Sara A. Lewis: Welcome to Points South. I'm your host, Sara A. Lewis of the Oxford American. Today, Texas journalist Michelle García continues her coverage of the borderlands, exploring race relations in the Rio Grande Valley and the historic significance of the border for refugees of enslavement. This season, we're also thrilled to feature live performances from a range of artists, recorded before COVID, when we could gather together, sing along in the same room with our favorite musicians. In this episode, we have the immense honor of hearing from Adia Victoria, whose new album A Southern Gothic has gained widespread critical acclaim. But first, we join Michelle García on the streets of McAllen, Texas.
Jessenia Herzberg: I'm Jessenia, I'm 21 years old, and we're here in McAllen, Texas. That's where I've lived most of my life. So we're nearby where the black lives matter protests of last summer, summer of 2020 occurred in McAllen.
Michelle García: She's leading me to the spot where downtown McAllen made national news in June of 2020.
Jessenia: There's a lot of dress shops here for especially quinceañeras. You can really see the culture, the Mexican American culture, where we are heading.
MG: They were on their way to city hall, some 10 people in the group, but she only really knew one other person. The main march had started. They were the late arrivals. They were holding signs, chanting.
Jessenia: We were doing Black Lives Matter, Say His Name: George Floyd, Say Her Name: Breonna Taylor. Or, I remember it being Latinos for BLM. And we get to this intersection, and a guy in a truck stops, and he gets out of his truck. And he comes up to us, I don't remember exactly what he says.
Daniel Peña: [Expletives] Go home. Get the [expletive] home. You do not belong here.
MG: They didn't go home. And that's when the man, a local man named Daniel Peña, reached into the bed of his pickup truck and pulls out a chainsaw.
DP: Hey...Move. Move. Go home, go home. Go home. Go home. Go home. Go home.
Jessenia: I, I backed away a little bit and I was with my friends, so just sticking with my friends.
MG: Did you think he was going to hurt you?
Jessenia: I thought maybe because he was really mad. And he got very close to us with the chainsaw. Um, so I thought, yeah, there was maybe a chance that something was gonna happen.
MG: The attacker was arrested and Jessenia and the group reached city hall where some 150, mostly Latinos, showed up for black lives, performing a die-in for eight minutes to remember George Floyd. But that's not the story we remember. We remember the sight of a Latino man attacking a group of mostly Latino and Latinx young people showing up for Black Lives Matter in a majority Mexican American city on the border. It triggered conversations and soul searching about anti-blackness and representation about culture and identity among Latinos, Latinx. But there's a hidden story in the attack, a dark and violent history buried here where racism and power intersects with shame. Jessenia noticed it too. When you saw him do that, when you saw him react so violently, so angrily, what did you think this was about?
Jessenia: Just wanting things to stay the same in the Valley. Cause he had said we don't need this in the Valley.
MG: So Jessenia and I headed out across the Rio Grande Valley to recover the histories that both help us understand the violence and reveal other possibilities -- moments of racial harmony, moments that transcended the racial binary. To find it, we traveled to a cemetery that has been sealed off by the border wall near the Rio Grande river, where hunters are out dove hunting and a man waters a headless tree.
Ramiro Ramirez: Okay. Puede significar esto es un brazo, este es un brazo este es otro brazo aunque el cabeza no esta aquí. son recuerdos que queda a uno. uno no puede reemplazar esos, los recuerdos.
MG: "This is an arm. This is an arm, and this is another arm. Although there is no head," he says, "There are memories that stay with you, memories that you can't replace. Here's a place where family and roots have been buried and reborn."
RR: I'm Ramiro Roberto Ramirez, and my father, Juan, is the son of Nancy Jackson, who is my grandmother, the lady who was instrumental in my life. She came from Martin Jackson and Espiridiona Jackson. And they came from Nathaniel Jackson, who was married to his childhood friend who was a slave. And they came from Alabama over here to get away from discrimination and racism and prejudice. And they wanted to start a new life.
