For many Americans, the California Gold Rush was a part of a celebrated era that saw a windfall of opportunity resulting from the recently – won Mexican-American War. The year 1848 saw two pivotal points in American history: the first discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in what is now Northern California, followed just days later by the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War and provided for the annexation of much of the American Southwest, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New México, Utah, Texas, and Wyoming. The territory ceded by México accounted for approximately 55% percent of its pre-war lands; the Mexican citizens living in this territory were offered a choice between American citizenship—to be granted at a future time by Congress—or repatriation to México. Over 90% of Mexican-Americans chose to remain in these territories, awaiting formal citizenship under the Treaty’s guarantees that purportedly “maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty and property, and secured in the free exercise of their religion without; restriction.”
While the forgotten history of Mexican-American lynchings has been conveniently sanitized by Anglicized claims of “frontier justice” or the need for vigilantism in the “lawless Wild West,” modern studies of 19th and early 20th century lynchings situate race and class as central underpinnings in American colonization of the West.
However, the timing of these two historical events contributes to what historians William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb assert as “the two most important factors in generating conflict between Mexican-[Americans] and Anglos: economic competition and racial prejudice, which were inextricably linked.” As Anglo-Americans began to flock west, whether drawn by the promise of Manifest Destiny or mining for gold, relations between Mexican-Americans and Anglo-American migrants moving west—already hostile from the Mexican-American War—sharply intensified.
Despite promises of full rights and liberties attached to citizenship for Mexicans written into the Treaty, political and racialized legislative and judicial interpretations of these provisions stripped many Mexican-Americans of their land and property, subjugated them under systemized economic discrimination, and rendered them vulnerable to acts of racialized mob violence.
While the forgotten history of Mexican-American lynchings has been conveniently sanitized by Anglicized claims of “frontier justice” or the need for vigilantism in the “lawless Wild West,” modern studies of 19th and early 20th century lynchings situate race and class as central underpinnings in American colonization of the West. Indeed, racialized violence — both institutionalized and extra-legal—was the mechanism by which to enforce segregation and secure white supremacy over Hispanic non-Whites. Just a few victims of this practice include:
Carlos Esclava: (April 1852) accused of theft by the Vigilante Committee of Moquelumne Hill, California, Esclava was seized and hanged “before a crowd ‘of all classes and sexes’ and estimated to be between 800 and 1000 [viewers].”
Cruz Flores: (June 1852) accused of being an accomplice to murder in Jackson, California, Flores was hanged “amid demoniacal rejoicings, and spice of more severity, than is usually administered by the barbaric code of Judge Lynch.”
Pansa: (July 1852) accused of murder by the Vigilante Committee of Sutter’s Creek, California, Pansa was “lashed 75 times, then hanged when [Pansa] died.”
Dollores and “Unknown Mexican”: (Feb. 1854) accused of murder in Angle, California, both victims were “hanged for murder of Anglo and left swinging from the tree ‘until decomposition shall take place.’”
José Anastacio García: (Feb. 1857) accused of murder in Monterey, California where he was “seized from jail by a mob of 200 and hanged.”
- Rameris: (Sept. 1861) accused of sexual assault near San Luis Obispo, California, and “hanged, rescued before dying, then seized from jail and hanged again.”
While the collision of the Anglo-centric theory of Manifest Destiny coupled with Mexican rivalry for land, gold, and opportunity initially defined the racialized violence of White Americans towards Hispanics, political events in México and the burgeoning Southern Pacific Railroad in need of cheap labor provided for increased emigration of Mexicans to the U.S., further inflaming anti-Hispanic and xenophobic sentiment among White Americans. By the late 1920s, the Great Depression witnessed yet another spike in anti-Hispanic attitudes as Mexican-Americans and others deemed ’foreign’ were blamed for taking the jobs of White Americans. This time, a different kind of economic threat–one colored by fear as opposed to imperialist ambition–spurred a new effort to erase Mexican presence from American history. By the 1930s, President Hoover began forcibly removing up to 1.8 million people across the Mexican border through nonformal raids intentionally mischaracterized as “repatriation drives.” Of the almost two million people unconstitutionally deported without even a semblance of due process, approximately 60% were U.S. citizens. The justification for these illegitimate removals: “American jobs for real Americans.” These “repatriations,” just one of four distinct efforts targeting people of Mexican descent in the 20th Century documented by modern scholars, constitute an unequivocal example of “ethnic cleansing.”
The practice of lynching continued from the late 19th century into the early 20th century, with studies pointing to the 1850s, 1870s, and 1910s as decades that saw particularly high rates of Hispanic lynchings with recorded incidences continuing into the 1930s, coinciding with the Great Depression. Estimated rates of Mexican and Mexican-American lynchings between 1880 and 1930 have been calculated at 27.4 for every 100,000 Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, with the vast majority occurring across four states: Texas, California, Arizona, and New México.
Meanwhile, 10 states in the American South, where lynching was used to maintain White dominance over slaves before the Civil War and to enforce Jim Crow after Emancipation, saw rates of 37.1 lynchings for every 100,000 African Americans during the same time period. Despite these realities, American institutions, processes, and even history have largely failed to even acknowledge, much less address the linked fates of our country’s two largest non-White communities. Despite differing national origins, skin colors, languages, and geographies, the noose’s gnarled knots have woven together the bloody threads of our two communities’ conjoined histories in América; markedly distinct yet visibly entwined.
Given these distinct but shared histories, UnidosUS believes it is incumbent upon our own culturally diverse Latinx communities to express unequivocal solidarity, and then some, with the African American community’s demands for redress of the systemic bias and racism that has perpetuated—and justified—violence against people of color. Thus, UnidosUS has joined other civil rights advocates in supporting the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, passed by the House in June 2020. But we also believe it is incumbent on all Americans to acknowledge and appropriately address the racialized violence perpetrated on Latinos. This is why we have also called on the City of Placerville, California earlier this month to remove the image and references to the noose the City has chosen to enshrine in its official logo.
UnidosUS, previously known as NCLR (National Council of La Raza), is the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization.
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