Stauffer on Villanueva, 'The Lynching of Mexicans in the Texas Borderlands'
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 Brian Stauffer (Institute for Historical Studies, UT-Austin) Published on H-LatAm (July, 2018) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)
Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51606
Nicholas Villanueva’s book sheds light on an important and still underanalyzed aspect of Texas’s post-Reconstruction history by profiling the lynching cases of three ethnic Mexican men and boys in the second decade of the twentieth century and situating vigilante and state-sanctioned violence against Mexicans into the larger transnational context of the Mexican Revolution, the so-called Bandit Wars, and the US entry into WWI. Villanueva argues that violence in the borderlands associated with the Mexican Revolution (1910-20) gave Anglo mobs and institutions justification for executing Mexicans both extralegally and legally.
Building on the burgeoning historiography of lynching in the southern and western United States, the author shows that mob violence served to both police the boundaries of whiteness in Texas and reconfigure notions of national belonging and loyalty in an era of increasing international tensions. In Villanueva’s telling, revolutionary fighting and anti-Mexican violence shattered the relative peace of the intertwined transnational communities of the Texas borderlands after 1910. The conflict reached a fever pitch with the border wars of the late nineteen-teens, when ranch raids, revolutionary ferment on Texas soil, and anti-Mexican hysteria combined to produce the 1918 El Porvenir Massacre, during which the Texas Rangers and the federal army killed fifteen Mexican villagers at a rancho in West Texas. The violence only began to subside when Germans replaced Mexicans as targets of xenophobic hysteria in the lead-up to US entry into WWI and Mexican efforts to challenge white supremacy in court finally began to bear fruit. Indeed, Villanueva sees Mexicans in Texas as initiating, through antilynching organizing, an early phase of what he calls the “long civil rights movement” (p. 5).
The book consists of five chronologically organized chapters, two of which provide detailed case studies of specific lynchings. Chapter 1 reconstructs the social order of the borderlands at the turn of the century and analyzes the first serious threats to that order brought by the Mexican Revolution. Mexico under Porfirio Díaz was a welcoming place for American businesses, tourists, and religious nonconformists seeking refuge from persecution in the United States. Some Mexicans likewise found limited acceptance and an opening for civic organizing in parts of Texas. Yet demographic shifts, growing tensions over segregated schooling, and the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution led Anglo society to increasingly discriminate and “otherize” Mexicans. Fascinatingly, the Revolution also reconfigured definitions of belonging among “white” Americans. In one of its strongest sections, for example, the book shows that Texas Anglos reappraised their negative feelings about Mormons when polygamist colonies in Mexico came under attack by revolutionary bands.
Chapters 3 and 4 provide detailed, almost journalistic reconstructions of three lynching cases: those of Antonio Rodríguez (1910), the fourteen-year-old Antonio Gómez (1911), and Leon Martínez Jr. (1914). Both chapters lean heavily on newspaper accounts of the events, and both make an admirable effort to humanize lynching victims. In the first two cases (the subject of chapter 2), Anglo mobs meted out frontier “justice” and faced no real legal repercussions, establishing a precedent for impunity while inflaming public opinion on both sides of the border. The case of the “legal lynching” of Leon Martínez Jr., who was tried and executed in Pecos for the alleged murder of an Anglo woman, is the focus of the third chapter, which is included here to illustrate the thin line between vigilante “justice” and the violence meted out by the state. Despite the trappings of due process, little separated Martínez’s judge, jury, and executioners from a traditional lynch mob.
Chapter 4 expands its focus beyond discrete lynching cases to analyze “ranch raids” and mob violence in West Texas. Here, the central focus is on the 1918 El Porvenir Massacre and the events surrounding it, which the author reconstructs using a variety of archival and journalistic sources and situates in the context of increasingly tense US-Mexican diplomatic relations. The fifth and final chapter traces the decline of Mexican lynching in Texas after 1918, which Villanueva ascribes to a combination of Mexican legal resistance (notably in the form of the Canales investigation into the Texas Rangers in 1919), the cooling of revolutionary violence across the border, and the rise of WWI-related anti-German sentiment.
Exhaustively researched yet succinct and lucidly written, The Lynching of Mexicans in the Texas Borderlands is a fine addition to the literature on lynching and border violence in Texas and could be assigned in undergraduate classes and graduate seminars alike. In the latter venue, the book could be fruitfully paired with works such as Neil Foley’s The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture (1997), whose conceptually sophisticated analysis of class and racial formation might nicely complement Villanueva’s more journalistic approach to mob violence.
Nevertheless, a few conceptual quibbles are warranted. Although clearly aware of the critical race and “whiteness” literature, Villanueva tends to privilege a somewhat antiquated “race relations” framework, sometimes problematically depicting race in Texas as timeless and essential rather than historically contingent. On the other hand, his framing of anti-Mexican violence as “motivated by hate” (p. 1) in the introduction strikes this reviewer as ahistorical and perhaps even beside the point—lynching was not simply an expression of hatred but rather a mechanism for defining whiteness and enforcing an economic order that relegated Mexican immigrants to the role of cheap, exploitable labor. In the same vein, one might argue that what the author calls a “miscarriage of justice” (p. 141), in the case of the Texas Rangers’ proclivity for blacklisting and disappearing “suspicious” Mexicans, was not a bug but a feature of white supremacy and racial capitalism in Texas. Along these lines, the book might have productively engaged more recent work on the political economy of race and migration in Texas, such as John Weber’s fine From South Texas to the Nation: The Exploitation of Mexican Labor in the Twentieth Century (2015). It may well be that economic factors—farmers’ desire to control Mexican labor mobility and their fear of a revolutionary challenge from a colonized population (as during the San Diego uprising of 1915)—had as much to do with the spate of lynchings Villanueva examines as did international tensions. That said, The Lynching of Mexicans in Texas is an important work that moves in the right direction in terms of nuancing our understanding of lynching and racial violence in the early twentieth-century United States and documenting the lynching of ethnic Mexicans more specifically.
Citation: Brian Stauffer. Review of Villanueva, Nicholas, The Lynching of Mexicans in the Texas Borderlands. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. July, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51606This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.