Personal Reflections on Life and Death on the Border 1910-1920

The Texas Story Project.

Like countless 7th graders in Texas before me, and countless since, I took the mandatory Texas history course without paying much attention. This wasn’t just because that’s what all 7th graders do, much to the chagrin of their teachers. At least some of my disinterest stemmed from the fact that my part of the state— the lower Rio Grande Valley— seemed to have no role in Texas history, apart from being where the U.S.-Mexico War started in 1846 at Palo Alto and where the U.S. Civil War ended in 1865 at Palmito Ranch. Basically, what I learned in that course was that Texas history had occurred elsewhere since then, and that the people of the Valley had basically sat out the making of modern Texas. And if it wasn’t in the textbook, it didn’t count.

It wasn’t until I began the research for what would become my first book (Border Renaissance: The Texas Centennial and the Emergence of Mexican American Literature) that I realized that terrible but epic events had occurred in my corner of Texas during the early 20th century. This forgotten history read like a grand Shakespearean tragedy, when two communities, divided by the insidious chasm of race, clashed as never before and never since. Armed Tejano guerillas arose to avenge stolen lands and insulted honor while those entrusted with upholding the law, such as the Texas Rangers, committed brutal atrocities against innocents. It was a story in which the nation’s attention was inexorably drawn to deep South Texas by the deployment of over 100,000 U.S. troops to a borderlands war zone that newspapers and recruiting posters alike compared to the ongoing First World War’s battlefronts. It was a moment when hundreds, if not thousands, of Texas Mexicans fled to Mexico to escape la matanza (the killings) even as tens of thousands of Mexicans migrated al Norte as war refugees from the Mexican Revolution. And finally, these were the events, though unknown and untold in later days, which shaped the lives of my family, and numerous others, as a Mexican American who grew up in the decades afterwards.

It was the aftermath that I wrote about in my book: about how Texas-Mexican intellectuals came to rethink, in the wake of this violence, their strategies for protecting the civil rights of their communities. By the late 1920s, they developed the concept of “the Mexican American,” something that would have been an oxymoron to both Anglos and Mexicans before the violence. They formed organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) to carry out their political agenda of fighting discrimination through the courts. Their cultural agenda was no less ambitious; they sought to reorient the ethnic Mexican community to think of themselves as U.S. citizens in public matters and as Mexicans in their private lives.

All of this was set into motion a century ago, and while much has changed in that time, the legacies of 1915 are still being felt in the lives of Texas Mexicans today. As I came to learn, while these events are still not taught in 7th grade Texas history classes, nonetheless the families of those affected by the violence have remembered, keeping alive the injustices yet to be publicly acknowledged. Through stories handed down for generations and through vernacular archives kept in spare bedrooms and garages, these families have remembered what Texas, as a society, should have never forgotten. With their help, we of the Refusing to Forget Project hope to make this history live again, not to reopen old wounds, but to bind wounds that have never healed, could never heal, until we as a state affirm that, no matter how much time has passed, justice deferred is justice denied. 

John Morán González is Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin. He holds courtesy appointments in the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies and the Department of American Studies. He is a longtime faculty affiliate of the Center for Mexican American Studies. In 2013, he co-founded the Refusing to Forget Project with four other scholars, a collaboration which resulted in the "Life and Death on the Border, 1910-1920" exhibition at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.

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