from With His Pistol in His Hand
Amusements were also communal, though the statement in no way should suggest the "dancing, singing throng" creating as a group. Group singing, in fact, was rare. The community got together, usually at the patriarch's house, to enjoy the performance of individuals, though sometimes all the individuals in a group might participate in turn.
The dance played but little part in Border folkways, though in the twentieth century the Mexicanized polka has become something very close to a native folk form. Native folk dances were not produced, nor were they imported from fringe areas like southern Tamaulipas, where the huapango was danced. Polkas, mazurkas, waltzes, lancers, contra-danzas, and other forms then in vogue were preferred. Many Border families had prejudices against dancing. It brought the sexes too close to-gether and gave rise to quarrels and bloody fights among the men. There were community dances at public spots and some private dances in the homes, usually to celebrate weddings, but the dance on the Border was a modern importation, reflecting European vogues.
Horse racing was, of course, a favorite sport among the men. In the home, amusements usually took the form of singing, the presentation of religious plays at Christmas, tableaux, and the like. This material came from oral tradition. Literacy among the old Border families was relatively high, but the reading habit of the Protestant Anglo-Saxon, fostered on a veneration of the written words in the Bible, was foreign to the Borderer. His re-ligion was oral and traditional.
On most occasions the common amusement was singing to the accompaniment of the guitar: in the informal community gatherings, where the song alternated with the tale; at weddings, which had their own special songs, the golondrinas; at Christmastime, with its pastorelas and aguinaldos; and even at some kinds of funerals, those of infants, at which special songs were sung to the guitar.
The Nuevo Santander people also sang ballads. Some were songs remembered from their Spanish origins, and perhaps an occasional ballad came to them from the older frontier colony of Nuevo Mexico. But chiefly they made theft own. They committed their daily affairs and their history to the ballad form: the fights against the Indians, the horse races, and the domestic triumphs and tragedies-and later the border conflicts and the civil wars. The ballads, and the tradition of ballad-making as well, were handed down from father to son, and thus the people of the Lower Rio Grande developed a truly native balladry.
It was the Treaty of Guadalupe that added the final element to Rio Grande society, a border. The river, which had been a focal point, became a dividing line. Men were expected to consider theft relatives and closest neighbors, the people just across the river, as foreigners in a foreign land. A restless and acquisi-tive people, exercising the rights of conquest, disturbed the old ways.
Out of the conflict that arose on the new border came men like Gregorio Cortez. Legends were told about these men, and ballads were sung in their memory. And this state of affairs persisted for one hundred years after Santa Anna stormed the Alamo.
In the conflict along the Rio Grande, the English-speaking Texan (whom we shall call the Anglo-Texan for short) disappoints us in a folkloristic sense. He produces no border balladry. His contribution to the literature of border conflict is a set of attitudes and beliefs about the Mexican which form a legend of their own and are the complement to the corrido, the Border-Mexican ballad of border conflict. The Anglo-Texan legend may be summarized under half a dozen points.
1. The Mexican is cruel by nature. The Texan must in self-defense treat the Mexican cruelly, since that is the only treat-ment the Mexican understands.
2. The Mexican is cowardly and treacherous, and no match for the Texan. lie can get the better of the Texan only by stabbing him in the back or by ganging up on him with a crowd of accomplices.
3. Thievery is second nature in the Mexican, especially horse and cattle rustling, and on the whole he is about as degenerate a specimen of humanity as may be found anywhere.
4. The degeneracy of the Mexican is due to his mixed blood, though the elements in the mixture were inferior to begin with. He is descended from the Spaniard, a second-rate type of European, and from the equally substandard Indian of Mexico, who must not be confused with the noble savages of North America.
5. The Mexican has always recognized the Texan as his superior and thinks of him as belonging to a race separate from other Americans.
6. The Texan has no equal anywhere, but within Texas itself there developed a special breed of men, the Texas Rangers, in whom the Texan's qualities reached their culmination.
