Hidden Chapters in U.S. History: The Violence against Mexican Americans
Somos en escrito Magazine has begun to unfold a series of works by Mexican American writers and other voices that bear witness to the history of violence perpetrated against Mexican Americans over the past 170 years. We plan to feature writings in varied formats: essays, memoirs, poems and book excerpts.
In doing so, we declare common cause in the national outrage toward the abuse of police authority and inhumane actions under the color of law and share in the determination among Americans of all backgrounds to bring about change.
Mexican Americans have common cause with other peoples of color in the U.S.A. on many levels. The relentless assault for generations in order for white supremacy to prevail despite a society which is rapidly diversifying, people of color continue to be the brunt of mindless and premeditated oppression and violence.
In 1848, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, ending the U.S. war against Mexico, the Mexican American was born. Under the Treaty, former Mexican citizens who chose to remain in the U.S. beyond a year automatically became U.S. citizens. Gradually, Mexican Americans, also known today as Chicanos, have evolved into a prominent economic and political force, especially in the Southwest.
However, school textbooks, scholarly histories, and the entertainment media have casually glossed over certain chapters of Mexican Americans’ history, if not ignored or distorted it altogether. Much remains to be written to tell the whole truth about their experience, but this Special Edition of Somos en escrito Magazine will share new writings and existing escritos to reveal the story.
With the advent of phone and body cameras, more and more incidents have been caught of police officers in the act of fatal assaults on Black people. Once in a while as an aside, politicians or cable news pundits mention Latino or Brown peoples as victims as well of police brutality. Rarely does anyone add any depth to the comment. Our guess is that a reference is just an after-thought, just to make sure no color or minority is left out.
The fact is that in a society where social, economic and political presence depends heavily on access to mass media and internet driven “apps,” Chicanos have far less access to such exposure and attention. Thus, they are unable to express a narrative which is their own and which reflects the contributions that Mexican Americans have made to the U.S.A. This Special Edition is intended to help give voice to that narrative.
The features will cover more than 170 years: first the latter half of the 1800s—starting in the mid-1800s in the gold fields of California where the “forty niners” laid claim to mines by killing or driving Mexicans off their claims; then in the early 1900s the concerted destruction of Mexican Americans’ lives along the U.S.-Mexico border through brutal lynchings and shootings of Mexican Americans innocent of any crime by the Texas Rangers; and White U.S. servicemen’s attacks against barrio youth during the WWII years. Shift to today’s digital videos of Chicanos struck down by police gunfire, to the subtlety of systemic racism carried out in segregated educational systems, denial of access to adequate health care, proper nutrition and decent housing, and finally to the even more insidious attacks against culture, language, and history as a means of destroying self-esteem, group cohesion, and social relevance.
Armando Rendón Executive Editor
Besides the obras of established authors, we also invite memoirs from Mexican Americans who wish to add to the testigos, to bear witness in their own words, to the violence and oppression against Mexican Americans. We hope to publish recollections of family stories, letters, or writings, which may date back decades, even generations, which could help open new chapters in America’s history.
“…a serious surplus population that needed eliminating.”
The Borderlands War: Texas Rangers vs Mexican Americans (1915-20)
Interview of John Morán Gonzales, Professor, Department of English, and Director, Center for Mexican American Studies, UT Austin
Host: Joan Neuberger, Professor, Department of History, UT Austin; Editor of “Not Even Past”
In the early part of the 20th century, Texas became more integrated into the United States with the arrival of the railroad. With easier connections to the country, its population began to shift away from reflecting its origins as a breakaway part of Mexico toward a more Anglo demographic, one less inclined to adapt to existing Texican culture and more inclined to view it through a lens of white racial superiority. Between 1915 and 1920, an undeclared war broke out that featured some of the worst racial violence in American history; an outbreak that’s become known as the Borderlands War.
John Morán Gonzales, from UT’s Department of English and Center for Mexican American Studies has curated an exhibition on the Borderlands War called, “Life and Death on the Border, 1910-1920,” and tells us about this little-known episode in Mexican American history.
The transcription follows:
Q: Our topic today is the Borderlands War that took place between 1915 and 1920 approximately, on the border between Texas and Mexico. Could you start with a definition or outline of what happened?
A: Essentially it was a period of violence, in which there was an undeclared war between the Anglo Texan and Mexican American communities, in which there was violence perpetrated by both sides, but the brunt of the violence was directed by the state and local authorities against the Mexican American population.
Q: What made this period so violent? What was the situation at the time?
A: The context for this was the rapid change in the economy — a ranching economy dominated by Mexican Americans into a farming economy dominated by newcomer Anglo Texans. The rapid change during the previous 10-20 years had resulted in a displacement of the old order, the old Mexican American order along the border, with the new Jim Crow style segregation.
