[Marxism] Texas Rangers as killer cops
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Fri Aug 5 07:07:21 MDT 2005
Chronicle of Higher Education, August 5, 2005
White Hat, Black Tales
A Texas scholar digs into the dark truths about the role of the Texas
Rangers in early-20th-century border wars
By KATHERINE S. MANGAN
Whether he gallops across TV screens on a steed named Silver or kickboxes
drug dealers and other contemporary miscreants, the Texas Ranger is an
iconic figure in American culture. But it has fallen to a Texas-based
scholar named Benjamin H. Johnson, a 33-year-old assistant professor of
history at Southern Methodist University, to help turn the popular images
of the Lone Ranger and of Walker, Texas Ranger, upside down.
Mr. Johnson's 2003 book, Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and
Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans Into Americans (Yale University
Press), portrays the Texas Rangers as bad guys who terrorized and murdered
hundreds -- and perhaps thousands -- of Mexican-born Texans living along
the border nearly a century ago.
The book -- and a 2004 documentary based on an incident in the same period
-- has now led a Texas lawmaker to introduce legislation this year honoring
the Tejano rebels who died at the hands of the Rangers and vigilante groups
in the failed uprising in 1915.
"Ben's book was a confirmation of what we've been talking about around
barbecue pits and campfires for years," says Texas Sen. Aaron Peña, a
Democrat from the border city of Edinburgh, Tex., who ordered a stack of
the books and has handed them out to his colleagues and constituents.
Specifically, the author examines a 1915 rebellion in South Texas called
the Plan de San Diego, in which Tejanos, or Texans of Mexican descent,
sought to forcibly reclaim the American Southwest for Mexico in a plot that
included killing all Anglo males over age 16. The unsuccessful uprising,
which included a series of raids on ranches and railroads, provoked a
bloody counterinsurgency in which Texas Rangers, federal soldiers, and
vigilante groups indiscriminately killed anywhere between 300 and 3,000
Tejanos, depending on whose estimates you believe.
Hispanic scholars have written about the bloody border wars for decades,
but it has taken a work written by a young Anglo historian writing for Yale
University Press to bring the matter to mainstream audiences. Mr. Johnson
has given standing-room-only talks in South Texas, and received dozens of
calls and e-mail messages from Mexican-Americans who say his book confirmed
accounts they had heard from their parents and grandparents, but never read
about in their textbooks.
Mr. Johnson says he did not set out to write a book about, much less trash,
the image of the Texas Rangers, now an elite unit of 118 officers, along
with nearly two-dozen crime analysts and other personnel, in the Texas
Department of Public Safety. He was more interested in the effect that the
violence that started in 1915 had on race relations along the border and on
the development of a Mexican-American identity. But in a state whose
unofficial motto is "Don't Mess With Texas," the book stirred up
On the Paper Trail
Mr. Johnson's fascination with this era of Texas history began when he was
in the library at Yale University, trying to zero in on a topic for his
doctoral dissertation that related to his interest in border studies.
"I came across a mention of the rebellion and bloodshed, and it seemed
really big," he says. "The language people were using was terribly similar
to what I was hearing when I turned on the news and listened to reports
about ethnic cleansing -- at that point in the Balkans. They were using
words like 'evaporated'" to describe the widespread killings of Tejanos.
"I thought 'why am I -- a 24-year-old lifelong Texan and historian -- just
hearing about this?'"
As he proceeded with his research, Mr. Johnson found that while he and many
Texans -- Anglos in particular -- were learning about the Rangers' unsavory
past for the first time, Hispanic authors had written about such abuses for
years. In 1958, for instance, Américo Paredes, the noted Mexican-American
author who taught at the University of Texas at Austin and died in 1999,
wrote about the border's violent history in his book With His Pistol in His
Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (University of Texas Press).
Mr. Johnson credits those authors, as well as contemporary historians who
write about the border, and he is careful not to imply that he is the first
historian to turn the image of the Texas Ranger on its head. Asked about
the publicity his book has received, and the flurry of attention now being
paid to racial tensions along the border, he says the huge growth in the
nation's Hispanic population and the interest in immigration and
globalization have made border studies a hot topic.
For his own book, Mr. Johnson tracked down documents in Texas and Mexico
City. The Mexican National Archives are housed in a former federal prison,
which created a haunting setting for many long hours of reading. "They
actually have the documents in the old prison cells, and the guy gets a
ring of thick keys and walks to the cells and opens them," he says.
"There's still graffiti in this place from people who were there under
considerably less happy circumstances."
He also listened to oral histories recorded over the past few decades by
students at the University of Texas-Pan American and Texas A&M University
Chance encounters led to visits with the grandson of the sheriff who
arrested a Tejano carrying a document outlining the Plan de San Diego, as
well as the great-grandson of one of the leaders of the 1915 uprising, Luis
de la Rosa.
As the true history of the bloody border wars unfolded, the scholar also
formed theories about why it had been largely forgotten. For one thing, Mr.
Johnson contends, the State of Texas actively suppressed information about
the violence. In 1919 the state legislature held hearings that revealed
evidence of widespread killings by Texas Rangers, but lawmakers voted not
to publish the transcript. (A copy was later unearthed by historians.)
Families that were traumatized by the violence didn't want to talk about
it. And until recently, academic historians generally regarded what
happened along the Texas-Mexico border a regional matter of little interest
to the rest of the nation.