MG: Nathaniel was the son of a wealthy plantation owner--white--and Matilda, his wife, was an emancipated slave--black. And this was the site where the border represented freedom from slavery.
RR: This was the original bell. It was brought when they came down from Alabama. It's still functioning as you can see. These are the original benches. Let me turn on the lights for you.
MG: Ramiro showed me around the family cemetery. It's all that's left of the once enormous family ranch where his ancestors established a colony of mixed race families.
RR: At a certain time of the night, the lights, the lights turn on. And the lights turn on for the cross that's in the front. These are, this is my thing. Originally, it served as an underground railroad kind of system. Some of the people of color were already free, but then there was also people that were recapturing them and sending them back into slavery. Well, he was part of helping those people. He would hide them. He would, he would ship them across. He would give him a choice to stay here or go back, go to Mexico. My great grandfather who married Espiridiona , who was a native, uh, Indian, Mexican Indian, and he is a half Anglo and, and half black.
Roseann Bacha-Garza: So happy to see you [inaudible]
MG: But Ramiro didn't always know these things. He didn't know the importance of his family. He didn't know that they were pioneers or about the freedom they found in the Rio Grande Valley. It was buried history unearthed in recent decades by historians like Roseann Bacha-Garza.
RBG: When Nathaniel Jackson arrived here in 1857, he bought 5,535 acres of land. Nathaniel Jackson came here in five covered wagons with six of his seven children he had with Matilda Hicks, her three daughters from a previous relationship with another man in Alabama, and their families. So the majority of them were emancipated slaves. They trekked over, over 900 miles from Wilcox County, Alabama, and settled here.
MG: Blacks were free in Mexico where slavery had been abolished. The border was not a boundary, but a passage to freedom. Just sprinting distance to the river if slave patrols came too close to the colony. In the census, their children listed as mulatto or mixed race. The Jacksons were an interracial family at a time when such unions were illegal, forbidden, but not on the border. In his journal, Frederick Law Olmsted wrote in 1856 that he heard stories--complaints really--about Mexicans "fraternizing" with blacks and the danger to slavery it represented. He wrote, "They are regarded by slaveholders with great contempt and suspicion for their intimacy with slaves and their competition with plantation labor," then things changed. But before we go there, can we just make a quick pit stop on something that just caught my eye? Look at this, Señora Anita Jackson. Jackson is not a Mexican surname, but it says "Señora." And so this is an interesting confluence.
RBG: This, these people identified as Mexican, as Mexican American, as tejanos. That was their culture. It took several years now this person was born in 1896. So that's 40 years after Nathaniel Jackson and his caravan got here.
MG: So, if I'm understanding correctly, that this place can both be a place that was welcoming and where people felt safe and felt refuge. And it's also a place where people felt that they had to hide their roots, deny their roots. All of that is happening in the same place.
RBG: Yes, it, it, it happens over time. You know, as you get more people from other places…
MG: What she means is white people. The white planter class taking over land and in the process, sewing divisions across the region.
RBG: It got very uncomfortable for a lot of people. Even into the 1890s, they were labeled as a Negro colony that hailed from runaway slaves and intermarried with indigenous peoples in the area. But as time went on, you got into the 20th century, these families were very cognizant of how they were being viewed. So they would stop recognizing their African roots.
RR: We were made to feel that we, it was multi-culture but out of the Cherokee Indian, and there is Indian blood in us. And if you didn't talk about it, then it wasn't passed from generation to generation. And so there was this secrecy. Shame as it may be, it was not only the Anglos that were racist, it was Mexicans as well, especially the light complexion Mexicans, uh, were. And then the dark complexion Mexicans also had issues with them because "Well, at least we're not Negro. We're not black. We're not, we're not from slavery." Uh, and, and so there was shame. I had a yearn for, for wanting to know more, wanting to be more. And, and what does that mean? What does it mean to be more. It was not a sense of shame anymore. It was, it was a sense of pride. A sense of, I wish I could say a sense of belonging. I never had a sense of belonging, never for whatever reason. But when this new information came to me, and I say new within the last 20 or 30 years, I was able to say I can stand. I could stand. Excuse me. I could stand alone. I don't need anyone to, to tell me that I'm okay. I am who I am.
