The Moral Universe – Little-Known History


It was the bright color red that drew my attention to the picture on the cover of The New York Times a few weeks ago.

A little boy clad only in red underpants stood in a doorway, fearfully watching a man pointing a rifle into the room at another man, also in just underwear, hand-cuffed.

The man with the weapon was said to be a law enforcement officer. The handcuffed man was a perceived criminal. Who was the boy? Why was he a witness to this scene? Was he the criminal’s son? Was he only wearing underpants because he’d been woken up in the middle of the night? Or were the bright red underpants the only clothing he owned?

The accompanying story concerned the exodus of children from Latin America to the US border, sent off by their parents in a desperate bid to keep them safe from the lawlessness of their countries.

Were those children welcomed with open arms? Did people rush forth to pick them up and embrace them and whisper into their ears, “It’s all right. You’re safe now. We’ll take care of you.”?

We know the sad answer to that.

It was also just about this time that I was made aware, through a friend of my sister’s, of the little-known history of the lynching of Latinos in the heyday of the Jim Crow era (1846-1925) that saw so many blacks in the United States lynched. As described by law professor and historian Richard Delgado in his article, “Law of the Noose: A History of Latino Lynching,” the murderous formulas were the same, the lynchings approved of by the community and often with official sanction; extralegal judge, jury, and sentencing pronounced by citizens in the US Southwest and held in an often celebratory, carnival atmosphere.

The “crimes”? Cheating at cards. Making alleged advances toward white women. Being “too Mexican,” ie speaking Spanish and following traditions. The irony is, these “crimes” for which many paid with their lives were taking place in a part of the world that had been Mexico until in the mid-1840s, the US decided it should be under the Stars and Stripes.

You can’t do much research into the Civil War without also being made aware of the infamous Mexican-American War. Almost every famous Civil War general fought in the earlier war in the 1840s. Indeed, many generals who waged bitter battle against each other in the 1860s had been close comrades in the 1840s and classmates at West Point.

The Mexican-American War was an outgrowth of the doctrine of manifest destiny, the idea that God had given an entire continent to white people and it was their glorious fate to inhabit and rule over every part of that continent. The westward expansion of the early 1800s pushed into the Southwest, and settlers claimed sovereignty over land they settled in what was still the country of Mexico. When the locals disagreed, the settlers cried foul to the US government, which gave an excuse to march in and seize the territories, including what are now Texas, Arizona, and part of California.

Urged into war by the Democratic President James K. Polk, Generals Winfield Scott (a Presidential wannabe) and Zachary Taylor (a Presidential would-be as soon as the war was over) made a thorough job of it and in a year a half the US Army took away half of the entire country of Mexico. The Whig party, which would become the anti-slavery Republican Party opposed this war. The dying U.S. Grant, who was himself a young lieutenant in the Mexican-American War, wrote that it “was one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger nation over a weaker nation.” It was purely a war of aggression and almost seems to have been fought in order to give Katharine Lee Bates her tagline, “from sea to shining sea.”

What tarnishes those shining seas is not only how the land in between was acquired, but also how the indigenous peoples were treated afterward.


Richard Delgado

Delgado is a law professor at the University of Alabama who has written more than 100 articles and 20 books on the subject of race in the United States. Other articles have appeared in the Nation, the New York Times, and The Washington Post, and his books have won national prizes and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. His most recent book, Race and Races: Cases and Resources for a Diverse America  (West/Thomson), will appear in 2015.

Delgado has  his work cut out for him, as the history of organized violence against Latinos has not been plumbed until fairly recently in the middle of the last decade. In a summary and analysis of Delgado’s article, activist Maximo Anguiano says, “Delgado challenges scholars and institutions by trying to unveil the truth on this shameful past, while exploring the history of these lynchings and explaining that ‘English-only’ movements are a present-day form of lynchings.

“Through reviewing of anthropological research, storytelling, and other internal & external interactions, there is believed to have been roughly 600 lynchings of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans beginning with the aftermath of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo,” which ended the war. The lynchings took place in what are now Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada, among other states.

In addition to Mexican men, the article says, there is reason to believe that women were also lynched for resisting sexual advances of Anglo men. As with slaves and then freed slaves, the Mexicans had no recourse against such persecution. The literal lynchings took the same form as those of African-Americans, including hanging, torture, mutilation of the bodies, and burning. After all, the Southwest settlers were mostly from the South, their aim to bring and keep slavery alive in new territories.

Delgado charges Latino lynchingsthat this unknown history of persecution is intentional and that accounts have been edited and minimized or outright ignored. However, “many Latinos knew of these lynchings; their accounts were maintained, shared, and solidified as Mexican lore through ritualistically songs (corridos, actos, and cantares),” writes Anguiano.

He continues, “Delgado questions whether such remnants of Latino lynchings may still be present in society today. This can best be exemplified through movements to make English the official language of the U.S., forcing immigrants to assimilate to the dominant Anglo culture. Such actions can be illustrated in movements to end bilingual school opportunities and enforce English-only speaking at jobs, businesses, etc. Postcolonial scholars argue that such movements facilitate children to reject their own culture, acquire English, and forget their native language. These actions have far dire [documentable] consequence, like social distress, depression, and crime. As such, Delgado ventures to say that these actions are an implicit form of lynching.”

While I am appreciative of the opportunity to learn more about this shameful history, for me, the image of the little boy in the bright red underpants remains. He could be one of the children at the border. He could be one of those young ones whose lives are in limbo because apparently Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty is now only lip-service and/or only applies to white immigrants. There are US communities that dearly want to take in these children and show them the compassion that Lady Liberty exemplified, if only they will be allowed to. Let us pray, and do whatever else we can to save the children.

More of Mr. Anguiano’s work can be found at


2 thoughts on “The Moral Universe – Little-Known History

  1. Debra

    One horrifying feature of lynchings that isn’t often discussed is that they were a macabre form of entertainment for those in power and a cautionary tale for those less fortunate. Many many photos were taken and passed along and in those photos one can often see children witnessing the humiliation of the person’s body. People took their children to see these things! This type of visual aggression has been cited as one of the reasons the people of Ferguson felt so anguished: Michael Brown’s body was left in the street for four hours for anyone to see. The family was barred from even going near him. When the police were tired of the show they just shoved him into the back of an SUV. I can’t imagine the pain of seeing someone I loved treated that way.

    The link with the Mexican-American war is interesting. That is the war that H.D. Thoreau famously went to jail over in an act of civil disobedience that ultimately inspired Gandhi. It was a terribly unpopular war for Northern states and had record rates of desertion. It fascinates me that these themes keep replaying over and over again yet we never seem any closer to actually learning from them.


    • I agree, Debra, and have mentioned that aspect in previous blogs. I think it is tantamount to child abuse to expose children to such hatred. I posted one picture of a child in a KKK outfit looking so proud. It’s disgusting and it’s got to end. And yes, the travesty of leaving Michael Brown’s body in the street for so long is very similar to the “old-time” lynchings.


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