The Chaparral Insurgents of South Texas

A new exhibit cops to state-sanctioned murder, but not vulnerability

THE first thing I saw as I reached the top floor of the Bullock State History Museum in Austin, Texas was the large sepia portrait of two swashbuckling Texas Rangers on horses, the taut rope of their lassos converging down toward something out of frame. The unseen complete portrait features the mangled corpses of Abraham Salinas, Eusebio Hernández, and Juan Tobar, three Tejanos in South Texas, at the ends of the Rangers' ropes. “Postcards depicting violence against minorities were common novelties during the early 20th century,” a small placard next to the photo notes.

Between 1910 and 1920, thousands of Tejanos were murdered in the hot, dry borderlands by Texas law enforcement and white vigilantes. My family's history is tied up in genocide: Relatives on my father's side were swindled out of most of their ranch land by the Kleberg family, a longtime ally of the Texas Rangers that now owns a million acres in South Texas (known as the King Ranch). Hundreds had their land seized by Anglos under the protection of the Rangers, who eventually acted as a death squad to smash an armed Tejano resistance to oppressive white rule. The state of Texas has largely purged these events from public history records, and the exhibit at the Bullock Museum, Life and Death on the Border 1910-1920, which was on display from January 23 through April 3, was an attempted reckoning.

Few states entwine white nationalism, Protestantism, and free market ideology as closely as Texas, and considering the good-ol'-boy board that presides over the Bullock Museum, the mere existence of the exhibit could be taken as progress. But it is what is omitted that reveals the most: You couldn't learn that the Rio Grande Valley was the last place where a gunslinging anti-government insurgency seriously threatened US borders. That's a problem because the Valley still suffers from the legacy of its colonization, and a more honest account of its history could help break its current political malaise.

In an email to me, Ben Johnson, a consulting historian for the museum and author of the much more thorough book on which it is largely based, Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans, explained why he and his fellow historians decided to center the exhibit on state violence and not peasant revolt. “For starters, it’s an easier sell to a state institution — commemoration, taking responsibility — than marking the centennial of a violent insurrection against said state… Violent revolution doesn’t have much of a mass constituency these days, so it takes some explaining to make people remotely sympathetic.”

Certainly the museum's trustees would not be sympathetic to violent revolution: almost all are the sort of wealthy gringos that the revolutionaries would have rather seen dead. But Johnson also says the museum put up no resistance to including the names of the murderous Rangers (as well as the term 'murder'), indicating that the state is more willing to acknowledge its own viciousness than that of the of the Tejano fighters. This is, after all, an established pattern for colonial governments built on incomprehensible suffering and bloodletting: Acknowledge the past, say sorry, and encourage everybody to move on. Erasing or marginalizing armed resistance facilitates this process because it renders the state's power to murder unchallengeable and total. It may have been pressing its boot onto the collective Tejano neck by instituting a racial caste system, but that still didn't justify a violent uprising. Only the state has ever had the authority to decide who lives and who dies, it wants us to believe, and memorializing an armed resistance would have complicated that message.

If the exhibit can be considered within the genre of repentant works, then its presentation of the past is based in what Jackie Wang has called an “empathetic structure of feeling based on appeals to innocence.” For a white audience, empathy for non-white victims of state violence “can only be established when a person meets the standards of authentic victimhood and moral purity,” and murdered Tejanos are “instruments of emotional relief for white civil society” more than objects of mourning. The Bullock Museum can only acknowledge the insurrection in the vaguest sense; one placard reads, “Some Tejanos embraced the raids, turning toward violence to even the score for the wrongs done to them by Anglo farmers, while others opposed the uprising from its beginning.” The events are presented as a tale of revenge sparked by prejudice and dispossession, not an attempt to seize power and territory. Tejanos who opposed the revolt were usually wealthy landowners allied with the white ruling class; among the poor, insurgency blossomed, contrary to other accounts of the era written by white men besides Johnson.

Around 1910, Johnson writes, people like my ancestors lost property to white invaders who used rising land prices and coercion to seize and transform Tejano land into highly productive farms. Many were reduced to performing field work for the same Anglos who'd taken their land. Two leaders of the South Texas revolt, Luis de la Rosa and Ancieto Pizaña, captured their fury in a manifesto issued in 1915: “Just and righteous indignation which causes our blood to boil and impels us, orders us to punish with all our energy of which we are capable, that crowd of [white] savages… We are men conscious of our acts, who know how to think as well as the 'Gringo.'”