This legend is not found in the cowboy ballads, the play-party songs, or the folk tales of the people of Texas. Orally one finds it in the anecdote and in some sentimental verse of nonfolk origin. It is in print-in newspapers, magazines, and books-that it has been circulated most. In books it has had its greatest influence and its longest life. The earliest were the war propaganda works of the 1830's and 1840's about Mexican "atrocities" in Texas, a principal aim of which was to overcome Northern antipathy toward the approaching war with Mexico.' After 1848, the same attitudes were perpetuated in the works, many of them autobiographical, about the adventurers and other men of action who took part in the border conflict on the American side. A good and an early example is the following passage from Sketches of the Campaign in Northern Mexico, by an officer of Ohio volunteers.
*Note: See J. Frank Dobie, The Flavor of Texas, Dallas, 1936, pp. 125ff., for some of the aims and the effects of this type of work.
The inhabitants of the valley of the Rio Grande are chiefly oc-cupied in raising stock ... But a pastoral life, generally so propitious to purity of morals and strength of constitution, does not appear to have produced its usually happy effect upon that people ... vile rancheros; the majority of whom are so vicious and degraded that one can hardly believe that the light of Christianity has ever dawned upon them.*
Professor Webb does not mean to be disparaging. One wonders what his opinion might have been when he was in a less schol-arly mood and not looking at the Mexican from the objective point of view of the historian. In another distinguished work, The Great Plains, Dr. Webb develops similar aspects of the leg-end. The Spanish "failure" on the Great Plains is blamed partly on the Spanish character. More damaging still was miscegena-tion with the Mexican Indian, "whose blood, when compared with that of the Plains Indian, was as ditch water."' On the other hand, American success on the Great Plains was due to the "pure American stock," the "foreign element" having settled else-where.°
Giddings], Sketches of the Campaign in Northern Mexico, New York,
1853, p. 54.
How can one classify the Texas legend-as fact, as folklore, or as still something else? The records of frontier life after 1848 are full of instances of cruelty and inhumanity. But by far the majority of the acts of cruelty are ascribed by American writers themselves to men of their own race. The victims, on the other hand, were very often Mexicans. There is always the implication that it was "defensive cruelty," or that the Mexicans were being punished for their inhumanity to Texans at the Alamo, Mier, and Goliad.
There probably is not an army (not excepting those of the United States) that has not been accused of "atrocities" during wartime. It is remarkable, then, that those atrocities said to have occurred in connection with the Alamo, Goliad, and the Mier expedition are universally attributed not to the Mexican army as a whole but to their commander, Santa Anna. Even more note-worthy is the fact that Santa Anna's orders were protested by his officers, who incurred the dictator's wrath by pleading for the prisoners in their charge. In at least two other cases (not celebrated in Texas history) Santa Anna's officers were successful in their pleading, and Texan lives were spared. Both Texan and Mexican accounts agree that the executions evoked horror among many Mexicans witnessing them-officers, civilians, and common soldiers."
Had Santa Anna lived in the twentieth century, he would have called the atrocities with which he is charged "war crimes trials." There is a fundamental difference, though, between his executions of Texan prisoners and the hangings of Japanese army officers like General Yamashita at the end of the Pacific War. Santa Anna usually was in a rage when he ordered his victims shot. The Japanese were never hanged without the ceremony of a trial-a refinement, one must conclude, belonging to a more civilized age and a more enlightened people.
The Texan had an undeniable superiority over the Mexican in the matter of weapons. The Texan was armed with the rifle and the revolver. The ranchero fought with the implements of his cowherding trade, the rope and the knife, counting himself lucky if he owned a rusty old musket and a charge of powder. Lead was scarce, old pieces of iron being used for bullets. Possession of even a weapon of this kind was illegal after 1835, when Santa Anna disarmed the militia, leaving the frontier at the mercy of Indians and Texans. Against them the ranchero had to depend on surprise and superior horsemanship. Until the Mexican acquired the revolver and learned how to use it, a revolver-armed Texan could indeed be worth a half-dozen Mexicans; but one may wonder whether cowards will fight under such handicaps as did the Borderers. The Rio Grande people not only defended themselves with inadequate armament; they often made incursions into hostile territory armed with lances, knives, and old swords."