MG: Shame. The weapon of colonization had taught Ramiro Ramirez's family to hide their black roots. That's what I noticed in the attack on the Black Lives Matter protesters and the outcry that followed. It was all mired in shame. I sensed shame in the words of the attacker, and shame was there in the backlash to condemn Latinos for the actions of one man. Public shame left no room to understand much less confront the violent history he replayed on the streets of McAllen. What people miss is that anti-racism comes from healing the wounds of shame. Jessenia, the child of a mixed race family, found some threads that connect to her life.
Jessenia: Yes, very powerful, you know, to hear how you're connected to your family. And even if it wasn't always the case, it's like, feeling shame in the past. Pride is powerful, you know.
MG: There was still more to discover. What that shame was about, what happened to the Jacksons, and what tied their story to a man with a chainsaw. We head to the Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg, Texas, and the old jail there.
René Ballesteros: So we're in the 1910 jail. We're talking about Jackson, right? So we're going to come around this corner.
MG: Where we joined some of Jessenia's friends for a tour led by René Ballesteros.
RB: So Nathaniel Jackson, this is the photograph we have of him.
MG: Nathaniel Jackson, known as Polo, a descendant of the Nathaniel who migrated from Alabama was born here in Texas on the Jackson Ranch.
RB: The one official hanging that we had here in this jail. So there is a gallows here, which we'll see. That was done in 1913, a man by the name of Abram Ortiz, it's documented that Baker was there as a sheriff to oversee the hanging. But Polo was the one who pulled the lever. So I'll let that sit just a little bit.
MG: So you mean to tell me that Nathaniel Jackson, who's the descendant of the people who moved here seeking refuge, escaping slavery, who marries a Mexicana, then proceeds to work for a violent anti-Mexican sheriff with ties to the, the Rangers, and then proceeds to execute a Mexican man.
Alberto Rodriguez: So, let's back up a little bit…
MG: Historian Alberto Rodriguez has been telling us that race and violent race relations in part is about the politics of privilege. Strategically doling out the privileges of whiteness as a means of influence and control.
AR: Baker, yes, he was a strong arm of the Rangers, but he also needed the Mexican vote to get elected. So he had to navigate this idea. He had to give privileged to certain people if you want the votes. So there's a lot of people that he worked with. So he, he hated people, but he also had to work and maintain his political power. I'm sure it was the same issue with the Jackson family and the ranch, right? I mean, how do you not lose a ranch when there's all these Anglos coming here and taking land, this Polo have to take a position and make an affiliation with A.Y. Baker to keep his ranch, keep his people safe. Right?
MG: So we don't have the Rangers on horseback down here anymore, but we got a border patrol.
AR: If you look at the border patrol, we all have Border Patrol relatives. How can you join the Border Patrol? Right? Well, because it's upward mobility, but in the sense also gives you a privilege, right? That's the way we are. You know what I mean? I got mine. I did it the right way. Although you didn't do it the right way. Uh, you know, I don't want you here. You make me look bad. You, you have, if you have a plantation and you put an ex-slave on a slave patrol and he's got a horse, you're getting privileged, he's more likely to rat out his own people to keep his privilege.
MG: These negotiations and privileges reordered the border itself. It was a place squeezed between Mexico's colonial social hierarchy with ruling European elites and U.S. white supremacy. And in this world, biracial families like the Jacksons couldn't exist.
AR: It bothers people so much that when the Jackson ranch stops and interracial marriages land, and then black folks move into cities. At least on paper, the interracial marriages stop between blacks and brown people. They still, people get along and they're still getting together. But on paper, they don't exist anymore. They're able to dance in two worlds at one time, right? And the Valley forever has been this, since 1750, has been this area that is away from Mexico, not too close to the United States. And it's developed a sense of its own self, even its own language, right? I talk about channel procurando. You know, we have our own sort of world, right? So what happened to you guys a couple of years ago, if we look historically, it's happened over and over and over. When the black troops came here to the Rio, when they came to Laredo in 1898, guess what? They got run out. When they came to Rio Grande City in 1898, guess what? They got run out. When they came to Brownsville, all black troops in 1903, guess what? They got run out. And at the core of that were Latinos involved along with the, with the Texas Rangers, right? Mexicanos have been terrorized by Texas Rangers. So we have a long history of terrorism by police brutality, right? And yes, we have to negotiate that.
