The province of Texas is still part of the Mexican dominions, but it will soon contain no Mexicans; the same thing has occurred whenever the Anglo-Americans have come into contact with populations of a different origin.
—ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE, Democracy in America
IN HIS DISCUSSION of the “laws and mores” of the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville was frank in acknowledging the racialized parameters of Jacksonian democracy. Describing the United States as an “Anglo-American confederation,” Tocqueville characterized Black and Indigenous people as “tangents to my subjects, being American, but not democratic.”1 Yet despite his assertion in the first volume that these “three races” defined the American project, by the time he was writing the second volume, Tocqueville was already acknowledging that other nonwhite populations beyond “Indians and Negroes” were part of the United States. One of these groups was Mexicans. Interestingly—as the epigraph to this chapter shows—in prognosticating about this “new” population, Tocqueville’s account simultaneously recognizes and disappears them. This practice of acknowledgment and erasure would become a familiar part of the Anglo racial imaginary—particularly when addressing the Mexican presence in the United States.
As the frontier pushed ever farther west, American settlers were increasingly encountering Mexicans—citizens of a neighboring sovereign nation and a new racialized population to be feared, exploited, and subjugated. “Native Americans and African Americans had long been used to mark the line between freedom and abandon,” Greg Grandin writes. “Now Mexicans helped secure that psychic border.”2
The Mexican-American War (1846–48) is often overlooked as a formative conflict in American history, perhaps unsurprisingly considering that the Civil War began only thirteen years later. But it’s key to understanding how the legacy of white democracy has come to shape contemporary border politics. Historian Steven Hahn has described the war as emboldening “some of the most aggressive political and cultural tendencies in American life,” helping to establish a particular image of frontier freedom founded on conquest and the right to land, movement, and expansion.3 Indeed, in 1836, when Texas won its independence from Mexico, President Jackson stated that annexing the Republic of Texas would expand America’s “area of freedom” and extend its “circle of free institutions.”4 However, the conception of freedom being articulated by the Anglo5 settlers of the Texas republic was deeply racialized: not only were most settlers originally from the Deep South but many were “land speculators, slavers, militia leaders, and Indian killers.”6
Such racialized politics had a profound impact on class conflict and class politics in the United States. Consider that in 1848—the year the war with Mexico ended—workers in multiple countries across Europe revolted, built barricades, established labor parties and unions, and called for “the social-democratization of European politics.”7 The United States had its share of hungry, exploited workers, but “instead of waging class war upward—on aristocrats and owners,” white workers “waged race war outward, on the frontier.” Young workers, Grandin writes, “didn’t head to the barricades to fight the gentry” but rather “joined with the gentry to go west and fight Indians and Mexicans.”8 Exploring the conjoined histories of the frontier and the border allows us to see how this racialized legacy of legal and extrajudicial violence has shaped American conceptions of freedom, sovereignty, democracy, citizenship, and the law.9 The history of anti-Mexican politics illuminates how racialized violence continues to influence today’s aggressive nativist politics.
