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A new podcast explores the history of the Texas Rangers

ERIC DEGGANS, HOST:

The statewide investigative law enforcement agency known as the Texas Rangers was founded nearly 200 years ago. And since then, they've become one of the defining symbols of the Lone Star State, especially in films and TV shows like the 1950s-era classic "Tales Of The Texas Rangers."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TALES OF THE TEXAS RANGERS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) ...Tales of Texas Rangers, a band of sturdy men...

DEGGANS: And for many Texans, the Rangers, known by their white cowboy hats, represent protection and justice under the law. For others, the Rangers' history is haunting and bloody.

JACK HERRERA: My grandma grew up in a Mexican neighborhood in San Antonio. She told me that growing up, her parents taught her to fear the Rangers. A white hat meant run.

DEGGANS: That's Jack Herrera. He's a senior editor at Texas Monthly and has been unraveling the history of the Rangers in a new podcast series called "White Hats." And he's with us now. Jack, welcome to the show.

HERRERA: Thanks so much for having me.

DEGGANS: So for people in the audience who might not know, who are the Texas Rangers, and why are they such an important symbol in Texas?

HERRERA: Historically, they were really one of the first forces the original 300 Anglo families that colonized Texas called upon to protect them from Native people and, actually, Mexicans, who were already here. Today, they serve as Texas's elite investigative force. So they're sort of like the FBI for Texas. And if you're not from the state, it's hard for me to overstate how important the Texas Rangers are to Texans. It's a symbol that pretty much everyone in the state knows and has some feelings about.

DEGGANS: Well, you know, even though the Rangers have this image as crusaders for justice, I mean, isn't one of their nicknames in Spanish Los Diablos Tejanos, the Texan Devils?

HERRERA: Yeah. Los Diablos Tejanos - it's a name they actually gained during the - what Texas call the War for Independence, a war against Mexico. They gained a reputation for their enthusiasm with their six shooters and their pistols. And I think that takes on an even darker resonance as the 19th century goes on and early in the 20th century, when Rangers turned their guns against Mexican American citizens of the newfound Texas and eventually, you know, the United States state of Texas. And that's the history that somebody like my grandmother actually grew up with, as you heard in that clip. When she was being raised, you know, in the '30s and '40s in San Antonio, Rangers had a reputation of committing violence against Mexican people, people of Mexican descent. And it was a well-earned reputation that somebody like my grandmother was then raised with and warned of.

DEGGANS: Yeah. In your podcast's first episode, you talk to many Mexican Americans and Tejanos about this actual subject. They talk about how the Rangers killed hundreds of Mexicans and Mexican Americans. And one person you spoke to was Trinidad Gonzales. Now, he retells a story that his dad told him of how his great-grandmother's husband had been murdered by the Rangers and how she fought to keep her family together. Let's listen to a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WHITE HATS")

TRINIDAD GONZALES: I would hear the story about how my great-grandfather Paulino Serda was killed by the Rangers and then his father, Donanciano, were killed. They were killed on the same day. She was there. The Rangers were apparently talking to her. They pulled her husband and her father-in-law to the side. I guess she couldn't see him, but then she heard the gunshot.

DEGGANS: That's pretty haunting. Did you hear a lot of stories like this?

HERRERA: Yeah. I think specifically in the Rio Grande Valley, so down in the, you know, southern tip of Texas, you have a lot of families - time period, especially in the early 1900s, around the year 1915, when rangers on the lookout on patrol for bandits from the - you know, riding across the border from Mexican Revolution did not exactly exercise caution with the Mexican people that they were attacking and detaining and torturing and killing. And so many Tejanos in this state, you know, Mexican Americans like my family, who have been here for a very long time, became the victims of that violence. And there are countless stories of exactly what Trini told me happening to his great-great-grandfather of people being summarily executed by this law enforcement force along the border in Texas.

DEGGANS: In telling Ranger history, you talk about this ethnocide known as La Matanza, which means something like massacre. What happened there?

HERRERA: Yeah. La Matanza, especially in the Rio Grande Valley, refers to this period around 1915 when the Rangers were first deployed to the border, where they instilled a reign of terror over the Mexican and Mexican American communities that were there. And that's when you see not just Rangers but ranchers, vigilantes and local police officers killing hundreds, potentially over a thousand Mexican Americans. And of course, it's a complicated episode. Sometimes, there's fighting on both sides. But the number of stories - yeah, like the ones you hear from Trini, like the ones I've heard from other families, from places all the way from, you know, El Paso to Brownsville who have a hole in their family tree because of this period of violence is profound. And I think it leaves an effect that reverberates to today.

DEGGANS: Your podcast is often telling a darker, less heroic story than we're used to hearing about the Rangers. And I'm just wondering, what's been the reaction in Texas? Are there people there who might refuse to accept the history that you're recounting?

HERRERA: The Rangers are there before Texas is Texas. They're founded in 1823. So that's even before the state of Texas exists in 1836. And so if you want to talk about Texan identity, if you want to talk about how the state sees itself and what it means to be Texan, you're going to end up talking about the Texas Rangers eventually.

And so when you come with a criticism or complication of that image, of that symbol, people take that personally. And I think that it's fair that this is a complicated history. There's different accounts of what happened in various instances. And there's going to need to be some debate and some questions about even once we have the facts, how do we interpret this? Can we say the Rangers were good men over the longue duree who did some bad things? Or do you have to say that this sort of ethnically motivated violence - was that something consistent through a longer part of their history that we now have to reckon with? Those are hard questions, and I think that they are ones that Texans have to answer, not just for the Rangers, but just in general, looking at this state's troubled and violent history.

I think that it's a difficult question as well because it has to do with the role of police in our society. Rangers are a potent symbol for this idea of what some people call a thin blue line, that idea that cops are the thing standing between order and violence. And I think whatever you want to say about that theory - and there's a lot to say about it - the Rangers are a potent representation of that. During their early history, they really were the only sort of law enforcement or source of order for those early Texan settlers. And so when we talk about the Rangers and their role and how we should honor or reckon with them, very quickly, we're having a conversation about how we honor or reckon with the role of cops in our society.

DEGGANS: That was Jack Herrera. He's the host of "White Hats," a podcast about the Texas Rangers from Texas Monthly. Thanks for being with us.

HERRERA: Thank you so much for your time.

DEGGANS: And we should also say that we reached out to the Texas Department of Public Safety about statements that the Texas Rangers killed hundreds of people of Mexican descent. They did not get back to us with a response. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
Mia Estrada
Mia Estrada is a 2021-2022 Kroc Fellow. She will spend the year rotating through different parts of NPR, including the Culture Desk, National Desk and Weekend Edition.
Adam Raney