MG: We squeeze onto the old gallows platform. We see a noose that resembles the one used to kill Abram Ortiz, nooses that were used on Mexican and black people across Texas. And there's a sign. And it says here above the door, there were about 20 people present for the viewing of the hanging. No member of Ortiz's family came to claim the body. Is that shame?
AR: When somebody got executed, you didn't want to be guilty by association. And so, that was common when there was, uh, an arrest and a shooting or something where nobody was showed up because they didn't want to be the next ones. And that, that happened a lot. A lot of these bodies that were either executed or killed by the Rangers, many of them came unclaimed, because the retaliation, that was always a fear. Retaliation. So there wasn't that, Abram was a bad person, or nobody liked him, or he wasn't loved. It's just that they didn't want to be the next ones.
Cynthia Chrastil: My name is Cynthia Chrastil. I am 24 years old. I am from Mission, Texas. And last year, in June 6th, 2020, I was part of a group that was, attacked by Mr. Daniel Peña, who brandished a chainsaw at us because we were wanting to attend a Black Lives Matter protest. I think that is kind of like the mentality here in the Valley is that if it doesn't affect you personally, you shouldn't bother to try and do anything about it. Because otherwise yes, you might be the one facing retaliation. Or you might be the one who gets associated with that.
AR: Oh yeah, no, I most definitely think there was fear. I think that's what led this. I'd exactly agree with you. The fear of losing privilege, the fear of change, the fear of being not seen as this, this area, that's peaceful. It's never been peaceful. Um, and there's a fear of putting your head down because I mean, people that put their, they, they get looked over and they get, they get preyed upon and nothing changes. You know what I mean?
MG: Remember what the man with the chainsaw said, "Don't bring this here." It was an echo of people who have lived through centuries old violence.
AR: Yeah, I think this is something that marginalized groups constantly have to fight. And this is one of the reasons that we keep our heads down sometimes. And I was told this by my grandpa. He said, "You don’t want to embarrass us."
MG: Pride becomes a form of resistance. That often forgotten story is painted on the walls of the historic meeting hall of La Unión del Pueblo Entero, LUPE, the former site of the United Farm Workers Union, the Mexican American civil rights group founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. What do you think, Jessenia?
Jessenia: It's really cool. I was just looking at all this stuff.
MG: What do you see? What does it look like to you?
Jessenia: Lots of people, I'm guessing farm workers, those people? You know, it looks like they're harvesting the crops, maybe with farming tools. Um, people in, in ropes tied up as well. Plants, a lot of natural stuff as well.
MG: What kind of impression or message do you think it gives you?
Jessenia: I think it's very powerful of the hard work that farm workers are doing and how the conditions might not always be safe. Like there's people, you know, tied up in some parts of the painting or like bent over. So the hard work that goes into the occupation, I would say.
Alfredo de Avila: Recording, testing, testing. Okay. It says it's recording anyway. Okay. My name is Alfredo de Avila. I was a staff member with the United Farm Workers from 1970 through 70-... I'm trying to think of the year when I left there 73, 74? I don't think there was much race relationship in the Valley at the time. There was still a lot of conflict at the time. The gringos had been in control of the Valley for a lot of years. Um, you've got to remember that at that period of time, a lot of issues were still taking place, had been taking place. Um, Latinos were trying to have a voice in that type of stuff. All the towns were split by the road tracks, one side would be Latino, the other side would be white. Um, in 67, when I arrived, I looked at the census track and discovered that the bulk of the population only had a third grade education.
