- “The Most Turbulent and Most Traumatic Years in Recent Mexican-American History”: Police Violence and the Civil Rights Struggle in 1970s Texas
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“[There is] an old West Texas ethnic joke that Lubbock State Rep. Froy Salinas remembers well from his childhood,” the Dallas Morning News reported in one of many columns on police violence against Mexican Americans in the Lone Star State in the 1970s. In repeating Salinas’s “joke,” the Morning News used an ellipsis to signal the transition from the setup to the three-word punchline: “Texas Rangers all have Mexican blood . . . on their boots.” Asked for his view, civil rights activist Dr. Héctor P. García asserted that police violence was a central means by which the state and its Anglo majority subordinated that large and growing minority group.1 “Anytime a policeman’s gun discharges in Texas, it goes straight through a Mexican-American’s head or stomach,” he lamented. “That’s a violation of the laws of physics, trajectory [End Page 33] and gravity.”2 With their focus on police violence, Salinas and García brought attention to a major issue confronting Mexican Americans in Texas in the 1970s.
The 1970s were marked by numerous high-profile killings of Mexican Americans in Texas by Anglo police officers, especially in the years 1977 and 1978. The killings occurred throughout the state, in large cities like Dallas and Houston and in small towns like Sierra Blanca and Plainview. Although these killings may not have represented an actual increase in slayings of Mexican Americans by law enforcement—indeed memories of the hundreds and perhaps thousands killed by Texas Rangers in the mid-1910s remained strong—they did lead to extensive press coverage. Moreover, Mexican Americans responded to the killings with concerted, bold calls for justice, with politicians and older organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) working together with younger, more radical Chicana/o activists, including the Brown Berets. Through political action and street protests, they demanded the Anglo majority take notice and forced the federal government to respond. Their efforts, however, did not come without backlash.
Historians have focused considerable attention on the abuse of persons of Mexican descent by the American border patrol in its various incarnations but have insufficiently examined that by local police forces in Texas. Based on extensive coverage found in Anglo and Mexican American newspapers, in the papers of LULAC, and in contemporary magazines, this study begins to remedy this omission by focusing on local-level police violence in the 1970s. In the first section it analyzes the routine nature of police violence against Mexican Americans, details a serious outbreak of such violence against them, and assesses the lenient penalties, if any, imposed upon the perpetrators. In the second it explores the strategy and tactics employed by Mexican American activists who challenged police violence, its perpetrators, and their defenders. Finally, it discusses the implications of these findings for the scholarship on the Mexican American civil rights struggle. At the outset, however, it places this phase of their long struggle in its historical context within Texas.
This study builds upon a flurry of scholarship focused on racist (primarily mob) violence against Mexican Americans—indeed, persons of Mexican descent broadly—in the American Southwest since 1848. Some scholars have examined the history of mob violence, particularly lynching, against persons of Mexican descent from 1848 to 1928 in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.3 Although these southwestern states [End Page 34] had their share of such violence, historians...