Q: Under the ranching economy, was there more cooperation, or were there fewer Anglos?
A: There were certainly fewer Anglos coming to the border region prior to the turn of the century, prior to the arrival of the railroad in this region in 1904. And so those Anglos who did come in tended to inter-marry into established Mexican American ranching families and became essentially Mexicanized. After that, the number of newcomers coming in with decidedly different views about Mexican racial inferiority went there to exploit cheap land and cheap labor.
Q: Who were the main targets of the violence?
A: The main targets of the violence were the general Mexican American population of the area who were often perceived to be in cahoots with raiders and other guerilla fighters who were against the changes that occurred.
Q: About how many were killed during this violence?
A: Estimates are very hard to come by precisely because many of the incidents were covered up by those who perpetrated them, particularly those of law enforcement. The estimates range from a low of 300-500 to 3,000-5,000, which was a figure that Walter Prescott Webb, the hagiographer of the Texas rangers, came up with in his 1935 history of the rangers.
Q: Why did the violence escalate at this point?
A: The violence escalated because the Mexican Americans of that region who had been displaced from their place with the society and economy of the region very much resented the new racial order imposed upon them by the Anglo newcomers. They were disenfranchised in terms of their social status, they were disenfranchised literally in terms of their votes as white only primaries became the norm and therefore they saw their power ebbing away. So this built up a great deal of resentment with the new order.
Q: Did the state of Texas play a role in supporting or trying to limit the violence? Were they on a particular side?
A: The state authorities, particularly as embodied by the Rangers, were perpetrators of some of the worst violence of this period. Extra judicial killings of Mexican Americans by the Rangers was quite common in this period, often taking the form of “shot dead attempting to flee” kind of scenarios. So the Rangers were very much part of the problem rather than an attempt to ameliorate the situation.
And certain segments of the newcomer community very much welcomed what they saw as putting the local Mexican American population in their place. There were lynchings, shootings in the back, decapitations, mutilation of bodies. There was one instance in which bottles were inserted into the mouths of those who were executed. The violence was extreme and the kind of symbolism attached to it was equally extreme.
Q: One Texas newspaper you quote as saying that this was a good thing because there was a serious surplus population that needed eliminating. Was that a widespread sentiment?
A: It was to the extent that the Mexican population was viewed as a kind of necessary evil. That is, on one hand, many newcomers came to that region of Texas expecting to be able to use a cheap labor force for their economic endeavors. On the other hand, they represented a threat because of their ability to vote and hence the idea of a surplus population that needed trimming is an expression of this latter sentiment.
Q: Can you give us some examples of some of the things that happened?
A: Yes, the summer of 1915, particularly the months of August through October, saw the height, the most intense violence in the region. In one instance, in late September of 1915, there was a clash between Texas Rangers and about 40 Mexican Americans in Hidalgo County, where Rangers took a dozen prisoners and promptly hung them and their bodies were left to rot for days.
In another instance that same month, Texas Ranger captain Henry Ransom shot landowners Jesús Bazan and Antonio Longoria once again leaving their bodies out in the open to rot. And at one point, Ransom reported to Ranger headquarters in Austin that: “I drove all the Mexicans from three ranches.”
Q: Did state officials just turn a blind eye to the violence in the sense that they supported it? Or were there investigations? What was the state role here?
A: The Rangers had received clear signals from the Governor’s office and other authorities that they had a free rein to handle or control the situation as they saw fit. That is, a clear sign that no one would be prosecuted for any extra judicial killings. The depredations only came to a stop when Brownsville State Representative José Tomás Canales initiated an investigation of the Ranger force and their actions over the previous decade in 1919.
Q: So why would the Rangers, a force that was created to protect the residents of Texas, commit this violence against Mexican Americans?
A: Essentially, they were in the service of consolidating the new, white, supremacist order in south Texas. That is, essentially, the purpose of the violence was to send a clear signal that Mexican Americans would be dealt with harshly if they attempted any opposition to this new order, whether through the ballot box or other means.
Q: Did the Mexican government play any role in what was going on?
A: The Mexican government did not have a direct role in this, because the country was in the middle of a revolution. There was constant instability over which faction controlled which parts of the border. It was more the climate of instability that allowed raiders to cross back and forth across the Rio Grande with impunity and created a sense of siege by the Anglo community in this part of south Texas.
Q: Can you say anything about the raiders themselves, that is, the people who were resisting changes taking place in the economy and then eventually the violence being perpetrated on them by the Rangers and other forces?
