Lynching in the west: Unwritten violence against Mexican Americans

The lynching of African Americans in the Deep South is heavily documented, but few know about the Mexican Americans who suffered the same fate in the west, writes Simon Romero

Thursday 07 March 2019 22:20
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Fog blankets the valley over the Rio Grande which marks the boundary between the US (left of the river) and Mexico
Fog blankets the valley over the Rio Grande which marks the boundary between the US (left of the river) and Mexico

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

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

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 Rodriguez, 20, a migrant worker who was hauled from a jail in Rocksprings, Texas, tied to a tree and set ablaze in 1910. Other mobs hanged, whipped or shot Mexicans, many of whom were US citizens, sometimes drawing crowds in the thousands.

Lynchings have long been associated with violence against African Americans in the Deep South, and these atrocities are remembered at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. Lynchings of Hispanics have faded into history. 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,” says Monica Munoz Martínez, a professor of American studies at Brown University, who has written extensively about anti-Mexican violence in Texas.

“But despite the unwillingness to recognise these lynchings as a tragedy, or even recognise them at all, momentum is building to finally reckon with these events,” says 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.

The state, which enshrined white supremacy in its 1836 constitution when Anglo slaveholders seceded from Mexico, had by far the most episodes of mob violence against people of Mexican descent, according to William D Carrigan and Clive Webb, historians who have documented such cases.

Central American migrants walk along the Mexican bank of the Rio Bravo that divides the cities of Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras (AFP/Getty)

Reasons given for these lynchings varied wildly, including accusations of cattle theft, murder, cheating at cards, refusing to play the fiddle, shouting “Viva Diaz!” – even witchcraft.

In 1880, a mob in Collin County in north Texas accused Refugio Ramirez, his wife and their teenage daughter, Maria Ines, of bewitching their neighbours. The three of them were burnt to death, according to Laura F Edwards, a historian at Duke University.

In another episode in 1882, a man of Mexican descent, identified as Augustin Agirer, filed a complaint against an white man who shot at his dog. In retaliation, a mob tracked Agirer down and fatally shot him in front of his wife, The Austin Weekly Statesman reported at the time.

In 1922, a group of 10 men snatched Elias Villareal Zarate from a jail in Weslaco in south Texas, where he was being held for fighting with a white co-worker. La Prensa, a San Antonio newspaper, described how the mob hanged him, raising the ire of Mexican diplomats who were trying to curb such killings.

One of the most contentious lynching episodes anywhere in the west involved the ancestors of Valencia, the El Paso teachers union official. The family and several neighbours had settled in the outpost of Porvenir in a remote stretch of west Texas on the Rio Grande, eking out a quiet existence as farmers.

But on 28 January 1918, a group of cattlemen, Texas Rangers and US army cavalry soldiers descended on the village as families slept. They seized 15 men and boys, the youngest of whom was 16, marched them to a bluff overlooking the river and fatally shot them at close range.

After burning Porvenir to the ground, the Rangers and ranchmen claimed, without offering proof, the villagers had been thieves. They contended the victims had been informants for Mexicans who had raided the nearby Brite Ranch a month earlier. They also claimed they had come under fire.

But investigations by the army and the State Department found the Mexicans were unarmed when they were killed. Valencia’s great-grandfather, Longino Flores, was among the dead. Her grandfather, Rosendo Mesa, was a boy at the time. He survived because he was away buying provisions.

“My grandfather kept everything about the massacre to himself, which kind of amazed me,” says Valencia, reflecting on why it took so long for her to find out about the killings. “Remember, this is Texas. There’s reverence for the nearly godly Texas Rangers. To this day, the truth is hard.”

Remember, this is Texas. There’s reverence for the nearly godly Texas Rangers. To this day, the truth is hard

Arlinda Valencia

Valencia found out how hard it is to even agree on the facts surrounding the killings when historians and descendants of the victims at Porvenir, a village largely erased from local memory after it was razed in 1918 and survivors fled, applied to the Texas Historical Commission for a historical marker.