The belief in the Mexican's treachery was related to that of his cowardice. As with the Mexican's supposed cruelty, one finds the belief perpetuated as a justification for outrage. Long after makes some interesting observations about the Mexican annament of the time.
The picture of the Mexican as an inveterate thief, especially of horses and cattle, is of interest to the psychologist as well as to the folklorist. The cattle industry of the Southwest had its origin in the Nueces-Rio Grande area, with the stock and the ranches of the Rio Grande rancheros. The "cattle barons" built up their fortunes at the expense of the Border Mexican by means which were far from ethical. One notes that the white Southerner took his slave women as concubines and then created an image of the male Negro as a sex fiend. In the same way he appears to have taken the Mexican's property and then made him out a thief.
The story that the Mexican thought of the Texan as a being apart and distinguished him from other Americans belongs with the post cards depicting the United States as an appendage of Texas. To the Border Mexican at least, Texans are indistinguish-able from other Americans, and tejano is used for the Texas-Mexican, except perhaps among the more sophisticated. The story that the Mexican believes he could lick the United States if it were not for Texas also must be classed as pure fiction. The Border Mexican does distinguish the Ranger from other Americans, but his belief is that if it were not for the United States Army he would have run the Rangers out of the country a long time ago.
Theories of racial purity have fallen somewhat into disrepute since the end of World War II. So has the romantic idea that Li Po and Einstein were inferior to Genghis Khan and Hitler be-cause the latter two were bloodier and therefore manlier. There is interest from a foildoristic point of view, however, in the glori-fication of the Plains savage at the expense of the semicivilized, sedentary Indian of Mexico. The noble savage very early crept into American folklore in the form of tales and songs about elo-quent Indian chiefs and beautiful Indian princesses. Such stories appear to have had their origin in areas where Indians had completely disappeared." On the frontier the legend seems to have been dichotomized. After the 1870's, when the Indian danger was past, it was possible to idealize the Plains savage. But the "Mexican problem" remained. A distinction was drawn between the noble Plains Indian and the degenerate ancestor of the Mexican.
The legend has taken a firm grip on the American imagination. In the Southwest one finds Americans of Mexican descent attempting to hide theft Indian blood by calling themselves Spanish, while Americans of other origins often boast of having Comanche, Cherokee, or other wild Indian blood, all royal of course. The belief also had its practical aspects in reaffirming Mexican racial inferiority. The Comanche did not consider Mexican blood inferior. Mexican captives were often adopted into the tribe, as were captives of other races. But the Comanche had never read the Bible or John Locke. He could rob, kill, or enslave without feeling the need of racial prejudices to justify his actions.
Even a cursory analysis shows the justification value of the Texas legend and gives us a clue to one of the reasons for its survival. Goldfinch puts most Americans coming into the Brownsville-Matamoros area after the Mexican War into two categories: those who had no personal feeling against the Mexicans but who were ruthless in their efforts to acquire a fortune quickly, and those who, inclined to be brutal to everyone, found in the Mexican's defenseless state after the war an easy and safe outlet for their brutality." It was to the interest of these two types that the legend about the Mexican be perpetuated. As long as the majority of the population accepted it as fact, men of this kind could rob, cheat, or kill the Border Mexican without suffering sanctions either from the law or from public opinion. And if the Mexican retaliated, the law stepped in to defend or to avenge his persecutors.