MG: To help locate the civil rights battles of Latinos within a larger context, Alfredo and farm worker leader Antonio Orendain began screening films of black civil rights, struggles, and films about South African apartheid. In 1977, they set off on a historic march from the Rio Grande Valley to Washington DC.
AdA: Once we moved beyond Houston, all the contacts became all of a sudden Southern contacts and black organizations and black Catholic churches that opened the door. The Catholic Church played a major role opening up the door for assistance all the way from Houston, all the way to Washington DC. We stayed in churches all across the country. And 90% of those churches were black Catholic churches. It also meant that we started meeting with local organizations and local groups and local farm workers, where our members were discovering realities that for them, they couldn't believe. When they met with farmworkers that were working on still plantations in Louisiana and understanding that these people were complaining when they were living in a place where they were still buying from a company store, renting from the company owner, and basically getting paid with credit at the company store, that they had no way to exist. And as we worked our way through the south, our groups met with more and more organizations from black small farmers, from community groups, from that type of stuff, it expanded their knowledge and their, their direct people with people that were also involved in just struggles.
MG: What do you see as the connection between what conditions were like in the 60s and 70s, and the man who attacked you all at the Black Lives Matter protests? Do you think that there's a connection between what he was describing and that man, and what happened that day?
Jessenia: He mentioned how there's always been a lot of violence, like authority figures, usually resort to violence. Like first thing, maximum force, instead of like teaching minimum force that stood out to me. And, you know, the man's first response was to get out the chainsaw instead of talking. So just, resorting to a way to, like, stay in power and, you know, have more of the power. It's, it was very similar.
MG: Basically, a person in their own way of behaving and their own way of coping with things then sort of mimics what people in positions of power, like law enforcement, do?
At night, I crossed the border into Reynosa, Mexico to visit Artemio Guerra. The artist who painted the mural. The races are represented in the first panel: black, Asian, Native American, white, and Latino, he tells me.
Artemio Guerra: Estas son las cinco razas. La raza amarilla, la roja, le negra, la cafe, la blanca, y la cafe. Solo cinco colores de la piel . Y todos estan a todos estan atados a la tierra con las plantas.
MG: Their bodies intertwined with vines representing the combined force of the world's workers.
AG: Con el producto de su trabajo y esta esclavisados en rayados en la tierra y estando tando de liberarse.
MG: He only painted two of the four walls. The unpainted third wall was the untold story of workers who won labor contracts for rights and justice. And the fourth wall was the future, the grown children of farm workers who went off to college, becoming the scientists and teachers and professionals. A future denied to their parents through racism and discrimination. The spirit and the meaning of the unpainted wall does exist in the Valley. It's reflected in the 1970s, PBS show Carrascolendas.
MG: A bilingual children's show--the nation's first--of a multiracial home, rarely seen on 1970s television, or even now, created by valley native Ada Barrera. And Carrascolendas, the mythical town, was the original name of her hometown. Now known as Rio Grande City.
MG: It's seen in the work of Alberto Rodriguez, the historian guiding us through the museum. The child and grandchild of farm workers himself.
AR: So I am developing, I'm moving my work to a digital platform. I published on this already. It's called the Blaxican Experience. It actually puts the two words and puts them together. It's actually named after a rapper from LA. And what I'm trying to explain is not necessarily that black people were brown people, but that the experiences of black people in the borderlands were connected.
MG: The multimedia site features archives of the black Mexican experience on the borderlands, including rare portraits of Afro-Mexican families in the Valley. People who weren't supposed to exist, even on paper. As for Jessenia, after the attack, her and her friends went digging into questions about representation and race in the Rio Grande Valley.
Jessenia: What I remember is not really so much him, but the energy that we talked about at the protests and wanting to go out and find more of those, be aware of more of what's going, going on within Black Lives Matter. But also beyond that, just looking for other protests to go to. So definitely no, not silence, but seeing how else we can get involved.
CC: I think it definitely empowered me to share my voice.
