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UT Scholar Tells the Story of Texas’ Violent Past on the Mexico-Texas Border

Photos and artifacts from one of the most violent decades in Texas history will be on display in a new exhibition at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.

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AUSTIN, Texas — Photos and artifacts from one of the most violent decades in Texas history — a period often glossed over or forgotten — will be on display in a new exhibition at the Bullock Texas State History Museum that is the culmination of a University of Texas at Austin research initiative.

“Life and Death on the Border 1910-1920″ will be on view Jan. 23-April 3. The museum will host an opening symposium Jan. 21 that will be live-streamed on Twitter @BullockMuseum. It will feature behind-the-scenes scholars including John Morán González, an associate professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin.

The exhibit came out of the Refusing to Forget Project, a research initiative launched in 2013 to memorialize and reckon with a period of state-sanctioned anti-Mexican violence, a story often untold in history lessons today.

“Not talking about it makes it look like Texas Mexicans have no history to remember,” said González, associate director of the Center for Mexican American Studies and faculty affiliate of the Department of American Studies. “It’s essential to understand how we got to this point and where we might go from here.”

The exhibit includes photographs, court documents, newspapers, family histories, eyewitness accounts and rare artifacts such as a saddle that belonged to Francisco “Pancho” Villa and a decoded page of the Zimmermann Telegram, which proposed a Mexican-German alliance in World War I. They offer a re-examination and fresh perspective on this difficult chapter of history that also saw the rise of the Mexican Revolution and the First World War. The violence in Texas would spur the Mexican American civil rights movement and inspire a renaissance of literature, art and music along the Texas-Mexico border.

“This exhibit introduces people to a place and time to understand how people lived along the border in that decade, and how their lives were disrupted by events that ensued,” González said.

While most of the nation’s attention was focused overseas during World War I, the Texas-Mexico border was facing a full-on race war, González said, referring to a poster in the exhibit that reads: “No more men are needed for the watch on the Rhine, but 26,000 men are wanted to relieve the watch on the Rio Grande.”

“This area was very much considered a war zone, worsening at the hands of Texas Rangers and local law enforcement,” González said, adding that the single most famous image from the era, “Dead Mexican Bandits,” depicted Texas Rangers with lassos around corpses of “Mexicans” allegedly slain during a raid. The image circulated throughout South Texas as a postcard for years.

González helped launch the Refusing to Forget Project with Monica Muñoz Martínez, Brown University; Ben Johnson, Loyola University of Chicago; Trinidad Gonzales, South Texas College; and Sonia Hernández, Texas A&M University. The scholars wanted to organize high-profile events such as the exhibit to raise public awareness and consciousness about this history.

“This exhibit moves the narrative in a direction that opens up discussion on race issues in our state and in our country,” González said. “This is a way of reminding people that contemporary issues have very, very long trajectories in U.S. history.”