This does not explain why the legend finds support among the literate and the educated. The explanation may lie in the paucity of Texas literature until very recent times. Other peoples have been stirred up by skillfully written war propaganda, but after the war they have usually turned to other reading, if they have a rich literature from which to draw. J. Frank Dobie has said that if he "were asked what theme of Texas life has been most movingly and dramatically recorded . . . I should name the experiences of Texans as prisoners to the Mexicans." If it is true that the best writing done about Texas until recent times was ancient war propaganda directed against the Mexicans, it is not strange that the prejudices of those early days should have been preserved among the literate. The relative lack of perspective and of maturity of mind that Mr. Dobie himself deplored as late as 1952 in writers about the Southwest also played its part." Is the Texas legend folklore? The elements of folklore are there. One catches glimpses of the "false Scot" and the "cruel Moor," half-hidden among the local color. Behind the superhuman Ranger are Beowulf, Roland, and the Cid, slaying hundreds.'9 The idea that one's own clan or tribe is unique is prob-ably inherent in certain stages of human development. Sometimes the enemy is forced to recognize the excellence of the hero. Achilles' armor and the Cid's corpse win battles; the Span-ish hosts admit the valor of Brave Lord Willoughby, the English-man; and the Rangers recognize the worth of Jacinto Treviflo, the Mexican.
Evarider McArthur, The Cattle Industry of Texas, 1685-1918,
The group of men who were most responsible for putting the Texan's pseudo folklore into deeds were the Texas Rangers. They were part of the legend themselves, its apotheosis as it were. If all the books written about the Rangers were put one on top of the other, the resulting pile would be almost as tall as some of the tales that they contain. The Rangers have been pictured as a fearless, almost superhuman breed of men, capable of incredible feats. It may take a company of militia to quell a riot, but one Ranger was said to be enough for one mob. Evildoers, especially Mexican ones, were said to quail at the mere mention of the name. To the Ranger is given the credit for ending lawlessness and disorder along the Rio Grande.
What the Border Mexican thought about the Ranger is best illustrated by means of sayings and anecdotes. Here are a few that are typical.
1. The Texas Ranger always carries a rusty old gun in his saddlebags. This is for use when he kills an unarmed Mexican. He drops the gun beside the body and then claims he killed the Mexican in self-defense and after a furious battle.
2. When he has to kill an armed Mexican, the Ranger tries to catch him asleep, or he shoots the Mexican in the back.
3. If it weren't for the American soldiers, the Rangers wouldn't dare come to the Border. The Ranger always runs and hides behind the soldiers when real trouble starts.
4. Once an army detachment was chasing a raider, and they were led by a couple of Rangers. The Mexican went into the brush. The Rangers galloped up to the place, pointed it out, and then stepped back to let the soldiers go in first.
5. Two Rangers are out looking for a Mexican horse thief. They strike his trail, follow it for awhile, and then turn at right angles and ride until they meet a half-dozen Mexican laborers walking home from the fields. These they shoot with their deadly Colts. Then they go to the nearest town and send back a report to Austin: "In pursuit of horse thieves we encountered a band of Mexicans, and though outnumbered we succeeded in killing a dozen of them after a hard fight, without loss to ourselves. It is believed that others of the band escaped and are making for the Rio Grande." And as one can see, except for a few omissions and some slight exaggeration, the report is true in its basic details. Austin is satisfied that all is well on the Border. The Rangers add to their reputation as a fearless, hard-fighting breed of men; and the real horse thief stays out of the surrounding territory for some time, for fear he may meet up with the Rangers suddenly on some lonely road one day, and they may mistake him for a laborer.
I do not claim for these little tidbits the documented authenticity that Ranger historians claim for their stories. What we have here is frankly partisan and exaggerated without a doubt, but it does throw some light on Mexican attitudes toward the Ranger which many Texans may scarcely suspect. And it may be that these attitudes are not without some basis in fact.
