“Why is There No Ida B. Wells of the Borderlands?”

Notes from “Linking U.S. and Mexican Histories of Violence: Extralegal Justice on Both Sides of the Border,” a panel presented at the 131st Annual American Historical Association Meeting in Denver, Colorado.

Since the publication in 2013 of William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb’s The Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928, the question of extralegal violence against Mexicans has gained significant attention in borderlands studies.[1] In the introduction to The Forgotten Dead, authors Carrigan and Webb ask a simple but profound question: why were the lynching deaths of Mexicans forgotten? The answer to this question is not that the lynching of Mexicans was few and far between. In fact, the opposite is true, as Carrigan and Webb point out:

“From the California Gold Rush to the last recorded instance of a Mexican lynched in public in 1928, vigilantes hanged, burned, and shot thousands of persons of Mexican descent in the United States. The scale of mob violence against Mexicans is staggering, far exceeding the violence exacted on any other immigrant group and comparable, at least on a per capita basis, to the mob violence suffered by African Americans. Yet despite its importance and pervasiveness, mob violence against Mexicans has never been fully studied.”[2]

This panel, chaired by Michael J. Pfeifer from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York and featuring comments by William Carrigan, presents new research on the topic of mob violence against Mexicans that contributes to filling this lacuna in borderlands historiography as well as the history of violence more broadly.

Michael Pfeifer opened the panel by posing a series of questions:

  • How can we think in comparative terms about violence in Mexico and the U.S.?
  • How did the history of conflict in the borderlands, including racism against Mexicans, shape extralegal violence in the border?
  • How do these histories of violence influence the larger history of the U.S.-Mexico border and the larger histories of these two nations?

The first paper, (Bi)national Border Rebellions, Linchamientos, and the (Bi)centennials of the Mexican Revolution by José Angel Hernández from the University of Houston, addressed Pfeifer’s questions through an examination of linchamientos (lynching) of Mexicans at the border.

Hernández asked how the use of the Spanish term linchameinto, an importation of the American word lynching, complicates understandings of extralegal violence in the borderlands. He explained that in Mexico linchameinto does not exclusively refer to a public hanging, but could be used to describe a public burning, beating, or killing. Linchameinto could also refer to a revolt or other kinds of extra-legal violence. To demonstrate the elasticity and instability of this term, Hernández described instances of extra-legal violence that took place in the connected borderlands communities of La Mesilla, New Mexico and La Ascención, Chihuahua. He described two different and distinct instances of extra-legal violence – a fight between Republicans and Democrats that took place in the 1870s in La Mesilla where nine people died and 100 subsequently fled to Chihuahua, and an instance of narco violence in 2010 that occurred in the same region – both labeled linchameintos.

Next, Hernández posed two very interesting questions:

  1. What makes a lynching a hate crime?
  2. Why is there no Ida B. Wells of the borderlands?

In response to these questions, William Carrigan offered some ways to clarify terminology. Carrigan argues that the following three things must be present in order to call an event a lynching:

  • Community support for the event
  • Premeditation (this distinguishes between rioting and lynching)
  • How the violent act is justified: is it done “for the greater good”?

Hernández added to this list, suggesting that another important characteristic of lynching is the ritualized nature of the violence committed. Further, he stated that because the meaning of lynching has changed over time, a researcher must look for patterns of ritualized violence specific to time and place to understand what lynching looked like and what it meant in specific historical contexts.

Continuing with this discussion of terminology, Carrigan spoke about how Republicans did not want the word lynching used to refer to anti-black violence in the South during the post-Reconstruction era because at that time its meaning was not strong enough to describe the violence that African Americans were being subjected to. Carrigan explained that during the nineteenth century, lynching was associated with the Gold Rush in somewhat of a positive way– it was men taking care of law and order when there was none. Republicans wanted a stronger term to describe the awful things happening to blacks in the South. However, it was the crusading journalist Ida B. Wells who took the word lynching to describe the “Southern Horrors” committed against African Americans in the South. Wells gave the word lynching the meaning it still has today.[3]

The second paper, Out of the Ashes: How the Burning of Antonio Rodriguez Led to an Increase in Anti-Mexican Mob Violence during the 1910s by Nicholas Villanueva Jr. from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, examined how the Mexican Revolution influenced cross-border violence, particularly in Texas.[4]

Villanueva described two cases of extra-legal violence against ethnic Mexicans that occurred in Texas during the Mexican Revolution. Villanueva began with the story of the lynching of Antonio Rodriguez. Rodriguez was a 20-year-old Mexican looking for work as a farmhand in Texas. While in Texas, he was accused of murder. A mob broke into the jail cell where he was being held, forcibly removed him, tied him to a tree, and burned him alive. Rodriquez had no trial, and no one in the mob who brutally killed him was charged with a crime. This enraged Mexicans. Throughout Mexico there ensued a series of anti-U.S. boycotts, riots, and the use of rhetoric such as “Death to Yankees” and “Death to Americans.” Consequently, these rhetorical “attacks on Americans” caused anti-Mexican feeling in the U.S.

