Monica Muñoz Martinez, The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas. Harvard University Press, 2018. 387 pp.
Review by Seth Uzman
Before today’s concentration camp in McAllen, TX, there was the one in Crystal City during the Second World War for interred Japanese and German families. Both were established in South Texas cities on or near the U.S. Mexico border. Monica Martinez’ recent book, The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas, is in many ways about how these cities along the Rio Grande became a magnet for state terror. The history of the Texas-Mexico border reads like the history of a death-squad.
Between 1910 and 1920, as many as 5,000 Mexicans were murdered by the Texas Rangers. Under the shadow of a contrived “war” not so different from today’s “war on terror,” the decade followed a heavy history of policing in the region. During the Antebellum period, Mexico’s anti-slavery laws had drawn many runaway slaves from the American South across an anxiously surveilled border towards freedom. And the Texas Rangers, established in 1823, operated originally as an independent paramilitary brigade to repress the region’s Indigenous peoples and Mexican population. Their resistance tied up the Rangers for nearly a century, producing spectacular moments of struggle that at moments crossed borders and even included white settlers. By 1910, a significant portion of land still remained in the possession of Mexican farmers. The decade was also marked significantly by the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), whose revolutionary enthusiasm spilled over the border and frightened the state authorities, already struggling to contain the organizing activities of the state’s active Socialist Party.
The book’s account of this period unfolds through three moments of anti-Mexican violence. In 1910, under the cover of investigating the murder of a white woman, Texas Rangers kidnapped a Mexican man, Antonio Rodríguez, and imprisoned him in a county jail. On the same day, a white mob stormed the prison, removed Rodríguez from his cell, and burned him alive in broad daylight. No one was ever tried for the lynching.
In 1915, two Mexican landowners, Jesus Bazán and Antonio Longoria, notified Texas Rangers that outlaws might be riding on horses stolen from their ranch –the Rangers followed the two farmers on their walk home and shot them in the back. Two years later, Texas Rangers working with white ranchers and US army personnel descended on a village of Mexican farmers in the dead of night, on suspicion of abetting a fugitive, wanted in the eyes of state authorities. After ordering the families from their homes and assembling them in an open area, they grouped the male members together and summarily shot them in what became known as the Porvenir Massacre.
Landowners like Bazán and Longoria had long frustrated settler police forces, who desired a clearer and cheaper terrain for settler expansion. Bazán and Longoria themselves were outspoken, politically conscious figures in the local Mexican community, whose leadership and cohesion challenged settler-agendas in the area. Leading up to the massacre in Porvenir, it’s community of Mexican farmers were attracting the increasing attention of ranchers, as the relatively independent community was thriving on land that had been deemed too dry for cultivation. Ranger terror hewed closely to the needs of rich, white ranchers – so closely that memberships between the two groups not infrequently overlapped. The Porvenir Massacre and the murders of Bazán and Longoria fell within a wider escalation of state terror during those years, where the Texas Rangers massacred as many as 300 Mexicans. The scale and brutality of the violence threw a cloud of panic and fear over the region’s Mexican population, ultimately provoking a mass “exodus” of farmers, whose lands could then be purchased by white settlers on the cheap.
But the accumulation of violence by one section of the state created problems for others. Ranger brutality provoked popular protest in Mexico, while survivors appealed to the Mexican government to put its weight behind calls for justice. Souring diplomatic relations ultimately compelled congress to formally investigate the Rangers towards the end of the decade. While the hearings uncovered plenty of scandals, such as an unapologetic “guilty until proven innocent” standard among the Rangers, congress ultimately excused their brutality by appealing to the sanctioned behavior of white lynch mobs – the same ones that murdered Antonio Rodríguez in 1910.
Arising from Martinez’ exceptionally meticulous research is a set of hints towards clocking settler-colonialism’s capitalist state. The mass expropriation and elimination of indigenous populations ultimately baptized police forces, armies and other arms of official state repression. But because their tasks were colossal and their opposition fierce, they also produced unofficial or latent arms of repression such as the white lynch mob. As Martinez shows, untangling who was re-enacting who – the lynch mob the Rangers or the Rangers the lynch mob – is far from simple. That official organs of state repression, such as the Rangers in Texas or the Israeli’s state’s IDF, actually began as vigilante squads is a feature of settler colonial states whose implications we’ve yet to fully explore.
Much of what we know about this unspeakably violent period owes to the courageous activism of witnesses and relatives, particularly women, who struggled to preserve a record of it. At their heights, struggles to expose the history of anti-Mexican lynching demanded new organizations and collective initiatives that stretched across borders, such as the League of Mexican Women (1911) and the First Mexican Congress (1911). And it is no accident that the return of popular movements of Chicano and Black liberation in the 1960s necessarily coincided with reinvigorated historical recovery efforts. Today, whether among survivors of anti-Mexican violence searching for answers on the border or among African American communities preserving the remains of buried Jim Crow convicts in Houston, struggles to preserve the histories of the dead carry live ammunition. State acknowledgements of crimes past might appear symbolic today, but the struggles for them never are. They may even bring us closer to reclaiming land from capital, repurposing the former for the public needs of repairing memory. Armed memory will certainly be a crucial weapon in tearing down the camps and the border with them too. In a previous era, politically mature labor movements birthed organizational reagents of their own, advancing contemporary struggles by bringing the memory of the working class they preserved to bear on them. Today, it’s worse than heartbreaking that the surviving ligaments of communities targeted and torn asunder by state violence – at the border, in Ferguson, at Standing Rock, in Palestine – have so far had to undertake the heroic labors of organizing memory largely on their own.