A: This group is often referred to as Los Sediciosos or seditious ones and they attempted to essentially oust the new Anglo order by these guerrilla raids upon ranches, the derailing of a train near Brownsville, and these sorts of actions, but they were very much constrained by the small number of raiders as well as the state’s overwhelming use of force against them.
Q: So you said that the violence finally subsided when State Representative Canales called for an investigation of the Rangers in 1919. And that’s the conventional ending of the violence. Did it continue after that?
A: Well, in fact, it did. I think the most egregious episode was the Porvenir Massacre in West Texas in 1918 when Rangers executed 15 Mexican men, separated them from their families, and then executed them. Now I have to say the role of the U.S. Army was crucial here in beginning to tamp down the extra-judicial actions of the Rangers and local vigilantes.
U.S. soldiers, sent to deal with the violence along the border, on the bridge connecting Brownsville and Matamoros, with Mexican counterparts. Courtesy Runyon Photograph Collection, The Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin
Q: What did they do?
A: Essentially, they very much saw the Rangers and the local sheriffs as part of the problem, as continuing the violence rather than defusing it. Mexican Americans began to see the federal government, in the guise of the US Army, as being on their side in some respects.
Q: So, we have this very complicated picture where we have a changing economy, we have a revolution going on south of the border, we have people trying to make a living, a small group of people violently resisting the changes, and the representatives of the state of Texas trying to suppress them but also carrying out violence against people randomly as well. What was the response of other people? Was there any sort of peace movement? Was there any cooperation among newcomers, Anglos, other European settlers, and the Mexican Americans there? How did other people respond?
A: Yes, it was a complicated picture because certainly there were Tejanos who were aiding the Rangers and other parties in the suppression of the Mexican American community and, on the other hand, there were Anglo settlers who were very much appalled at the violence being perpetrated against local communities. One of them was Brownsville lawyer and historian Frank Cushman Pierce who compiled a list of 102 victims, entirely on his own time. Then he also confronted Lon C Hill who was one of the major developers of Harlingen, Texas, about his role in these incidents.
Q: In supporting the Rangers, in supporting the violence?
Q: What then are some of the short-term consequences of this violence? It must have been incredibly disruptive.
A: Absolutely. The violence in the lower Rio Grande Valley in particular resulted in the depopulation of rural areas as Mexican American residents fled to the relative safety of border towns or crossed into Mexico for safety. This only accelerated the transfer of land to newcomer Anglos as Mexican Americans abandoned their lands.
This also had implications for Mexican Americans from this area as they were drafted into military service for the First World War. They resisted the summons to serve precisely because they could not reconcile the violence visited upon them by the U.S. with service in the same military that they saw as part of the problem. And they were termed slackers in the language of the day for allegedly slacking off their duty as patriotic citizens.
One other implication was that Walter Prescott Webb essentially launched his career, his academic career, in reaction to the Canales investigation. He wrote his 1922 Master’s thesis as an apology for the role of Rangers during this period and later transformed that piece into his hagiography of the Rangers, the 1935 Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense, which is still a perennial best seller for the University of Texas Press.
Q: What are some of the long-term consequences of the violence?
A: This event tremendously impacted the development of Mexican American civil rights organizations. During the 1920s, Mexican Americans began to organize in new ways, in new kinds of political and civic organizations devoted to the promotion of Mexican American civil rights. The exemplary one from this period would be the League of United Latin American Citizens, which formed in 1929. LULAC emphasized the idea that Mexican Americans had to cement their political allegiance to the United States rather than to Mexico because the United States would be the nation that would protect them from any future violence directed against them. This was the cultural project of this civil rights organization.
Q: This is a really fascinating history that people don’t know much about. You got involved because you’re part of a group that is putting on an exhibit about the Borderlands War at the Bullock Museum of Texas History, is that right? Can you tell us a little about that exhibit and what its purpose is?
A: The exhibit is called, “Life on the Border, 1910-1920,” and the purpose is to raise the public’s awareness of this incident and the major role it’s had in shaping Mexican American life in Texas. The role of the state in perpetrating this violence is something that we as a group have wanted specifically to highlight with this project with the goal of making connections with questions of policing communities of color, which are obviously relevant today.
Q: We’re looking forward to that exhibit and you’re hoping to have the exhibit, after its run at the Bullock, travel around Texas to the Borderland region but also to the rest of Texas to bring this story to the population?
A: We’re hoping to take it nationally.
Photo by Andrea Kurth Daily Texan Staff
John Morán Gonzales, a Brownsville, Texas, native, is the J. Frank Dobie Regents Professor of American and English Literature at the University of Texas at Austin and serves as Director of the Center for Mexican American Studies. His works include Border Renaissance: The Texas Centennial and the Emergence of Mexican American Literature (University of Texas Press, 2009), The Troubled Union: Expansionist Imperatives in Post-Reconstruction American Novels, (Ohio State University Press, 2010), and is currently editing The Cambridge Companion to Latina/o Literature and co-editing (with Laura Lomas) The Cambridge History of Latina/o Literature.