The war concluded in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which officially recognized the U.S. annexation of Texas and ceded to the United States one-third of Mexico’s territory, including all or part of what would later become California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, in return for a $15 million payment.10 The treaty created a two-thousand-mile southern border and transferred to the United States a total of some half million square miles. The land was home to eighty thousand to one hundred thousand people, a diverse population that included “old-line Spanish families, who could trace their land claims back generations, centuries even; their mestizo and mulatto servants and ranch hands, along with other laborers, thousands of migrants in California, prospecting for gold; and scores of indigenous peoples, including Apache, Navajo, Pueblo, Ute, Yaqui, and Tohono O’odham.”11
The war made the United States a continental power while exacerbating tensions between free and slave states. And while the war led to the nation gaining a staggering amount of new territory, some American expansionists had hoped for an even larger seizure of land. As David Gutiérrez notes, both during and before the war, many Americans had argued that the United States should aim to annex the whole of Mexico “and perhaps South America as well.”12 Prior to war, the “All-Mexico” movement made its case in political speeches, newspaper editorials, travelogues, and memoirs.13 Describing in 1836 the reasons why Americans should support the colonists and Tejanos rebelling against the Mexican government, William H. Wharton—a diplomat, statesman, and advocate for Texas’s complete independence from Mexico—argued that a just and benevolent God would forbid that Texas “again become a howling wilderness, trod only by savages” and “permanently benighted by the ignorance and superstition, the anarchy and rapine of Mexican misrule.”14 Describing the task of Texas settlement, Wharton characterizes it as a project that is as racial as it is republican:
The Anglo-American race are destined to be for ever the proprietors of this land of promise and fulfilment. Their laws will govern it, their learning will enlighten it, their enterprise will improve it. Their flocks will range its boundless pastures, for them its fertile lands will yield their luxuriant harvests; its beauteous rivers will waft the products of their industry and enterprise . . . in the possession of homes fortified by the genius of liberty, and sanctified by the spirit of a beneficent and tolerant religion. . . . The wilderness of Texas has been redeemed by Anglo-American blood and enterprise. The colonists have carried with them the language, the habits, and the lofty love of liberty that has always characterized and distinguished their ancestors.15
Wharton’s words exemplify Olson’s point that “racial subordination” both “constructs democratic ideals as well as violates them.” In the case of Mexico, we can see how white supremacy limits the possibilities for full democracy while making white democracy possible. For Wharton, the language of white supremacy is enmeshed in the civic language of liberty, popular sovereignty, industry, and religious tolerance. Similarly, describing Anglo settlement in Mexican territory, New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett extols how “healthy, vigorous republics, unknown and undreamt of among the threadbare dynasties of the old world, have sprung up and flourished with a prospect of healthy permanency.”16 Yet Bennett also warns that “wherever the experiment of democratic governance has succeeded, it is only in cases where the distinct purity of the Caucasian race has been preserved unmixed with the lower orders of humanity.”17
In these depictions of Anglo-American “promise and fulfillment,” we can see what Bebout has characterized as “whiteness on the border”—the “discursive and ideological constellation in which representations of Mexico, Mexicans, and Mexican Americans are deployed to construct . . . white identity as American identity.”18 Whiteness on the border reveals a linkage “between the U.S.–Mexican border region and imaginings of U.S. national racial identity.”19 Moreover, as Bebout notes, this vivid imaginary of the Mexican Other is a “long-enduring, prevalent, and dynamic component of the U.S. racial project.”20
Waging war and settling Mexican lands gave white settlers new opportunities to enact frontier freedom and embody the sovereign will of the people—to struggle and strive; to subdue and inhabit “new” lands, seek wealth, acquire property, establish new communities, spread “civilization,” and replace Mexican misrule with “vigorous republics” and “free institutions of Anglo Americans,” creating new spaces of white self-governance—all while creating new opportunities for themselves and their families.21 These mass-based, participatory projects, designed to counter the “despotism” of Mexican politics with the free institutions of the United States, highlight how Mexican conquest was an expression of both white supremacy and popular will, allowing whites to act and claim their right on behalf of “the people” to exercise power and enact their identity as Americans.
