OCTOBER 31, 2018
IN MY LAST SEMESTER of college, I had a classic undergraduate crisis: I lost faith in the value of what I studied. My major was history, and I loved it, but skepticism crept into my reading. When I saw the words vital and crucial, I heard a voice saying, Is it, though? I’d finish a book and hear the voice ask, But whose life did that book touch? What did it change? What did it help?
I wish that I could have read Monica Muñoz Martinez’s first book, The Injustice Never Leaves You, which stands in blazing contrast to those doubts. Between 1910 and 1920, the Texas Rangers murdered hundreds of ethnic Mexicans — a term she uses in order to include citizens of both Mexico and the United States — and concealed these crimes while turning themselves into mythic heroes. In the present day, state violence on the Texas-Mexico border has become a major piece of our political debate, and Muñoz Martinez’s work serves as a reminder that government brutality on the border is nothing new. In fact, it was the heart of the Texas Rangers’ mission a century ago.
The Rangers started out as vigilantes. An Anglo-American settler named Stephen F. Austin banded a group of rangers together in 1823 to unofficially defend white land-owning interests in Texas, though the region was still Mexican territory at the time. Once Texas became independent, the state government formally incorporated the Rangers to patrol the border and protect Anglo property. Nine years later, Texas joined the United States, and the Rangers became state police.
The Rangers were a force of white supremacy at every stage in their development. Before the Civil War, they fought ethnic Mexicans and Native Americans on behalf of Anglo ranchers and slave-owning farmers. They were briefly disbanded during Reconstruction, and when they returned, it was as state enforcers of segregationist “Juan Crow” laws. The Rangers’ original mandate lingered, however. By the 20th century, their goal was twofold: to keep Mexican “bandits” off Anglo property and Mexican citizens out of Anglo sight.
That goal was both wrong and impossible. Texas had never been exclusively Anglo. The border region was always porous, with ethnic Mexican residents living and working in both countries. The state had few segregated spaces. The Rangers set out to change that, and the most efficient way to do so was fear. Enter the ley de fuga: the law of flight or escape. A Ranger could kill any person who ran or who resisted arrest, and there was no way for authorities to later refute his claim that the victim struggled or fled. Thus, the ley de fuga gave the Rangers near-limitless power to kill.
Official history has for the most part ignored those killings, so there is no way to know how many people died. Muñoz Martinez offers the only estimates she can: at least 232 ethnic Mexicans were lynched by vigilante groups between 1848 and 1928; anywhere from 300 to several thousand ethnic Mexicans were murdered by Texas Rangers and other state forces between 1910 and 1920. Clearly, numbers can no longer tell this story. There is no reliable data. All we have are individual stories.
Muñoz Martinez devotes most of The Injustice Never Leaves You to the people who have kept those stories alive. Nearly all of them are the descendants of lynching victims, and have become family and community historians. Muñoz Martinez treats them with great respect, writing about them not as sources but as collaborators. The first family member she works with is Norma Longoria Rodríguez, whose grandfather and great-grandfather, Antonio Longoria and Jesús Bazán, were shot in the back by a group of Texas Rangers and local landowners in 1915. Over the course of decades, Rodríguez researched the murders, interviewed her older relatives, and wrote her family’s story. The book’s title comes from her description of how her own children respond to this legacy: “It’s always there. It’s a part of their life I think. It’s an injustice. It never leaves you. It’s inherited loss.”
Norma Longoria Rodríguez works to ensure that her family’s inherited losses “can no longer be ignored, minimized, or covered up.” The same is true for Benita and Evaristo Albarado, who worked extensively with Muñoz Martinez and who have spent years documenting a night in 1918 when Texas Rangers murdered 15 disarmed, bound men, including Benita’s grandfather, Longino Flores. Benita’s father Juan witnessed the massacre, as did his mother Juana. Years later, Juana committed suicide, and Benita “described her grandmother as another victim of that night.”
Both experiences were traumatic for Juan, who was tormented by nightmares his entire life, and yet he never tried to forget. At age 97, he traveled to the site of the massacre with a film crew, withstanding “hours of travel on Texas high ways, on farm-to-market roads, and finally off road […] He withstood the sun and the rocky terrain to share his account of the lives lost.”
One goal of Muñoz Martinez’s work is to amplify what these families have already done. Another is to lift a burden from their shoulders. Not only does she carry on the tradition of memory, but she also actively fights for the state to do the same. With other historians, she began in 2014 to petition the Texas Historical Commission for historical markers commemorating state-sanctioned lynchings. As of summer 2017, four markers were in the works. When finished, they will serve three purposes: memorials to victims of Ranger violence, testaments to the strength of the victims’ families, and proof that community history can change the popular historical narrative.
In the last chapter, Muñoz Martinez describes an exhibit on racial terror she helped develop at another institution of popular history, the Bullock Texas State History Museum. The exhibit, which included KKK regalia and Texas Ranger memorabilia, sparked conversation throughout the state. Muñoz Martinez quotes the museum’s then-director Victoria Ramirez saying, “We’re not here to tell people how they should understand history. What we want to do is help people gain a broader perspective on the world the way it is.”
Muñoz Martinez is clear on what happens when people lack perspective. She spends a memorable chapter on a local history display she encountered in a Texas Dairy Queen: Ranger photographs, including one in which Rangers are lynching a Mexican man. Muñoz Martinez visits the display’s curator, a retired teacher and Ranger reenactor who sees no harm in this image. To him, the picture showed the Rangers’ dedication to protecting innocent settlers. To Norma Rodríguez or Benita Albarado, that same picture would represent — would, in fact, be — a form of brutal racial violence.
The Dairy Queen episode is the only contemporary story Muñoz Martinez tells. Though she was writing The Injustice Never Leaves You during the 2016 election, she never mentions Donald Trump. Still, he is everywhere in her pages. His rhetoric comes from the mouths of the white lawyers, legislators, journalists, and Rangers she quotes. In a chapter about the combined anti-lynching activism of the Texas NAACP and Texas State Representative José Canales in 1919, Muñoz Martinez quotes Dallas attorney Robert E. Lee Knight, who, in front of Texas’s State Congress, “portrayed Mexicans as a class of criminals who roamed the region posing an ever-present threat to Americans and their property.”
Over and over, the white politicians and Ranger captains Muñoz Martinez quotes refer to Mexicans as “bandits.” Any reader could switch in our president’s words: “rapists,” “drug dealers.” The specific accusation may be different, but the broader claim is identical. Muñoz Martinez quotes an April 1916 Laredo Times headline — “Keep Eye on Border Mexicans” — that could come from Trump’s Twitter, or Infowars, or a conservative columnist in any newspaper you choose. In the period Muñoz Martinez studies, this line of thought informed the ley de fuga, which enabled Texas Rangers, who acted for the state, to murder ethnic Mexicans without facing trial. In the present day, the same thinking enables ICE, which acts for the nation, to put children in cages.
Muñoz Martinez does not promise that her work can fix the present. Her final thought is this: “At best, learning from crimes of the past will help inform current debate about immigration, policing, and national belonging.” At best. She makes no claims that history will necessarily repeat, or that it can be prevented from repeating. Instead, she writes to help Americans understand our present and share our past. History, she knows, weighs a lot more than myth. It’s harder to carry. No one should have to bear it alone.