Disclaimer: Professor Monica Martinez, one member of Refusing to Forget, is a mentor and professor of mine at Brown University. This review was completed as a requirement for a Methods in Public Humanities course.
Life and Death on the Border 1910-1920, 3rd Floor Rotunda Gallery, Bullock Museum, Austin, Tx., https://www.thestoryoftexas.com/visit/exhibits/life-and-death-on-the-border-1910-1920
January 23-April 3, 2016. Approximately 3,000 sq. ft. in 44,000 sq. ft. museum. Jenny Cobb, Associate Curator of Exhibitions; Toni Beldock, Exhibition Production; Gilbert Medina, Director of Creative Services; Refusing to Forget, Co-Curators.
he context of contemporary, vitriolic anti-immigrant rhetoric renders the Bullock Texas State History Museum’s Life and Death on the Border 1910-1920 a corrective not only to historical amnesia but to current popular U.S.-Mexican border politics. Co-curated by a scholarly collective known as Refusing to Forget (refusingtoforget.org), this exhibit commemorated a period of anti-Mexican violence at the hands of Texas state law enforcement and vigilantes. Life & Death on the Border 1910-1920 sought to remember and reckon with this history through its historical representation of the “[b]eautiful and dynamic, yet also unforgiving… borderlands between Texas and Mexico.”
Its location in the Bullock Museum took some navigation through other, much larger, exhibitions. Looking out northeast towards The University of Texas at Austin, the exhibit was located on the 3rd Floor Rotunda Gallery of the Bullock Museum. In addition to the rotunda, and keeping with the historical timeline, the exhibit spilled over into an additional room located behind the exhibit title wall. As visitors moved their way around the rotunda, large panels with text superimposed onto archival images served as markers denoting the year in which the information that followed belonged.
The flow of the exhibit allowed for a clear and direct understanding of major events. The timeline moved in roughly five-year periods: 1900, 1904, 1910, 1915, and 1919. The exhibit, historically, began before the turn of the twentieth century quickly with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which geographically cut Mexico in half and established the current Mexico-U.S. border. However, the exhibit acknowledged that “ethnic Mexican families owned land, maintained ranches, and wielded political power” long before these established boundaries. Ethnic Mexican (Mexicano) families would soon see their power decline as European immigrants established farming towns along a Mexican-built railroad. And as a result of dispossession, many Mexicanos moved from self-sufficient landowners to struggling farm and ranch laborers.
The intent of the exhibit to construct the history towards histories of anti-Mexican violence left a lasting impact. By 1910 an atmosphere of ethnic and racial discrimination plaguing south Texas, and a rising revolution in Mexico, led Mexicanos in the U.S. to resist anti-Mexican violence. Their resistance prompted the militarization of the border region, by which law enforcement personnel such as the Texas Rangers were charged with monitoring ‘disloyal’ activity. One Brownsville attorney identified 102 victims of death at the hands of Texas Ranger or vigilantes by 1915. In 1919 Representative José Tomas Canales of Brownsville introduced a bill to alter the makeup of the Texas Ranger force and requested an investigation into their acts of violence. A joint committee led an investigation “for the torture and murder of civilians,” at which 90 witnesses testified. The investigation found the Rangers guilty of violating criminal and civil law and a version of Canales’s original bill passed; largely reducing the force. The hearing reflected so poorly on the Texas Rangers, and by extension the state of Texas, that the transcripts of the investigation were not accessible until the 1970s.
While the rotunda ended on a disturbing chord of racial violence, the room behind the main title wall ends the exhibition on notes of hope; a people reclaiming their history. This room quickly exhibits the cultural renaissance and resistance of Mexicanos from the 1920s until the 1960s. Art, literature, music, and folklore claiming a Mexican/Mexican American identity was essential to organizing under one unit. In a sweep of the room from right to left, a shift from intellectual and cultural forms of resistance moved towards more direct action in the Chicana/o Movement of the 1960s exhibiting protest buttons, stickers, and pamphlets. Original manuscripts, paintings, and instruments filled the room in order to depict different ways to articulate the struggle for civil rights. Although the title of the exhibit limited the history only until 1920, the extra room was necessary to show how border communities revived their culture after decades of trauma post 1920s; to depict that the attempts to erase memory, culture, and a people at the hands of the state ultimately failed.
Objects served to humanize populations and provide context for life during these years in addition to the textual history provided. Nearly thirty objects were strategically placed throughout the exhibit in large glass display casings. Each casing seemed to hold a certain theme or correspond with the timeline marker after which it follows. The first display case held wedding dresses, shoes, and a hair comb all ranging in years from 1902 through 1916. While this and other themed casings (e.g., cooking and language, religion, and labor) were categorized, others directly related to the topical information of the marked year. For example, the information following the 1915 marker focused on the violence inflicted on people of Mexican descent stemming from the militarization of the border. However, the display of a U.S. army helmet worn by soldier J. Luz Sáenz in 1917-1918 for service in World War I signified a staple of citizenship and patriotism that was often not awarded to Mexican peoples because of their ancestral ties. Saenz’ army helmet juxtaposed against the display of Texas Ranger John Coffee Hays’ jacket and colt revolver, under the same time marker, allow for a critique about the merits of sacrifice and life. It also awards Saenz, almost one hundred years later, the honor he deserves.
Interactive stations in the exhibit fell short and could have the content could have been executed in other ways. The first, located at the end of the rotunda, is a touchscreen uploaded with transcripts from the 1919 Texas Ranger investigation. Three testimonies and one set of correspondence were available for selection to provide examples of first-person experiences of violence by Texas Rangers. The second station, located in the cultural renaissance room, was a music listening station with recordings of música Tejana (or Texas-Mexican music). Five songs with 30-second samples were available for listening over a speaker. All five songs had upbeat rhythms that pulled together the energy of resistance and cultural celebration already in the room.
The minimalist design of the exhibit provided few distractions and centered the historical text. Information was key. It was curated in a way to provide its visitors with a foundational understanding of Mexican American History along the Mexico-U.S. borderlands. This can be seen in the lack of curation of sounds, lighting, etc., (as opposed to other exhibits in the Bullock), but rather the focus was on historical content and objects. Considering the space of the gallery area, this exhibit utilized all available wall and floor space in order to maximize its affective capabilities by amplifying social histories from the borderlands.
Overall, the sentiments and existence of Life and Death on the Border 1910-1920 mirror that of the cultural renaissance room; a people recognizing, remembering, and reclaiming their history. But this time it is framed in the context of Texas/U.S. history rather than only towards specific communities. Refusing to Forget sought the Bullock Museum for its locale in the center of the state capitol and its prestige for being the state of Texas’ official history museum.This is the first time such a large, state-funded institution recognized histories of culture and violence along the border. Bringing the history and objects of individual, daily lives from the borderlands to the center of the state signifies not only a recognition of this history, but a willingness to enter into conversations of dispossession, labor, violence, and most importantly, resistance.