Jett on Villanueva, 'The Lynching of Mexicans in the Texas Borderlands'

Author: 
Nicholas Villanueva
Reviewer: 
Brandon T. Jett

Nicholas Villanueva. The Lynching of Mexicans in the Texas Borderlands. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2017. xii + 219 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8263-5838-7.

Reviewed by Brandon T. Jett (Rollins College) Published on H-Law (July, 2018) Commissioned by Michael J. Pfeifer (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52908

In 2018, concerns over immigration, detention, family separation, and violence at the Mexican/American border rose to the forefront in political debates. In recent years a number of scholars have demonstrated that these concerns, and particularly Anglo violence against Mexicans and Mexican Americans, has a long, tragic history in the United States.[1] Nicholas Villanueva Jr.’s new book, The Lynching of Mexicans in the Texas Borderlands, contributes to this growing list of scholarship by exploring extralegal violence in Texas during the Mexican Revolution. While anti-Mexican violence occurred well before and continued well after the revolution, the 1910s represented the most violent decade for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans along the border as white mobs and vigilante groups and legal authorities killed, according to Villanueva, between 3,500 and 5,000 men, women, and children. While past scholars of anti-Mexican violence suggested this surge in Mexican deaths resulted from the actions of legal representatives, largely the Texas Rangers in response to alleged Mexican criminal actions, Villanueva convincingly argues that the surge in violence resulted from the actions of legal authorities as well as civilians.[2] The underlying causes of this surge in killings, he argues, grew out of the violence associated with the Mexican Revolution, a growing sense of white supremacy that categorized Mexicans as nonwhite, and depictions of Mexicans and Mexican Americans as enemies of the state. In short, he argues, the violence reflected Anglo Texans’ concerns “about citizenship and sovereignty” (p. 3) as they justified their violent actions as necessary to police the border and protect the national security of American citizens .

Villanueva’s argument unfolds over five chapters, each focusing on particular acts of violence that contributed to the total. Chapter 1 demonstrates how the borderland transitioned from a region that promoted “cultural exchange and tolerance ” on both sides of the Texas/Mexico border to a dividing line that promoted nationalism and intolerance over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (p. 14). The second chapter covers the familiar stories of Antonio Rodríguez and Antonio Gomez, two Mexican lynching victims that Anglo mobs tortured and killed in 1910 and 1911, respectively. According to Villanueva, these two lynchings signaled to Mexicans and to Anglos that legal authorities would do little to stymie anti-Mexican violence in the state and ushered in an era of unprecedented violence. It is in the third and fourth chapters that Villanueva makes his most interesting argument. These chapters collectively cover what he calls “legal lynchings” and “Jingo Bandits.” Scholars of lynching and extralegal violence will be familiar with the phrase “legal lynching,” but Villanueva argues that executions undertaken under the guise of legality must be included in scholars’ calculations of the number of lynchings that occurred in the United States. Continuing with the case study model, chapter 3 explores the legal lynching of Leon Martinez Jr. “Martinez was ‘legally’ executed,” Villanueva stated, “but it may be argued that a blatantly unjust execution itself qualifies as a lynching. Thus, I argue that the Martinez execution qualifies as a legal lynching” (p. 80) In addition to legal lynchings, Villanueva includes killings perpetrated by Jingo Bandits in his larger discussion of lynching. Jingo Bandits, “those who acted without authority against suspected Mexican criminals, as well as Texas Rangers who abused their authority and acted as judge, jury, and executioner,” were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans during the period, especially in the Big Bend region, and are often overlooked in other examinations of lynchings. The last chapter explains the decline of Mexican lynchings as a response to several factors in the late 1910s, including a shift in suspicion from Mexicans to Germans in the state as a result of World War I, political stability in Mexico as the revolution died down, and an investigation into the violent actions of the Texas Rangers spearheaded by Mexican American lawyer and politician Jose T. Canales. He concludes the book by suggesting that the Mexican American civil rights movement grew out of the fight against lynching by Mexican Americans in the late 1910s.

