The Lynching of Persons of Mexican Origin or Descent in the United States, 1848 to 1928

By Carrigan, William D. | Journal of Social History, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

The Lynching of Persons of Mexican Origin or Descent in the United States, 1848 to 1928


Carrigan, William D., Journal of Social History


On November 16, 1928, four masked men tore into a hospital in Farmington, New Mexico and abducted one of the patients as he lay dying in bed. The kidnappers drove to an abandoned farmhouse on the outskirts of the city where they tied a rope around the neck of their captive and hanged him from a locust tree. (1)

The dead man, Rafael Benavides, had been admitted to the hospital with a serious gun wound less than twenty-four hours earlier. His wound was inflicted by a sheriff's posse pursuing him for an assault upon a farmer's wife. According to one newspaper, "the fiendishness and brutality of his acts were such that the postal laws will not permit us to print them." (2) The abduction and execution of Benavides therefore elicited the approval of many local citizens relieved at the removal from their community of this dangerous menace. In the frank opinion of one newspaper editorial, "the degenerate Mexican got exactly what was coming to him." (3) Others were nonetheless more circumspect in their assessment of the lynching. While they did not dispute the guilt of the dead man, they contended that his due punishment could only be determined by a court of law. The Santa Fe New Mexican responded to the precipitous action of the mob by stating that it would "take San Juan County a long time to live down the bad name received by this lawless act." (4) Such an opinion reflected a new racial sensibility among many Anglos in the Southwest. For decades lynch mobs terrorized persons of Mexican origin or descent (5) without reprisal from the wider community. The more critical attitude taken by the Anglo establishment created a political climate less tolerant of extra-legal violence. Although acts of lawlessness continued, Rafael Benavides became the last Mexican in the United States to be lynched in such blatant defiance of the judicial system.

Although widely recognized in the Mexican community on both sides of the border, and among some scholars, the story of mob violence against Mexicans remains relatively unknown to the wider public. Two recent popular works on lynching--James Allen's Without Sanctuary and Philip Dray's At the Hands of Persons Unknown--reveal the extent to which the historical narrative of racial violence in the United States excludes Mexicans. In January 2000, the photographs that would later be published in James Allen's Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America went on display at the Roth Horowitz Gallery in New York City. This widely acclaimed exhibit, which was later shown at the New York Historical Society and the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, contained 54 separate images and several artifacts relating to lynching. Forty-five of the images depicted the corpses of African American lynching victims. Seven other photographs showed Anglo fatalities. Images and artifacts relating to the mob murder of Sicilian, Jewish and Chinese immigrants were also included. Yet neither the exhibition nor the accompanying book contain any reference to Mexicans. Although photographic evidence of numerous Mexican lynching victims exists, its omission created a false impression that Mexicans had not been the targets of organized racial violence. (6)Similar criticisms can be made of Philip Dray. In 2002, Dray published the first national overview of lynching in the United States in more than a half-century. His book, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, was a bestseller and winner of a major literary award. Dray rightfully focuses upon the thousands of African Americans who perished at the hands of Anglo mobs in the Southern United States. Although the book contains some discussion of other ethnic groups, not once in more than five hundred pages does it mention Mexicans. (7)

These popular works of history highlight the extent to which the public is unaware of the lynching of Mexicans. More problematic still is the fact that, despite the recent flourishing of academic literature on lynching, scholars also persistently overlook anti-Mexican violence. …

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