What is 'La Matanza' and why is it not in Texas history books?

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- It's a century-old story passed on by word of mouth.

Melba Coody spent her entire life on a mission to share her family's storytelling with anyone who would listen.

Some images in the video above may be disturbing for some viewers.

"My great-grandfather and my great-uncle came by to report some stolen horses," she explained in one of her last interviews with a news crew. "The Texas Rangers had spent the night. They had been resting there. They just came out in their Ford Model T, stuck their head out the window and shot them."

Melba's family story, and others like hers, never made it to the pages of our school history books. Despite that, Melba made sure to pass the story on to her daughter, Christine Molis.

"You know, my mother passed away in March, and I feel I'm the one that needs to start telling the story again," Molis said.

Molis is stepping into her mother's shoes and is carrying the torch as the family historian, lighting the way for those who know nothing about south Texas' dark and brutal history. The years between 1910 and 1920 were known as 'La Matanza,' or the Massacre.

"Back then, it was just a, 'You're Mexican. You're on our lands. We're shooting you.' 'You don't belong here. We don't want you here,'" said Molis.

It was the era of the Mexican revolution. Racial violence along the Texas-Mexico border erupted following tensions between new Anglo settlers and Mexican landowners. Hundreds, some believe thousands, of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were lynched and shot at the hands of vigilantes and law enforcement, including the Texas Rangers who had been called in to protect the region from "outsiders."

Some of the historical images show rangers posing with ropes tied to bodies.

"They're buried here because this is where they were killed," said Molis, as she pointed to the gravesite of her ancestors.

The Texas Rangers shot Jesus Bazan and Antonio Longoria on Sept. 27, 1915. Their resting place sits on a rural south Texas road.

"Honestly, back then it was hush-hush. You know? You kill them. Leave them dead. Don't speak of it. Because who wants to think law enforcement randomly shoots people and leaves them to die," said Molis.

About 100 years ago, innocent Mexican-Americans were labeled "bandits" and being labeled a bandit made anyone a target.

"The San Antonio paper (at that time) said, 'We're no longer going to report the killing of Mexicans because it's so common it is not news anymore,'" said Trinidad Gonzales, a co-founder of Refusing to Forget.

Gonzales has a deep connection to the tragedy of "La Matanza."

Los Rinches, as the Texas Rangers would soon be called, killed his great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather in front of his grandmother.

"(My grandmother) was actually a few yards away when (Los Rinches) killed her husband and her father. She was lucky she was able to bury them," he said.

Gonzales said hateful rhetoric is a precursor to actions that have continued in Texas. The El Paso massacre in 2019 left 23 people dead and 26 injured. The 21-year-old alleged shooter drove across the state, fueled by hate against Hispanics.

"When you have rhetoric that dehumanizes a group of people, then it's easy to take the next step of mistreating those people," said Gonzales.

In an effort to prevent any other racist-fueled tragedies, and never forget a key moment in their history, markers have been erected throughout south Texas. This is all thanks to the Refusing to Forget organization.

The organization was founded in 2014 by a group of professors who wanted to inform the public of the state-sanctioned anti-Mexican violence.

"The Matanza marker, which is the one we thought would get rejected, was the first one actually accepted," recalled Gonzales.

Overall, four markers sit across south Texas. They document the turbulent time that has never been written about ... until Refusing to Forget was created.

To this day, these deadly attacks are still unknown to many. George Diaz, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley said he didn't know about this either until he was in grad school.

"Why do you think that is?" asked ABC13 anchor Mayra Moreno.

"It's a question I often ask my students. I think it's because that story was purposely omitted from our textbooks," Diaz said.

Diaz said he became a historian and an author because he was curious about the history of his hometown. He adds that he was unsatisfied with the stories he was told in school.

"A lot of the histories, of this area, have not been written and it is not until someone starts asking questions and starts composing those narratives that we have books about it," Diaz said.

Members of Refusing to Forget are doing just that. Some have written books, scholarly articles and even curated an exhibit at the Bob Bullock Museum in 2016.

At the moment, they're applying for grants to put together a traveling exhibit among other long-term goals.

"The state of Texas needs to pass legislation creating a reconciliation commission to have a clear airing out of this history for the state of Texas. Because we will never get to reconciliation until we have a truthful telling of the Texas Rangers force from 1835 to at least 1980," said Gonzales.

Until then, Molis said she will keep going and telling the stories in her mom's memory. These stories will continue to be told, from one generation to the next so it's always remembered.

"I love her and I hope I make her proud," said Molis.

When ABC13 reached out to the Texas Department of Public Safety for comment on the Texas Rangers, they sent the following statement:

"No relationship exists between the modern Texas Rangers (or the Texas Department of Public Safety) and the incident you reference. The modern-day Texas Rangers are comprised of principled men and women of great skill and integrity who are fully committed to the rule of law. We would refer you to the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame Museum as a good source of accurate information on the history of the Texas Rangers."

For more on the story of 'La Matanza,' follow Mayra Moreno on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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