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Recounting Historical Violence Against Ethnic Mexicans


For at least one historian, last week's killings in El Paso, Texas, have echoes of another violent time in that state. In the late 19th and early 20th century, thousands of ethnic Mexicans disappeared or were killed amid tensions between ranchers on each side of the border. Professor Trinidad Gonzales of South Texas College has researched an especially brutal period. It's known as La Matanza, or the massacre. He was struck by something he read in the testimony of a Texas Ranger of that time. According to the Ranger, Gonzales said then-Governor James Ferguson offered pardons to Texas lawmen for their involvement in the atrocities if they would drive Texans of Mexican descent from the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

TRINIDAD GONZALES: They had a license to arbitrarily kill whoever they wanted with the understanding that they would be cleared of any criminal charge. So yeah, this was, you know, from the governor on down to local - to state law enforcement, some local law enforcement and the vigilantes that worked with them.

MARTIN: How many people are we talking about?

GONZALES: In what is known as the Matanza of 1915, which is July of 1915 to November of that year, you're talking around at least 300. That's for - the people at the time period estimated. We have a list of over a hundred-some names of people who were killed. We had one incident where 30 people were killed in one night. So the Rangers are going to have 30, 15 here, seven here, two here. They were - tended to be killed in groups, as opposed to just a single individual. But that did occur, as well.

MARTIN: I understand, I mean, not only has this been an intellectual research subject for you for many years, but you have a personal connection.

GONZALES: Yes. My great-grandfather, Paulino Serda, and his father were killed by the Rangers during this time period. I'd also hear stories about my great-grandmother and how she had to leave the ranch with her children, including my grandmother, who was about a year and three months old and move to the city of Edinburg to restart their lives after that had occurred. They were fortunate, and they were able to bury both my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather. And a lot of other people didn't get a chance to bury or find the remains of their loved ones who were killed at this time. So we were lucky in that sense.

MARTIN: Yeah. The accused shooter in the El Paso massacre that happened over the weekend allegedly wrote this anti-immigrant screed talking about so-called invasion of Latino migrants into this country. We've heard the president of the United States used that word. Is that the kind of language that you found in your own research?

GONZALES: Oh, yeah. The language is pretty consistent - this idea of invading U.S. territory. I mean, one of the problems with that idea, though, is that these are long-established communities, you know, predating even the existence the United States as a nation, right? So El Paso's older than the United States as a country. So to say that people who live in that community who've had long standing roots in that community as invaders is just wrong. You know, it's flatly wrong. Now, that being said, obviously, there are immigrants who live in this city, as well. But invasion, bandits, murderers, you know, rapists - those are not new tropes in describing Mexicans or Mexican citizens or Mexican Americans, as well. Those are words that have been used for a long time. And Donald Trump's use of them is merely a continuation of that sort of racist rhetoric.

MARTIN: Has Texas in particular, as the site of where a lot of this violence was happening in that time period - has the state recognized it in any way? Has there been a reckoning of what transpired there?

GONZALES: Yes. The state has finally had some historical markers placed in relation to the Matanza, a historical marker for the killing of two particular individuals - Antonio Longoria, Jesus Bazan. And then, also, the Porvenir marker was just recently placed. And that's right out of El Paso, right? So you have a massacre that happened in 1918 of 15 men and boys. And then you have this incident - 2019, almost a hundred years later, where you have the killing of 22 people. The difference, though, in Porvenir is a group of rangers and U.S. soldiers who did the killing, as opposed to what happened this last week in El Paso by an individual terrorist.

MARTIN: Trinidad Gonzales. He's a historian with the group Refusing To Forget. Thank you so much for talking with us.

GONZALES: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.