‘What I am most proud of is finding the voice of the forgotten dead,’ Nicholas Villanueva says
Bands of Texans, some operating under the auspices of the legal system, engaged in mob violence against scores of Mexicans during the early 20th century, and these killings were not originally recognized as lynchings, according to research published in a book by a member of the University of Colorado Boulder faculty.
Nicholas Villanueva, an instructor in the ethnic studies department at CU Boulder, detailed these killings of marginalized Mexicans between 1910 and 1920 in The Lynching of Mexicans in the Texas Borderlands, published this summer.
Villanueva’s dissertation at Vanderbilt University led to the research at the heart of the book.
“What I am most proud of is finding the voice of the forgotten dead,” Villanueva says.
Written in a narrative style, the book provides a critical retelling of history and its injustices that often go untold by other texts, Villanueva says.
Research for Lynching of Mexicans in the Texas Borderlands began when Villanueva noticed an obscure case mentioned in the text of the book Lone Star Justice. That book cites the case of Leon Martinez Jr., who was executed in Texas in the early 1900s.
As Villanueva probed further, he found that Martinez was under the legal age for execution. Marinez’s jury consisted of six people from a “lynch mob” the night a member of their community was killed.
I did not expect to find haunting similarities… laws that target surveillance of ethnic Mexican people in the region, to even large political figures speaking out against (and) broadly saying Mexicans, when not distinguishing between citizens, non-citizens, and various Latino/a groups not just of Mexican descent."
Martinez was blamed because he helped the victim carry groceries from her buggy earlier in the day.
“He was my inspiration for the project,” Villanueva states. “This was a legal lynching.”
Villanueva says it is important to remember the forgotten dead, and looking through primary sources, he was surprised when he found the name Salvador Villanueva—his grandfather.
“He was actually a refugee during this time of the Mexican Revolution. He and his cousin fled to Texas,” Villanueva states. “My father never told me that story as a youth, and for some reason at graduate school I found myself examining Mexican refugees. When I told him this, he said, ‘You know your grandfather was a refugee of the Mexican Revolution, right?’”
Salvador’s family was executed in front of him when Salvador was 16, Villanueva learned.
“You will not find lynching of Mexicans during this decade in any history textbook I have used in a history survey class. To my knowledge, I am the second person who published a book on this topic,” Villanueva states.
The other book, Forgotten Dead by William Carrigan and Clive Web, speaks of mob violence between 1848 and 1930 against Mexicans, and Carrigan and Webb speculate about why this violence spiked between 1910 and 1920. Villanueva explored and built on these ideas specifically during that decade.
“There’s a lot more room for literature and historians and sociologists to examine this topic,” Villanueva states.
The Tuskegee institute and Chicago Tribune have classically archived these cases. Under the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s criteria, a death by law enforcement is not categorized as a “lynching,” so Villanueva argues that more people were lynched than have previously been estimated when one counts mobs that included members of the Texas Rangers.
Though the NAACP definition leaves the Texas Rangers unaccountable in lynch mobs, more than 2,000 people died at the Rangers’ hands in what became known as the “bandit wars.”
“I did not expect to find haunting similarities… laws that target surveillance of ethnic Mexican people in the region, to even large political figures speaking out against (and) broadly saying Mexicans, when not distinguishing between citizens, non-citizens, and various Latino/a groups not just of Mexican descent,” Villanueva said.
“We, unfortunately, are repeating some of the same social problems that existed literally 100 years ago, today.”
Villanueva says he takes pride in humanizing people who were so marginalized that they were senselessly killed. He also finds it important that readers understand at the end, families and lives are associated with people who are labeled as undocumented, or “illegal” today.
Villanueva’s follow-up book, (Un)Making Citizens, looks at segregation of Mexicans in the Texas borderlands during the 1920s, which is similar to Jim Crow but for Latinos during this period.
At CU Boulder, Villanueva also directs the Critical Sports Studies program. In this role, Villanueva utilizes his expertise in contemporary and historical social problems, and designs courses that view these problems within the context of sports.
In another soon-to-be-published book, Politics, Protest, and Social Justice in Sport, Villanueva rifts on these same themes by providing a global contemporary examination of sports, from South African segregation at golf courses, to the German world cup team that insulted Argentinian team, to white privilege in sports.
Villanueva dedicated The Lynching of Mexicans in the Texas Borderlands to his father and his late mother.
At the top of page, Texas Rangers are shown with bodies of Mexicans killed in 1915. Photo courtesy Bullock Texas State History Museum.