In the median strip of I-69 outside of San Benito, TX a historical marker few people ever see keeps a lonely vigil as traffic roars by. The marker commemorates the deaths of hundreds of Mexican-Americans at the hands of the Texas Rangers between 1915 and 1917, a period known as La Matanza, the massacre. Descendants of the victims had to fight a tangle of red tape to get the marker erected, and even then the marker was placed in this inconvenient spot, difficult to access and written in such a way that most people quit reading before they get to the end. Good for the Rangers. Bad for the truth.
750 miles away on the other side of the state another lonely marker stands on a barren desert plain. It marks the site of the former town of Porvenir where in 1918 a company of Texas Rangers accompanied by four local ranchers massacred fifteen Mexican-Americans. The victims’ bodies were left where they fell, picked up a day later by heartbroken family members, and removed to the other side of the border. The remaining residents of Porvenir fled the town in fear. A few days later the U.S. Army razed the town to erase all evidence of the crime.
These historic markers are all that remain to remind us of a piece of Texas history the state would rather forget, the deplorable actions of the state’s quasi-official law enforcement agency known as the Texas Rangers, whose highly burnished image depicts them as western heroes, but whose behavior during this period is closer to that of bloodthirsty assassins. As one of the supporters of the La Matanza marker put it, this is “a sobering reminder of what happens when law enforcement can act with impunity.”
Few modern Texans want to hear it. If recent election results are any indication, they are more invested in the narrative that says brown-skinned foreigners are a potential threat. In this they share something in common with their forebears. They fear their neighbors over the border and are willing to do whatever it takes to stop them.
On a dusty gravel road outside Mission, Texas the border wall runs along the roadside. Yet here the barrier is less a wall in the traditional sense than a levee with a short fence on top. You can easily climb the levee and stand on the access road beside the fence. Surprisingly, the fence is only hip-high. On the Mexican side, however, it’s a different story. The berm is cut in half like a loaf of bread sliced down the middle, making for a sheer wall at least fifteen feet in height with the fence on top. Scaling this would be a challenge even without all the surveillance.
In fact, the majority of the border wall promised by the Trump administration has involved the rebuilding of existing barriers, such as levees to make them more formidable to penetrate from the Mexican side. Little has been built in the way of new barriers. Just how little may surprise you.
When the Trump administration took office in 2017 there were 654 miles of barrier along the southern border. When the Biden administration took office in 2021, there were 669 miles of barrier. For all the noise and bluster around the issue, only fifteen miles of new wall were built during the Trump administration. In part that’s because building a wall along the Mexican border is more problematic than the rhetoric would imply.
At various points along the wall there are gates. In most cases, those gates are open. The wall here in Mission is not actually built on the border. To do so would require building it right down the middle of the Rio Grande, which would create problems for ranchers who need access to the river for grazing purposes or landowners who would object to their view being obstructed. In the case of the levees, to be effective for flood control they have to be built back from the river. So, the gates stand open to allow access to property on the other side.
But open gates make for a porous border, so surveillance blimps hover in the sky, scanning the area. Surveillance drones buzz around like busy insects, and border patrol planes sweep by. All of this comes at a cost. In 2021 the budget for US Customs and Border Protection reached an all time high of $17.7 billion. Yet, for all that, 1,279 miles out of the 1,933 mile US-Mexican border has no fencing at all. Consequently, the rate of illegal immigration barely budged during the Trump administration. On the other hand, the overheated rhetoric about keeping the Mexicans out went through the roof.
Through the Looking Glass
The problem with keeping the Mexicans out is that they’re already here, and always have been. Before 1836 Texas was part of Mexico. At the time of Texas independence, Tejanos (Mexican Texans) represented a quarter of the population in Texas, many of them clustered along the border. Not much has changed.
A drive through the borderlands today reveals an ethnic flavor more Mexican than American. By and large the businesses are owned by Tejanos, Spanish is the primary language, and in many places Mexican flags hang next to American flags. In Brownsville the Spanish colonial architecture has more in common with Mexico City than Washington.