[Grande Narrative] Hey, do you believe that American history has been whitewashed or left out of history books entirely? Yeah, well we do and we are actively fighting to change the curriculum and the Texas school system. We are the Grande Narrative. A movement led by eight college and high school students fighting for racial justice through black history education.
MG: They are the walls of the mural. A multi-racial group of Asian, Latino, white, and black telling the Valley story, Texas story, our story.
Natalie Glasper: Um, my name's Natalie Glasper. My pronouns are she/her as well. Um, so I'm, uh, half African-American and half white. So I would usually just say like, I'm mixed race or something like that. We knew that we wanted to do something about the situation. There was a lot of conversation surrounding like, oh, there's no racism in the Valley. Like there's no need for racial, um, kind of protests, which is what they were doing, um, in the Valley. And I feel like this just kind of really showed what there actually is underlying here.
MG: And they formed a racial justice group they called the Grande Narrative, the big narrative, to rescue history. And Jessenia, for her, the chainsaw incident folded into her larger narrative. But the violent legacy and silence is not limited to a man with a chainsaw. It's the silence that persists about the policing that saturates the region. A region where residents must pass through checkpoints to reach other parts of Texas; where helicopters pass overhead. A place under surveillance. Rio Grande Valley poet Wendy Trevino writes "A border, like race, is a cruel fiction maintained by constant policing, violence, and always threatening a new map.” And here now, they are working on making a borderless world where race and borders flow freely.
SAL: Y'all asked and we listened! Back by popular demand is the free CD accompaniment to our 2021 Up South music issue. Join us this winter to explore the influence of Southern sounds in Motown, Chicago gospel, Philly soul, and beyond. You can pre-order the music issue today at OxfordAmericanGoods.org and use the code PODCAST for 15% off your purchase. That's OxfordAmericanGooods.org code PODCAST.
At last year's 30A Songwriters Festival, we met up with Adia Victoria, a Nashville based singer-songwriter known for her evocative blues and poetic lyrics that filter through the history and tensions of the Deep South. Since catching up with Victoria, she released her third full-length album, A Southern Gothic. Rolling Stone calls the album an "uncompromising, richly structured work that insists on asking questions rather than pretending to answer them." Victoria is a frequent contributor to the OA, writing most recently on the sacred music of her childhood. She was also one of the three cover stars featured on our famed "Visions of the Blues" music issue. Here she is performing "Bring Her Back" and "Take It Easy."
Adia Victoria: So I grew up in the Seventh Day Adventist church, so I didn't have a lot of secular influence. Like, I would catch things on the radio, but I was not really allowed to engage deeply with pop music and whatnot. But, um, that changed once my family left the church. My first record that I had on my own was the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. And then I got into Baduizm by Erica Badu which blew my mind. Like, I loved that record as a little girl. Huh, and, uh, you know, did the Nirvana thing, which is pretty par for the course for teenagers and Miles Davis and, like, Fiona Apple. I was looking for artists to take me out of my small Southern town. Like, expand my mind and expand what I knew and understood. I'd love to play song. It's called "Bring Her Back." It's about growing up in the church.
AV: ["Bring Her Back"]
AV: So this is a new song I actually have not released. It's called "Take It Easy." And it's for my little sister, Jameela.
AV: ["Take It Easy"]
SAL: This episode was produced by Michelle García, Jeffrey Charles Stanley, and Charlie Vela along with me, Sara A. Lewis, Trey Pollard and Noah Britton. Thanks to La Unión del Pueblo Entero, the Museum of South Texas History, the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, and the Onda Latina Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Special thanks to the Benson Latin American collection and the LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections at The University of Texas at Austin for archival clips. Thanks to Adia Victoria, Mason Hickman, the 30A Songwriters Festival, Visit Fayetteville, and Fayetteville Roots for making the live music in this episode possible. Post-production and score thanks to Spacebomb. Sign up for our newsletter at oxfordamerican.org/newsletter for all the latest OA and Points South information. And remember, promo code PODCAST gets you 15% off any purchase at OxfordAmericanGoods.org. This episode was made possible with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the African-American History Commission. We hope you enjoyed the show.