Joyce N. Bennett

Reverberations of Racial Violence: Critical Reflections on the History of the Border

University of Texas Press, 2021

328 pages


Reviewed by Reyna M. Flores

In Reverberations of Racial Violence, the editors, Sonia Hernández and John Morán González, bring together a collection of essays documenting racial violence against Mexicans in south Texas by the Texas Rangers from 1910 to 1920, with particular focus on an investigation launched by José Tomás (JT) Canales, Texas state representative. The book was inspired by an unprecedented 2016 exhibition and symposium about the Canales hearings and a 2019 conference commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the investigation of the violence against Tejanos in south Texas. The editors note that recent attention has focused on this history of violence against ethnic Mexicans along the US southern border to uncover it as a microcosm of larger national trends. Divided into three sections, the book includes fourteen essays written by historians, creative writers, and filmmakers, many of whom focus on the history of Latin America, Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and the US-Mexico borderlands. Reverberations of Racial Violence also includes two beautifully striking poems by scholars with strong roots from the Rio Grande Valley, which further proves the editors’ detailed attention in documenting these traumatic events.

Section One of Reverberations of Racial Violence, through five essays, provides an overview of La Matanza and the investigation by JT Canales, the only elected Texas state representative of Mexican descent in 1919.

La Matanza, a term usually used to describe the killings of animals, refers to the murders of ethnic Mexicans in south Texas estimated to be in the thousands. The decision to open an investigation into the murders by the Texas Rangers was to prevent a repeated anti-Mexican attack. One example of this violence occurred in January 1918 when Texas Rangers and masked ranchers arrived at the home of Manuel Morales in the small village of Porvenir. Known as the Porvenir massacre, fifteen men of Mexican origin were executed, and remaining residents fled to Mexico. While seeking justice for murders like those in Porvenir, Canales faced threats from Rangers and possible assassination. Though his proposed bill did not pass, Canales’s attempt to hold Texas Rangers accountable had a great influence in curbing extralegal violence like lynching inside and outside the US. To demonstrate the impact of the Canales investigation, the book offers a comparative perspective of anti-Mexican mob violence and mob violence against Anglos and African Americans. The Refusing to Forget project was founded in 2013 to commemorate this violence, honor the struggles of those who resisted it, and publicly acknowledge state-sanctioned violence as white supremacy and its century-long consequences.

The four essays in Section Two detail the educational situation for ethnic Mexicans, offer details into Canales’s investigation, and highlight Mexican antiracist activism during this time. Ethnic Mexicans in Texas continued to face a cultural war after La Matanza through educational exclusion and segregation. In 1910, the Mexican Ambassador asked the Mexican consul in Laredo to investigate allegations of Mexican children not permitted to attend Texas public schools. The Mexican consul accepted the argument from public school officials that ethnic Mexican children needed to be segregated. Publishers of a local newspaper, La Crónica, learned about the Mexican consulate’s decision and decided to compile their own report, which convinced the consulate to reopen their investigation. La Crónica was run by the Idar family, activists who uncovered racist systems on the south Texas borderlands and provided context into the genocidal period leading up to La Matanza. Before launching an investigation against Texas Rangers in 1919, Canales served as superintendent of Cameron County schools from 1912 to 1914 where he worked to dismantle a racist educational system. Canales continued advocating for Mexican American civil rights by co-founding the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in 1929.

Section Three provides an insightful journey into publicly uncovering state violence through the remaining five essays. Oral history revealed the truth in the 1915 murders of two Mexican American men, Jesús Bazán and Antonio Longoria, and eventually shared in a documentary in 2004 about the killing of Mexicans by Texas Rangers in south Texas titled Border Bandits. The creator of this documentary, who has a history degree from Baylor University, disclosed his shock in learning about this hidden history during the making of the documentary. Much about the racial violence during this time is south Texas was often kept hidden, or as in the case of the documents of the Canales investigation, inaccessible for five decades. The first scholar to access these documents after the fifty-year seal included details in his book released in 1992, which became an influential source for borderlands scholars. One writer’s response to intergenerational trauma caused by the los rinches, the Texas Rangers, is creating novels and poems surrounding La Matanza as a form of healing. The final essays call for an increase of contemporary historical approaches in public museums and memory sites to retell the history of violence while engaging with the public.

The editors of Reverberations of Racial Violence selected essays that illustrate a critical understanding of the past needed to understand the present. The fourteen essays not only reverberate historical contexts of racial violence, but also push readers to reflect on how history influences current experiences for people of Mexican descent living in south Texas. As a Mexican American raised in the Rio Grande Valley, I appreciated the carefulness in selecting diverse perspectives for this book. As the editors pointed out in the introduction, “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.” The book provided different types of evidence to reveal a part of history intentionally excluded, like the public accessibility of the transcripts from Canales’s hearings. The essays utilized different approaches, like using oral history and counter narratives, to connect various viewpoints of Canales’s investigation. The fourteen photos and five maps included in the book illustrate powerful pieces of history, with hopefully more approved historical markers to come as the Refusing to Forget founders discussed. While some may view these essays as sharing an untold story, others write and read to reshape the dominant historical narrative to remember those who have been forgotten. With this book, I will refuse to forget.