Tough Truths

'Unspeakable Violence' examines border horrors—and the forgetfulness that accompanies such violence

It's been 100 years since Arizona joined the union, a fact celebrated with all the memorials, speeches and birthday parties that one would expect from the proud population that hacked this grand civilization out of an arid wilderness formerly inhabited by nothing but wolves and brown people. Well done!

The far right in Phoenix is doing its best to create a haven here for rich folks to play out their Ayn Rand fantasies while holding on tight to the core Christian values of capital and power.

Just in time to mark this historic anniversary, an informative installation about famous Arizona crimes and punishments appeared recently on the first floor of the Superior Court building downtown. Visitors standing around waiting for their orders of protection to go through can read all about the many colorful rapscallions who have made this land so storied and interesting over the years, including the largely nameless coalition of men who perpetrated the Camp Grant Indian massacre of 1871.

It just so happened that I saw this installation while deep into UA professor Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández's Unspeakable Violence: Remapping U.S. and Mexican National Imaginaries, a dense study of borderland violence—and the convenient historical forgetting that often attends it.

This shameful episode in Arizona history, in which a gang of Anglo, Mexican and Tohono O'odham men killed, raped and mutilated more than 100 Aravaipa and Pinal Apaches—nearly all of them unarmed women and children—reveals much about how Mexicans and Tohono O'odham actors saw themselves within the Anglo-controlled capitalist system, according to Guidotti-Hernández.

The massacre, mostly planned by Anglo community leaders, was largely carried out by non-Anglos. The main murderers were Mexicans and O'odham, although the episode today is often depicted as a battle between Apaches and Anglos. As Guidotti-Hernández points out, the mass murder was nothing less than an act of community-building.

"Spilling the blood of Aravaipa and Pinal Apache women and children aligned Anglos, Mexicanos and Tohono O'odham ... with the territorial government of Arizona in an act of ritualized, state-sanctioned violence," she writes.

Over the years, the massacre has taken on different meanings to the various cultures that joined in its violence. In most retellings, the teller generally chooses whether to call the event a "massacre" or a "raid" depending on his or her worldview, according to Guidotti-Hernández. The panel at the courthouse calls it a massacre. It mentions that some of the Apache children not beaten to death were sold into slavery. It admits that three cultures, not just the popularly evil Anglos, were responsible for the outrage. It would seem, then, that we have come a long way toward acknowledging the horror and complexity of the massacre.

But, of course, it is not true that we have come a long way, and our continued, willful forgetfulness is revealed in the fact that most of the space allotted for the massacre on the courthouse panel is taken up with justifications for the violence, including the "lack of law and order" in the territory at the time, and the anemic response to Apache predations by the federal government.

I suspect that this book will make waves in the world of Chicano/a studies, as it takes that field—largely illegal now in Arizona—to task for its insular post-colonialism and its obsession with "nationalism's seductive remedies." Guidotti-Hernández finds that Chicano/a scholars have sometimes inadvertently repeated the forgetfulness of the dominant culture in their rage for resistance through "nationalist agendas centered around political familialism, morality and heteronormativity."

Her larger theme traces "the failure to archive a subaltern version of history" through five long, exceedingly well-researched chapters, marred only by her commitment to turgid academic prose. She shows how different writers and historians, including Chicano/a scholars, have treated and used the story of the public lynching of an anonymous Mexican woman in California during the gold rush, and discovers the motives—capitalist and otherwise—behind the attempted extermination of the Yaqui Indians of Sonora by the Mexican state.

It is impossible, of course, to wrangle such a wide-ranging and intelligent study into a few easy quips, and to attempt to do so would go against the notion that Guidotti-Hernández's examples of borderland violence reveal a complexity in Arizona's and Mexico's culture and history for which many historians, let alone politicians, don't always like to account.

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