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Fronteras: ‘This is U.S. History’ — Exhibit 'Life & Death on the Border' sheds light on state-sanctioned violence against Mexicans in Texas

The traveling panel exhibit, Life and Death on the Border: 1910-1920, highlights the matanza, or massacre — a period of state-sanctioned violence that some historians estimate killed anywhere from 500 to 5,000 ethnic Mexicans in Texas in the early 20th century.

The exhibit was originally produced by the public history project Refusing to Forget, a group of historians on a mission to showcase this undertold history of violence.

Life and Death on the Border made its first major appearance at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin in 2016 and traveled to McAllen in early 2023.

Its latest stop is at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, where it will be on display at the Sueltenfuss Library through March.

The exhibit consists of over a dozen panels that feature photos, documents, and newspaper clippings that offer context on how and why the state sanctioned violence against ethnic Mexicans in Texas.

Christopher Carmona, visiting associate professor of Comparative Mexican American Studies and English at OLLU, is a member of Refusing to Forget.

He explained the name behind the exhibit.

“We wanted to make sure it had ‘life’ first, because it’s not just about the death of these people,” he said. “[It’s about] the people who lived during those times and the resilience of the community.”

Panels explore topics ranging from the railroad and agriculture, to Juan Crow laws, the creation of the League of United Latin American Citizens, and even artistic and literary contributions to the Latino civil rights movement.

One panel details the impact the railroads had in growing Texas’ economy and to native Mexican populations. Another showcases newspaper clippings with different reactions to the 1910 lynching of Antonio Rodriguez.

Another pair of panels features a famous photo of three men on horseback with the crumpled corpses of three Mexicans tied to the end of their ropes. However, the images are cut off before viewers can see the corpses.

Valerie Martínez, associate professor of history at OLLU, says this is an important and impactful decision.

“In terms of public history, this is completely recasting the gaze,” she said. “It’s not retraumatizing, it’s not re-victimizing. Here, it shifts to the actual perpetrators of that violence.”

Martínez says the touring exhibit is just one way to tell the essential, undertold chapters of Texas history.

“We continue to push for ethnic studies so people can learn their history and can learn from it and hopefully promote some type of healing within our communities, “ she said.

Community members who may have artifacts relevant to the matanza and to the Latino civil rights movement can lend them to the exhibit.

For details, contact Christopher Carmona at ccarmona@ollusa.edu or 210-431-6511, or Valerie Martinez at vamartinez@ollusa.edu.

Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1