of African Americans.
Yet, I want my message to be clear―Texas was not free of such heinous conduct.
When I first thought of writing about this ugly part of Texas history, I pondered whether it was worth the criticism my piece might receive, especially from white supremacists. Would there be a benefit to opening up old wounds?
It was then that I recalled what the Spanish philosopher Santayana once said: “Those cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We can’t escape our history, but we can learn from it to guide us in the right direction.
Slavery alone created much of the racial discrimination in Texas. When the Texas Revolution ended in 1836, the Constitution of the Republic of Texas made slavery legal.
By 1850, the slave population was 58,161 and increased to 182,566― 30 percent of the population―in 1860. In that year, almost 25 percent of all white families owned at least one slave.
What, until recent times, has remained unacknowledged is the atrocities committed against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.
Recently, when Texas approved a new immigration enforcement law known as SB4 (the sanctuary cities law), Susanne Gamboa, writing at nbcnews.com on June 3, 2017, denounced the law as a continuation of the unacknowledged struggle by Mexican-Americans.
Claiming that the new law might “foster racism or encourage discrimination,” she said: “Consider that, during the period from 1848 to 1928, at least 232 people of Mexican descent were killed by mob violence or lynching in Texas―some committed at the hands of Texas Rangers, according to research by William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb, authors of ’Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States.’ Texas led 12 states in killings of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, the authors solidly documented.”
In “Forgotten Dead,” published by the Oxford Press in 2013 (issued in paperback in January 2017), Carrigan and Webb provide the first book to comprehensively study incidents of Mexican–American lynching over eight decades, a time when lynch mobs murdered hundreds of Mexican–Americans and Mexicans, mostly in Texas. The book provides comparative evidence for mob violence against both African-Americans and Mexican-Americans.
In an article entitled “Life and death on the border: effects of century-old murders still felt in Texas,” by Tom Dart (published in the January 22, 2016 issue of The Guardian), the author maintained that “a hundred years ago, many Mexicans and Mexican Americans were killed in Texas, and members of the celebrated law enforcement agency (the Texas Rangers) implicated in their deaths.”
Dart wrote that a group of academicians formed Refusing to Forget, a project to increase public awareness. The group’s efforts gained official recognition from the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, which opened an exhibit called “Life and Death on the Border, 1910-1920.” The exhibit sought to re-examine the events of what the museum described as “some of the worst racial violence in United States history.”
“There were other notorious slaughters,” said John Moran Gonzalez, a project member and associate professor at the University of Texas. In 1915, the rangers took a dozen raiders prisoner and hanged them, leaving their bodies out in the open for months.
According to Dart, others were decapitated, burnt or tortured, some with beer bottles shoved in their mouths. Violence became so commonplace that a San Antonio reporter noted that the “finding of dead bodies of Mexicans, suspected for various reasons of being connected with the troubles, reached a point where it creates little or no interest.”
The Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum website acknowledges that some Ranger companies “acted as vigilante groups” where “the lack of training and controls were evident.”
The irony of all this is that we owe much to the bravery of Spanish explorers who roamed Texas. And that debt is for much more than the symbolic reminders of their presence they left behind, such as the names of places, counties, towns and rivers, including the state’s oldest municipality, San Antonio―St. Anthony.
Spain’s significant legacies to Texas’ history aren’t disputed by historians. They’ve endured to this day―in our law, architecture, music and religion.
And even in our state’s name. The Spanish named it Tejas, after a tribe in east Texas by that name. In Spanish, the “x” is used interchangeably with the “j”.
To learn more about Spain’s contributions to Texas’ history, read the revised edition of “Spanish Texas,” by Donald E. Chapman and Harriet Denise Joseph, an historical account of the 300-year period― 1520 to 1821―when Spain possessed Texas as a part of New Spain.
According to Chapman and Joseph, after 1821, settlers in Spanish Texas were mestizo, of mixed ethnicity, one of various castes. Even then, discrimination raised its ugly head, for many Anglo-Americans lumped all Spanish speakers in one “despicable” race.
We can’t do anything about the past―it is etched in our history. But all of us can have a strong impact on the world we’ll leave behind. To do that, however, we must remind ourselves that others before us cruelly mistreated those they believed weren’t worthy.
For starters, we can include in our schools’ textbooks an accurate history. Such true accounts are sorely lacking, and I’ve seen no movement whatsoever by the state’s educational leaders to change direction.
It’s imperative that these well-documented events be bookmarked to show clearly that racism was very much alive throughout our state’s colonization and beyond. These texts should include the legacies the Spanish and Mexican settlers left us.
Everyone should own up to the deplorable events that took place in our country’s history, as should Texans for what happened here. We shouldn’t sugarcoat them.
Again, I realize that some among you will raise their angry voices in protest of my message. But this isn’t written for them. It’s written for those of you who are decent and well-meaning, who can have a profound influence in where we’re headed as a society.
And, while we’re doing that, we don’t have to make America great again―it’s already great, despite the audacity of those who believe otherwise.
We must not forget our worst moments in history. And I pray to God we never will.