This was a moment when overthrowing a regime as powerful as the United States felt possible, especially in the Valley, where compañeros across the border in Mexico were seizing property for redistribution to the poor. One of the intellectual forces behind the Mexican Revolution, the anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón, formed a political party called the Junta Organizadora del Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) that incubated radicalism on both sides of the border. Women played active roles in the PLM, whose headquarters were based in the Laredo home of the revolutionary Sara Estela Ramírez, a contributor of essays and poetry to Spanish-language newspapers across Texas. In a poem called “Rise Up! To Women,” she wrote:

Levantate! Levantate a la vida, a la actividad, a
la belleza del vivir de verdad; Pero levantate radiante
y poderoso, bello con cualidades,
espléndido con virtudes, fuerte con energias

Rise up! Rise up to life, to activity, to
the beauty of true living; but rise up radiant
and powerful, beautiful with qualities, splendid
with virtues, strong with energies

In 1912, white and Black radicals met with PLM leaders to discuss the unfolding Mexican Revolution's implications for the American proletariat. A few years later, in 1915, a PLM-inspired manifesto called the Plan de San Diego—named after the South Texas township—quixotically called for a multiracial army of Blacks, Japanese Americans, and Mexicans to violently establish a new nation in the American Southwest, where racism would be abolished and land redistributed. No white man aged 16 or older encountered in battle was to be taken alive. The original manifesto is displayed in the museum exhibit, and its significance is tied to the “racial strife” it caused in the Valley.

Over a few brief months, bands of men—former inmates, field hands, Mexican nationals— led by de la Rosa and Pizaña, and given material support from Mexican factions, fought the US army, mangled railroad lines, cut telegraph wiring, and seized territory from the most powerful members of the landowning elite. After two prominent Anglo farmers were dragged into the chaparral and brained like pigs, many of their compatriots began fleeing back North, wrecking the region's burgeoning agricultural economy. Tejanos were largely supportive of the uprising and some even gave shelter to fighters; one US army commander observed that this made it hard to conduct counterintelligence. Mexicans along the border boomeranged back and forth between the two nations to escape violence.

At their high point, Tejanos were attempting to organize for armed revolution hundreds of miles away in San Marcos and Baytown. But the effort was ultimately a death march that wilted under the barbarism of the Rangers, local police, and white vigilantes, who indiscriminately lynched ethnic Mexicans after every raid. “Anybody who looked Mexican was vulnerable,” writes Johnson, who spoke to one man whose grandfather recalled whites burning a Mexican alive. Johnson's investigation found that the total number of Tejanos killed or “evaporated” was probably in the low thousands, making it deadlier than Argentina's Dirty War. Amid the killing, the state formally established apartheid rule to accelerate the Valley's agricultural economy and take advantage of new migrants from Mexico.

The genocide publicly came to light in the 1970s, when transcripts from a state joint committee investigation were unsealed after 50 years. One of the final displays in the exhibit explains that the committee formed following the efforts of Tejano State Representative José Thomas Canales, from Brownsville, who also introduced legislation to weaken the Texas Rangers amid the evaporation. The Bullock Museum attempts to wield Canales as a resolution to the violence: Here is a determined, respectable, hard-working Brown man struggling against racism in America through the proper channels, a digestible trope for a white middle-class audience. In truth, Johnson writes, Canales's hopes for a weakened Rangers were dashed, and the Texas House of Representatives actually praised the leadership of the top two Ranger officials who led the massacre. “Vindication complete,” was how one Ranger Captain described Canales's pitiful legislation.

More significant, however, is that by uplifting Canales and suppressing the existence of revolutionaries like de la Rosa and Pizaña, the museum endorses the counterinsurgency that spawned the genocide. Before he challenged the Rangers in the House, Canales—a wealthy South Texas landowner himself—collaborated with them by organizing anti-insurgent militias. The exhibit sends the message that if things got hot enough, respectable civil rights activists are expected to commit violence against radicals, even if their struggle is shared. This battle line was also racial, because Canales and other Tejano landowning bourgeoisie saw more of themselves in their successful white peers than the desperate rebels.

Convinced that assimilation into America's white-dominated upper class was the only path to a good life, Canales and others formed the still-existing civil rights organization LULAC (the League of United Latin American Citizens) and took great care to distinguish themselves from what they perceived as the backwardness and imbecility of the Tejano proletariat. While the organization did win civil rights cases for Chicanos, their success often affirmed the legitimacy of the white racial project in the Southwest. For example, in 1931, LULAC organized the first winning challenge to the segregation of Mexicans in Texas schools, but only won the case because a judge decided it was too difficult to parse “white Mexican” children from mostly indigenous ones. Similarly, LULAC “pressured the US Census Bureau to reclassify persons of Mexican descent from the designation of 'Mexican' to 'White,'” which it lists as a milestone on its website.

Martha Menchaca's study "Chicano Indianism" traces the roots of this assimilationist strategy to 1848, when Mexicans scattered across the Southwest were suddenly incorporated into the US. States including New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Texas passed laws giving suffrage or citizenship to white Mexicans only, despite the Treaty of Guadalupe's mandate that everybody within the new borders have citizenship. The only way indigenous people could circumvent anti-Indian law was to convince white courts that they were white enough to be American. Had they remained wards of Mexico, they wouldn't have had to do this; few other national governments have had America’s same obsession with preserving racial purity.

