AUSTIN — It’s better late than never that Texas is fully acknowledging state-sanctioned violence that took place along the Mexican border a century ago, scholars said Thursday.
It marked the opening of “Life and Death on the Border 1910-1920,” an exhibition at the Bullock Texas State History Museum that runs through April 3. The exhibit examines a little-known chapter in which Texas Rangers, the Army and vigilantes engaged in what historians have called one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history.
To kick off the exhibition, the museum held a symposium with scholars whose Refusing to Forget project inspired the exhibition.
In 1904, when railroads linked the Texas-Mexico border to the rest of the country, a cultural clash ensued, said Trinidad Gonzalez, a history instructor at South Texas College and a member of the Refusing to Forget team.
Much of the ranch lands had been in Tejano families for generations, but that didn’t please some whites arriving from the Midwest and elsewhere, said Monica Muñoz Martinez, assistant professor of American studies and ethnic studies at Brown University.
“They said in the South, brown people are people who don’t own land or vote,” Martinez said.
The conflict over land was exacerbated with the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the political upheaval it brought and cross-border raids that were associated with it. Unfortunately, the state and federal governments were less than discerning in their response, the scholars said.
“It provided an excuse for the American government to label anybody who crossed over looking like a Mexican a ‘bandit,’ a ‘bandido,’ ” Gonzalez said.
Texas sent the Rangers to the border, where they killed Tejanos with little fear of repercussion, said Benjamin Johnson, an assistant professor of history at Loyola University Chicago.
“It’s really a horror show,” he said. “The biggest thing you’re afraid for is your own life.”
It’s been hard to nail down how many were killed in the violence. Johnson said that with more than 100 killed between 1915 and 1916 in Cameron County alone, the total death toll along the entire border throughout the decade is likely to be about 1,000.
The panelists stressed that history is complex and that this is not a simple narrative of white-on-brown violence. Rangers were killed in reprisals, some whites tried to stop the bloodshed and Tejanos in some instances killed each other, they said.
But that doesn’t change the fact that state leaders were fully aware that the Rangers were pushing Tejanos off their land and subjecting them to the most ruthless treatment, the panelists said. There were even calls to force Tejanos into “concentration camps,” Johnson said.
A series of 1919 legislative hearings found that the Rangers acted improperly, but nobody was charged criminally.
“I think a lot of people thought it got out of hand, but they were still glad it happened,” Johnson said.
The violence is well known among historians, but it is little known among the broader public — in part because it runs against the heroic popular narrative of the Texas Rangers, the panelists said.
Also, until now, few museums have acknowledged it.
“The cultural institutions of this state have failed those families (of the victims of the violence) for generations,” Martinez said. “So we’re catching up.”
She praised the Bullock museum for pulling together the exhibition, which organizers said was a massive undertaking.
The scholars at the symposium and some members of the audience said the exhibition offers lessons for modern Texans.
“I would assert that state-sanctioned violence still happens today,” said Gregory Lee Cuellar, an assistant professor at the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Marty Schladen can be reached at 512-479-6696; firstname.lastname@example.org; @martyschladen on Twitter.