Joan Neuberger, professor in the UT Austin Department of History, studies modern Russian culture in social and political context. She is the author of an eclectic range of books, from Hooliganism: Crime and Culture in St Petersburg, 1900-1914 (California: 1993) to Ivan the Terrible: The Film Companion (Palgrave: 2003); and co-editor of Imitations of Life: Melodrama in Russia (Duke: 2001) and Picturing Russia: Explorations in Visual Culture (Yale: 2008). She is Editor of the History Department's website, Not Even Past, and co-host, with Christopher Rose, of the podcast series, 15 Minute History. The interview was podcast as Episode 73 on October 7, 2015.
It would seem that the fevered Earth in her delirium has generated antibodies in the form of a crowned virus to cure herself of the cancer that humankind has become upon her body. Forest fires rage on the Amazon, in Australia, in Siberia, in California, everywhere. More frequent and ever more disastrous hurricanes and floods wreak death in all the continents. The poles warm and glaciers melt. The oceans rise. Each day more and more of our relations the other animals, the plants become extinct. Humankind’s hubris has created the tragedy of the Anthropocene.
The Anthropocene is the Age of Man (humanity) the current geological age “viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.” It is a young age by any measure given that the Earth is about 5 billion years old. Shall it be measured from the time of the first appearance of Homo Sapiens in Africa 300,000 years ago? Or from the rise of agriculture and the Neolithic Revolution some 12,000 to 15,000 years ago? Or since 3100 BCE with the institution of the patriarchy in the ancient Near East? Or since patriarchal monotheism with the Babylonian captivity of the Jews in the 6th century BCE? Some argue much more recent dates such as the industrial revolution about 1780, or even closer and more exactly, July 16, 1945, seventy-five years ago with the first test of the atomic bomb when I was ten years old. There is no consensus as to the beginning of the Anthropocene.
I would date the Anthropocene precisely: October 12, 1492, almost five hundred twenty eight years ago when the Europeans who looking for a short route to the wealth of India stumbled upon a portion of the Earth unknown to them.
Thinking they had reached India, they called the native people they encountered “Indians” and called the western hemisphere a “new” world, a virgin land, and immediately set out to possess it in every sense of the word, to steal, violate and rape it, to enslave and kill its people, the “Indians” they called savages. The Europeans came with two ideas quite strange to this “new” world, Abya Yala, Turtle Island, later called “America:” 1) that they held the one and single truth of divinity and 2) that the Earth belonged to humankind — and so they took the land with sword and cross forcing the native people they did not kill to convert to Christianity, most ironically in the name of the invaders’ one, abstract god’s avatar, a young revolutionary rabbi, Yeshua (from whose birth they reckoned time,) who had taught love and compassion, justice and peace.
The European invaders took the land, murdering “Indians” with the gun and the horse but mostly decimating them through the great pandemics the Europeans unwittingly brought with them killing between 10 million and 100 million people, up to 95% of the indigenous population of Abya Yala, the Americas.
Very soon following the invasion of Abya Yala and coinciding with colonization, the economics of Europe was mercantilism that held that wealth was in profitable trade regulated by the crown. With most of the native population decimated by disease and murder, the need for labor in mining, clearing forests, and large-scale farming was needed. Much of the wealth of the Americas was in labor-intensive crops: sugar cane, coffee, cocoa, hemp, tobacco, cotton and the need for cheap labor was met by the importation of slaves from Africa in the beginning of the 17th century. African people, traded for or captured by slave traders, were brought to the Americas and slave trade, its greatest cost being the intense suffering and great death toll of the enslaved Africans, arguably became the most profitable trade of the time.
Two fundamental premises of European belief were 1) that mankind was created in the image of their one patriarchal god and 2) that their god had given mankind mastery over the other creatures (including woman) and had charged him to subdue the Earth. For the European to justify the enslavement of other humans and treat them as cattle, as a commodity, they had to be made “other,” closer to the other animals decreed by their god to be mastered. So subsequently with the growth of capitalism, and especially the Atlantic slave trade, the concept of racism (the belief that some groups of humans are superior to others, that the fair-skinned are superior to the dark-skinned group) arose in the late 18th century.
