Texas folklore scholar Américo Paredes was one of the most remarkable people I've ever met. A Brownsville native, he was the first Mexican-American to receive his Ph.D. atthe University of Texas-Austin, the first to examine border ballads (corridos) and border folktales from a scholarly perspective.
He also was one of the first academics to challenge generations of Anglo-Texan myth making about the iconic Texas Rangers.
Paredes, who died in 1999 at age 83, was a gentle, soft-spoken man - I remember listening to him play the classical guitar in his living room for the singer Tish Hinojosa - but a strain of anger lingered just below the calm demeanor. Ask him about the Rangers, and you'd see the indignation and anger.
Even though they weren't a focus of his work, he was painfully aware of what happened in the Rio Grande Valley in the year of his birth, 1915, well-aware of a Ranger reign of terror directed at Mexican-American families.
Thanks to a new and unsettling exhibit at the Bullock State History Museum, a little-known campaign of state-sanctioned violence is at last coming to light for the rest of us.
While the Mexican Revolution raged south of the Rio Grande and a great war ravaged Europe, change was roiling the Rio Grande Valley, as well.
Anglo land speculators and farmers from the Midwest had discovered a few years earlier what they considered a grower's paradise, where year-round sunshine and a temperate climate enticed cotton and citrus and vegetables out of fertile, sandy soil.
The newcomers were hungry for land, but Mexican-American laborers and pioneering Tejano families whose land grants stretched back centuries stood in their way. The newly arrived looked for ways to drive out "the Mexicans."
When the war across the river briefly spilled over into Texas, they saw an opportunity.
In January 1915, authorities in McAllen arrested a Mexican sedicioso (seditionist) named Basilio Ramos who was carrying a manifesto calling for an armed uprising to reclaim Texas, Arizona, Colorado and California on behalf of Mexico. Who knows whether there was anything to the so-called Plan de San Diego (for the small South Texas town where it was concocted), but its discovery panicked the Anglo newcomers, particularly after the sediciosos captured an American soldier near Progreso, cut off his head and stuck it on a pole. In August, armed riders attacked an Hidalgo County ranch, killing the owner and his adult son. The sediciosos cut telegraph wires, skirmished with soldiers and police, and blew up train tracks. The vast majority of Tejano residents wanted nothing to do with them.
'War of extermination'
Panicked Anglos organized vigilante groups and implored Gov. James Ferguson to send in the Rangers. The governor responded and also deputized some of his Valley friends and campaign supporters as so-called "Loyalty Rangers." From July to November, the Rangers and their cohorts carried out a campaign of torture, terrorism and murder that made vulnerable anyone who even looked Mexican. They forcibly removed Tejanos from their homes and executed them on sight, and killed others during alleged escape attempts.
One newspaper called it a "war of extermination," while today we'd likely call it "ethnic cleansing." Local Anglos used the curious term "evaporation."
Saving their rope
A dozen years ago, David McLemore of the Dallas Morning News interviewed 97-year-old San Benito Montalvo of San Benito, who recalled riding with his father upriver toward a family ranch one morning. They came across the bodies of two young men hanging from a tree.
"Daddy said to get off my horse so we could bury those boys. I was too scared to move," Montalvo told McLemore. "They were hanging with baling wire, their feet just inches from the ground. The Rangers used wire, because it came with the hay bales for their horses. That way they didn't have to buy rope."
The Anglo counterinsurgency accomplished its objective, said Loyola University Chicago historian Ben Johnson, author of "Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans." "They ran people off the land and destroyed Tejano political power," he said. Memories of that searing experience, Johnson added, led Mexican-Americans to reassert their power in later years through organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), founded in 1929.
In 1919, state Rep. J.T. Canales of Brownsville, the only Mexican-American in the Legislature, pressured his fellow lawmakers to hold hearings on the Ranger atrocities. In the face of death threats against the lawmaker, family members formed a human shield as Canales walked to the Capitol each morning. (Current state Rep. Terry Canales of Edinburg is a great-nephew.)
The hearings prompted reforms, although the legislature sealed the testimony, which remained closed to the public until the 1970s. The Rangers never issued an official apology, but the agency has acknowledged in recent years that it was a dark period in its history.
Estimates for the number of Mexican-American residents who were "evaporated" range from 500 to 5,000, Brown University historian Monica Muñoz Martinez told me earlier this week. "There were over a hundred in Cameron County alone," she said.
Martinez, a Uvalde native, is one of five scholars who have been urging the Texas Historical Commission and the Bullock Museum to more fully acknowledge atrocities against Mexican-Americans, in the Valley and elsewhere. Calling their effort the Refusing to Forget Project, the five want more state historical markers and museum exhibits, as a way to "help reshape public memory."
"We were all surprised, shocked, that the Bullock would take on this project," Martinez said earlier this week.
Museum director Victoria Ramirez said the exhibit, "Life & Death on the Border: 1910-1920," is the sort of remembrance any reputable museum would take on. "We're not here to rewrite history," she said. "We're not hear 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."
In his most famous book, "With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero," Américo Paredes recalled listening when he was a boy to his father and the old men talking in "low gentle voices about violent things." He wasn't the only one. Austin historian Andrés Tijerina points out that among Mexican-American families throughout South and West Texas, including his own, memories about "violent things" survived - despite suppressed documents, silenced history and burned bodies. At the Bullock these days, those memories have been given new voice.