Frontier freedom on the border was also a project invested in rescuing the region from both Indians and Mexicans. Serving a double function, conquest also saved the region from “Mexican misrule”—a failure of governance defined in part by Mexico’s inability to eliminate the presence of indigeneity, turning the territory into a “howling wilderness, trod only by savages.” As Laura Gomez has written, both Mexicans and Indigenous communities contended with a form of “double colonization” that imposed a system of status inequalities grounded in racial difference.22 Forced to navigate two different racial regimes simultaneously, the combination of conquest alongside the imposition of U.S. law upon a preexisting Spanish and Mexican colonial racial order created complex new racial dynamics for both populations. As Gomez has demonstrated, a central paradox of 1848 was “the legal construction of Mexicans as racially ‘white’ alongside the social construction of Mexicans as non-white and as racially inferior.”23 Following 1848, Mexican elites “accommodated, contested, and negotiated their position” in this new American racial order.24 At times, this process involved claiming white status and distancing themselves from alliances with tribal populations. As Gomez notes, in places such as New Mexico, American colonizers were able to co-opt those Mexican Americans willing to trade on their mestizo, part-European heritage to “divide Mexican Americans from their Pueblo neighbors.”25 In sum, both the Spanish and the American racial systems sought to enlist Mexicans in the management of the territories, leading Mexicans to become “agents in the reproduction of racial subordination” even as they were victims of it.26 Moreover, as María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo suggests, Mexicans’ political and racial identities are rooted in racially produced geographies of colonial governance that were mediated by notions of indigeneity and “Indianness” developed under Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. rule.27 The Mexican-American War and its aftermath created an “infelicitous boundary between indigenous and Mexican” racial identities.28 Even before the American war against Mexico, “it was Mexicans’ ‘half-bred’ status, their barbarous core, that required U.S. conquest for the proper administration of the frontier.” Anglo settlers saw the frontier as “horribly mismanaged” and in need of rescue to “release its democratic potential and develop its indigenous resources.”29 Yet it was envisioning the incorporation of ever “larger numbers of non-white, non-English speaking people into the United States” that ultimately tempered expansionists’ claims to Mexico’s territory.30
In each of these depictions, we can see how emerging tropes regarding the “Mexican character” came to the fore. Latinx scholars Leo Chavez, Arnoldo De León, and Bebout identify at least four tropes about Mexico, Mexicans, and Mexican Americans that organized Anglo attitudes and underwrote Anglo actions. In these tropes, Mexicans were scripted as “indolent, morally defective, un-American, and savagely violent.”31 Moreover, as Lee Bebout puts it, “if Mexicans are lazy, disloyal, savage, and immoral, then whites ‘as mirror opposites’ are hardworking, loyal, civilized, and moral beings—ideal citizen subjects.”32
The power of these racialized images and assumptions had a significant impact on how the United States approached Mexican land annexation and political incorporation. As historian Reginald Horsman shows, the dispute about annexing Mexican territory was less an argument about territory than one about Mexicans.33 Charles Bent, the first civilian governor of the territory of New Mexico, proclaimed that “the Mexican character is made up of stupidity, obstinacy, ignorance, duplicity, and vanity”; Edward Hannegan, an All-Mexico U.S. senator from Indiana, characterized Mexicans as “utterly unfit for the blessings and restraints of rational liberty, because they cannot comprehend the distinction between regulated freedom, and the unbridled licentiousness which consults only the evil passions of the human heart.”34 In a similar vein, John C. Calhoun, Andrew Jackson’s former vice president and eventual U.S. senator from South Carolina, argued against incorporation, asserting that Mexicans represented an amalgamation of “impure races, not [even] as good as the Cherokees or Choctaws.” Calhoun asked, “Can we incorporate a people so dissimilar to us in every aspect—so little qualified for free and popular government—without certain destruction to our political institutions?”35
