“I learned that for those of us working on issues of social justice and histories of racial violence, the stakes are high. We have to be exceptional scholars.”
Born in Uvalde, Texas, Professor Martinez is the cofounder Refusing to Forget, a nonprofit organization that calls for a public reckoning with the history of racial violence in her home state. Refusing to Forget helped develop an award-winning exhibit for the Bullock Texas State History Museum and in the past five years has secured four state historical markers to honor those whose lives were lost to violence along the US-Mexico border. In addition to her university and nonprofit leadership roles, Martinez is the primary investigator for Mapping Violence, a digital humanities project that aims to expose interconnected histories of violence that intersect in Texas.
On September 3, 2018, Professor Martinez’s first book, The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas, was released by Harvard University Press. In it, she uses a combination of archival research, family testimonies, oral histories, and interviews to unearth a profoundly tragic yet little known civil rights era in American history: the pivotal decade between 1910 and 1920 when state police and vigilantes wrought havoc upon rural Mexican communities under the guise of protecting Anglo-American settlers.
During her visit earlier this year to Columbia University for an MMUF regional conference, we sat down with Professor Martinez to discuss her MMUF fellowship experience, and to learn more about her new book.
Martinez’s book, The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas, was released on September 3, 2018. Courtesy of Harvard University Press.
How did you learn about the program?
During my first year at Brown University, my professor Maria Josefina Saldaña-Portillo pulled me aside and recommended that I apply to the MMUF program. She told me I had a historian’s instinct. At that point, I did not have a clue about graduate school nor becoming a professor.
She explained that I could help recover histories from the US-Mexico border and social justice efforts that had long been overlooked by the field. It seemed ironic that I had traveled 2,000 miles from my home state of Texas, to Rhode Island, to learn the history of civil rights movements in the southwest. She helped me realize I could write histories that could be taught in schools back home. But once I started, I was hooked and I am forever grateful.
What was that first year as an MMUF fellow like?
During my first year, I was exposed to incredibly innovative approaches to research and learned how to preserve the histories of racial and ethnic minorities in the southwest that libraries, archives, and other historians had failed to document. My Mellon mentors Matthew Garcia and Evelyn Hu-Dehart trained me in interdisciplinary research methods, oral history, and historical recovery.
During my first summer as a research assistant, I traveled to southern California with Professor Garcia and a team of students to conduct oral history interviews with civil rights activists contesting segregation, exploitation, and gentrification. We digitized boxes of documents and photographs stored in people’s closets and garages. We learned strategies for making the research available to the public. We also collaborated with the Brown University library to build one of the first digital archives stored in Brown’s digital repository, and with the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities to curate a physical exhibit called Educating Change on display in Spring 2005 and a complementary digital exhibit.
Can you share with us when and why you began to focus your work on border issues? Was there a particular moment when you realized this would define your scholarship?
In spring 2007, I was sitting in a library basement at Yale University reading microfilm of La Crónica, a Texas newspaper published in the 1910s. I came across an article expressing moral outrage for the brutal lynching of Antonio Rodríguez, a 20-year-old Mexican laborer burned at the stake in 1910. My hands started to shake. I had heard about this lynching before—in 2005 when I interviewed my uncle for another project. He learned the story of Rodríguez’s lynching as a teenager working as a sheep shearer. The long history of racial violence helped inspire my uncle’s commitment to protesting police violence and segregation.
I was instantly gripped by the ability of community memory to preserve this history over the course of a century. I became committed to documenting histories of anti-Mexican violence overlooked by mainstream history—not only as a way to memorialize the past, but also because the consequences of public misunderstandings of border histories are stark and have shaped the current humanitarian crisis on the border. If we connect more truthfully with the past, we can chart a new course moving forward.
Life and Death on the Border: 1910-1920, an award-winning 2016 exhibit at the Bullock Texas State History Museum that was developed with support from Martinez and her nonprofit Refusing to Forget.
