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Lynching: An American Story


Above: The lynching of Frank Tafoya, Las Vegas, New Mexico, 1882

As I have stated many times, it’s very frustrating to me to see how both liberals and the left reduce race in America to the black-white binary. I understand why that happens–slavery is one of two centerpieces of the nation, along with genocide. The impact of slavery and its aftermath define much about the nation. And in large parts of the nation, non-whites, as presently defined, tend to be African-American. However, what this leads to is “race = black” except for very specific stories that directly impact other racial groups–Trail of Tears, Japanese internment, Chinese exclusion, and a few others. But reducing most of our racial conversation to just focusing on African-Americans actually serves to erase the stories of other groups on daily basis. That then goes to let other parts of the nation off from their own stories of racial terrorism.

Take lynching. Everyone’s view of lynching has to do with African-Americans. Again, I know why that is. The only non-black lynching victim that receives any attention in our culture is Leo Frank, the Jewish man who was lynched in Atlanta in 1915. But Frank was far more normal a victim that we think. The reality is that lynching affected African-Americans in huge numbers, but it was also used widely against Native Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, poor whites, Jews, and union organizers. It was a system of terrorism used to enforce racial and class order. It’s central to the entire existence of the United States. And we need to tell those stories in full to reckon with our history of racial and class terrorism. Thus, we need a lot more stories such as this one, on Latino activists demanding their ancestors’ lynchings be remembered too.

Arlinda Valencia was at a funeral when an uncle told her a bewildering family secret: An Anglo lynch mob had killed her great-grandfather.

“A mixture of grief and shock overwhelmed me since this was the first I heard of this,” said Ms. Valencia, 66, the leader of a teachers’ union in El Paso. “The more I looked into it, the more stunned I was at how many Mexicans were lynched in this country.”

Ms. Valencia and other descendants of lynching victims are now casting attention on one of the grimmest campaigns of racist terror in the American West: the lynching of thousands of men, women and children of Mexican descent from the mid-19th century until well into the 20th century.

Some victims were burned alive, like Antonio Rodríguez, 20, a migrant worker who was hauled from a jail in Rocksprings, Tex., tied to a tree and set ablaze in 1910. Other mobs hanged, whipped or shot Mexicans, many of whom were United States citizens, sometimes drawing crowds in the thousands.

Lynchings have long been associated with violence against African-Americans in the American South, and these atrocities are remembered at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. Lynchings of Hispanics have faded into history with less attention. Often, they have been portrayed as attempts to exercise justice on behalf of white settlers protecting their livestock or claims to land.

But a new movement is underway to uncover that neglected past. It has unleashed discussions about the scramble for land or mining claims that frequently influenced these lynchings, as well as the traces of such episodes in resurgent anti-Latino sentiment and the question many parts of the United States are confronting: Who gets to tell history?

“The conquest of the West is still simply a tale of incredible progress for many Americans,” said Monica Muñoz Martínez, a professor of American studies at Brown University who has written extensively about anti-Mexican violence in Texas.

“But despite the unwillingness to recognize these lynchings as a tragedy, or even recognize them at all, momentum is building to finally reckon with these events,” said Professor Muñoz Martínez, who was raised in Texas and is a co-founder of Refusing to Forget, a group committed to increasing awareness about state-sanctioned violence against Latinos in Texas.

We are also culpable in forgetting these stories. If stories about Mexican-Americans are not central to our narratives, whether we are professional historians or just well-meaning people trying to make a better nation, we are short-changing the public and ourselves and our future. Some of this also has to do with the fact that the lynched people of other races are far away from traditional centers of power, politics, and media. That’s no excuse.

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