In fact, most of the people who reside in this region are of Mexican descent, which can cause a little cognitive dissonance when you’re stopped at one of the numerous immigration checkpoints and asked for your identification by a border patrol agent who looks more like an illegal immigrant than you do. It’s a through-the-looking-glass situation that defies easy answers. But that doesn’t stop people from pushing them, mostly out of frustration.
Simple Answers to Complex Problems
As simplistic an answer as the border wall is, it’s an answer. Our immigration system is such a mess and our politicians so unequal to the task of fixing it that this ham-handed solution may be the best we can come up with. But ramping up the rhetoric about the fearsome other doesn’t solve anything and can lead to tragedy. As proof of that you need look no further than an earlier chapter in Texas history when the Texas Rangers were created as a way to protect newly arrived Anglo settlers from the local Indians and Mexicans.
In 1835 the U.S. Army was a negligible presence in Texas, and Anglo settlers were arriving in ever increasing numbers. Some kind of law enforcement was needed. The Texas Rangers were put together with the express purpose of protecting white settlers, which set the template for the racist excesses to come.
For Mexican-Americans the problem came to a head in the early 20th century. After living side by side with them for generations, Anglo Texans grew distrustful of their Tejano neighbors when bloodshed from the Mexican Revolution spilled over the US-Mexico border. Raids by Mexican revolutionaries on Anglo infrastructure awoke fears that subversives were trying to overturn Texas independence and return the state to Mexican sovereignty. As in all cases where alleged insurgents can blend easily into the local populace, the entire population fell under suspicion. Subsequent calls for race-based policing yielded up an obvious answer: The Texas Rangers.
Carte Blanche in the Texas Borderlands
In November 1913 a mere 300 U.S. army soldiers patrolled the entire south Texas border. Responding to the fears of Anglo citizens, the army increased its troop strength to over 100,000. But that still wasn’t enough for the frightened Anglos of south Texas. They wanted personal protection against people who didn’t look like them. As a result, the Texas state legislature increased the budget for the Rangers. Then the Rangers went on a hiring spree.
The men they signed up were in many cases wholly unqualified as law enforcement officers. Many were just locals with knowledge of the terrain. Others were brand inspectors with the Texas Cattle Raisers Association, men hired by local ranchers to investigate cattle theft. Looking back, even advocates for the expansion of the Rangers admitted some of these men were “incompetent.” Had they been more candid, they would also have acknowledged that some were out and out racists with a view of Mexicans as inferior and not worthy of proper justice.
All across the borderlands Mexican-Americans were rounded up, interrogated and shot. A common method was la ley de fuga, the law of flight. After an interrogation the Rangers would tell their Mexican-American detainees they were free to go, and then shoot them in the back. Later, they would claim the Tejanos were trying to run away. However, this clumsy ruse soon became unnecessary. The governor gave the Rangers carte blanche to do whatever they felt necessary to solve the problem. The result was La Matanza.
Ethnic Cleansing American Style
It got so bad the Rangers began to take a perverse pride in killing Mexican-Americans. Photographs from the era show Texas Rangers astride their horses with dead Tejanos at their feet, sometimes with lariats around their necks. Tejanos who complained were threatened and attacked, and the slightest offence by a Tejano quickly became a death sentence. Anybody who even looked Mexican was at risk.
Historian Benjamin Johnson described the Ranger’s methods as ethnic cleansing. What had started out as an effort to protect frightened Anglos had spiraled into a systematic attempt to eradicate Mexicans from the Texas borderlands, whether they were citizens of the United States or not.
The killing didn’t die down until after the United States government got wind of the rampage and convened a committee to investigate. After hearing testimony that amounted to 1,600 pages of transcription describing hundreds of acts of police violence against Mexican-Americans, no one was prosecuted and no one was held accountable. The Texas state legislature subsequently gave the Rangers an official pat on the head. Then the myth making began.
