The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas by Monica Muñoz Martinez

The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas BY Monica Muñoz Martinez. Harvard University Press. Hardcover, 400 pages. $35.
The cover of The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas

In the wee hours of January 28, 1918, the men of Texas Ranger Company B and a handful of local ranchers descended upon the tiny hamlet of Porvenir, hard against the boundary with Mexico. The police had come in search of alleged bandits who were hiding in the area, which, like much of the Texas border region, was roiled by the ongoing Mexican Revolution. The Rangers corralled fifteen men and boys, all ethnic Mexicans, marched them to a nearby bluff, and opened fire at close range. A US cavalryman who came upon the scene described the aftermath: “we smelled the nauseating sweetish smell of blood, and when we could see, we saw the most hellish sight . . . it reminded me of a slaughterhouse.” While many of the survivors—which included forty-two now fatherless children—were forever haunted by the massacre, it otherwise slipped into obscurity.

Nearly a century later, a group of academics banded together at a conference in San Antonio to form “Refusing to Forget,” a public history initiative with the goal of commemorating the “widespread, state sanctioned anti-Mexican violence on the Texas-Mexico border” between 1910-20. To that end, the team organized a 2016 exhibition at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin and petitioned the Texas Historical Commission to designate five sites, including Porvenir, for its “undertold markers” project, intended to recognize aspects of the state’s past that have been overlooked. Now one member of Refusing to Forget, Monica Muñoz Martinez, has published The Injustice Never Leaves You, an account that explores the contested ground between history, memory, and reckoning.

In the first two-thirds of her book, Martinez—a professor of American Studies at Brown University—probes several episodes of brutal extrajudicial violence directed against people of Mexican descent in Texas during the early twentieth century, with particular attention to what she terms “vernacular histories,” oral testimonies passed down in these communities to memorialize the victims. She also tracks the Anglo perpetrators, who almost invariably escaped punishment. Although their hostility to Mexicans stemmed from the struggle to control the state’s natural resources, Anglos were driven just as much by an ideology of white supremacy rooted in their Southern origins and refined in the Texas Revolution and the US-Mexico War. Relations between the two groups reached their nadir after Mexico was plunged into civil war following the ouster of longtime dictator Porfirio Díaz in 1911, and many of its citizens fled north. In the midst of this deluge, rumors of a violent plot by Mexicans to return the US Southwest to Mexico gave sufficient pretext for waves of Anglo repression led by the Texas Rangers, the state’s famed if notorious constabulary. Estimates vary as to the number of Mexicans killed during this period, from several hundred to several thousand.

Most of this will be familiar to other borderlands historians, and for the lay reader Martinez’s prose style is simply too stiff and academic to draw much of an audience, which is unfortunate considering the sharp relevance of such material to the present moment. For one thing, then as now too many Americans concern themselves with the plight of Mexican immigrants only when it adversely impacts the availability of cheap labor in farms and fields. For another, it is but a short line connecting the animal-like inspections of Mexican border crossers during the early twentieth century (featuring kerosene de-lousing baths) with the vicious Trump administration policy that separates young children from their undocumented parents. In short, the dehumanizing treatment of Mexicans has long defined the international boundary with our southern neighbor, and nowhere more deplorably than in Texas.

The book finally stirs to life when the author shifts from describing incidents of violence to probing how they have been forgotten or, worse, absorbed into a triumphal story about the state’s supposed progress from savagery to civilization. Take, for instance, a visit by Martinez to a Dairy Queen in a small South Texas town. There on the walls, where she might have expected to find photos of local sports teams, she sees instead historical photos of Ranger Company D, which policed the area with an especially heavy hand for area Mexicans, as well as a pair of unexplained movie stills depicting a lynching. After learning that the exhibit is the work of Jim Ryan, a local Ranger buff, Martinez pays him a visit. Ryan, himself the descendant of a Ranger, explains that he wanted to honor the constabulary, since they “protected settlers from bandits and marauding Indians” and kept the “peace in Texas while civilization sort of moved on.” But Martinez sees it differently, noting that “residents literally stumble into depictions of racial violence in the most mundane places.”

If there is a true hero in Martinez’s book, it is José T. Canales, a state representative from the Rio Grande Valley who launched a 1919 investigation into the Rangers that yielded several significant reforms, including a reorganization of the force that shrunk its numbers. Martinez tells this part of the story with particular verve, mining the transcript of the hearings to show how the endemic racism of the day was a constant impediment to the pursuit of justice. Her own work, and that of the larger Refusing to Forget team, is in some sense a continuation of this effort, and they deserve credit for making sure this sanguinary period in Texas history will never be whitewashed or concealed. And yet their task will not be easy. To wit: although the Texas Historical Commission has already installed two of the “undertold markers” sought by Martinez and her colleagues, the one commemorating the Porvenir Massacre—approved in July 2018 and slated to be unveiled on September 1—was delayed after vociferous complaints from members of the Presidio County Historical Commission. No doubt some Texans would rather forget these awful moments from their state’s profoundly troubled past.

Andrew R. Graybill, a professor at Southern Methodist University, is the author of The Red and the White: A Family Saga of the American West (Liveright, 2013).