SAN BENITO, RGV – On Saturday, Oct. 14, there will be a ceremony for the unveiling a state historical marker dedicated to the Mexican American victims of the “Matanza” or massacre of 1915 in South Texas.
The Matanza was not a single event, but a wave of indiscriminate violence against Mexican Americans by the Texas Rangers during a period of racial unrest in the state.
Now, over 100 years later, the state of Texas is officially recognizing this grim period in its history due to the efforts of Refusing to Forget, a nonprofit dedicated to raising public awareness about these events.
“This is very important because you have many of the family members who are descendants of those killed … who have never had the state acknowledge our relatives’ killings, and that’s very significant,” said Trinidad Gonzales, history instructor at South Texas College and Refusing to Forget member. “The fact that we have this marker is a way of the state finally saying there’s some value to the lives of those who were killed.”
Prior to the Matanza, Mexican Americans, Native Americans and African Americans were called under the Plan of San Diego to execute all Anglo males over the age of 16 in an effort to liberate the states formerly under Mexican control. In a series of guerilla warfare-style raids starting in July of 1915, the Plan of San Diego was underway in South Texas, with support from Mexico. In total, 21 Americans were killed and vast amounts of property were destroyed.
The Texas Rangers, along with federal troops, were sent to the Rio Grande Valley to combat the raids. Once they were quelled, the Texas Rangers retaliated against the Mexican Americans in the region, lynching prisoners and slaughtering countless others, including prominent figures. Dr. Benjamin H. Johnson, associate professor of history at Loyola University Chicago, estimates that thousands were murdered during this turmoil, though no Rangers were punished for their actions.
José Tomás Canales, the only Mexican American in the Texas Legislature in 1919, fought to end the strategic violence toward Mexican Americans by the Texas Rangers and other vigilantes. He filed legal documents that led to a formal investigation and, eventually, the restructuring of the department.
Texas state Rep. Terry Canales, the great nephew of José Tomás, says that with the passing of laws like SB 4, the battle against Latino discrimination endures to this day.
“I reminded the good people of Texas that almost 100 years ago, citizens of the Lone Star State in the Valley faced discrimination so extreme that it cost hundreds of people their lives, and Rep. José Tomás Canales, my grand uncle, with the support of the Texas Legislature, took action to put a stop to such atrocities in the name of the law,” said Canales. “It is shocking to me that a century later, we are still having to fight laws that are prejudiced against any Texan.”
Johnson, who wrote about the bloodshed in “Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans,” agrees with the parallels Canales is drawing.
“Those of us who study the history of racial violence in the United States, I think one of things all of us carry away from that is a real cautionary tale about how bad things can get with the kind of rhetoric that you hear today about the border and about Mexicans and the kind of impunity with which many law officers … seem to be able to operate today,” said Johnson.
Because of the current state of race relations in America, the acknowledgement by the state of Texas is that much more meaningful.
“Recognizing the people that were killed is any important human rights concern because when you deny somebody the official recognition of having gone through genocide or ethnic cleansing … what it does is perpetuates that violence, and in this case, denying the actual importance of those people lives,” said Gonzales. “You’re only worth something if the state remembers you … and if the state refuses to remember you were killed indiscriminately by law enforcement, that is a larger indictment of how the state, in this case the government, views that community’s value within its society … Non-recognition means the government doesn’t care about you.”
Johnson adds that studying the border’s history could give us hope for better relationships between minority and majority communities in the future.
“There’s something really important about thinking about the history of the U.S.-Mexican border today in the United States,” said Johnson. “It actually has a long and really complicated history, but it’s one that most American’s don’t really know much about.”
He continued, “I think one of the things you can gain by kind of making something more complicated or showing that it hasn’t always been this way – which is what I was trying to do with the border – I’m trying to say, you know, it’s been this way for a long time, but it hasn’t always been this way … There was this whole other history.”
The marker unveiling will take place at 10 a.m. outside of San Benito at the parking area off of southbound Exit 16 for I-69E/77 heading to Brownsville.
In addition to the unveiling of the state historical marker at 10 a.m. on Saturday, October 14, 2017 in San Benito, the following related events are scheduled:
Saturday, October 14, 2017
The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley at Brownsville
PlainsCapital Gran Salon, 2nd Floor
Student Union Building
12:30 p.m. to 1:50 p.m.
“Writing from an Unremembered Past: 3 Authors Discuss Writing About a Traumatic History”.
Scheduled panelists: Guadalupe García McCall, Alfredo Cisneros and Christopher Carmona.
1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Library Harvest Days
Scheduled: Community members invited to bring their photographs, letters, and stories
2 p.m. to 3:20 p.m.
“Historical and Literary Examinations of the Law”
Scheduled panelists: Carolina Monsiváis (University of Texas at El Paso), Alberto Rodríguez (Texas A&M University at Kingsville) and Noreen Rivera (University of Texas Rio Grande Valley).
3:30 p.m to 4:50 p.m.
Featured: Donna High School Mexican American Studies Students, organized by Juan Carmona
6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Refuse to Forget Closing Reception and Dinner
Scheduled: Corridos performed by Rosa and Joe Pérez and musical entertainment by Marimba Reyna del Valle
EDITOR’S NOTE: The City of Mission video recorded a one-hour presentation by Trinidad Gonzales about the 1915 Matanza. Click here to watch the presentation.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The main image accompanying the above story shows a “Life and Death on the Border 1910-1920 Exhibition” at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.