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Refusing to Forget


Monica Muñoz Martinez is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University and a faculty fellow at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage. Her recent essay exposed the long legacy of anti-Mexican violence on the Texas-Mexico border and received the Constance M. Rourke Prize from the American Studies Association. She tweets from @MonicaMnzMtz. For updates from Refusing to Forget see the team website and follow @Refusing2Forget.

Can you describe the Refusing to Forget project?

Between 1910 and 1920 ethnic Mexicans were targets of state-sanctioned violence. Historians estimate that as many as several thousand Mexican nationals and American citizens were killed in the Texas-Mexico border region. It is safe to say, however, that thousands more residents were terrorized, intimidated, and gravely impacted by this reign of terror. State police, U.S. soldiers, and Anglo vigilantes collaborated to displace ethnic Mexicans from economic, political, and social influence. Assailants acted with impunity and rarely faced prosecution. The state administration, the media, and local residents profiled ethnic Mexican residents as criminals and called for their killing. This state-sanctioned terror, unfortunately, has received little public attention. For most, this period of violence is forgotten, but for residents in Texas this history continues to be divisive.

Refusing to Forget (RTF) is a collaborative project that aims to memorialize and reckon with this period of violence. Led by a group of professors, the group hopes that in bringing public awareness to this often forgotten period we can also raise the profile of a struggle for justice and civil rights that continues to influence social relationships today. The first step is to reshape common understandings by commemorating this period with museum exhibits, Texas State Historical Markers, new curriculum, public programming, and a digital mapping project that will make research accessible to a wider public.

The efforts started in February 2013 when a group of scholars met at the National Association of Chicano Chicana Studies Tejas Foco in San Antonio, Texas to discuss strategies for commemorating the centennial of this period of violence. Trinidad O. Gonzales of South Texas College, John Morán González of the University of Texas at Austin, Sonia Hernández of Texas A&M at College Station, Benjamin Johnson of Loyola University in Chicago, and I participated in the day-long discussion. Local residents and staff members of state representatives also joined the afternoon conversations.

What resulted from that meeting was a multifaceted project bringing together professors, Texas residents, state legislators, and staff at Texas cultural institutions in a memorialization effort. The group collaborated with the Bullock Texas State History Museum to develop the bilingual exhibit “Life and Death on the Border, 1910–1920” that opened to the public on January 23, 2016 in Austin, Texas. We are now preparing curricular materials and developing a traveling exhibit to meet requests from teachers, public libraries, and universities. The group is also in the last stages of planning the unveiling ceremonies of Texas State Historical Markers in Webb County, Cameron County, and Presidio County.

As a group, we all see the value in academic conference presentations, symposiums, and publications. However, these conversations tend to end with a critique of the state and of state cultural institutions that perpetuate myths and at worst celebrate this violent history, which has done much to shift the academic conversation but has done little to create a lasting dialogue or shift public perception. While publications have shed light on the past, the public has remained in the dark. We realized that to serve both academic and public audiences, the work must continue beyond our academic monographs and conference presentations.

Residents have called on educators to write new lesson plans, asked that museums take a lead in presenting new perspectives, and requested that state historical associations fund public memorials that lament this period of violence. The Refusing to Forget team is committed to helping in these efforts. We have found that some state institutions are ready to reflect a narrative of Texas’s past that does not ignore the long history of state violence. Official state acknowledgement of this period of state sanctioned violence, by state institutions, is just the first step.

Can you describe your process of collaboration with local residents?

The histories maintained by local residents have preserved atrocities that traditional collecting institutions ignored. In 2010 I started conducting oral histories with residents. The initial oral histories were only the first meetings. I met families that had dedicated decades, and thousands of dollars, to researching and preserving their own family histories. In addition to state and university archives, I found archives in the homes of residents like Benita and Evaristo Albarado of Uvalde, Texas. Benita Albarado is the granddaughter Longino Flores, one of the fifteen men murdered at the Porvenir Massacre of 1918. Her grandmother, Juana Bonilla Flores, is one of twelve widows and children of the victims of the massacre that later filed a suit against the United States government for the wrongful death of their relatives. The Alabrado’s archive is spread throughout their home in rooms and closets. Several times when I visited I saw that their entire dining room table was covered in stacks of manila folders. Maps were pulled out and highlighted. They didn’t keep their archive locked away in a back room; they studied their files and planned trips to other archives around the state. They also took great care of generations of family records, portraits, and recorded interviews. At the opening weekend for the exhibit a reporter asked the Albarados what they had planned for the future. I’m not sure what the reporter expected, but they were stunned when Mr. Albarado explained that they still needed to make a trip to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. They still have unanswered questions.

