Excerpted From: René Reyes, Critical Remembering: Amplifying, Analyzing, and Understanding the Legacy of Anti-Mexican Violence in the United States, 26 Harvard Latin American Law Review 15 (Spring, 2023) (224 Footnotes) (Full Document)


ReneReyesViolence against BIPOC individuals and communities has been part of American life since the arrival of the first Europeans over four hundred years ago. Invoking the doctrines of “discovery” and “conquest,” European colonizers systematically dispossessed and displaced Native peoples in the name of spreading “civilization and Christianity.” The institution of racialized human slavery took hold in tandem with the colonization of Indigenous tribes and the expansion of the British colonies. After the colonists secured their independence from Britain, they enshrined protections for slavery and the rights of slaveholders into the United States Constitution. De jure slavery endured for nearly a hundred years until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, only to be followed for the next hundred years by the substitute legal system of racial segregation and oppression commonly known as Jim Crow. More recently, the Black Lives Matter movement has focused attention on ongoing acts of violence that continue to be directed against BIPOC by police officers and on racial inequalities that exist throughout the criminal legal system. In sum, racialized violence and inequality has been “woven into the warp and woof of the American constitutional fabric from the very beginning.”

Yet as longstanding and pervasive as anti-BIPOC violence has been throughout American history, many instances of such violence remain strikingly underexamined--largely because their narratives have been actively suppressed or erased. Systematic violence against ethnic Mexicans in Texas and the American Southwest during the early twentieth century is a paradigmatic example. Between 1910 and 1920 alone, historians estimate that as many as several thousand ethnic Mexicans--many of them U.S. citizens--were killed by vigilantes, state and local police, and military personnel. These killings took various forms: some victims were shot, some were hanged, and some were burned alive. But rather than acknowledging and confronting this reign of terror for what it was, the curators of official public memory have transformed it and subsumed it within a narrative of heroism and progress. For instance, while members of the Texas Rangers were involved in some of the most gruesome acts of anti-Mexican violence that took place during this period, perpetrators were rarely held accountable. Instead, the force has been venerated for its role in “pacifying” the region: thanks to the efforts of early historians and public officials, the “Texas Rangers and their acts of violence ... were mythologized as icons that defeated treachery and secured Anglo civilization.”

While efforts to challenge the conventional narrative have long been resisted, the historical reality of anti-Mexican violence is finally receiving greater attention. Much of the credit for this attention should be given to University of Texas Professor Monica Muñoz Martinez. In The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas, Professor Martinez analyzes several discrete instances of extra-judicial killings and situates them in a context of “linked practices of racial violence that created a long- lasting, pervasive atmosphere of terror.” Her book is an important contribution to the vital process of critical remembering--i.e., of amplifying the voices and memories of survivors of violence, and of “refus [ing] the impulse of official state history to create one monolithic interpretation of the past.” Thus, rather than accepting the conventional interpretation of Texas and American history, Martinez challenges her readers to “reckon with the fact that the southern border of our country was created--and policed--violently, and not valiantly, and that we have continually suppressed this truer, more accurate past. It is a past that bleeds into the present a suppression that continues to shape our future.”

Despite the significance of Martinez's book and its potential to deepen understandings of liberty and equality under the American constitutional order, it has received surprisingly little notice in the legal academic literature. Indeed, as of this writing, The Injustice Never Leaves You has been cited a mere six times and has not been the subject of a single review in Westlaw's Secondary Sources database. This is itself a form of injustice. One of the goals of this Article is to remedy that injustice by emphasizing the extent of anti-Mexican violence in the early twentieth century through the lens of Professor Martinez's work. Another goal is to analyze and explore the implications of that violence for the twenty-first century through the lens of the current legal and political climate. The Article pursues these goals in the following manner. Part I examines some of the main episodes of violence discussed in Professor Martinez's book along with their connections to a broader legal and cultural regime of white supremacy. This Part also discusses Martinez's methodology and sources, with particular attention to the importance of memory, erasure, narrative, and counter-narrative. Part II places an especially gruesome episode of anti-Mexican violence analyzed by Professor Martinez in conversation with another episode of anti-BIPOC violence that took place during the same time period--namely, the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. Both episodes have long been suppressed and under-examined in American historical memory, and both offer mutually-reinforcing lessons about white supremacy and the shared experiences of racialized groups. Finally, Part III draws upon these shared experiences to argue for greater solidarity among Black, Brown, and other BIPOC communities amidst ongoing attempts to otherize and divide those communities from one another.

[. . .]

As documented and discussed throughout The Injustice Never Leaves You, the state of Texas has a long history of anti-Mexican bias. This history has included discrimination in education. Until the 1940s, many ethnic Mexican children were sent to segregated schools. For several decades after that, undocumented Mexican children could be denied a public education altogether under state law. The U.S. Supreme Court declared this practice unconstitutional in the 1982 case of Plyler v. Doe in light of the Court's changing composition and the emergence of its new conservative majority, the Texas Governor has declared his intention to “resurrect” the issue anew. In the meanwhile, even those who are permitted to attend public schools are denied access to a full reckoning with state history. Martinez notes that “[w]hereas in the early twentieth century Mexican students in Texas were denied the right to public education, in the twenty-first century they are still often denied the opportunity ... to learn alternative histories of conquest, colonization, and slavery.” This kind of denial is now mandated by state law. In 2021, the Texas Legislature passed a statute designed to prohibit the teaching of Critical Race Theory in public schools. The law specifically prohibits educators from teaching that “with respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.” It further prohibits teachers from “requir[ing] an understanding of the 1619 Project,” an initiative first published by the New York Times that “aims to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

One wonders if The Injustice Never Leaves You will be the next publication added to the list. For Professor Martinez's book epitomizes both the power of critical narratives and the threats they pose to the complacent and self-congratulatory myths that are typically told in schools, history books, and museums. This Article has endeavored to amplify some of those critical narratives and acts of critical remembering, both to deepen public understanding of the history of anti-Mexican violence and to highlight its commonalities with contemporaneous systems of anti-Black violence. Opponents will surely continue to try to suppress these counternarratives--indeed, the Texas Lieutenant Governor has indicated that he will take the fight to the university level by making the teaching of Critical Race Theory grounds for revocation of tenure at state institutions. It is therefore all the more vital to give voice to these narratives in as many fora as possible in solidarity with those whose stories have been erased for far too long. As Martinez herself writes, telling these stories is part of the search “for lost humanity.” By bringing those stories into conversation with one another, we can also discover and honor our shared humanity.

Associate Professor, Suffolk University Law School; A.B. Harvard College, J.D. Harvard Law School.