Life & Death on the Border 1910–1920

Bullock Texas State History Museum
Austin, TX

Life & Death on the Border 1910–1920, a groundbreaking exhibition of the Bullock Texas State History Museum, brings new voices and perspectives to the forefront by challenging traditional understandings of early twentieth-century frontier justice.

The reputation of the Texas Rangers as upstanding enforcers of the law has often been seen as beyond reproach. The first of its kind, this exhibition’s in-depth analysis reveals the Rangers as the instigators of racially-motivated violence during a period of revolution and westward expansion. Bringing together photographs, archival documents, oral histories, eyewitness accounts, and rare artifacts, interpretation examines a pivotal decade in the historical narrative of law enforcement and racial strife in Texas. More than 1,200 of the 1,900 miles of the border shared between the U.S. and Mexico are located along Texas boundary lines. Inhabitants in the nineteenth century included land-owning families of Mexican descent who wielded economic and political power. An influx of Anglo settlers, speculators, and developers, using unscrupulous and often illegal tactics, displaced original land owners. When the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, racial tensions escalated. This exhibition interprets this turbulent, violent, and neglected period of state history.

The goals of this bi-lingual exhibition were to re-examine causes and effects of state-sanctioned racial violence along the Texas/Mexico border during the early 20th century using contemporary research; present a sensitive look at the context and complexity of issues, introducing visitors to the human elements of Texans most affected by the violence; highlight Texas’s unique trans-national role during the Mexican Revolution; and reveal the roots of the modern day Mexican American civil rights movement. Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the worst atrocities, the museum’s approach to the design, content, and programming was to search institutional collections and family records for artifacts and eyewitness testimony to illustrate this little-known history.

The response to the exhibition has been overwhelmingly positive. The Bullock Museum has changed the way their visitors think about the state’s history museum and, in concert with programming that draws modern-day connections to the past, they have analyzed a period of history once seen as myth, engaging a new audience, the previously under-represented Latino community. Teachers, students, and board members from school districts across Texas have made special visits to the exhibition. Historian Andrés Tijerina put it succinctly when he was quoted in the Houston Chronicle as saying “that among Mexican-American families throughout South and West Texas, including his own, memories about “violent things” survived — despite suppressed documents, silenced history and burned bodies. At the Bullock these days, those memories have been given new voice.”