For men such as Bent, Hannegan, and Calhoun, incorporating a large number of Mexicans into the United States would create a demographic shift so disruptive as to destroy American political institutions, leading to a crisis of sovereignty. Conquest had the potential to turn “the people” into an amalgamation of “impure races” who were “utterly unfit” to exercise sovereign power. Such depictions of Mexicans rendered them outside the scope of popular sovereignty—such subjects could never be part of “the people,” subjects whose consent was necessary to authorize the power of the state and its government. Nor were such portrayals of Mexicans unusual at the time—such characterizations were familiar to Americans through wartime accounts in newspapers, colonial historiographies, and political writings. In the period 1821–45, writers routinely described Mexican natives as a form of “degraded humanity”—“uncivilized” and “beastly.”36 In contrast to the romanticized stereotypes of certain Indigenous populations, annexed Mexicans were often depicted as “kissing cousins” to the fictitious indio bárbaros—subjects lingering in “dangerous proximity to an imputed savage Indian difference.”37 Emerging during moments of “colonial or national crisis,” the racial imaginary of “Indians” and the “indios bárbaros” are part of colonial legacies that characterize certain forms of indigeneity as both lawless and monstrous.38 In the U.S. imperialist imagination, the “indio bárbaro of the borderlands” is a subject who “roams and raids and kills without mercy”—a figure who must be “excised not simply from the geographical borders of nation, but from the very boundaries of humanity.”39 Such portrayals of “Mexican depravity and violence” represent an assemblage of “lasting stereotypes” that continue to influence the contemporary politics of race and immigration in the United States.40 The trope of the violent, savage Mexican has yet to dissipate because “it serves so many functions,” particularly in its ability to “justify and obscure white violence.”41
According to historian Arnoldo De León, during the Texas Revolution, colonists fighting their war of independence from Mexico spoke alarmingly of “savage, degenerate, half-civilized, and barbarous Mexicans committing massacres and atrocities at Goliad and the Alamo.”42 At times, the Mexican threat took on a sexual dimension, as Anglo political leaders invoked images of Mexican rapists laying claim not only to land but to the bodies of their female family members. Texas settler and judge John W. Hall asked the American public to “imagine what would happen if Mexican soldiers gained a foothold” in Texas—“beloved wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, and helpless innocent children would be given up to the dire pollution . . . of the barbarians.”43
Interestingly, the manner in which the U.S. Army waged the Mexican-American War not only encouraged violence but made it intrinsic to border politics. The war was fought in an extremely decentralized manner, with officers “barely exercising control over their troops. In other words, soldiers experienced the violence they committed—the ‘repetition of the most heinous offenses, murder, rapine, robbery, and rape,’ as one newspaper wrote of U.S. atrocities committed on Mexicans—as a form of liberty.”44 Anglos who shifted from being soldiers to settlers often carried this “blood-soaked entitlement” with them—indeed, “popular sovereignty” shifted from being “a rallying cry for settlers who wanted to be free of federal control”45 to, as historian Paul Foos puts it, a “synonym for racist brutality and wanton usurpation.”46 The history of the Texas Rangers reflects this ongoing dynamic of Mexicans at the border being subject to practices that continually blur the lines between “enforcing state laws, practicing vigilantism, and inciting racial terror.”47
In short, during the Herrenvolk era of white democracy, law enforcement agencies such as the Texas Rangers—codifying settlers’ practices—created a set of expectations for white citizens regarding how the law should operate and relate to Mexican populations. The legacy of this violent and racialized approach to the law can be seen in the treatment of migrants at the border and in contemporary practices of migrant arrest and detention.
