The reign of terror 100 years ago; stand with El Paso today
August 6, 2019
The dead included women and men, the aged and the young, long-time residents and recent arrivals. They were killed by strangers, by neighbors, by vigilantes and at the hands of local law enforcement officers and the Texas Rangers. Some were summarily executed after being taken captive, or shot under the flimsy pretext of trying to escape. Some were left in the open to rot, others desecrated by being burnt, decapitated, or tortured by means such as having beer bottles rammed into their mouths. Extralegal executions became so common that a San Antonio reporter observed that “finding of dead bodies of Mexicans, suspected for various reasons of being connected with the troubles, has reached a point where it creates little or no interest. It is only when a raid is reported or an American is killed that the ire of the people is aroused.”
The context for this violence is complicated, but clearly connected to instability at the border during the Mexican Revolution, as people migrated into the southwestern United States, and in some cases, engaged in border raids to get supplies. The response by Texas forces and the U.S. military was a predecessor to counterinsurgency campaigns seen in the mid-20th century and later, where the entire population was put under suspicion, becoming the targets of widespread violence. All of which was enabled by decades long conflict between Mexicans and Anglos in Texas border area.
The “Plan” de San Diego
People crossing the border during the years of the revolution had different affiliations to factions in Mexico. In one case, the arrest of a Mexican national in McAllen, Texas would set off a “river of blood”
In early 1915, at the height of the Mexican Revolution, a Mexican national named Basilio Ramos was arrested in McAllen. A onetime beer distributor in the Duval County town of San Diego, Ramos was a follower of deposed Mexican president Victoriano Huerta. Officers found in his possession the Plan de San Diego; simply put, it was a revolutionary manifesto calling for no less than the liberation of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Colorado. The territory had been, in Ramos’ high-blown rhetoric of the times, taken over in a “most perfidious manner by North American imperialists.”
Ramos also furnished the starting date of the invasion: February 20 at 2 a.m. There was a catch, though. Ramos’ Supreme Revolutionary Congress had yet to appoint a military commander or to raise an armed force. That aside, the plan also called for a race war; it stipulated the death of all Anglo males over sixteen as well as “traitors to the race,” meaning “disloyal” Texas Mexicans. But loyal Mexican Americans, blacks, Japanese, and Indians would be welcome to join the ranks.
Nothing much came of the plan. There was no invasion or revolt. Ramos was charged with conspiracy to levy war, and his bond set at $5000; in short order bail was reduced to $100, and he skipped to Matamoros, never to affect the course of history again.
Though the “Plan de San Diego” itself never came to much, the rumors surrounding its content, and the ongoing conflict in the Rio Grande Valley, led to a spike in violence.
The racial strife that followed in the lower Rio Grande Valley, however, was a far more serious and lasting matter. In the ensuing twelve months, three hundred “suspected Mexicans,” the majority of them American citizens, were “summarily executed by hanging or shooting on the Texas side of the river as a result of the feelings aroused by the Plan de San Diego,” according to a U.S. Army report.
Soon, retaliatory raids were organized to strike back against the indiscriminate treatment of Mexicans.
They were organized by two Mexican Americans, one a rancher, the other a grocer, who were seething at the way Rangers treated all Mexicans, American or not, with equal contempt. Following the first raid, the leaders anonymously issued the first rhetorical blast, demanding a halt to the “criminal acts and insults of the miserable Rangers who guard the banks of the Rio Bravo.”
As people fled north to escape the violence, labor shortages in south Texas became a problem for ranchers and farmers. After a year of “Plan San Diego” violence, presidents Woodrow Wilson and Venustiano Carranza signed an agreement to bring in more workers from Mexico, while extending aid to the government in Mexico to stem other migration.
The violence did not end here, however. In 1918 a massacre in the small village of Porvenir, when Texas Rangers and local law enforcement oversaw the murder of 15 men and boys, set off a chain of events that brought a national spotlight to the violence in Texas - and for a time - some respite from the violence. In Porvenir,
“Men were dragged from their beds, and, without having been given time to dress, were led away in their night clothes to the edge of the settlement, where they were shot to death by the posse,” reads an El Paso Morning Times article published on Feb. 8, 1918, almost two weeks after the massacre. “The bodies of the men were found the next day where they had fallen, riddled with bullets.”
They were killed after a group of Texas Rangers, U.S. Army cavalry soldiers and local ranchers descended on their village, Porvenir, seeking revenge for a deadly attack at a nearby ranch a month earlier — although there was no evidence tying the villagers to it.
The massacre may have been simply swept under the rug were it not for the efforts of state representative José T. “J.T.” Canales from Brownsville. Canales was the only Latino in the state legislature at the time and used his position to launch an investigation into the actions of the Texas Rangers at Porvenir, as well as other abuses. Submitting documents to Governor Hobby, Canales wrote:
The object of this appeal is to call your attention to this unprovoked and wholesale murder by Texas Rangers in conjunction with ranchmen - Rangers who instead of maintaining peace are committing murder by the wholesale and to request Your Excellency to have these rangers removed at once and others (who are peaceable and law abiding) placed over all this district. No matter what white-washed report may have been made to you or to the Adjutant General, the facts herein are true and can be proven. (emphasis in original)
None of the people involved in the massacre were ever charged. However, as a result of the investigation, which brought to light Texas Ranger involvement in widespread violence, the Ranger force was restructured and its forces cut in half.
Change and Continuity
By 1920, violence subsided - somewhat. Some of the people who had fled back across the border, however, had left behind land they had been working - eventually lost to them. This was a preview of what was to come. In 1929, the Hoover administration launched a massive campaign to “repatriate” Mexicans - most, however, were U.S. citizens. The project impacted hundreds of thousands - some estimates as high as 2 million - people forced off their land and out of the country. 1929 is also the year the U.S. Government made crossing the border between ports of entry a federal crime (USC 1325), specifically targeting Mexican immigrants.
In recounting this time, Refusing to Forget, a website/collective committed to documenting the history of violence in the 1910s, notes:
Far from being surreptitious, the violence was welcomed, celebrated, and even instigated at the highest levels of society and government. As thousands fled to Mexico and decapitated bodies floated down the Rio Grande, one Texas paper spoke of “a serious surplus population that needs eliminating.” Prominent politicians proposed putting all those of Mexican descent into “concentration camps” – and killing any who refused. For a decade, people would come across skeletons in the south Texas brush, marked with execution-style bullet holes in the backs of their skulls.
Against the backdrop of this history, which is mostly unknown outside of Texas, and little known even here, people are rightly concerned. Border deaths are already very high - over a twenty year period as high as 7,000. Today we let the desert do what Texas Rangers and ranchmen once did, but the result is still death. Our border is a militarized zone - much as it was 100 years ago. The president continues to demean and dehumanize migrants.
I don’t believe we are going back to the level of violence witnessed here 100 years ago - but we are living in a time where violence is spoken of openly as some kind of solution, where vigilantes are active, and official discourse encourages it. It is a frightening time - especially when individual youth, raised in this milieu, pick up an assault weapon and go to a mall to “kill as many Mexicans as possible.”
Stand with El Paso
There will be vigils organized around the country, to stand in solidarity with the people of El Paso against white supremacist violence. Check the website here to get the latest.