To fit into America’s dichotomous spectrum of “Black” and “white” (more an expression of an unbridgeable power relation than difference in pigment), people of color (mostly non-Black) are encouraged to define themselves in proximity to whiteness and at a distance from Blackness. The fate of indigenous people in this arrangement was controlled “by twin parameters: nonenslavability and nonassimilabilty,” writes historian Theodore Allen in The Invention of the White Race. This meant extermination, or mixing into white society. Americans like John Calhoun, Vice President under Andrew Jackson, saw such mixing as “fatal” to American institutions, and he traced the “greatest misfortunes of Spanish America… to the fatal error of placing the colored races on an equality [sic] with the white race.” Calhoun was a rabid racist, but these beliefs were shared widely enough that whites and indigenous people in the US never intermingled as thoroughly as they did in Latin America.

LULAC came from a long tradition of attempted assimilation, and it rejected interracial solidarity for fear it could impede its members' journey to whiteness. “[H]ow strong we are to survive the abominable weight of the life of the conquered,” one LULAC member said in 1929, though he could have just as naturally said it today. The South Texas uprising, in contrast, was a direct challenge to white supremacist ideology. Historical records mined by Johnson indicate that revolutionary leaders “were most impassioned in their discussion of segregation.” Unknown authors who penned a second iteration of the Plan de San Diego manifesto imagined a world where “all oppressed people of all despised races,” including “Mexican, black, and yellow” people, would form “the concert of universal fraternity.” A nice vision, but not the victorious one.

Decades after de la Rosa and Pizaña failed to abolish the South Texas caste system, white supremacy was folded into the ideology of neoliberalism, capitalism's latest iteration, through the vehicle of “colorblindness.” Race scholars Michael Omi and Howard Winant convincingly describe how bipartisan neoliberalism, grounded in the dismantling of welfare and other state initiatives meant to help the poor, “required a racial ideology [colorblindness] that repudiated the movement agenda of state-enforced equality and the extension of democratic rights to people of color (women, labor, imperial subjects, LGBTQ people).” Criminal and “workfare” policy in the 1990s didn't need to explicitly target poor Black and other people of color to do so. LULACers who thought they could maneuver around the hurdles of racism failed to understand the endurance of white supremacy: according to the US Census, whites own 16 times as much wealth as Blacks and Hispanics, based on median value of assets.

With the rise of Donald Trump and white nationalism globally, it appears that four decades of coded racism is being overwhelmed by a long-building explosion of white fury. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is happening as climate hell and unstoppable wealth concentration suggest the liberal capitalist system may not be able to deliver on its promise of growing prosperity for every new generation. Scary headlines abound: Scientists Warn of Perilous Climate Shift Within Decades, Not Centuries. Our Planet’s Temperature Just Reached a Terrifying Milestone. Only 60 years of farming left if soil degradation continues. Resource wars fed by a global anti-immigrant, white-nationalist movement appear decreasingly far-fetched as we barrel into this century.

The real travesty of the Bullock exhibit is that it celebrates a political resolution that may, in the end, still lead us to annihilation. The matter of political, social, and economic revolution in this country is yet unfinished. This is especially true for an uprising born in the Rio Grande Valley, still one of the nation's poorest areas, where the desperation that inspired the revolutionaries is now expressed through high obesity rates, ubiquitous Wal-Marts and the cross border drug trade. Although a wealthy Anglo-Tejano machine closely allied with a white-dominated ownership class has governed the area for over a century, and the cops are terminally corrupt, there's almost no legacy of radical political work here, primarily because this history was and still is smothered by the state.

Part of the way the Texas-America layered power structure reinforces its omnipotence in the public mind is through exhibits like the one at Bullock. By exorcising revolutionaries from collective memory and emphasizing its own violence, the state enhances its perceived authority to decide who lives, who dies, and how survivors are memorialized. But when colonized people reclaim such history, we tear down the fences within which the state corrals our sense of political possibility, and by extension, we remove the doubt that covers our ability to act on that possibility. We begin to challenge the white-supremacist exploiter state directly.

Tejanos were terrorized into silence by the brutal repression of the Rangers and vigilantes, and this had the effect of distorting history even among its victims. My family remembers older relatives feeling fear when the Rangers were nearby, but the uprising is forgotten for the most part, resurfacing mostly as inarticulate feelings of antagonism against authority. Like many kids growing up in South Texas, I didn't like the Rangers or the police and sensed a deep unfairness generally, but it was a free-floating mix of fear, rage, and indifference that was untethered to the past. I don't know if an historical anchor would help develop these feelings into a potent political force, but it is inspiring to know that colonized people in the Valley rose up a century ago, believing that they could win.