Massacre of Border Rage: A History of Racial Violence in the RGV

Words by Yamilet Galvez

Edited by Abigail Vela

Trigger Warning: This article depicts historical events and images that involve severe acts of violence. Please read with caution.

 

Understanding the cultural roots and history of the Rio Grande Valley is fundamental to the formation of our community’s identity. One critical period that shaped our borderlands was La Matanza: a period between 1910 and 1920 of racial violence against people of Mexican descent along the Rio Grande Valley through a series of so-called “Bandit Wars.”  This dark chapter, also known as the “Hora de Sangre” or the hour of blood, saw countless innocent lives lost without trials or convictions at the hands of the Texas Rangers.


By sharing the injustices during this period of our history, we as a community must acknowledge, reflect, and remember the extreme challenges faced by generations who came before us.

Historical black and white photo showing thousands of National Guardsmen marching in the streets of Brownsville, Texas.
Over 110,000 National Guardsmen patrol Brownsville, Texas, on June 18, 1916. Source: The Robert Runyon Photograph Collection. Courtesy of The Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

1915: Turmoil and Blood-Soaked Repression

The peak of La Matanza happened in 1915.

 

In January 1915, a man named Basilio Ramos and a group of rebels, also known as Seditionistas from Mexico, began to propose a plan of action to attack settlements along the Rio Grande River, known as the Plan of San Diego. A bloodshed battle began when Los Indios Ranch, a border town located in Cameron County, was targeted on July 4, 1915. Through July, several raids and attacks begin to emerge on landowners. 

   

Feuds began to cause turmoil on August 8, 1915, when a large group of Seditionistas ambushed a white man’s ranch, where three men were killed and two were wounded. Rising tensions began to escalate between landlords and indigenous people who wanted to fight against the government’s repression. 

 

The increased number of hate crimes led Mexican-Americans and Tejanos to flee to Mexico, known as the “Great Exodus.” A San Antonio reporter at the time stated that “finding the bodies of dead Mexicans has become so commonplace that it creates little or no interest.”

The Brutality of the Texas Rangers

Texas Rangers falsely accused Mexican-Americans of being affiliated with bandits in the Rio Grande Valley area. The lynching of 20-year-old Antonio Rodriguez sparked a revolution that led to five years of raging war. 

 

Rodriguez was the first victim lost to La Matanza in 1910. He was an American citizen born in New Mexico who was a ranch hand who was accused of killing the ranch owner, Effie Henderson. A group of White Texans dragged Rodriguez out of his jail cell in Rocksprings, Texas, where they doused him in gasoline and set him ablaze.  

       

Many others were innocent victims of the racial violence imposed at the hands of Texas Rangers: Paulino Serda, a longtime resident of the Rio Grande Valley who resided in Edinburg, Texas, owned a ranch and was shot after Texas Rangers got word that so-called bandits had passed through his ranch. Mexican-Americans Jesus Bazan and Antonio Longoria were riding on their horses when they were wrongfully shot and instantly killed by Texas Rangers. 

 

As stated by San Antonio non-profit Refusing To Forget, residents of Kingsville called on the extreme and excruciating barbarousness of Texas Rangers passing through in a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson, stating, “One or more of us may have incurred the displeasure of some one, and it seems only necessary for that some one to whisper our names to an officer, to have us imprisoned and killed without an opportunity to prove in a fair trial, the falsity of the charges against us.”

Three Texas Rangers pose after killing a group of Mexicans.
Source: The Robert Runyon Photograph Collection. Courtesy of The Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

The Canales Investigation

Jose Tomas Canales, a State Representative of Texas, thought the horrific crimes of the Texas Rangers were unjust and not deserved. At the time, Jose Canales was the only Latino actively serving in the Texas Legislature. In 1919, an investigation called the 1919 Canales Investigation launched a deeper insight into the Texas Rangers and their racially motivated tactics. 

 

Lawlessness, misery, and increased violence of the Tejano population motivated Canales to abolish the Texas Rangers. The Rangers were charged with nineteen charges of misconduct for the retaliation of Mexican civilians. 

 

On January 15, 1919, Canales introduced House Bill 5, which aimed to reform the Texas Rangers. However, a committee run by State Representative William H. Bledsoe formed to investigate Canales’ allegations amended the bill and introduced increased pay, changed the limit of Texas Rangers from the 24 that Canales initially proposed “in time of peace” to 75 members, and “police professionalization.” Canales refrained from voting on the amended bill, but the majority of the Texas House approved and signed it into law on March 31, 1919. 

A Texas Historical Marker displaying a history of La Matanza that occurred in Rio Grande Valley.
The Texas Historical Commission Marker of Matanza of 1915. Photo by James Hulse, January 31, 2021, courtesy of The Historical Marker Database.

On October 17, 2017, a Texas Historical Commission marker located in Cameron County, Texas, near San Benito, was unveiled to commemorate the lives lost of over 300 innocent victims who were wrongfully murdered. 

 

South Texas College composed a list of those murdered during La Matanza of 1915 and the Porvenir Massacre of 1918: 109 victims were listed. 

 

Though the exact number of lives lost remains unknown, historians have estimated hundreds or perhaps thousands of lives of Tejanos, Mexican-Americans, and Mexican citizens were killed during this brutal period. The legacy of this calamitous time in history of horrible acts was simply discrimination and racial violence.

More recently, laws regarding immigration policy and border security have been passed, which enforce discriminatory policies that will impact our communities. Governor Abbott passed Senate Bill 3 in 2023, allowing 1.5 billion dollars to add more barriers at the Texas-Mexico border. Senate Bill 4 (SB4) in Texas was passed in November 2023 and is on pause as of Tuesday, March 19, 2024; this bill makes it a state crime to cross the border illegally.  

 

While La Matanza was a dark period of our history, it’s important to note that these violent acts of discrimination continue to haunt and pose a threat to our community in the Rio Grande Valley to this very day.

Look at where La Matanza took place with our Interactive Google Map. Click the icon on the left of our profile image for legend.

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