Mercantilism morphed into capitalism, private ownership of production and trade independent from control by the crown. In practical terms, it means private ownership and unbridled rape of the Earth as merely a source of raw material to be extracted and made into consumable products by cheap labor, slavery in whatever form, for the profit of the capitalist (the owner.) It is the economics of empire. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776. Thirteen of Britain’s wealthiest colonies in North America declared independence from Britain and the crown that same year claiming Enlightenment ideals of liberty undermined by private greed and the possession of slaves as if of cattle. The reasons for breaking from Britain were more economic than moral.
Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration of Independence, son of the Enlightenment, exemplifies the conflicted consciousness of many a European-American. In Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” there is an echo of John Locke’s, one of the chief thinkers behind what was to be called capitalism, “life, liberty, and property.” But Jefferson did felicitously write “happiness,” a state not necessarily dependent on property and wealth. And in his original draft, he accused the British king of waging “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisp[h]ere.” A colleague, Benjamin Franklin, so as not to alienate the slave-holding colonies, struck it from the declaration.
Jefferson owned slaves all his life, and slavery remained intact. The liberty lauded in the Declaration of Independence was limited to white males of certain wealth, not for women, nor “colored” men, nor the poor, and certainly not for the slave. From its beginning, the United States of America was patriarchal, imperialist, racist, capitalist, and governed by a plutocracy. The conflict between human and property rights plagues us to this day.
The Industrial Revolution, begun in England about 1760 with the mechanization of production and intensified with the invention of the cotton gin and the development of the steam engine and then the internal combustion engine for use in mining, the manufacture of cloth and other products, and transportation, and with slavery in the southern U.S. and labor at slave wages in England created great wealth for the owners of land and means of production who would pool their resources in corporations to maximize their wealth and their power — and went about ravaging of the Earth, clearing forests, damming rivers, leveling mountains for minerals, plundering prehistoric forests in the form of coal and oil harbored in Earth’s bowels to fuel wars and more plundering. The burning of the remains of the primeval forests blackened the cities like Manchester and London combining its famous fog with its infamous smoke into smog poisoning the air and warming the atmosphere. And lung diseases and others ran rampant. This they called “Progress.”
Eighty-eight years after the Declaration of Independence, the conflicted consciousness of the young country came to a head with a bloody civil war over the issue of slavery that threatened to sunder the union. The northern states won the war over the slave-owning southern states, the union was preserved, and the slaves were freed (though their citizenship and civil rights were mostly nominal.)
I have spoken of the U.S. and England only because they epitomize the modern empire. But other European nations powered by the industrial revolution also invaded, conquered, plundered, and colonized the Americas, Africa, Asia, Polynesia, Australia. It is a history of the murder and displacement of indigenous peoples and the taking of their lands, of war, and the degradation of the Earth.
Much has been made of the “American Dream” popularly understood as the dream that anyone in the U.S. could achieve, especially by working hard and becoming successful (attained wealth) thereby, it was assumed, attaining happiness. Ironically, the term (by which he meant something very different) was coined by an American historian in 1931 at the height of the Great Depression, product of the “Robber Baron” era of the late 1800s, the reckless speculation of capitalists, and the degradation of the mid-west prairies by mechanized agribusiness creating the “dust bowl” making great poverty and waves of migration of workers. The depression was dealt with aptly by one of the most sagacious presidents of the U.S., Franklin D. Roosevelt, with radical policies that remedied the excesses of capitalism and ended with a disastrous Second World War marked by a policy of genocide of the Jewish population by Nazi Germany and the criminal act of unnecessarily dropping two atomic bombs by the U.S. on Japan seventy-five years ago.
The world war that followed was called “The Cold War” because U.S. wars were not officially declared though wars continued. The need of industry to produce for war had created a powerful economic and political interest group, Military-Industrial Complex, which the Republican Pres. Eisenhower, a general and hero, warned was detrimental to democracy. Since the beginning of the nation, capitalism had been conflated with democracy and dissidents who questioned it were called treasonous, repressed and persecuted. One U.S. undeclared war was on a little south Asian country, Viet-Nam whose people were killed, forests were defoliated, rivers poisoned by bombs and chemicals. So unjustified, wasteful, and cruel was the hopeless U.S. war that a great majority of U.S. citizens rose in opposition and the war came to an end. There was hope of change but the reactionary element of the country came to power. The U.S. intervened in other countries, notably in Central and South America, subverted democratically elected governments that questioned predatory capitalism, and propped bloody dictatorships that in the name of fighting communism jailed, tortured, killed their people, and some, as in Guatemala, committed genocide of our indigenous people. Wars, for fossil oil, all justified as “self defense,” were waged in the Middle East destroying people and degrading the environment greatly increasing pollution and heating the atmosphere.