Local residents in Texas have borne the burden of preserving alternative histories and have long called for a public reckoning with this history. In my conversations with local residents they repeatedly bemoan state histories, museums, statues, and public school history lessons that refuse to recognize this period as a human tragedy. With that in mind, the Refusing to Forget collaborators realized that without partnering with state institutions to commemorate this period of violence our efforts would fall short. Working with state institutions to reflect on this period of racial violence was crucial from the start.

What has been the reception to the project so far?

The project has received widespread enthusiasm. The opening symposium for the exhibit at the Bullock on January 21st reached full capacity (225 people) in a matter of days, and over 100 people added their names to a waitlist. The auditoriums at the Bullock could not accommodate everyone that wanted to attend. The flagship state museum was literally too small to contain the enthusiasm for this exhibit. To meet the need the group pulled together with the Bullock staff to coordinate an impromptu public forum on Saturday January 23rd. In addition, the demand for more programming is immense. The Bullock staff and team member John Morán González gave over a dozen tours of the exhibit to groups of teachers and visitors. We are currently applying for grants to create a traveling exhibit so that more residents can view the content. If people cannot come to Austin, the exhibit needs to go to them.

Media outlets and local residents are saying almost in unison: it’s about time. Media coverage for the exhibit ranged from NPR, to El Mañana de Reynosa, the Guardian, and even popular outlets like Latina magazine. Residents are using social media to reach out to the group to praise the efforts and share their own family histories. In these exchanges people are also writing to the group with their own family histories and asking for help in researching individual events.

Outreach from local residents made two things clear. First, educators want curriculum on this period to teach in the classrooms. Kate Betz, the associate director of education and the staff at the Bullock is developing excellent teaching guides for educators and hosting workshops with local educators. The RTF team is also developing lesson plans for the historical markers that will be unveiled in summer 2016. Teachers who visit the exhibit see the potential to inspire students across the state by bringing civil rights pioneers like Jovita Idar into the classroom. We’re moving swiftly to develop this content and meet the demand.

Second, there is a need for a sustained effort to preserve these histories and to create a publicly accessible resource for the public. Unfortunately, one characteristic of this violence was the refusal of state and local officials to document the killings. Important archival work is ongoing to recover the names of people killed or impacted by violence. Community memories and collections continue to be important for making this work possible. I am developing a digital platform to designate the locations of racial violence in Texas from 1910–1930 called Mapping Violence that will help meet this need. By charting episodes of violence against racial minorities in Texas, this project will allow for comparative and relational understandings of violence. The goal of the project will be to document acts of violence while also creating a resource for public research.

What are the challenges and benefits of bringing together professors, local residents, state institutions, and legislators?

There are so many moving parts. Professors, residents, museums, historical commissions, politicians, and students all speak in a different language, have different modes of operation, and different levels of bureaucracy. Each component of the project moves at a different pace, with altering busy periods and lulls, and each institution has its limits for what they are willing and/or able to do. We developed projects with multiple independent cultural institutions in the state knowing that we may have more or less success in some projects.

I can offer one quick example of how these efforts complement each other. The group submitted applications for Undertold Historical Markers in 2014 and 2015. Two historical markers on this period of violence were accepted in 2014 and a third in 2015. In 2016 markers will be placed in Cameron County to recognize all the unknown victims of La Matanza (The Massacre) in 1915, in Webb County for the civil rights pioneer Jovita Idar, and in Presidio County to designate the site of the Porvenir Massacre in 1918.

The Texas Historical Commission (THC) rejected two separate applications for historical markers in 2014 and again in 2015. The first rejected application is for a historical marker to designate the double murder of Jesus Bazán and Antonio Longoria in Hidalgo County in 1915 by a prominent Texas Ranger and local residents. As the first historical marker applications were accepted, it became harder for the committee to see the urgency for more markers on the same historical subject. The local historical commission in Hidalgo County disagrees, and also applied for a marker for the Bazán and Longoria double murder. Twice I helped them submit an application through the county application procedures. Both times the application was not considered because the forms were not filed correctly or because the county commission missed the deadline. The local historical commission includes an incredible group of dedicated residents, but they face extensive challenges, including their own age. Several of the key members faced severe health complications over the past two years. Navigating the online forms also proved difficult for some. Trying to help from afar on the phone or over email proved challenging. My own efforts to help spanned from editing application content to explaining how to digitally edit an online form. We will keep submitting applications, but this struggle highlights the difficulties for some local commissions.

