A History of Violence in the US/Mexico BorderlandsRoundup
tags: racism, violence, Mexican American history, Latino/a history, borderlands
Brian Behnken is an associate professor in the Department of History at Iowa State University. He is the author of multiple books and articles on civil rights activism in the United States. His most recent is Borders of Violence and Justice: Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Law Enforcement in the Southwest, 1835-1935 (University of North Carolina Press, 2022).
A little over a month before the murder of George Floyd, police officers in Tucson, Arizona, killed Carlos Ingram Lopez, who was going through an apparent mental health crisis at the time of his arrest. Handcuffed, naked, with a hood and two plastic bags over his head, Ingram Lopez was restrained by at least two officers while he begged for water and his grandmother for 12 minutes, slowly asphyxiating to death. All the officers involved were cleared of wrongdoing. More recently, in San Antonio, police officer James Brennand shot 17-year-old Erik Cantu multiple times over the crime of eating a hamburger in his car. The officer claimed that he thought the car was stolen and alleged that Cantu had attempted to flee. Brennand was fired and now faces a criminal indictment. Cantu endured multiple surgeries and spent more than a month in the hospital and was later readmitted, but he survived the encounter.
These are but two cases that are analogous to more well-known cases of Black people killed by police. The public knows of Floyd, Tamir Rice, and many others. But do they know of Mario Arenales Gonzalez and Andy Lopez? How about Pedro Erick Villanueva? The similarities between the police killings of African Americans and Mexican Americans and other Latinos are breathtakingly horrible — and, sadly, just as unjustified. Yet these police killings do not generate nearly as much coverage or national outrage. This might lead some observers to think that Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and other Latino people don’t have the same kind of policing history that other ethnic groups do. I wrote Borders of Violence and Justice: Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Law Enforcement in the Southwest, 1835-1935 to provide some of that history.
The book actually has a fairly long origin story. Like any author, I wrote it for many reasons. The project started in 2005, when I ran into the case of Santos Rodriguez, a 12-year-old Mexican American boy executed by Dallas police officer Darrell Cain on the night of July 24, 1973. At the time, few people knew about the case. Cain used a game of Russian roulette to try to extract a confession from Rodriguez for a petty offense he didn’t commit, ultimately shooting him in the head in front of David, the boy’s brother. To me, Santos was emblematic of the complicated relationship between Mexican Americans and police: He was apprehended by an agent of the state during an ostensibly legal and legitimate process, but that process quickly veered into extra-legal and patently illegal territory. Like any project of this scope, my research took me in directions I did not expect. It also took me far back in time — back to the 1830s, which ultimately meant that I would need to write two books instead of one. Borders of Violence and Justice is the first.
Borders examines interactions between Mexican-origin people and law enforcement — police agencies as well as extralegal lynch mobs — across the Southwest from the 1830s to the 1930s. Beginning with the Texas Revolution in 1835 and later the Mexican American War, the United States annexed the Southwest via military might. U.S. forces quickly established law enforcement as well as extralegal groups to maintain state power in the region. Police and their allies often treated Mexicans and Mexican Americans as a population that they deemed suspect and undesirable. Popular sentiment, much like in segments of U.S. society today, also construed Mexican-origin people as criminally prone, as violent, and as wanton murderers. Many of these viewpoints were outgrowths of white supremacist concepts such as Manifest Destiny. While egregious and wrong, these ugly beliefs and this sense of superiority meant that law enforcement tended to abuse their authority and treat Mexican people and their kin brutally.
Mexican-origin people responded to this legal and extralegal violence in a variety of ways. For example, they defended themselves and fought back when confronted by racist law enforcement. They formed self-defense groups and advocacy organizations to protect themselves. Some became police officers to respond proactively to violence and to defend Mexican people. Mexican Americans also pushed state and territorial governments to professionalize law enforcement to halt abuse. They could also lean on the Mexican government for assistance — a type of aid that other ethnic communities often did not have.
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