Such is the history that brought us to now and Globalization, the development of an increasingly integrated global economy marked especially by free trade, free flow of capital, and the tapping of cheaper foreign labor markets. There is where we are and the ultimate result is slavery in its modern form and the devastation of the Earth. Even a profoundly ignorant man, one who does not believe in science or even truth, one who cannot speak without lying will sometimes tell a truth. Trump, the fascistic 45th President of the United States, celebrating the 241st anniversary of U.S. Independence Day, said that “. . . we will protect and preserve [the] American way of life, which began in 1492 when Columbus discovered America.”
That date, I maintain, marks the beginning of the Anthropocene. It is the beginning of the imposition globally of the metaphysical myth of a patriarchal monotheism that posits humankind’s mastery of the Earth, its obligation to populate it, subdue it, master all other of its living creatures.
When the Europeans conquered us of Abya Yala, the Americas, our conquerors were not only the soldiers but also the missionaries. We were forced to convert to their beliefs, our cultures, our traditions were denigrated and the new cosmology so strange to us was imposed upon us. Our myths and ideas of the divine were male and female, our cosmologies did not reduce the Earth and its creatures to mere commodities for the use of us humans. Many of our creator deities were female, most of them if not all, personifications of the Earth. We recognized our relationship to the other animals, and to the plants, and to inanimate beings, as our kindred and helpers, our teachers. Mountains and lakes and springs were holy. The Earth was sacred, our Mother, Pachamama, Tonantzin. As one of our elders, Chief Seattle, told the invaders, “The Earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the Earth.”
Many of our indigenous cultures were destroyed, our languages lost, our wisdom denied or unheard. Our indigenous peoples have lived for millenniums in harmony with the Earth, with our fellow creatures, our relations, the other animals and plants, and we disturbed little the natural order of things. There is much that they have to teach us. And we must learn to listen.
Myths are important; our myths set the metaphysics by which we relate to the Earth and one another. They form our reality. Even if we do not know our myths, even if we may repudiate them, they still have formed the matrix of our culture and our society and they form more-often-than-not the unconscious premises of our values and institutions that determine how we live our lives, relate to one another, to the Earth.
The greatest power of conquest of the new world may not have been the soldier but the missionary who replaced our myths, our beliefs, with those of Europe, telling us that what mattered was an imagined existence beyond death. The Earth was but a valley of tears through which we passed on our way to the beyond. And, as a friend who was related to the royal family of Hawai’i said to me of the missionaries: “They said, these wooden figures are not gods, pointed up to the sky and said, there is your god, we fools looked up, and they took all our land.”
Since the middle of the last century, the term “decolonization” has gained much currency. What it refers to is the breaking away of the colonies of the empires and the forming of independent states. But as it is being used more and more, it refers to the “decolonization” of the mind, liberation of our indigenous minds from the brain-washing of colonialism. I, of both Mexican Indian and Spanish blood (and for all I know, African) born into a traditional Mexican Catholic family, can attest to the difficulty of the task. But be assured that the conquest of Abya Yala has by no means been completed; the five hundred twenty eight years of conquest has also been five hundred twenty eight years of resistance. We have not gone away. By the same token, in this United States, the war to abolish slavery has not yet been completely won either. Our brothers and sisters of African ancestry to this day are discriminated against and murdered at the hands of the police. The virulence of racism is much ingrained in the culture of the nation, inherited from colonialism and the economics of empire. It is a sickness that, like patriarchy, must be overcome.
I have painted with a broad and select brush a history complex and nuanced. (I will leave it to a Howard Zinn to tell the history that I have not touched upon.) I have focused on the United States of America because that is where I was born and live and because it is the foremost modern empire. I recognize that many of our European brothers and sisters who came to these shores and many of their descendants have been and are of good consciousness and have struggled and do struggle to create a world that is compassionate and just and honors the Earth that holds it. It has always been so since the “discovery of a new World” with such as Fray Bartolomé de las Casas and gains have gradually been made to make democracy in the Americas. In the U.S. in my mother’s lifetime women gained the right to vote. In my lifetime our brothers and sisters of African descent gained their civil rights even in the former “slave states” of the South where racism has been most virulent. The right of labor to organize has been a continual struggle with gains to be counted. Gains, too, have been made by our brothers/sisters who differ from the traditional norms in sexuality and gender. Much of those gains have been at great cost of struggle and pain to be sure and we have our martyrs, foremost among them the great visionary and prophet Martin Luther King Jr. (whose dream, by the way, shares many of the elements of “The American Dream” of the historian who coined the term.) Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of the cloth who understood and followed the teachings of Yeshua of Nazareth. His was very much a theology of liberation.
