The Current Impact of Texas Rangers Killing Mexicans 100 Years Ago

Forget The Alamo! Remember The Slaughter Of Texas Mexicans By Their Own Government
Corbis

Last week, I wrote about a new exhibit at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin that signals the state’s first public acknowledgment of a bloody era during the 1910s, when Texas Rangers and other local law enforcement, along with civilian vigilantes, massacred between 300 and 5,000 Texas Mexicans and Mexican nationals living in the Rio Grande Valley. The goal was to clear the region of people of Mexican descent so that white farmers from the Midwest could move in. The majority of readers commented favorably on the state’s decision to support the exhibit and other initiatives of Refusing to Forget, but there were questions raised by some readers that I’d like to address. Namely, why does this story matter 100 years later?

MORE: Texas Finally Acknowledges Rangers Killed Hundreds of Latinos

Some have suggested that this is, in effect, digging up the past to create more racial tension between Texans. In short, whether these revelations hurt anybody’s feelings is of no consequence to me. Tejanos must realize this history, hidden from them for 100 years, to understand how the economic, political and social ramifications of this violent era are still being felt in Texas today. Those who live in the border region must learn from the past how legislation fueled by paranoia can turn their home into a bloody battlefield.

The most tangible and lasting effect of the violence in South Texas during the 1910s was the incredible loss of land for Tejanos. As much as 187,000 acres of Tejano-owned land, that’s roughly the size of Austin, was lost in the lower Rio Grande Valley from 1900 to 1910, according to Benjamin Heber Johnson, assistant professor in history at Loyola University Chicago. This was not wartime land-grabbing. Land-owning, U.S. citizens who were promised all the rights and privileges of white Americans during the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo more than 65 years earlier were robbed of their land through state-sanctioned violence enforced by the Texas Rangers.

With the loss of that land came a loss of economic independence. Families that once ranched their own land were now reduced to picking crops in the fields of farmers who stole their property. It was back-breaking work, and it forced many Tejano families to adopt a migrant lifestyle in order to maintain an income throughout the year.

But destroying their incomes and way of life wasn’t enough. White farmers newly arrived from other parts of the country were horrified to see that up until then, Mexican Americans voted, served on juries and held office routinely in the counties that made up the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo and northern New Mexico. These were the only places in the U.S. where that was still the case, says Johnson.

The Texas Rangers were dispatched to enforce a series of Jim Crow tactics to keep Tejanos from voting. Whites-only political primaries, poll taxes and English-language literacy tests almost entirely eradicated Tejano voting rights by 1920 until after World War II. 

“In 1917 and 1918, the very Rangers who had killed so many in 1915 and ‘16 stood in front of polling stations and bragged to [Texas] Governor [William Pettus] Hobby about how dramatically the Mexican vote dropped,” Johnson says.  

In short, the violence sanctioned by the state of Texas against Mexicans wasn’t about securing the border; it was about securing the border region for white people, and one event unfolding at the same time gave white Texans the perfect excuse to accomplish this.