Villanueva then described the lynching of 14-yr-old Antonio Gomez. Gomez was harassed and beaten by the owner of a saloon because he was lingering outside the business. While the saloon owner was beating him, Gomez took his knife out and stabbed him. A mob formed around Gomez and lynched him. The mob was not punished. Villanueva made the point that violence against ethnic Mexicans during the Mexican Revolution escalated yet was not punished. Villanueva also compared this to events today, when hate crimes against Mexicans – especially those crossing the border or deemed here ‘illegally’ – often go unpunished. However, Villanueva argues that the lynchings of Rodriguez and Gomez were not products of the Mexican Revolution, but rather, signs of the increased racist sentiments and accompanying violence against Mexicans in Texas. To demonstrate how the State, in the form of the Texas Rangers, also took part in this violence against Mexicans, Villanueva invoked the work of South Texas attorney J.T. Canales, who wrote about the corruption of the Texas Rangers and their techniques of “Mexican Evaporation,” how they “disappeared” Mexican men who were on the Ranger’s “black list.” (To answer José Angel Hernández’s question, maybe J.T. Canales was the Ida B. Wells of the Borderlands?)

The third paper, Savage Yanquis and Enraged Mexicans: Extralegal Justice and Its Representations in Mexico and the U.S., by Gema Karina Santamaría Balmaceda from the Instituto Technológico Autónomo de Mexico, connects the history of lynching to nineteenth and early-twentieth century discourse about savagery and civilization. Through an examination of this discourse in Mexican and U.S. newspapers, this paper demonstrates how lynching served as a measure of civilization in each country. In particular, Santamaría Balmaceda shows how this discourse was deployed as justification for state violence.

Santamaría Balmaceda’s paper (she was not able to be there in person, so her paper was read by a colleague) describes how in many newspapers, the Mexican Revolution represented lawlessness, and a regression from civilization into savagery. For example, the Mexican newspaper El Universal published articles about how post-revolutionary Mexico, absent the “law and order” of Porfirio Díaz, had devolved into a place of savagery. However, in the pages of Regeneracion, a Mexican anarchist paper published in the United States, editor Ricardo Flores-Magón criticized Americans with the same language the U.S. press often used to describe Mexicans and Indians. Responding to the lynching of Antonio Rodriguez, for example, Flores-Magón chastised Americans for their “backwardness,” “ignorance,” and called them “barbarians of the U.S.” because of the lynchings that took place there. He also called these Americans religious fanatics and savages – words often used by the Mexican press to describe Indians and Mexicans in rural communities believed to be under the influence of the church.

The major point that Santamaría Balmaceda’s paper makes is that representations of lynching were used by different groups on both sides of the border to make points about “savagery and civilization” in order to defend various positions. Like the other presenters, Santamaría Balmaceda argues that the conception of lynching as only American is problematic, that there needs to be a comparative dimension in lynching historiography.

There were many excellent questions for the panelists, including questions about lower levels of mob violence, or even the threat of mob violence and how that fits into the history of racialized violence at the border. One audience member asked about the chronology of lynching: when does it begin? In 1848, as Carrigan and Webb’s book has it, or might it be placed earlier than that? These questions provoked deeper discussion of the importance and difficulty of defining terms when discussing lynching and extralegal violence.

As a borderlands historian and an instructor of U.S. History, I found this panel immensely interesting. I teach Ida B. Well’s Southern Horrors in my “Multicultural America” course, where many of my students are of Mexican descent. The challenge of teaching “Multicultural America” is to shed light upon those people and events that have for too long been on the margins of history. What I learned from this panel will, I hope, help me do that with my students when I ask them, “Why is there no Ida B. Wells of the Borderlands?”

[1] William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb, The Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). See also the public history project: Refusing to Forget https://refusingtoforget.org

[2] Carrigan and Webb, 1.

[3] Jacqueline Jones Royster, ed., Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 (Boston and New York: Bedford Books, 1997).

[4] Nicholas Villanueva Jr., The Lynching of Mexicans in the Texas Borderlands (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2017).

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