A Border Antigone: When Texas Rangers Killed Mexicans
Thirty years later I can still remember Betty Harwell, my high school English teacher, imitating Antigone sprinkling dust over Polyneices’s body in defiance of King Creon’s edict against his burial. Harwell explained the main conflict within Sophocles’s “Antigone” centered on the sacredness of burial versus obedience to the state.
“Antigone” is over two thousand and four hundred years old, but the sacredness of burial stretches back tens of thousands of years. Neanderthal and Homo sapiens burial sites attest to this fact. For state authorities to deny burial rights raises questions about their fitness to govern and their morality. Showing respect to the dead is an ingrained cultural behavior for humans.
A border form of Antigone played itself out during the early twentieth century. From July to October of 1915 in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the four Texas counties of Willacy, Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr, it is estimated that Texas Rangers, local law enforcement, vigilantes, and some soldiers killed more than 300 México Texanos and Mexicanos.
The militarization of the border was in response to the last México Texano and Mexicano insurgency against the United States known today as the Plan de San Diego. President Woodrow Wilson increased the military presence in the area, and Texas Governor James E. Ferguson ordered Texas Rangers in as well.
Like many insurgencies combatants were difficult to identify and capture. The majority killed were likely innocent of rebel activity. Texas Rangers and others forcibly removed México Texanos and Mexicanos from their homes and executed them on sight or later killed them during alleged escape attempts.
Innuendo and rumor were the only evidence needed to justify such extralegal killings. Due process ceased to exist for many Mexicans regardless of U.S. citizenship. Terror was a substitute for failed military success.
Local whites called this process “evaporation.” México Texanos and Mexicanos labeled these killings the matanza (massacre).
Frequently bodies were left in the thick mesquite brush never to be recovered or their bones discovered years later. In other cases Rangers and vigilantes ordered the community to leave remains out to rot with the threat of punishment against those who tried to bury them. Much like Antigone many brave families ignored such threats, and recovered their family members’ remains for burial.
The State of Texas never officially acknowledged these events, and a 1919 legislative hearing concerning Ranger abuses did not lead to any apologizes for the matanza. Indeed, the transcript of the hearing was never officially published. Local authorities also denied death certificates to those killed, ensuring an erasure from official records. The state sought to hide its complicity in this mass slaughter.
I first came across the word matanza while doing research for my dissertation. Santiago Guzman, owner of El Defensor, wrote an editorial denouncing Hidalgo County Sheriff A.Y. Baker for his involvement in the massacre, and urged people to vote for his opponent during the hotly contested election of 1929. Within the editorial, he listed family surnames of those killed, including my great-grandfather’s name to remind voters of Baker’s complicity.
I did not grow up hearing the term matanza, but I was told the story several times of how los rinches killed my maternal great-grandfather, Paulino Serda, and his father. My grandmother was a year and three months old when her father was killed. My great-grandmother Santos Gamboa recovered his body and that of his father, Donaciano, burying them at the Laguna Seca Ranch cemetery.
It was emotional to come face-to-face with a document that affirmed a story I grew up hearing. My feelings were mixed with excitement, sadness, and anger. I was excited to have discovered a key piece of evidence that supported a story I grew up hearing. Saddened because my grandmother grew up not knowing her father, and angry because other than the stories I grew up with there was no acknowledgment from the state of a wrong done to my family, and to all the other victims and their families.
As a result of my discovery I continued to question my mother about what happened after my great-grandfather was killed. She talked about how Santos Gamboa packed up her family and belongings in a buckboard and moved to Edinburg where she rented properties, owned dairy cattle and a neighborhood store.
Santos Gamboa died when I was five, so I only have vague memories of her in a nursing home and buying candy from the store she owned. My ties to her existed through the stories my father would later tell me about the killing of my great-grandfather, while barbequing outside on the backyard. When I sat down with my mother for merienda, afternoon coffee and pan dulce, I listened to her stories about my great-grandmother’s survival.
It is not until we are adults, it seems, that these intimate moments with our parents truly center us in the world. Remembering roots us. So when that process is incomplete or disrupted, we lose some essence of ourselves and as a community. Memories are powerful forces in our lives.
Today I am one of five project leaders for Refusing to Forget, an effort to remember these events and to think critically about state-sanctioned violence against México Texanos and Mexicanos during the 1910s. Through the suggestion of the project leaders, the Bullock Museum, the state museum of Texas, will open an exhibit Life and Death on the Border January 23. It will be the first time the state will publicly address the matanza, and help begin the process of coming to terms with this tragic chapter of our past — a first step toward reconciliation.
Burial ceremonies and memorials are vital for dealing with death. For a community that has undergone mass killings or violence, having the state acknowledge the victims and their descendants is important for community healing.
The last lines from “Antigone”, “Chastisement for errors past/Wisdom brings to age at last” is a reminder to the audience of Creon’s foolish act, and the sacredness of burial. At the end of life a new cycle begins, hopefully filled with greater wisdom. So acts of burial and memorials for the departed are part of a healing and reconciliation process. The Refusing to Forget project and the Life and Death on the Border exhibit represent a memorial for people who were killed over a hundred years ago with the sanction of Texas authorities. A symbolic sprinkling of dust at last.