I write in the isolation forced upon me by the threat of a deadly disease made even more deadly by the policies of a government headed by men who have dropped all pretense of democracy or justice or compassion, indeed of decency — the poisonous bloom of unbridled capitalism, fascists. The policies of capitalist empire have torn the world with continuous war and concentrated the wealth in the hands of a few creating famine and violence for the many. The effects of reckless violation of the Earth has caused her to become feverish and changed her climate. Great numbers of our brothers and sisters are displaced fleeing violence and poverty and homes devastated by the effects of that climate change. They come to seek asylum to the borders of the wealthy nations whose policies are the very cause of their fleeing only to be jailed and their children caged. My heart is often heavy and I struggle with sadness. (Yes, and with rage.)
But also there is great awakening and my brothers and sisters of good heart and consciousness flood the streets at great risk of infection to demand justice for our African American brothers and sisters and for everyone and for protection of the Earth. They are met with violence, guns and tear gas and clubs by the military sent by the fascist POTUS Trump — day after day. And my brothers and sisters protesting make my heart glad and hopeful and proud. And we make our revolution of mind and of heart for justice rooted in compassion, for peace, for the Earth, for life. But the violence directed against them by federal military and by local police promises a repressive police state and makes me sick with fear as POTUS 45 and his party openly undermine the coming elections. We must continue to take to the streets in protest.
On occasion I don my mask and walk in the ‘hood. It makes me sad to see my neighbors masked and careful to keep their distance, see their smiles only in their eyes. To us human mammals accustomed to the pack, for whom the first communication is the touch, to be denied the kiss, the embrace, even the shaking of hands is a violation of our nature. I wonder what effect it will have on those of us who survive, on our children, our species. But it is summer and the sun is bright, the flowers a riot of color and of scent, and the bees go about their business, butterflies flit about, the birds fly and sing. The Earth and the life she bears are beautiful and precious beyond measure — our revolution is of fierce love that must at all costs prevail. Now.
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
~ Howard Zinn
Rafael Jesús González, Prof. Emeritus of literature and creative writing, was born and raised biculturally/bilingually in El Paso, Texas/Cd. Juárez, Chihuahua, and taught at University of Oregon, Western State College of Colorado, Central Washington State University, University of Texas El Paso (Visiting Professor of Philosophy), and Laney College, Oakland, California where he founded the Dept. of Mexican & Latin-American Studies. Also visual artist, he has exhibited in the Oakland Museum of California, the Mexican Museum of San Francisco, and others in the U.S. and Mexico. Nominated thrice for a Pushcart prize, he was honored by the National Council of Teachers of English and Annenberg CPB for his writing in 2003. In 2013 he received a César E. Chávez Lifetime Award and was honored by the City of Berkeley with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 13th Annual Berkeley Poetry Festival 2015. He was named the first Poet Laureate of Berkeley in 2017. Visit <http://rjgonzalez.blogspot.com/>
Woman draped in Cuban flag, artist unknown. Photo by Shayla Moya
"I love the United States, but it is hard to continue loving this country when you are constantly hit with the reality that it does not love you back."
Reflection on Being Afro-Latina: Cuba vs. US
by Shayla Moya Growing up as an Afro-Latina with Dominican heritage in the United States, Cuba was always an enigma to me. It was the one country in Latin America that was never truly discussed in depth in terms of history or culture, whether that was at home or in Spanish classes at school. The most I was allowed to know was that it had a Spanish accent unique to their country (as each Caribbean islander does), Celia Cruz comes from there, and it is controlled by a very mean communist dictator. Like any other college student, I was in search for the truth of everything and anything, especially when it came to my AfroLatino roots. After a semester abroad in Costa Rica where I learned about Latin American human rights (mostly the lack of them) and its history, I became obsessed with finding the truth about Cuba. Specifically, how progressive the country was in terms of human rights.
Over a year and a half after my trip to Costa Rica, I boarded on a flight to Cuba for a ten-day academic trip. I was in search of sources and interviews that could help me uncover the evolution of human rights in Cuba from the 1952 regime of Fulgencio Batista to the 2019 presidency of Miguel Diaz Canel through the lens of the historically most oppressed groups in Latin America: women, Afro-Latinx, and LGBTQ+. My intentions were to collect the information I needed, get some on-the-ground insight, and enjoy the warm weather. I never anticipated falling in love with the artwork that covered the streets. It was one of the best welcomes I have received upon arrival to a new country. Walking down the side streets of Havana with my brown skin that was only getting darker with every passing day, I fell in love with the paintings that served as mirrors to my own Afro-Caribbean identity.
