Monica Muñoz Martinez Is Setting the Record Straight on Texas’s History of Border ViolenceHistorians in the News
tags: racism, violence, immigration, public history, border, Texas history
Monica Muñoz Martinez was born and raised in the South Texas town of Uvalde, a hundred miles west of San Antonio. Today, the 37-year-old is one of the world’s top experts on the history of racial violence along the Texas-Mexico border—but she didn’t learn much about her community’s past in school. Only at family dinners and barbecues did she hear about Uvalde’s history of segregated schools, the student walkouts her parents participated in, and the Texas Rangers who came to town to try to suppress their efforts. When she moved away to attend Brown University as an ethnic studies major, she finally learned about her history in a classroom. “It wasn’t until I left Uvalde that I realized it was an important place in the civil rights movement for Mexican Americans,” she says.
For the first time, she studied the Chicano rights movement and figures such as Genoveva Morales, a tenacious activist, Uvalde native, and mother of eleven who sued the local school district for discrimination in 1970, prompting the integration of local schools. Martinez says it was surprising and empowering to learn about someone from her own community who did something so incredible: “That’s what kept me wanting to write history.” She later traveled back to her hometown to give a speech at the unveiling of the renamed Morales Junior High.
Now, as a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a founding member of the nonprofit Refusing to Forget, Martinez has continued to fight for the historical recognition of state-sanctioned anti-Mexican violence. Her 2018 book, The Injustice Never Leaves You, punctured the hero myth of the Texas Rangers by chronicling, in devastating detail, how they and other authorities massacred untold numbers of Tejanos in the first decade of the twentieth century. In addition to her scholarship, Martinez also is a public historian who helps curate museum exhibits, designs curricula for schoolteachers, and advocates for historical markers. A primary aim of her work is to provide justice for the victims of violence and their descendants. Refusing to Forget’s advocacy has led to the placement of new historical markers in Texas, despite significant pushback from local historical commissions and conservative activists.
This week, Martinez was recognized as one of 25 MacArthur fellows for 2021. She is the ninth UT-Austin professor to win the $625,000 “genius grant,” which will help fund her next project, Mapping Violence, a digital map of lost or forgotten cases of racial violence in Texas in the early twentieth century. Martinez spoke with Texas Monthly about her work, the importance of learning from our past, and how she remains hopeful for the future.
Texas Monthly: How has your relationship with history changed over the years?
Monica Muñoz Martinez: I didn’t even really know what a historian did when I was growing up. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, and when I got to college I realized it wasn’t for me. I took classes in U.S. history and ethnic studies, and started learning about Texas history. I was learning a history that I was taught parts of at home from my parents but I didn’t have access to in school. I realized there was a lot of history we needed to write that historians, museums, and archives had either ignored or overlooked.
TM: The events that you study can be very dark. What keeps you going?
MM: As a historian, when I’m researching these events of racist violence that have not been documented, I don’t know what is going to happen or what the outcome will be. It is really hard to read newspaper articles that celebrate violence. For example, reading about John Shillady [of the NAACP] coming to Texas in 1919 to ask that the governor pass anti-lynching legislation and then being beaten by a mob that included a county judge who bragged about it to the press. Those are the hardest parts of history to read. But at the same time, if we don’t read about them, then we don’t understand how we’re still grappling with some of the same questions today.
Studying the actions of survivors calling for justice or tending to the remains of their loved ones is so moving. Those actions, on the most basic human level, are a moving expression of love. They are acts of love in the face of hate, racism, and efforts to dehumanize someone. That’s why I’ve been so inspired by those seeking justice in the aftermath of violence, but also by generations that continued that effort.
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