Your book The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas was released in September. Tell us about your research process. What were your primary sources?
Most people assume that archives for researching lynchings, police violence, and intimidation are ephemeral or hard to find. To the contrary, I found thousands of pages of evidence. Sources ranged from newspaper articles, police records, letters of correspondence, diplomatic records, census records, death certificates, birth certificates, marriage records, state congressional records, hundreds of oral histories, and court cases. In the case of police violence, the police themselves were often the sole agents that investigated the crimes.
One of the most important archives for me is the 1,600-page transcript of the 1919 investigation into abuse at the hands of the Texas Rangers, the state police of Texas. Rangers described their brutal methods without hesitation, yet they enjoyed a culture of impunity and did not face prosecution.
Newspapers in the Spanish language press, reports by Mexican diplomats, and records preserved by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were also invaluable. They provided an important contrast to the widespread endorsement of racial violence.
What role do oral histories and personal testimony play that historical literature cannot?
First-hand accounts were invaluable for this research. I will never forget the testimony of a young Mexican girl that described the lynching of her father Florentino Suaste in Cotulla, Texas in 1895. She witnessed him being removed from a prison cell, shot, and hanged in the town square. Knowing the risks, she also publicly identified one of the assailants. Without her testimony, and her mother’s effort to receive an indemnity from the US government, we wouldn’t know this history. The research was difficult of course, but I was inspired by the families, who despite the failure of cultural institutions to document this period of terror, had remained dedicated to making these histories public.
I also relied on the personal testimonies of Anglo law enforcement and US soldiers that protested the violence. Robert Keil, a US soldier, worked for decades to publish a truthful account of the Porvenir massacre. Sheriff W. T. Vann in Brownsville wrote to state officials trying to remove abusive state officers from Cameron County.
Personal testimonies offer important reminders that racial violence does not only impact the targets of that violence, it expands to encompass entire societies.
Epigmenia Treviño Bazán (center left), whose husband Jesus Bazàn was murdered, stands on the porch of her home with surviving family members. The baby in front is Eloisa Longoria, whose father Antonio was also killed at the hands of the state. Despite violence and intimidation, the women decided not to leave their ranch, ultimately passing it on to their children. Courtesy of Christine Molis and Norma L. Rodriguez. Photo provided by the Bullock Texas State History Museum.
How does your work as a nonprofit leader intersect with your work as a professor and scholar? Does one define the other?
I want my work to inform real change. What good is the research I am doing if it only reaches other historians and professors and doesn’t change public perceptions of the past?
I was confronted with this question in September 2015, when I received an award for my first published article about a brutal yet unreported, unprosecuted murder of Jesus Bazán and Antonio Longoria in Hidalgo County in 1915. That same week, the Texas Historical Commission rejected an application for a state historical marker to recognize this very event.
I was struck that academic excellence, in this case, had not translated into advances in public history. On the other hand, without the research that brought this tragedy to light, there would be no chance for the historical marker application. In 2016 the case was featured in the exhibit at the Bullock Texas State History Museum and in November 2018 we will, finally, unveil a state historical marker acknowledging the murders. Without strong scholarship, the public history would not be possible.
On October 14, 2017 residents, teachers, students, politicians, and descendants gathered in Cameron County to unveil a state historical marker commemorating La Matanza, a period of state sanctioned anti-Mexican violence in Texas. The marker unveiling ended four days of associated public history events. Courtesy of University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Photo by David Pike.
Looking back, what were the most valuable lessons you took away from the fellowship?
Excellence, a desire to serve a greater good, and leadership. I learned that for those of us working on issues of social justice and histories of racial violence, the stakes are high. We have to be exceptional scholars. I also learned about the importance of leveraging our PhDs to make change for the greater good. I’ve come to understand that a tenure-track job in the academy is not and should not be the end goal. We have to advance scholarship within the academy and move beyond the academy to shape public understandings of history, to inform policy, and to shape a better future.