“Throughout this time, you have the Mexican Revolution. In many ways, because of the flow of individuals and foreign arms, the U.S. government and the media used that as an excuse to label people as simply ‘bandidos/bandits.’ And so you have this lumping of people as just, ‘bad Mexicanos,’” Sonia Hernandez, associate professor of history at Texas A&M University, College Station, said in an interview about the exhibit.
John Morán Gonzalez, associate professor of English and associate director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, adds that the presence of small bands of lightly armed revolutionary guerrillas scarcely constituted a real military threat. Despite that, he says that the border was truly militarized by 1916, with some 110,000 National Guard troops stationed in the lower Rio Grande Valley using the same equipment they would shortly take to the European battlefields of the First World War.
Militarization of the border? Where have I seen that before? Oh, yeah, here in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott says Texas will extend the National Guard’s stay at the border. And here, where Homeland Security Today magazine calls the U.S. government’s 2014 Border Security Bill a “treasure trove” of spending for security technology corporations to enjoy. “The spending represents an unparalleled boon to companies specializing in border security technology, particularly those incumbents with proven solutions already under contract with Customs and Border Protection (CBP).”
But back to the “more reactionary” 1910s. The relentless violence of the state through the Texas Rangers and other law enforcement authorities drove both laborers and landowners of Tejano descent into exile, making the stealing of their land even easier. White people took over the region and ushered in the era that historians like to call “Juan Crow.” This Juan Crow regime, Gonzalez says, structured the region’s social relations for the next 50 years.
“To be sure, poverty was not new to the region or invented by Anglos, but there is a big difference between the hardscrabble life of small landowners far from major markets and the desperation of the truly dispossessed. There was a lot more of the latter once the 1910s were over,” Johnson says.
To this day, the five poorest counties in Texas are all five of the counties that make up the Rio Grande Valley. There, one in three people lives below the poverty line. For every 100 students entering a public school classroom in South Texas today, only 12 will earn any type of degree within six years of graduation.
“One hundred years is not that long ago. You miss out on three generations of a decent education. It does end up putting Mexican-Americans at a disadvantage. It’s not about something that was taken away, but something that was never allowed to develop,” Johnson says.
Unlike in the rest of the state, however, the Tejanos of the Rio Grande Valley did not “evaporate” —a euphemism for the extermination of Mexicans used in the 1910s. Today, 95 percent of kids in grades K-12 in the Rio Grande Valley is Latino.
“The project of white supremacy in the borderlands has been a failure, but there are still these huge forces of economic dislocation,” Johnson says.
And there is, once again, the militarization of the border, the depiction of the border region as some sort of heart of darkness and its people as “illegals,” “drug traffickers, criminals and rapists.”
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. But we can learn from the past.