The Lynching of Mexicans in the Texas Borderlands is a welcome contribution to the scholarship on lynching and anti-Mexican violence. The larger conclusion regarding the cause of the upsurge in violence being related to concerns over border security and citizenship is obviously important, especially given contemporary issues surrounding immigration, refugees, and the Mexican/American border. For legal scholars, the case for including dubious “legal” acts of violence in larger calculations of lynchings is also significant. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) set out a definition of lynching that precludes these legal acts. The NAACP’s definition has, in many cases, shaped how scholars identify cases of lynching. Yet, Villanueva challenges the reader to find a distinction between a person being accused of a crime and executed extralegally, and someone who is accused of a crime, tried quickly, and executed by the state. In Leon Martinez’s case, “an Anglo community that sought revenge made a mockery of the legal system by conducting a criminal trial within days of the crime and securing a guilty verdict with a death sentence. Moreover, the guilty verdict was handed down by a jury that included members of the lynch mob that had sought out Martinez for the murder. Martinez may not have been lynched the night of the alleged crime, but the community used the legal system to secure a death sentence for the boy” (p. 80). To Villanueva, there is no distinction; for all intents and purposes, the mob killed Martinez. While some scholars will surely take issue with this broad definition, when calculating statistics this expanded definition of lynching would provide a better understanding of the totality of violence experienced by Mexicans, African Americans, Chinese immigrants, and other groups targeted by Anglo mobs throughout American history.[3]

Despite the overall strengths of the book, there are a few points of criticism. Namely, those interested in statistical studies of lynchings will be disappointed. While Villanueva argues that mobs killed more Mexicans between 1910 and 1920 than at any other period of time, he focuses on two lynchings that occurred early in the decade, a “legal lynching” that took place 1914, and several raids that occurred in West Texas and in the Big Bend region from roughly 1913 to 1918. The only real mention of numbers comes near the end of the book when Villanueva states that “Anglo-on-Mexican violence resulted in 3,500 to 5,000 casualties” and that “most occurred between 1910 and 1918” (p. 167). While the case study model allows Villanueva to delve deeply into the causes, reactions, and circumstances surrounding a few particular acts, an understanding of the broader statistical trends in lynching during the decade is missing.

This criticism notwithstanding, Villanueva’s book is an important addition to the growing scholarship on lynching broadly and anti-Mexican violence more specifically. His argument for expanding the definition of lynching is certainly worth discussion among scholars in the field, and by including these other acts of “legal” violence, our understanding of causes for the rise and decline of lynching might improve. As anti-immigrant rhetoric unfortunately gains traction in American and western European politics, a better understanding of the history of violence against Mexican immigrants and refugees as well as American citizens of Mexican descent could not be more timely. Moreover, as the recent debate surrounding the detention of children of refugees and immigrants illustrated, violence occurs in a number of ways and often under the guise of legality. Nonetheless, these “legal” actions can have serious effects on the victims.  

Notes

[1]. Arnold de León, ed., War along the Border: The Mexican Revolution and Tejano Communities (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2011); William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb, Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Monica Muñoz Martinez, The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

[2]. Carrigan and Webb, “The Rise and Fall of Mob Violence Against Mexicans in Arizona, 1859-1919,” in Lynching Beyond Dixie: American Mob Violence Outside the South, ed. Michael J. Pfeifer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 111.

[3]. Stewart E. Tolnay and E. M. Beck, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995); Ken Gonzales-Day, Lynching in the West: 1850-1935 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006); Michael J. Pfeifer, Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1878-1946 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004); Scott Zesch, The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); and Carrigan and Webb, Forgotten Dead.

Citation: Brandon T. Jett. Review of Villanueva, Nicholas, The Lynching of Mexicans in the Texas Borderlands. H-Law, H-Net Reviews. July, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52908

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