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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Latino Lynchings



Some years back, I attended a lecture at the La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, CA where the Mexican-American presenter spoke of Mexicans being lynched during the same time period as black Americans. Although this was the first I heard of such a horror happening to Latinos, I was not surprised!

Below is a summary of Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review article entitled, The Unknown History of Latino Lynchings. The article addresses Latinos, mostly Mexican-Americans, primarily in the Southwestern U.S. states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada who were lynched between the years of 1846 and 1925. 

Mexicans, like African Americans, were not only lynched for being “uppity,” taking jobs away from whites, making advances toward white women, cheating at cards, practicing “Witchcraft,” and refusing to give up their land because whites wanted it, but Mexicans, were also lynched for acting “too Mexican;” i.e., speaking Spanish too loudly or proudly showing off aspects of Mexican culture. 


The Unknown History of Latino Lynchings

Although research on Latino lynchings is relatively new, circa 2006-2009, lynchings have a deep rooted history. Such acts can be described as mob violence where person(s) are murdered/hanged for an alleged offense usually without a trial. Through reviewing of anthropological research, storytelling, and other internal & external interactions, there is believed to have been roughly 600 lynchings of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans beginning with the aftermath of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (this document essentially ended the Mexican-American war, where Mexico surrendered half of its land to the U.S.). 

This grim fate of Blacks and Mexicans in the U.S. was intertwined; both groups were lynched by Anglos for reasons such as “acting uppity,” taking jobs away from Anglos, making advances toward Anglo women, cheating at cards, practicing “Witchcraft,” and refusing to leave land that Whites coveted. Additionally, Mexicans were lynched for acting “too Mexican;” for example, if Mexicans were speaking Spanish too loudly or showcasing aspects of their culture too defiantly, they were lynched. Mexican women may also been lynched if they resisted the sexual advances of Anglo men. Many of these lynchings occurred with active participation of law enforcement. In fact the article reiterates that the Texas Rangers had a special animus towards persons of Mexican descent. Considering that Mexicans had little to no political power or social standing in a “new nation,” they had no recourse from such corrupt organizations. Popular opinion was to eradicate the Southwest of Mexicans.
Many of these lynchings were treated as a public spectacle; Anglos celebrated each of these killings as if the acts were in accordance with community wishes, re-solidifying society and reinforcing civic virtue. Ringleaders of such lynchings often mutilated bodies of Mexicans, by shooting the bodies after individuals were already dead, cutting off body parts, then leaving the remains on display perhaps in hung trees or in burning flames.

These lynchings took place in the Southwest U.S., in present-day Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada, amongst other states. The killings were carried out by vigilantes or other masked-men, as a form of “street justice.” These killings became so bad that the Mexican government lodged official complaints to the U.S. counsel in Mexico. Given that this region of the U.S. was at one time Mexican land, and it was shared with Indian/Indios, Mexicans, and Anglos, protests against the lynchings emerged. As legend has it, Joaquin Murrieta took matters into his own hands by murdering the Anglos responsible for the death of mythical figures Juan Cortina and Gregorio Cortes. Such acts were short-lived and perpetuated the conflict between Mexicans and Anglos.

Delgado goes on to cite that only some U.S. historians have written about these Latino lynchings and have pointed out that they occurred due to racial prejudice, protection of turf, and Yankee nationalism left over from the Mexican-American War. However, it has been concluded that such lynchings are a relatively unknown history due to a global pattern of shaping discourse as to avoid embarrassment of the dominant group. Those in power often have the ability to edit official records.

Further exploration reveals that these lynchings were not only edited & minimized outright, but were also ignored or misrepresented due to primary accounts in community newspapers being written in Spanish. Since very few mainstream historians read Spanish or consulted with these records, they were left to flounder. Also, many Latinos knew of these lynchings; their accounts were maintained, shared, and solidified as Mexican lore through ritualistically songs (corridos, actos, and cantares). Many oral cultures have equivalences of such interpretations. Today, Latino scholars are not surprised by history’s ignoring of such events; postcolonial theory describes how colonial societies almost always circulate accounts of their invasions that flatter and depicts them as the bearers of justice, science, and humanism. Conversely, the natives were depicted as primitive, bestial, and unintelligent. Subsequently, colonialists must civilize the natives, use the land & its resources in a better fashion, and enact a higher form of justice. The “official history” is written by the conquerors, thus showing them in the best possible light.

Delgado questions whether such remnants of Latino lynchings may still be present in society today. This can best be exemplified through movements to make English the official language of the U.S., forcing immigrants to assimilate to the dominant Anglo culture. Such actions can be illustrated in movements to end bilingual school opportunities and enforce English-only speaking at jobs, businesses, etc. Postcolonial scholars argue that such movements facilitate children to reject their own culture, acquire English, and forget their native language. These actions have far dire [documentable] consequence, like social distress, depression, and crime. As such, Delgado ventures to say that these actions are an implicit form of lynching.

Delgado ends the piece by saying that hidden histories of aggression, unprovoked war, lynchings, and segregation are corroborated/proliferated today by the mass media and entertainment industry. These groups, along with other scholars, have the opportunity to redress this history and reject further practices against Latinos. Otherwise, marginalized groups find themselves in a position where they are alienated from their family/identity/culture, co-opted, and unable to resist further oppression.