Saturday, November 06, 2004

Latinos have come a long way in Dallas, baby

Two items jumped out from the Metro section of this morning's Dallas News: a column by Jaquielynn Floyd (registration required on all Dallas News clips) on the election of an out-lesbian, Latina and, even more shocking, Democrat county sheriff, Lupe Valdez, and another piece by Mercedes Olivera on the Texas Rangers' bloody history with Mexican Americans in South Texas.

Floyd's piece, entitled, "Oh, get over it: New sheriff has a job to do," takes just the right tone. Dallas should proudly note in passing the various milestones represented, then let Sheriff Valdez get on with her job. Given the state of the department she's got a lot of work to do. On the other hand, Floyd notes, "Given the cumulative performance of those who have held the job in recent decades, the bar isn't all that high." (As an aside, I should congratulate my college friend Susan Hays, who chairs the Dallas County Democratic Party, on this her most impressive victory.)

Olivera's piece, which appears above Floyd's on the jump page, reported on her conversations with several historians who studied the Texas Rangers' darker moments. We're talking here about alleged atrocities by the famous law enforcement unit, not the Arlington baseball team's annual August-September slide. The scholars will be speaking at a standing-room-only event at SMU scheduled for next Wednesday.

The tragic history described in Olivera's column actually led to the creation of the League of United Latin American Citizens, still the premier Latino civil rights group in Texas 80 years later. Olivera recounted:

"Benjamin H. Johnson
, history professor at Southern Methodist University, has written an account of some of the massacres in his book, Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans Into America. (Ed note: the book got a plug in the New York Times on Halloween.)

"The killings came during a chaotic period, 1915-16, when the Mexican Revolution was still raging and the Texas Rangers were drawn in to resist Mexican bandits and insurrectionists intent on reclaiming the region for Mexico."

In some cases, historians say killings occurred on such a large scale that one is tempted to use the word genocide, particularly given that we're talking about a relatively sparsely populated rural area. Olivera continued:

"Dr. Johnson's book contains witness accounts of mass lynchings of prisoners and innocent Mexicans and Tejanos, as Texans of Mexican heritage were called. As many as 5,000 may have been slain.

"The Texas Ranger Hall of Fame in Waco also acknowledges that innocent people were killed.

"When Dr. Johnson first read the archives of public hearings held in 1919 by a state representative, J.T. Canales, 'it was like reading about the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans,' he said. Mr. Canales would go on to help found the League of United Latin American Citizens. 'It got people like Canales talking about their rights as American citizens,' Dr. Johnson said, and marks the first civil rights struggles in Texas by Mexican-Americans.

"Kirby Warnock
wrote, directed and produced the film Border Bandits, based on the story told to him by his late grandfather Roland Warnock.

"The elder Mr. Warnock recounted the tale of how he witnessed a group of Rangers shoot two unarmed men and leave them on the side of the road. He returned later and buried the bodies in a grave that is marked to this day.

"Mr. Warnock spent about five years tracking down some of the descendants of victims and included the story in a memoir published in 1992. When the book came out, he said, he received several calls from people confirming the tale.

Ben Johnson's book Revolution in Texas is a little pricey at $30, but I've ordered it anyway. It sounds from Olivera's column like his work is invaluable.

Today, some things haven't changed, but a lot has. About a dozen Latinos now serve in the Texas Rangers, which still exists as an elite division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. And voters just elected a lesbian named Lupe Valdez Dallas County sheriff. One imagines J.T. Canales would have been amazed.

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