The Enemy of the Good
To hear the story of the Texas Rangers today is to hear a tale of gallant heroism. Countless dime store novels depict the Texas Rangers as champions of American justice. John Wayne became the poster child for the Rangers when he depicted Captain Cutter in the film The Comancheros in 1961. In 1964 the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum was opened in Waco. In 1972 the Texas Rangers baseball team was founded. The TV show Walker: Texas Ranger carried the myth making into the 1990’s.
The problem with the Rangers is not that they never did anything to deserve such veneration. Many pages can be written about the good deeds the Texas Rangers have done over the years (and have been). The problem is they refuse to acknowledge a part of their history that is both frightening and dangerous. To this day they pretend what they did during La Matanza was justified.
Like much of law enforcement throughout the United States today, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Instead, of admitting when things go wrong, calling out the bad apples, and seeking ways to address the situation, they close ranks and deflect. Rather than allow themselves to be thought of as anything less than heroic, they resort to a binary view of the world that assumes they are always right and their victims are always wrong.
But to blame all law enforcement officers for complicity in wrongdoing just because they are silent on the subject of wrongdoing by others of their kind is to make the same mistake bigots make when they blame entire groups of people for the wrongdoings of a few. It’s not that easy.
Not the Right People
The Tejanos of 1917-1919 were mostly law-abiding citizens. But it didn’t matter. They were considered complicit and paid the price. Even some who reported the crimes of Mexican bandits against their property were taken out and shot. It’s an ugly story, and one many would rather forget. But sweeping it under the rug doesn’t help either. It only ensures we fail to learn from it, which makes it more likely it will happen again.
In 2017 candidate Donald Trump had this to say about newly arrived Mexican-Americans before a throng of cheering fans.
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we’re getting. And it only makes common sense. It only makes common sense. They’re sending us not the right people.
This rhetoric was greeted with wild applause by the mostly white audience. If Mexican-Americans of the Texas border region were a little worried after hearing it, they had a right to be. They’ve seen this movie before. They know how it ends. For you to know, you’ll have to hunt down one of two historical markers that are difficult to find and densely written.
If not for the dogged efforts of the victims’ ancestors, you wouldn’t even find those reminders.
Previous Stop on the Odyssey: South Padre Island, TX
Next Stop on the Odyssey: Langtry, TX
My American Odyssey Route Map
Mark, Michelle, Sky Gould and Andy Kiersz. “As the government shutdown over Trump’s border wall rages, a journey along the entire 1,933 mile US-Mexico border shows the monumental task of securing it,” Insider, 12 January 2019, Website
Munos Martinez, Monica. The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas, Harvard University Press, 2018, Website
Nowrasteh, Alex. “President Trump Reduced Legal Immigration. He Did Not Reduce Illegal Immigration,” Cato Institute, 20 January 2021, Website
Rodgers, Lucy and Dominic Bailey. “Trump wall: How much has he actually built?” BBC News, 31 October 2020, Website
“Valley Group Refuses to Forget La Matanza of 1915”, KRGV Rio Grande Valley, 26 October 2017, Website
Three Texas Rangers with their lariats around dead Mexicans, The Robert Runyon Photograph Collection, Center for American History
Porvenir historical marker, NBCNews
Texas Rangers gathered at El Paso, Public domain
The border wall, Malcolm Logan
Surveillance blimp, Malcolm Logan
Open border gate, Malcolm Logan
Spanish-colonial architecture in Brownsville, Malcolm Logan
Immigration checkpoint, Malcolm Logan
Rio Grande seen from border wall, Malcolm Logan
Six Texas Rangers, UT Austin’s Briscoe Center for American History
US Troops arriving in Brownsville, UT Austin’s Briscoe Center for American History
Man standing over dead Mexican, Public domain
Refugees fleeing to Mexico to escape violence along the Texas-Mexico border, The Robert Runyon Photograph Collection, Center for American History
Texas Rangers roping Mexican corpses, UT Austin’s Briscoe Center for American History
Dead Mexican Bandits, UT Austin’s Briscoe Center for American History
John Wayne in the Comancheros, Public Domain
Walker, Texas Ranger, Fair Use
Juan Crow law sign, UT Austin’s Briscoe Center for American History
Donald Trump at rally, AP Photo / Evan Vucci