“Don’t tell me that if the police kill an Anglo in Chihuahua City, there isn’t going to be some differences about what really happened,” says Jim White III, 70, a descendant of the Brite family, whose ranch not far from Porvenir was the one that had been raided a month before the lynchings.

“It was a turbulent time on the border when you had a lot of people getting killed on both sides,” says White, who still lives on the family’s ranch and refrains from calling the killings a massacre. “It’s 2019, right? Playing the race card doesn’t work any more.”

Others who have opposed the marker include the chairperson of the historical commission, who cited concerns that it was being used by “militant Hispanics” looking for reparations. The Presidio County attorney worried that the dedication ceremony for a marker could serve as the backdrop for a “major political rally” for Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat who last autumn was a candidate for the US Senate, according to The Texas Observer, which wrote an extensive report on the dispute.

A girl from Anapra, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, touches hands with a person in the US through the border fence (AFP/Getty)

After several delays, the descendants finally got their marker in late 2018 on a highway near the razed village. It came after the historical commission’s state chairman, John Nau – a beer-distribution magnate who donates heavily to Republican officeholders – told staff members to enquire about having markers that described raids that occurred on Anglo ranches around the time of the Porvenir massacre.

“Chairman Nau’s comments were provided as advice about how the county could address local concerns that the whole story was not being told about this period in Texas history,” says Chris Florance, a spokesperson for the commission.

While tension persists over how to commemorate the killings in Porvenir, there are hundreds of examples of other documented extrajudicial killings of Latinos in states aside from Texas, some in places far from the border.

For instance, in 1919, two Mexican citizens were being held in a jail in Pueblo, Colorado, as suspects in the murder of a police officer. A mob broke into the jail, drove the two men to the edge of town and hanged them during a heavy rainstorm in front of about 100 people. The El Paso Herald reported that Mexico’s consul in Denver investigated the episode and concluded the mob had lynched the wrong men.

In Albuquerque’s Old Town Plaza in New Mexico, where gift shops and restaurants now cater to tourists, three men identified as Escolastico Perea, Miguel Barrera and California Joe were hanged by a mob of about 200 local residents in 1881 in connection with the murder of a geological surveyor, Colonel Charles Potter.

“Though lynching in general is to be condemned, yet to every case there is an exception,” The Santa Fe New Mexican reported at the time. “In the instance of the dastardly murder of Charles Potter, it is very doubtful whether justice can be too swiftly meted out.”

California endured its own eruption of lynchings of Mexicans during the Gold Rush, from 1848 to 1855, as competition for mining claims intensified. Anglo miners used mob violence in an effort to expel Mexicans or exact revenge. In one episode, in 1851, a mob hanged Josefa Segovia in Downieville, California, after she stabbed a white man who tried to assault her.

Efforts by Anglo settlers to take control of land owned by Mexicans, along with fears that Mexicans could help African American slaves foment revolts, contributed to the sense of hostility around some lynchings. In the 1850s, several counties in Texas expelled Mexicans, and in 1854 the city of Austin ordered every Mexican to leave unless vouched for by a white person.

If we don’t want something like this repeated, it’s about time for the entire country to know the truth

Brandi Tobar

States on the border are grappling yet again with efforts among prominent conservatives to label Latino immigrants a security threat. Some in the borderlands see parallels with earlier outbreaks of anti-Hispanic militancy in the United States, citing examples like the armed vigilantes patrolling the Arizona desert, the expansion of the Border Patrol, and calls for the mass deportation of undocumented Hispanic immigrants.

“With everything that’s happening on the border, it infuriates me that these lynchings were just swept under the rug,” says Brandi Tobar, 19, a college student in San Tan Valley, Arizona, and a descendant of one of the men killed at Porvenir. Tobar is a co-writer of a song, “Village Called Porvenir”, which remembers the massacre.

She adds: “If we don’t want something like this repeated, it’s about time for the entire country to know the truth.”

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