Conquest and the Politics of Disappearance
Alongside popular depictions of Mexican savagery, unassimilable difference, and calls for the violent subjugation of Mexicans, other forms of white supremacy envisioned bringing enlightenment to a backward people in need of advancement. As Arnoldo De León notes, Anglo settlers saw themselves as “freedom loving frontiersmen” who entertained “a strong belief in themselves and the superiority of their way of life.”48 Supporters of the All-Mexico movement stated that Mexicans “would ‘learn to love her ravishers,’” while columnist and editor John O’Sullivan argued that the influx of white Americans into recently conquered territory would lead to both uplift and absorption.49 In his 1845 declaration of “manifest destiny,” O’Sullivan described an “irresistible army of Anglo-Saxon[s]” bringing with them “the plough and the rifle . . . schools and colleges, courts and representative halls, mills and meeting-houses,”50 that would ultimately lead Mexicans to “simply melt into American society as they experienced the benefits of American civilization.”51 Describing the “Mexican race” as “perfectly accustomed to being conquered,” an 1847 New York Sun editorial echoed O’Sullivan by asserting that “the only new lesson we shall teach is that our victories will give liberty, safety, and prosperity to the vanquished. . . . To liberate and ennoble . . . not to enslave and debase—is our mission.”52
Notwithstanding this language of uplift and absorption, anxieties about incorporating large numbers of Mexicans into the United States ultimately led lawmakers to emphasize America’s territorial acquisition while downplaying the impact of Mexicans joining the American polity. The consensus view regarding the incorporation of Mexican territory and people could be summed up by Michigan senator Lewis Cass, who insisted, “We do not want the people of Mexico, either as citizens or subjects. All we want is a portion of territory, which they nominally hold, generally uninhabited, or where inhabited at all, sparsely so, and with a population, which would recede, or identify itself with ours.”53 The possessive logic of white democracy was further strengthened by the postwar discovery of gold in California and silver deposits in Nevada and New Mexico—discoveries that offered Mexicans few opportunities. The discovery of gold led to passage of a Foreign Miners Tax that led to the expulsion of not only Mexican and Latin American prospectors but Mexican Americans.54 Moreover, the rapid and ongoing influx of white settlers—in addition to the transplantation of a new political and legal system—displaced many landowning Mexicans from their property.
Such racialized territorial dispossession promised white citizens a chance at newfound forms of wealth and mobility, allowing them to enlarge their own “areas of freedom.” As Grandin notes, during this era, “war became an even more effective venue of social mobility.” Between 1850 and 1855, Congress was “suddenly the executor of a near-entire continent” that it now had the power to “dispense” and distribute to white citizens. Veterans of the Mexican campaign were promised “bounty land” for their service. This annexation of new territory led veterans of previous wars—many of whom had been promised but never received similar bounties—also to demand compensation.55 At that point, Congress “overwhelmingly passed a series of laws that granted land to all veterans of any past war, going back to 1790. Hundreds of thousands of veterans, or their widows and heirs, received warrants for over thirty-four million acres.” If veterans didn’t want the land, “they could redeem the warrants for cash.”56
Here again, we see how the language of conquest and annexation depicts Mexicans as having something of value (land, gold, silver) while characterizing their presence as an obstacle to be overcome. Manifest destiny gave Anglo-Americans not only a fierce sense of entitlement over seemingly boundless lands and resources but a belief in their inherent right to dominate and/or disappear the inhabitants of these recently acquired lands. Following the war, Mexicans were often depicted as “disappearing”—Mexicans would either self-deport and “recede” into Mexico or lose their “Mexican character” by experiencing the “ennobling” benefits of American civilization and citizenship and engaging in a process of “unbecoming Mexican.”57 Indeed, Mexicans were often depicted as a population so debased that their survival in the context of Anglo domination seemed highly unlikely. Describing the Mexicans and their presumed fate, New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett declared,
Sluggish inertness and intellectual imbecility are the unhappy characteristics of the race . . . emasculated and totally incapable of self government. . . . It is now the manifest destiny of this republic to extend its empire and civilization over the rich and fertile plains of Mexico. . . . The tide of emigration will set towards Mexico, and the imbecile race that now inhabits that country is as sure to melt away at the approach of Anglo-Saxon energy and enterprise as snow before a southern sun. Their fate will be similar to that of the Indians of this country—the race, before a century rolls over us, will become extinct.58
In sum, despite their differences, Wharton, Dana, Bent, Hannegan, Calhoun, O’Sullivan, Cass, and Bennett shared a belief that the incorporation of Mexicans and Mexican territory would not—and should not—alter the nature and character of the United States.
