Scholars receive NEH grant for historical project on state-led violence on the border

When Sonia Hernández submitted a project proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) last December, she worried a federal entity might not fund a project that explores state-led violence on the Texas-Mexico border. There was also the worry the NEH would no longer exist, after President Donald Trump proposed cutting its funding.

She was thrilled to learn last week that the project – “Reverberations of Memory, Violence, and History: The Centennial of the 1919 Canales Investigation” – was one of 12 collaborative research projects to receive an NEH grant. The NEH officially announced the recipients Wednesday.

In 1919, former State Rep. José Tomás “J.T.” Canales (D-Brownsville) called for a formal inquiry by the Texas Legislature into the violence carried out by the Texas Rangers in the Rio Grande Valley. The rangers are currently a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety; however they’ve served under different agencies and have played many law enforcement roles throughout their history.

The rangers killed hundreds – if not thousands – of Mexicans and Mexican Americans from 1910 to 1920 who they suspected of being bandits or Mexican revolutionaries, said Hernández, an associate professor of History at Texas A&M and the incoming director of its Latino/a & Mexican American Studies program.

“We wanted to mark the centennial of the very first state-led investigation of Texas Ranger violence, which was called for by the only Mexican American state legislator at the time,” Hernández said.

The $65,000 NEH grant will fund a conference Hérnandez and co-project director John Morán González, an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, are organizing to discuss the legacy of the Canales Investigation. The two-day conference will take place in early 2019 at Texas A&M.

“It’s a moment [in time] that serves as a lesson about cooperation and coming together to address violence,” Hernández said.

The conference builds on the work of Refusing to Forget, a project a group of professors from across the country – including Hernández and González – started in 2013 to increase public awareness of this period of state-sanctioned violence in the borderlands.

Trinidad Gonzales, a history professor at South Texas College and a member of the group, said the questions raised by the Canales Investigation are still relevant today.

“We’re still grappling with the fundamental question of policing minorities,” he said. “What is the relationship between law enforcement and minorities and how do certain communities get segregated out as dangerous?”

The belief that minorities pose a threat still exists, Gonzales said, and he cited the case of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African American fatally shot by police in Cleveland in 2014. Rice was viewed as dangerous because he was wearing a “hoodie,” Gonzales said.

The notion that “certain policing behavior that we would find unacceptable is acceptable for certain populations” still remains, he added.

Gonzales pointed to Trump’s July 23 speech encouraging police officers to be “rough” with people they arrest, which drew criticism from law enforcement across the country.

Hernández said that while talking about this “dark chapter” in both Texas and the nation’s history is often uncomfortable, it is necessary because these discussions influence public policy.

“This conference will serve as a cautionary tale that the rhetoric and portrayal of people of Mexican-origin as disposable, as half-citizens, as only good for labor, is very dangerous and can lead to violent moments in our lives,” she said. “We need to learn from it in order to move forward and promote cultural understanding in order to implement effective policy with regards to minorities and underrepresented populations in this country.”

In addition to the conference, the NEH grant will fund an edited volume of scholarship surrounding the 1919 Canales Investigation, which will be based on presentations made at the conference.

Hernández hopes the book – which the University of Texas Press has expressed interest in publishing – can be used in history and ethnic studies classes across the country.