I was able to appreciate the majority of the paintings during the walking tour of Havana. They could be found hanging outside art shops located around every corner. I loved how the Afro Cuban art was so in your face for every passerby to see, not in the National Art Museum where people would have to pay to see it. Through these paintings, it was portrayed how the Cuban people appreciated and even proudly identified with their African roots as the blacks located in these paintings were seen draped in the Cuban flag or smoking a cigar. The ones that caught my attention the most were the ones painted on older versions of the national newspaper Granma. “Granma” was also the name of the boat that Fidel Castro and the rest of his guerrilleros arrived to Cuba in at the start of the Revolution. It is a key component of Cuban history so to see a brown skinned woman with an afro that reached the corners of the page, a smile on her face while covering her body in the Cuban flag painted on a copy of the Granma, it screamed to me “THIS is Cuba. I am Cuba. Your country may see me as ugly but here I am so beautiful that I get to have my face on the walls.”
At the end of my trip, after all the warm feelings of love and admiration towards seeing such beautiful Afro Cuban paintings and artwork faded away, all I was left with was envy. It has long been my belief that living in the U.S. and being a person of color is like living in a house but never seeing your picture decorate the walls.
I love the United States, but it is hard to continue loving this country when you are constantly hit with the reality that it does not love you back. Through its artwork, Cuba showed me love. It showed me the beauty of femininity, of being black with an afro, curly hair and pigmented complexion. It is hard to find the beauty in these core parts of my identity in the US when everywhere I look Latinas are portrayed as light skin with straight or wavy hair, if represented at all. Whether it is in People’s “50 Most Beautiful People” only including one designated black women or movies where black women are secondary characters. Even within my own Latino culture, black women in telenovelas are always the maid or the slave. Never the one worthy of the love from a handsome prince charming. Or something as simple as seeing myself on the walls of my university. Like many POC students at my university, I am underrepresented in the current student body and the lack of black dignified alumni on the walls reminds me nothing has changed. Each portrait of an Anglo-Saxon man with his equally white privileged wife standing beside him is reminder to me that a college degree was never meant for me. It is a privilege for me to be walking the halls of the academic buildings that HIS money paid for because a black person could never afford it. The closest I can get to seeing a large group of beautiful black women in American culture is in a rap/reggaeton music video where they are rarely fully clothed, serving as a reminder that is where I am supposed to be.
In Cuba, the paintings of all the Afro Latinas served as a personal reminder that my outer beauty is also seen and appreciated for more than sexual gratification. I was no longer “pretty for a black girl” or “pretty for a dark-skinned Latina” but just pretty. It could be such a simple adjective, but the words attached after it could be the difference between tolerance and acceptance.
While in the US, the closest I get to Afro-loving art is on my Pinterest. Maybe that is why the painting of the black Cuban schoolgirl with the crown on her head has stayed with me. I found this painting while taking an evening stroll with some friends down the streets of downtown Havana. While walking, we came across an art studio who had an artist working on his next masterpiece inside. He invited us in to see the rest of his work and that is when I saw her. She was HUGE with hair that matched the color of the night sky, with rope glued throughout her afro to portray its kinky texture. Her skin was only two shades lighter than her hair, a contrast so subtle it blended beautifully across her face. Her eyes were wide open as she pierced into your soul with the innocence only a child can carry. She was dressed in the white shirt, red overalls and blue handkerchief tied around her neck, the typical Cuban schoolgirl uniform. It was the silver crown so beautifully placed a top of her curly afro that stood out to me the most. She was a Cuban princess in all her glory. The existence of that painting gives me hope that one day all little black girls will be able to proudly wear their crowns. That they will believe in their own beauty that everyone around them tells they have, instead of feeling like people are lying to them. It is hard to believe you are beautiful when you do not match society’s idea of beauty. It is an insecurity I always had growing up, and sometimes still have today.
For me, Cuba is a haven for people of color because we finally get to see our picture on the wall. We see the reflection of our common African ancestors in the artwork, the music, the historical monuments and it is all seen as beautiful. People forget that it is not only about seeing your picture on the wall, but “White America” praising your picture the same way it has been praising the rest of the white historical figures and accomplished individuals for centuries. Representation matters which is why I work so hard to one day get my picture on the wall to serve as a reminder for all colored girls after me that they will always belong. To be the Afro-Latina draped in a US flag painted on a copy of the New York Times and have it scream “THIS is the United States of America. I am the United States of America. Here I am so beautiful that I get to have my face on the walls.”
Shayla Moya is a senior at Norwich University pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, International Studies and Spanish. An Afro Latina whose parents are originally from the Dominican Republic, she was born and raised in Lowell, MA. She possesses a global perspective through various travel experiences to Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Poland, Czech Republic, Mexico, Cuba, and a semester abroad in Costa Rica. She has genuine passion for international human rights activism, and hopes to continue her education with a Masters in International Human Rights centered in Latin America. This is her first magazine publication with many more to come.