The Rangers have been known to exaggerate not only the numbers of Mexicans they engaged but those they actually killed and whose bodies could be produced, presumably. In 1859 Cortina was defeated by a combined force of American soldiers and Texas Rangers. Army Major Heintzelman placed Cortina's losses at sixty; Ranger Captain Ford estimated them at two hundred." In 1875 Ranger Captain McNelly climaxed his Red Raid on the Rio Grande by wiping out a band of alleged cattle rustlers at Palo Alto. McNelly reported fifteen dead; eight bodies were brought into Brownsville. One more instance should suffice. In 1915 a band of about forty sediciosos (seditionists) under Aniceto Pizana raided Norias in King Ranch. Three days later they were said to have been surrounded a mile from the Rio Grande and wiped out to the last man by a force of Rangers and deputies." About ten years later, just when accounts of this Ranger exploit were getting into print, I remember seeing Aniceto Pizana at a wedding on the south bank of the Rio Grande. He looked very much alive, and in 1954 I was told he was still living. Living too in the little towns on the south bank are a number of the Norias raiders.
Several motives must have been involved in the Ranger practice of killing innocent Mexicans as accomplices of the wrongdoers they could not catch. The most obvious one was "revenge by proxy," as Professor Webb calls it, 14 a precedent set by Bigfoot Wallace, who as a member of Hays's Rangers in the Mexican War killed as many inoffensive Mexicans as he could to avenge his imprisonment after the Mier expedition. A more practical motive was the fact that terror makes an occupied country submissive, something the Germans knew when they executed hostages in the occupied countries of Europe during World War II. A third motive may have been the Ranger weakness for sending impressive reports to Austin about their activities on the Border. The killing of innocent persons attracted unfavorable official notice only when it was extremely overdone.
The Rangers arrived one day, surrounded the place and searched the outbuildings. The family waited in the house. Then the Rangers called the elder Flores out. He stepped to the door, and they shot him down. His two boys ran to him when he fell, and they were shot as they bent over their father. Then the Rangers came into the house and looked around. One of them saw a new pair of chaps, liked them, and took them with him. They left immediately afterwards."
From other sources I learned that the shock drove Josefina Flores temporarily insane. For two days her mother lived in the house with a brood of terrified youngsters, her deranged eldest daughter, and the corpses of her husband and her sons. Then a detachment of United States soldiers passed through, looking for raiders. They buried the bodies and got the family into town.
The daughter recovered her sanity after some time, but it still upsets her a great deal to talk about the killings. And, though forty years have passed, she still seems to be afraid that if she says something critical about the Rangers they will come and do her harm. Apparently Ranger terror did its work well, on the peaceful and the inoffensive.
On May 17, 188, Sergt. B. D. Lindsay and six men from Company D frontier battalion of rangers, while scouting near the Rio Grande for escaped Mexican convicts, saw two Mexicans riding along…As the horses suited the description of those alleged to be in possession of the convicts, and under the impression that these two were the men he was after, Lindsay called to them to halt, and at once opened fire on them. The elder Mexican fell to the ground with his horse, but the younger, firing from behind the dead animal, shot Private Sicker through the heart, killing him instantly. B. C. Reilly was shot through both thighs and badly wounded. The Mexicans stood their ground until the arrival of men from the ranch of a deputy-sheriff named Prudencio Herrera, who ... insisted that the two Mexicans were well known and highly respected citizens and refused to turn them over to the rangers ... The citizens of Laredo…• were indignant over the act of the rangers in shooting on Gonzalez, claiming that he was a well-known citizen of good repute, and alleging that the rangers would have killed them at the outset but for the fact that they defended themselves. The rangers, on the other hand, claimed that unless they would have proceeded as they did, should the Mexicans have been the criminals they were really after they, the rangers, would have been fired on first.