The second Undertold Historical Marker twice rejected by the THC would identify the lynching of Antonio Rodríguez in Rocksprings, Texas in 1910. The local Edwards County Historical Commission is not showing interest in hosting the marker, which creates a whole host of challenges. Local county commissions are important partners for the THC. They help organize unveiling ceremonies, approve the final marker narrative, and help maintain and protect the marker. Collaboration between the state and counties is crucial. Recently, the THC overruled local opposition from the Anderson County Historical Commission and approved a marker to commemorate the 1910 Slocum Massacre of African Americans by a white mob in east Texas. We will submit a third application for the Rocksprings lynching in April and hope that the THC again shows leadership and approves the application.

All that being said, historians should consider state cultural institutions as sites for collaboration. At first, we met the state institutions with hesitation. Years ago, while at University of Texas–Austin, I took my classes in Mexican American studies to the Bullock to study historical silences in the story of Texas presented by the flagship institution. In planning an exhibit to mark the centennial of anti-Mexican violence the team was prepared to develop the project independently. In all honesty, we thought both the Bullock Texas State History Museum and the Texas Historical Commission would meet our efforts with disinterest. To our surprise, the exhibit we proposed to the Bullock was in line with their efforts to highlight histories of social justice, to revise the permanent exhibit to reflect the histories of racial violence, and to appeal to the diverse communities in the state. Margaret Koch, the deputy director at the Bullock, helped to break the museum’s mold. In the past, the Bullock staff developed temporary exhibits and asked historians to act as consultants and offer scholarly review of the developed content. In this case, a group of scholars approached the Bullock with an idea for a temporary exhibit. Koch, still fairly new to the museum, helped to bring the project to fruition. The project required years of collaboration before it was finally approved, but the staff at the Bullock remained committed to the project. The collaboration made this project better.

Does the ongoing politicization of history in Texas shape the way that Refusing to Forget engages with the public or conceives of its mission?

Historians in Texas are organized in challenging political assaults on curriculum (K-12 and university) that examine race, gender, class, sexuality, and religion. During my time at University of Texas–Austin as a postdoctoral fellow I was astonished by how much time and effort local faculty put into resisting curriculum changes proposed by the Texas State Board of Education, speaking at legislative sessions, organizing letters, and responding to curriculum mandates by the board of education. Cultural institutions, too, have an important role in providing resources for educators on how to circumvent restrictive state standards that are beholden to testing requirements.

I also recognize that in many ways state institutions depoliticize history by regulating it to the past. A recent Journal of American History volume on historians confronting the intertwined histories of policing astutely showed the importance of examining the history of border policing in ongoing conversations about police brutality and the carceral state. Securing the border has long been a rallying cry for politicians. Under calls to secure the border Texas police killed racialized bodies with impunity in the early twentieth century. Still today, state administrators make frequent calls to increase policing budgets and deploy more state police and the state national guard to the border. The history that Refusing to Forget memorializes showcases the tragedies that occur when racial groups and immigrants are criminalized and brutally policed. The failures of the state to confront these practices in the 1910s allowed a system of sanctioned violence to go unchecked in the twentieth century. The similarities between the criminalization of Latinos and immigrants today, as in the past, is not lost on the residents who have painful memories of decades of violence.

We are taking a modest first step in pushing the state to recognize this period of violence as a crime against humanity and to participate in the memorialization. Collaboration with the Bullock and the Texas Historical Commission are tremendous and are a great step forward. On the other hand, there are still state-funded institutions that are not willing to participate in changing public dialogues and/or their narratives of this period. For right now we are working with institutions that have been looking for these opportunities to reassess how they tell this history. If others want to be seen as accredited historical institutions they will have to make important changes. Certainly, icons of racial violence should no longer have a place in any hall of fame. Institutions that refuse to recognize that are out of line with the field of U.S. history.

The state legislation needs to lead by offering a public acknowledgement of the role of state administrators and state police in this period of ethnic cleansing. A state apology would go far in helping the public reckon with this period of violence. However, for me, until the state actually reforms ongoing policing practices in the state and on the border, an apology would be disingenuous. After all, the past teaches us that if judicial systems and state administrations refuse to prosecute police that kill residents and deny them their civil rights patterns of violence will continue unabated.