But Mr. Johnson believes the episode reverberated far beyond the disputed
border. He argues that the rebellion and suppression that began in 1915,
rather than turning Tejanos against Americans, prompted them to claim their
rights as U.S. citizens and led to the creation, in 1929, of the League of
United Latin American Citizens, or Lulac, the first nationwide
Mexican-American civil-rights organization.
At first, that idea seemed counterintuitive. "Why would a prolonged episode
of savage racial violence prompt people to claim the same nationality as
their victimizers?" He concludes that the Tejanos sought refuge in U.S.
citizenship, having realized the futility of trying to achieve their goals
through force, and the dangers of being without a state.
"Mexican nationalism and the promise of the revolution had failed them,"
Mr. Johnson says. "The uprising had been a disastrous miscalculation, and
the Mexican government wasn't interested in advancing the well-being of
Mexican-descent people of Texas."
Praise and Disdain
Hector M. Flores, Lulac's current national president, agrees with that
conclusion. "Dr. Johnson chronicles a period in history that a lot of
Texans are still in denial about," he says. "A war was won, and the
Mexicans were the conquered people. The hired guns were the Texas Rangers."
Raised by his grandparents in the tiny South Texas town of Dilly, Mr.
Flores recalls challenging his seventh-grade history teacher for her
portrayal of events that his grandparents described differently. "All the
teachers talked about were the murdering, thieving Mexicans who overran the
heroes of the Alamo." His grandparents, on the other hand, warned him that
the real bad guys were the Anglo law-enforcement officers who harassed and
even killed Tejanos like themselves.
"Books like Ben's shatter the myths and help us realize how much we've
traveled in the last 100 years," Mr. Flores says. "It's better to know the
truth, even if it makes you uncomfortable."
Revolution in Texas is unlikely to be a featured title at the Texas Ranger
Hall of Fame and Museum, in Waco, Tex. The museum's Web site describes the
Rangers as "one of the most cherished symbols of the Lone Star State, a
positive and enduring icon of Texas and America."
Byron A. Johnson, director of the museum, acknowledges that some of the
Texas Rangers participated in the killings nearly a century ago, but says
Revolution in Texas overstates their involvement by failing to adequately
distinguish between the official Texas Rangers and independent vigilante
groups that sprang up around the same time. "For a while, anyone riding
around with a horse and a gun was considered a Ranger," he says.
"There were outstanding periods of [the Rangers'] history and those that
were regrettable," the museum director adds. "We want to be sure that the
history is accurate so lessons can be learned from the mistakes."
Mr. Johnson is not alone in making Texans feel uncomfortable about their
past these days. Last year, shortly after Mr. Johnson's book was published,
the Dallas filmmaker Kirby F. Warnock released a documentary called Border
Bandits, which told the story of two unarmed Tejano landowners who were
shot in the back by Texas Rangers in 1915. The event, which was supposedly
a retaliation for an earlier Mexican bandit raid, had been related to Mr.
Warnock by his grandfather, a cowboy who witnessed the killings.
While some Texans complained that these depictions unfairly malign the
Rangers, others are angry that such abuses have been covered up for so
long. "People find it particularly relevant that an arm of the state was
centrally implicated in the violence, and that they continue to be so
celebrated," says Mr. Johnson.
Healing the Border
Texans also worry that calling attention to the historical racial strife
along the border could deepen divisions between Hispanics and Anglos in the
state today. Newspapers have carried angry letters to the editor from
readers like Ramon Estrada, a retired electrical engineer who grew up in El
Paso and now lives outside of Denver, Colo. He says he is bitter about the
way his ancestors were treated and sometimes questions whether he was right
to serve the United States in the Vietnam War.
In an interview, Mr. Estrada says that he read about Mr. Johnson's book in
The Denver Post, and it brought back memories of stories his
now-83-year-old mother told him when he was growing up. "She used to tell
us how her father and his friend were killed by Texas Rangers in 1915 for
no other reason than being of Mexican descent," said Mr. Estrada. "My
cousins and I grew up hating the Rangers, and it used to really bother us
when we'd see these TV shows where they were always the good guys."
Even those intent on commemorating the past are moving carefully in doing so.
Mr. Peña, the state senator, talked to both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Warnock at
a screening of the documentary in South Texas last year. Afterward, he
decided to introduce some sort of commemorative legislation. But he quickly
concluded that his initial ideas -- naming a highway or erecting a monument
for the victims, or requiring Texas educators to revise their history books
-- would prove too divisive.
"The powerful establishment interests need to keep certain mythologies
about Texas pure and clean," he says. "They don't want to hear about abuses
by the Texas Rangers."
Instead, he settled on proposing that May 5 -- Cinco de Mayo -- also be
designated as a day to reflect on the history and culture of the Tejanos.
He plans to resurrect that bill, which died at the end of the session in
May, next year and pursue private financing for a monument. "We need to do
this slowly and carefully, and with sensitivity to everyone involved," the
Aside from setting the record straight about a little-understood period of
history, Mr. Johnson hopes his book will show that America "is flexible
enough to offer people like [Mr. Estrada] the benefits of first-class
citizenship. That's what the founders of Lulac concluded, and I think that
the remarkable advances of Mexican-Americans in the last 70 years are
testimony to the power of their vision."
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