Together, the logic of manifest destiny and settler sovereignty meant that “the people” would remain white. Whether for or against the greater annexation of Mexican territory, what these authors shared was the presumption that Mexicans were fundamentally a people of inferior status—potentially valuable as a source of labor but unequipped for liberal citizenship, a population whose cultural and racial deficiencies would be counteracted through assimilation and the loss of their “Mexican character” or whose position within U.S. society would (rightly) be limited, subsidiary, and subordinate in nature. Not surprisingly, in the two decades following conquest, Mexican Americans found themselves relegated to a “stigmatized, subordinate position” throughout the Southwest.59
At the same time, as Laura Gomez has demonstrated, in granting naturalization rights to white persons, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo promoted a legal definition of Mexicans as “white” yet “socially” defined as nonwhite.60 This racial indeterminacy had the paradoxical effect of making racialized violence against Mexicans both more justifiable and more defensible. Because Latinos have a historically ambiguous relationship to whiteness, Herrenvolk attacks on Mexicans were legitimated through depicting them as enemy soldiers, bandits, or revolutionaries—violent, duplicitous, criminal, and unfit for citizenship.
During the war, officials and pundits reassured white citizens that the nature and character of the United States would remain constant no matter the eventual borders, so it is no surprise that the dream of white settlers in the Southwest was one of absence, absorption, and exploitability. This desire was complicated by the fact that Mexicans who found themselves on the American side of the new border were eligible for citizenship, yet that access to membership came with enduring racial tropes of Mexicans as suspect subjects, potential threats to the nation’s cultural, economic, and civic character. Continually characterized as an ambivalently indigenous other—savage, lawless, and invasive—the history of Mexican incorporation through war and conquest produced a complex, contested, and violent legacy for Mexican American political membership. Despite the claims of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, white politicians, journalists, military leaders, ranchers, and business interests never articulated a vision of shared membership in which Mexican American citizens and Anglos would collectively rule each other as equals. That was never the vision. Instead, Anglos invoked long-standing racist tropes characterizing Latinos as violent, criminal, duplicitous, and civically unfit; the promise of 1848 reflected a long-standing desire for labor and land, while imagining Mexicans as a removable population that could be treated instrumentally.
Of course, the problem for Anglos in the Southwest is that Mexicans did not disappear. Mexicans continued to own land and to defend their legal access to property. They continued to compete for economic opportunities in sectors like agriculture and mining.61 In sum, not only did Mexicans endure as a visible and purposeful presence on their land and in their communities but they continued to migrate and claim social, political, and cultural space. For Anglo settlers who never wanted Mexicans as equal members of the polity in the first place, their ongoing (and growing) presence is the broken promise of white democracy. Unsurprisingly, a racialized dynamic emerged in which Mexicans and other Latinos (even when native born) were viewed as “immigrant-citizens” and “foreigners with U.S. citizenship,” questionable subjects whose political membership was continually suspect and often resented.62
Frontier Justice: The Herrenvolk Legacy of the Texas Rangers
Following the Texas Revolution and the Mexican-American War, most Anglo settlers saw Mexicans as belonging to “a different, inferior race” that warranted segregation and discrimination.63 Yet, following the war and into the early twentieth century, Mexican migration was subject to virtually no restrictions, with Mexicans and Americans free to move across the border. Despite being exempt from immigration quotas, Mexican nationals migrating north to escape the economic depression and downturns of the 1870s and 1880s were met with hostility and violence. Throughout the 1910s, the violence increased further as refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution were met with growing nativist sentiment and denied humanitarian aid. According to historians William Carrigan and Clive Webb, “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.”64 During this period, the figure of the “menacing” Mexican revolutionary and bandit was cemented in the popular imaginary as a figure who could be killed with impunity. Moreover, any local resident who looked Mexican, regardless of citizenship, social status, or evidence of guilt, could be profiled as a “bandit” or “bandit sympathizer.”65
Guided by a Herrenvolk conception of freedom that understood white citizens as having “saved” the region from Mexicans, a growing sense of economic competition led to increased forms of violence against the growing number of Mexicans in the United States. Indeed, according to American studies scholar Monica Muñoz Martinez, “between 1848 and 1928 in Texas alone, 232 ethnic Mexicans were lynched by vigilante groups of three or more people.”66 Mexican lynching victims often died together in small groups because mobs often targeted groups of Mexicans rather than individuals.67 With local authorities and deputized citizens playing a particularly conspicuous role in mob violence against Mexicans, such violence often took place in broad daylight, in the presence of witnesses and prominent citizens.
