As I was finalizing the course materials for the Latino History and Culture course I am preparing for a free correspondence course for prisoners in solitary confinement in PA (offered by Books Through Bars), I came across an article by critical race theorist/academic/law professor, Richard Delgado, The Law of the Noose: A History of Latino Lynching.
If, instead of reading this article, someone had told me that Mexican Americans were continually lynched during the same period of time that Blacks were continually lynched (roughly 1882-1968) I wouldn't have thought they were lying. I believe I have a fairly adequate understanding of human injustice and incapacities, so it is not surprising per se. But, I have never thought about it before. Which has something to do with the impact Delgado's article is having on me. I have become temporarily obsessed, searching the internet, checking the sources Delgado lists, searching for images like the one pictured above.
- While the numbers of Mexican Americans lynched are significantly lower than the numbers of Blacks lynched (and, also, the number of whites) the percentage is the highest of all three groups given that there were significantly fewer Mexican Americans during the height of lynching in the United States. This is not a competition. The histories of these three groups of peoples have significant, incalculable differences, but still, that fact lends weight here.
- Mexican American lynchings were, as was the case with many Black lynchings in particular, often in combination with a spectacle, an audience, a celebration, a gathering of families to watch. The bodies of the dead were also at times dismembered. Body parts were taken as souvenirs.
- The lynchings took place primarily in the Southwest and to a lesser degree the Midwest.
I can't help but connect this omission to the ways that the race/ethnicity/social status of Mexican Americans has been historically slippery. In the classes I teach, I push to show the absurdity, arbitrary nature and ever shifting status of Mexican Americans in order to help students (hopefully) more thoroughly appreciate the constructions of race/ethnicity/divisions in the United States and the economic interests (etc) behind them. I wonder if the omission of the routine lynchings of Mexican Americans plays into a historical narrative that would rather admit just the bigger, more obvious examples (Black lynchings and oppression) if they must admit anything other than the grand luck that is US economic domination at all.
Many students express, understandably and in a variety of ways, a desire to move forward. To forget slavery, genocide, miseducation, systematic inequalities, lynching... Some find themselves defensive, insistent that they didn't do any of it. That things have changed (look! there and there! a black president! or worse, grumbled musings about "reverse racism" and "affirmative action"). That their path was earned, or at least that their luck isn't their fault. And it isn't, but every semester I hope to slow them down some. To spend more time between the there and potential there-- more time where we are. And in order to do that, it is vital to have a more honest, more complicated, understanding of where we have been.
At the beginning of his essay Delgado asks an interesting question that I would like to end this post with:
"What do tangible things mean, and for whom do they hold meaning?"
link to Delgado article
If the above link doesn't work for some reason, the article is easily available in full pdf form through a quick web search.
trailer for A Class Apart, PBS film that examines the fluidity of Mexican American status
photos and history of important Mexican American figures