Sometimes the "shoot first" method led to even more serious consequences, and many a would-be Mexican-killer got his head blown off by a comrade who was eager to get in the first shot and mistook his own men for Mexicans while they all waited in ambush. Perhaps "shoot first and ask questions afterwards" is not the right name for this custom. "Shoot first and then see what you're shooting at" may be a better name. As such it has not been limited to the Texas Rangers. All over the United States during the deer season, Sunday hunters go out and shoot first.
Then there is the story about Alfredo Cerda, killed on Brownsville's main street in 1902. The Cerdas were prosperous ranchers near Brownsville, but it was their misfortune to live next to one of the "cattle barons" who was not through expanding yet. One day three Texas Rangers came down from Austin and "executed" the elder Cerda and one of his sons as cattle rustlers. The youngest son fled across the river, and thus the Cerda ranch was vacated. Five months later the remaining son, Aifredo Cerda, crossed over to Brownsville. He died the same day, shot down by a Ranger's gun.
Marcelo Garza, Sr., of Brownsville is no teller of folktales. He is a respected businessman, one of Brownsville's most highly regarded citizens of Mexican descent. Mr. Carza claims to have been an eyewitness to the shooting of the youngest Cerda. In 1902, Mr. Garza says, he was a clerk at the Tomás Fernández store on Elizabeth Street. A Ranger whom Mr. Garza identifies as "Bekar" shot Aifredo, Mr. Garza relates, as Cerda sat in the doorway of the Fernández store talking to Don Tomás, the owner. The Ranger used a rifle to kill Cerda, who was unarmed, "stalking him like a wild animal." After the shooting the Ranger ran into a nearby saloon, where other Rangers awaited him, and the group went out the back way and sought refuge with the federal troops in Fort Brown, to escape a mob of indignant citizens." The same story had been told to me long before by my father, now deceased. He was not a witness to the shooting but claimed to have seen the chasing of the Rangers into Fort Brown.
*Note: Pierce, A Brief History, pp. 110-111.
Professor Webb mentions the shooting in 1902 of an Alfredo Cerda in Brownsville by Ranger A. Y. Baker. He gives no details." Mr. Dobie also mentions an A. Y. Baker, "a famous ranger and sheriff of the border country," as the man responsible for the "extermination" of the unexterminated raiders of Norias.
The methods of the Rangers are often justified as means to an end, the stamping out of lawlessness on the Border. This coin too has another face. Many Borderers will argue that the army and local law enforcement agencies were the ones that pacified the Border, that far from pacifying the area Ranger activities stirred it up, that instead of eliminating lawlessness along the Rio Grande the Rangers were for many years a primary cause of it. It is pointed out that it was the army that defeated the major border raiders and the local authorities that took care of thieves and smugglers. The notorious Lugo brothers were captured and executed by Cortina, the border raider. Mariano Reséndez, the famous smuggler, was taken by Mexican troops. Octaviano Zapate, the Union guerrilla leader during the Civil War, was defeated and slain by Texas-Mexican Confederates under Captain Antonio Benavides. After the Civil War, when released Confederate soldiers and lawless characters were disturbing the Border, citizens did not call for Rangers but organized a company of Texas-Mexicans under Captain Benavides to do their own pacifying."
In The Texas Rangers Professor Webb notes that on the Border after 1848 the Mexican was "victimized by the law," that "the old landholding families found their titles in jeopardy and if they did not lose in the courts they lost to their American lawyers," and again that "the Mexicans suffered not only in their persons but in their property."" What he fails to note is that this lawless law was enforced principally by the Texas Rangers. It was the Rangers who could and did furnish the fortune-making adventurer with services not rendered by the United States Army or local sheriffs. And that is why from the point of view of the makers of fortunes the Rangers were so important to the "pacification" of the Border.
cowed the more inoffensive Mexican, but it also added to the roll
of bandits and raiders many high-spirited individuals who would have
otherwise remained peaceful and useful citizens. These were the heroes
of the Border folk. People sang corridos about these men who, in the
language of the ballads, "each with his pistol defended his right."