- Militarizing the Border: When Mexicans Became the Enemy by Miguel Antonio Levario
As he explains in the introduction to Militarizing the Border, historian Miguel Antonio Levario experienced an intellectual awakening on a routine drive to his El Paso high school in 1993. That morning, Levario noticed a cluster of U.S. Border Patrol vehicles deployed along the Rio Grande, which, he learned afterwards, was part of Operation Hold the Line, an effort aimed at preventing an "immigrant invasion" from Mexico that some area residents were convinced was imminent. That encounter left Levario perplexed and angry, but it also aroused in him an enduring curiosity about "militarization and migration from Mexico, its causes and explanations" (xi).
The result of Levario's investigations into those questions is Militarizing the Border, which consists of five chapters covering the critical period from 1893 to 1933. Levario begins with a reconsideration of the role of the Texas Rangers in serving the interests of the state's Anglo elite, very often to the detriment of Mexicans (for whom, according to one twentieth-century observer, the force was equivalent to the Ku Klux Klan). Next, Levario turns his attention to the Santa Ysabel Massacre of January 1916, in which a band of Villista soldiers apprehended and executed nineteen American mining engineers bound for Chihuahua; news of this event, in turn, precipitated the El Paso Race Riot, as whites took indiscriminate revenge on local Mexicans. The El Paso City Jailhouse Holocaust is the subject of chapter three, which narrates the tragic result of a delousing campaign in 1916 that targeted Mexicans and led to the deaths of nineteen Mexican prisoners (and eight others) when one of the kerosene disinfectant "baths" caught fire. Chapter four examines Pancho Villa's 1916 raid on Columbus, New Mexico, easily the most familiar episode described in the book. Levario concludes by considering a trio of vexed social issues—prohibition, immigration, and border enforcement—in chapter five.
Militarizing the Border has much to recommend it. For one thing, Levario sheds welcome light on West Texas and its own complex and tortured history of race relations, which has received far less attention, especially [End Page 221] in recent years, than the trans-Nueces portion of the Lone Star State. For another, Levario raises fascinating questions—especially in chapter three—about the role of racism in public health campaigns of the day, while revealing, in chapter four, how Villa used the El Paso city jailhouse fire to inspire his own troops before their brief but infamous cross-border raid.
But the book also has its limitations, starting with the heavy theoretical frame that crowds the introduction but is then promptly (if mercifully) abandoned immediately afterwards. Moreover, readers unfamiliar with Texas history of this period would have benefited from a more extensive survey of the state's nineteenth-century past; the chapter on the Rangers, for example, begins almost in medias res with the El Paso Salt War of 1877, ignoring the critical "prehistory" of the force as a product of the strained race relations in Texas that date to the arrival of Anglos in the 1820s. Finally, Levario's tone is at times too heavy-handed, leaving one to wish that the author had allowed his evidence—abundant and meticulously assembled—to do more of the talking. Still, Militarizing the Border is a solid contribution to the historiography of race in Texas and could easily generate productive discussion in undergraduate classrooms.