Written by Eduardo Martinez
There are many important stories in the history of the Rio Grande Valley that have, unfortunately, been lost through time. However, one of the great things that has been happening recently, through Trucha and social media, is more people are becoming aware of different important local stories, such as the Pharr Riot of 1971 and the 1968 Edcouch-Elsa Walkout.
Often, Valley people don’t know about the rich history of resistance in the RGV through no fault of their own. Some of these stories are often not taught at school or have been shoved to the side since they are histories that make the police, education system, and government look bad.
This is one story that deserves to have more focus since police brutality is an issue that is still happening to this day, and there are still people around us who are still haunted by what happened to Victor Manuel Nava in 1970.
In 1970, Victor Manuel Nava was a young kid, a 14-year-old, being raised by his mother Eugenia N. Mancino and his stepfather Johnny Mancino. He had three siblings: Alfonso Nava, Jesse John Mancino and Mireya Gonzalez. He attended middle school in Brownsville, TX, and was friends with Diane Acevedo.
“He was kind of funny,” Diane remembers of Victor more than 50 years later. “He was mostly shy, very quiet. Everybody would tell you that he was quiet.” She later describes him as someone who wouldn’t hurt a fly.
On Dec. 10, 1970, Victor was hanging out with a group of friends in an alley in Brownsville. The Dec. 11 issue of the Brownsville Herald later claimed that the teenagers were sniffing glue that day in that alley. Cameron County Deputy Sheriff Nem Jennings Bryan Jr. soon crashed the scene and started going after the teenagers violently. During this ambush, Victor was singled out by Bryan, who went after him.
According to the Jan. 10, 1971 issue of The Monitor and the autopsy report, Victor was shot in the back of the head by Bryan. Diane’s sister was there that day and came running back home after their friend was killed.
“She saw him die,” Diane said emotionally. “When my sister got home, all I could hear was my sister crying real loud. Then she told me that they shot Victor, and Victor was dead. I couldn’t believe it.”
Diane says that her sister told her how Victor was trying to get away from Bryan when he was shot. Bryan claimed that Victor had a knife and lunged towards him, leading to the fatal gunshot. However there was no knife found on the scene; only a small tree branch was nearby on the ground.
Diane finds the knife accusation and the idea of Bryan fearing for his safety absurd.
“Victor always had this twig,” Diane remembers. “Because he would write on the dirt or wherever he was at. But it was like a little bitty one. And Brian, let me tell you, he was like six foot something. He was over 230 pounds. He was a big, big man compared to Victor.”
As word began to spread about what happened to Victor, actions started being sponsored by the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) and the people of Brownsville, Harlingen, and San Benito. The people demanded justice and for Bryan to be fired. One month later, on Jan. 5, 1971, the Cameron County grand jury cleared Bryan with a no-billed decision. With that decision, Bryan was allowed to return to his job. Sheriff Boynton Fleming infamously told The Monitor, “I will appoint him tomorrow if he wants to be reappointed,” and that the verdict was a “just and reasonable decision.”
That led to a major protest on January 10, 1971. According to the Brownsville Herald, over 1,200 people attended the protest, most of whom were youths who demanded justice outside the county courthouse. Eugenia N. Mancino, Nava’s mother, was one of the speakers at that gathering. Another action took place two weeks later. According to The Militant newspaper’s Feb. 19, 1971 issue, “over 1,000 Chicanos demonstrated [on] Jan. 24 at the home of Cameron County Sheriff Boynton Fleming and in front of the local police station. The object of their protest was a grand jury decision whitewashing the killing of a 14-year-old Chicano youth by a deputy sheriff…”
While significant community support demanded justice for Victor, unfortunately, some people in the Valley stood with Bryan. At the Jan. 10 protest, one man heckled Eugenia during her speech. While others would write in letters to the local newspaper, like an editorial by Jamie Vega on the Jan. 22, 1971 Brownsville Herald where he lectured “militant youth” for bringing “racial overtones” to a march. We unfortunately still see this type of lecturing all around us, where people try to police how young people and grieving family members want to protest.
The story played out in the streets and the local media and continued in the courtroom. When community members asked for the county to pay for the burial expenses of Victor, the County Commissioners Court voted no on Jan. 25. A month later, on Feb. 25, a federal grand jury indicted Bryan on a new civil rights charge. One girl who was with Victor that day told jurors that “Bryan walked up and rolled Nava’s body over from stomach to back, then turned to the other seven teenagers present and told them, ‘This is what you get. This is what you deserve.'” Brownsville Police Chief Krausse defended Bryan’s actions, saying he had a good reputation, and then started blaming Victor and his friends, claiming they all had bad reputations. Bryan’s defense lawyer continued with the dehumanization, telling the jurors: “Victor Nava was dead months ago… the first time he sniffed glue. Mr. Bryan just happened to be the officer who had to kill him.”
“It was awful,” Diane said, looking back at what was said about Victor and her friends. “Oh my God, it just made me sick to see all the things they said on there.”
On April 29, the federal jury deliberated for 44 minutes and then announced that Bryan was innocent of the civil rights charge. The civil rights case ended with U.S. Dist. Judge Reynaldo Garza telling Bryan, “You are a free man.” Like in January, Fleming offered him his job back, but Bryan reportedly declined and decided to go into the bail bond business instead.
The story doesn’t end there, especially for Diane and the people who knew Victor and still mourn him today. In the Valley, stories of police brutality have continued since then, with the death of Monte Alto’s Jorge Gonzalez and the shooting of a Pharr teenager by the Pharr Police Department in 2020.
One local group, Divest/Invest RGV, was launched in 2020, inviting community members to participate in this work that combats police brutality. During the COVID pandemic, they started hosting online Zoom meetings. They continued getting people involved by doing a series of book club discussions on the book “We Do This ‘Til We Free Us” by Mariame Kaba. Divest/Invest RGV’s work also included documenting past instances of police brutality in the RGV and breaking down city budgets, specifically how much funding is allocated to local law enforcement agencies.
A year after the tragic death of Jorge Gonzalez, Divest/Invest RGV, along with members from La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), held a protest at the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office demanding justice on July 15, 2021. Divest/Invest RGV, LUPE, and the South Texas Civil Rights Project spread the story on social media, using that platform to spread awareness over what happened and to raise funds for the grieving family.
Stories like what happened to Victor in 1970 and Jorge are why stories like this shouldn’t be forgotten and are a reminder of how much work still needs to be done today. To Diane, Victor’s memory is something that no one should ever forget.
“Don’t forget none of this because it happened,” Diane said. “And it can happen to anybody. It was just really sad. I will never forget that cry [from my sister that day].”
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