The Lynching that Sparked a Revolution

By David Dorado Romo

The lynching of Antonio Rodríguez by a Texas mob set it all off. At least from the point of view of the El Paso newspapers in the winter of 1910, this was the event that sparked the Mexican Revolution.

It started off as just another lynching. On November 3, 1910, a mob of ranchmen and cowboys fathered in front of the county jail in Rock Springs, Texas. They had heard that Rodríguez, a 20-year-old laborer, had been arrested and charged with the murder of Mrs. Lem Henderson the wife of a well-to-do cattleman. ‘There was an open demand for vengeance,” the El Paso Times reported. “The matter of what kind of penalty should be meted out to the prisoner was freely discussed. It was decided that hanging or shooting him would not inflict enough suffering. The suggestion that he be burned alive met with general approval.”

The sheriff refused to surrender the keys to the prison but the mob quickly overpowered him. None of the assailants wore a hood or any other kind of disguise. Rock Springs was a small town near del Rio, Texas with less than 400 inhabitants and the authorities knew the identity of practically every person in the mob. As soon as they set fire to Rodríguez, the Texans dispersed. “At the time it was not known by the men who participated int he affair whether he was a citizen of Mexico or the United States, the El Paso Times explained. “It is said openly here that the outcome would have been the same no matter to which country he owed allegiance.” The coroner’s jury returned a verdict that “an unknown Mexican met death at the hands of an unknown mob” and left it at that. “Little was thought of the occurrence until the trouble was reported in Mexico City, the New York Times reported.

FIVE HUNDRED AND NINETY-SEVEN individuals of Mexican origin were lynched by mobs in the United States between 1848 and 1920. These lynchings, catalogued by historians William Carrigan and Clive Webb, only includes the documented cases of mob lynchings. The number does not include the hangings and murders of Mexicans along the Rio Grande Valley by Texas Rangers at the beginning of the twentieth century. Historians believe the extra-judicial homicides of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans by Texas Rangers may have numbered in the thousands.

On November 9th, what began as a peaceful demonstration in Mexico City by university students quickly turned into a riot. The protestors pelted American-owned businesses with rocks and attempted to destroy the pant of El Imparcial, the leading Mexican daily financed by the government. The mounted police charged the protesters with sabers, killing three of them and arresting about 200 students. President Díaz, who had been the virtual dictator of Mexico for more than three decades, refused to release the student protesters from prison despite the pleas for clemency from their influential parents. But this didn’t stop the national outcry.

El Regidor (San Antonio), November 10, 1910.

“What began as a peaceful demonstration in Mexico City by university students quickly turned into a riot.”

The unrest spread throughout Mexico. Riots erupted in Guadalajara where American businesses were also sacked. In Piedras Negras, rioters stoned the U.S. consulate and tore and spat at the United States flag. Tensions long the Rio Grande were so strained that reportedly 2,000 Anglo Texans red themselves in advance of rumored mexico invasion. President Diaz sent the rurales to quell the protests. But the national sentiment against the lynching was so great, even the president felt obliged to back a call for a boycott of U.S. products until reparations were paid to the Rodriguez family.

THE EL PASO TIMES was much more outraged by the outrage than by the lynching itself. “A burning of a human being in Texas does not justify an outrage upon the entire American nation and an attack upon innocent American citizens in the Republic of Mexico,” the morning newspaper complained. “Texas and other states in the American union have a method of dealing with a certain class of offenders in a manner that is peculiarly their own. If Mexico objects to Texas in matters of this kind, the proper thing for Mexico to do under the circumstances is to keep that class of her citizenship on the other side of the border, where they will certainly be safe from Texas mobs.”

The public burning of Jesse Washington in May 15, 1916. Waco, Texas.

“A burning of a human being in Texas does not justify an outrage upon the entire American nation and an attack upon innocent American citizens in the Republic of Mexico. Texas and other states in the American union have a method of dealing with a certain class of offenders in a manner that is peculiarly their own.”

The El Paso Times argued that Mexico had no legal right to demand restitution from the United states for the lynching. It du up information that Antonio Rodríguez was actually an American citizen born in New Mexico.

On November 20, 1910, sporadic armed uprising broke out throughout Mexico. Although these uprising were now directed against the Mexican government, the El Paso press thought this new wave of unrest was still just an escalation of the anti-lynching riots. They thought the Mexican people had turned their anti-American rage against President Díaz himself, who the masses saw an too pro-American. They were wrong. The causes of the new revolutionary movement went much deeper than a single lynching. The El Paso press didn’t realize that in November 1910, Maderista and Magonista revolutionaries had called for an armed uprising against the Mexican dictatorship.

But in a sense the El Paso newspapers were also right. Race was an integral element of the upheaval that would shake Mexico and the United states for many years to come. The border, where the races clashed and came together, was a major fault line of this revolutionary struggle.

(Source: Ringside Seat to a Revolution by David Dorado Romo)

Simultaneously published from The Repetitive History of the Border, Revisiting the global micro-histories of the U.S.-Mexico border, by David Dorado Romo.