Indeed, as Amy Wood has written, members of lynch mobs understood themselves not as criminals or defilers of the law but as “honorable vindicators of justice and popular sovereignty, fulfilling their rights as citizens to punish crimes against their communities.” Mobs expected and anticipated that their violence would be noticed and made public. The “tremendous symbolic power” of lynchings existed precisely because such events were visually sensational. In this way, such rituals of violence were performed not only to create a sense of racial terror in nonwhite subjects but as “spectacles for other whites,” designed to “instill and perpetuate a sense of racial supremacy in their white spectators.”68 Drawing on a tradition of white democracy that allowed citizens to both wield and exceed the law, the history of the Texas Rangers reflects this political legacy of treating Mexicans with impunity—ignoring the distinction between citizen and noncitizen and blurring the lines between vigilantism, state law, and racial terror.
Popular accounts of the Rangers—organized in 1823 by Stephen F. Austin to “protect settlers and their property”—describe them as starting off as “a small group of men” committed to “upholding values of law and order and justice,” while “protecting their friends and their family members from Indian raids.”69 Yet, as scholars have shown, the Rangers often served as a fighting force created by Anglo settlers in the ongoing war for racial supremacy. According to Kelly Lytle Hernández, the Texas Rangers “battled indigenous groups for dominance in the region, chased down runaway slaves who struck for freedom deep within Mexico, and settled scores with anyone who challenged the Anglo-American project in Texas.”70
Turned into an official branch of law enforcement in 1902, the first two decades of the twentieth century saw hundreds of new Texas Rangers patrolling the region—by 1918, the force had grown to approximately 1,350 Rangers. Existing at the intersection of vigilante violence and state and military policing, one reason vigilantism targeting Mexicans intensified between 1915 to 1919 was because “duly appointed law officers played such a prominent role in leading and encouraging the era’s numerous extralegal executions.”71 During the peak of anti-Mexican violence, Rangers often invoked la ley de fuga, the law of flight or escape, authorizing officials to kill any person who ran or resisted arrest. As Martinez notes, it was common knowledge that Rangers “released prisoners and ordered them to run. Officers then proceeded to shoot the prisoner while in flight, later filing reports that they killed the prisoner to prevent escape or because the prisoner resisted arrest.”72 With no way for authorities to refute the claim that the victim struggled or fled, la ley de fuga “gave Rangers near-limitless power to kill.”73
As scholars of the Rangers have rightly noted, making sense of a culture of impunity that allowed anti-Mexican violence to thrive in Texas requires acknowledging the ongoing history of anti-Black violence in the state. As a state built by conquest and slavery, its history shows that anti-Black and anti-Mexican violence mutually reinforced one another. Moreover, Texas Rangers who abused their power targeted both ethnic Mexicans and African Americans. Martinez observes,
Of all the states in the union, Texas maintained a national profile for having a long and rampant history of lynching. In 1918 alone, Texas mobs lynched eleven victims, second only to Georgia, where mobs claimed nineteen victims. In 1919, when the NAACP released a list of the top ten states with the highest rates of lynching since 1889, Texas came in third with 335 victims, behind Georgia and Mississippi.74
Entwined with a mythology of the frontier, in the context of Herrenvolk democracy, Anglo settlers saw no contradiction between the rule of law and extrajudicial conduct against Mexicans. A particularly horrific example of white democracy’s claiming of law while killing with impunity is the 1918 Porvenir massacre, when Texas Rangers, along with soldiers from the U.S. Cavalry and local ranchers, murdered fifteen unarmed Mexicans ranging in age from sixteen to sixty-four.75 Later that year, the Texas courts denied survivors any sort of legal, financial, or even symbolic redress by failing to prosecute the Rangers and civilians who participated in the massacre. Nor was the Porvenir massacre unprecedented—in 1919, at least thirty-four victims “were removed from the custody of officers, taken either in transport or from jails.”76
As with African Americans, violence against Mexicans was imprinted onto the public imaginary through the circulation of photographs and postcards showing images of torture and death. With amateur photography emerging alongside the heyday of lynching, between the 1880s and the 1930s, images of Black men and women lynched by white mobs were regularly sold and circulated. In the case of Mexicans, the revolutionary upheaval in Mexico provided a rich subject for photographs on both sides of the border. Such images helped establish a frontier aesthetic whose racist iconography remains visible to this day.
As Martinez reminds us, American photographs of Mexican corpses did not portray the dead as victims so much as “a symbol of progress”: the photographs were offered as evidence of American superiority and military power. More dead Mexican bodies on the U.S.–Mexican border meant “safer conditions for Anglo settlement, consumption, and capital.”77 Amateurs and entrepreneurs both documented and sold images of lynched Mexican men, decomposing corpses, and military prisoners lined up prior to execution. Often American soldiers were photographed “grinning while posing with dead or wounded Mexican prisoners of war.”78 Even more significantly, Texas Rangers, local police, U.S. soldiers, and civilians are shown in these photos.
As scholars of lynching photography have demonstrated, the availability of these postcards for purchase and casual exchange was not created to encourage a public reckoning with the evils of racialized violence. Instead, photographs depicting mob violence were, more often than not, printed and sold to celebrate such violence, offering its white viewers and recipients “a titillating glimpse of life on the border.”79 Selling and circulating these images ensured that the moment of racial terror survived long after the event. Photographs served as “a bonding mechanism for those who shared the images and a continued method of racial intimidation.”80 An example is the 1877 photograph Hanged at the Water Street Bridge. Taken in Santa Cruz, California, the image shows the lynched bodies of José Chamales and Francisco Arias. As Carrigan and Webb note, although the two Mexican victims were hanged at 2:00 A.M., the photo was taken during daylight hours, “meaning the corpses had been suspended for many hours.” That these spectators—“suit-wearing men and barefooted boys”—did not cut down the bodies but instead called for and then posed for a photographer “says much about the culture of lynching in Santa Cruz in 1877.”81
Photographs such as Hanged at the Water Street Bridge illustrate how acts of torture were sanctioned by white citizens, who saw their participation and presence in these images as authorizing extralegal forms of justice. In this way, we are reminded of Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s insight regarding the profoundly public character of lynchings, noting that hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of people witnessed these murders. Indeed, as Amy Wood argues, it is the act of “witnessing” that underlies the particular form spectatorship linked to the practice of lynching. For Wood, to act as a witness is to “play a public role, one that bestows a particular kind of social authority on the individual, at the same time that it connects the individual to a larger community of fellow witnesses.”82 To witness a lynching was also a deeply embodied and sensory-laden practice. Witnessing an execution included “being physically near the scene of the action and among a crowd of like-minded people. To witness a hanging was also to hear the proceedings and perhaps the cries of the condemned, and to feel the push of the crowd, to sense that one was a part of something important or extraordinary.” For Wood, understanding the power of lynchings requires making sense of the sensorium of pleasure that so many white southerners inhabited when witnessing racial violence.83
Race riots, lynch mobs, and various forms of vigilante violence that included the burning, shooting, drowning, and stabbing of Mexican and other nonwhite subjects are all examples of white citizens having access to a democratic, rights-based political system characterized by equality and the rule of law for them, alongside the opportunity to both witness and exercise arbitrary authority over various racial populations—up to and including the freedom to partake in melodramatic spectacles of mass violence. For certain white citizens, the opportunity to be the bearer of rights and legal equality while being free to deny those same rights to racialized communities was an intoxicating civic synthesis.