Border Bandits, The Movie

My old friend Kirby Warnock of Dallas and Fort Stockton turned a simple oral history of his late grandfather into a personal
quest, a self-published book, and now a 50 minute film documentary that has Texas buzzing and is dredging up a sordid chapter in Texas history some folks, including the Texas Rangers and old Anglo families in the Rio Grande Valley, would rather not talk about. A few weeks back, I attended a screening of Border Bandits, a 50 minute homemade, self-financed film documentary that my old buddy Kirby Warnock wrote, produced, directed and acted in. The film, which had already been screened in Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and McAllen, has created quite a stir and generated some national media attention. Ralph Blumenthal of the New York Times wrote a fine article about the film on October 31, 2004, but he only scratched the surface.

More than 30 years ago, Mr. Warnock wanted to honor his grandfather Roland Warnock by recording his oral history for the archives at Baylor University while he was a student there. From that oral history, Kirby self-published a book, titled Texas Cowboy, some 20 years ago, for which I wrote a blurb for the book jacket. Kirby clearly admired his granddaddy, and his granddaddy's lifestyle. He was the real deal - a genuine cowboy. But one chapter that was in the book, in which his grandfather recounted seeing Texas Rangers shoot two Texas-Mexicans, in the Rio Grande Valley in 1914 that he later helped bury, stuck in Kirby's craw. He followed up the telling by looking into the story himself, ultimately leading him to make the film, which has opened up a proverbial can of worms and led to a dialog between Anglo-Texans and Mexican-Texans like none I've ever heard.

What makes the story compelling is that Warnock is a real Bubba, a flag-waving, pickup-driving redneck who uses the word liberal disparagingingly. Yet his research has led him to the same conclusion reached more than a half century ago by Dr. Americo Paredes in this book, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, ie. the Texas Rangers were brutal and ruthless in their treatment of Mexicanos in South Texas during the so-called Border Wars of 1910-1920, utilizing a "Shoot First/Ask Questions Later" policy in enforcing the law with Latinos, citizens or not. To them, all Mexicans were bandits. To the Mexican-Texans, this dark episode was comparable to the Holocaust because more than 5,000 Mexican-Texans in South Texas were killed without justification during this period, which coincided with a remarkable land grab by Anglo-Texans who used bogus tax collection schemes and outright fraud to appropriate land from families who'd been deeded the land through Spanish land grants in the 18th century.

The movie is by no means a polished piece of work. The town of Los Ebanos is mispronounced "Los E-Bahn-nos". like a white boy, not a Spanish speaker, would say. Kirby plays some of the characters in the film in reenacting some of the events his granddaddy talked about. He also includes footage of his brother and him as children, playing cowboy, to demonstrate his sentiment towards cowboys and Texas Rangers in particular. BThe real power is juxtaposing those images with interviews of descendents of the men who were killed, who were hardly bandits but rather, upstanding members of their community and with historians who articulately describe the events of the Border Wars, the behavior of the Texas Rangers during that era, and the events that followed including the Canales Investigation which led to reformation of the Rangers.

After the film showed, Kirby gathered some of the historians who helped him research the film and took questions from the audience. As with the other screenings in Texas, several Texas-Mexicans who were related to the men who were shot in the back, related their family's tellings of these events, as did other Texas-Mexicans who had relatives killed in similar fashion. The dialogue was a revelation. Things not talked about between Anglos and Chicanos for more than eighty years were discussed openly. History that had been swept under the rug became too real all over again.

The screening in Austin, which was at the Alamo Village on Anderson Lane, sold out long before screening time.
It's showing again in Austin December 27 and will be shown at screenings nationally in the coming year. If you want to get a better idea why the Rio Grande Valley to this very day doesn't seem like the rest of Texas, go see this film.


In the meantime, here's a report from Steve Taylor, a British writer who also attended the screening and wrote it up for his Border Buzz column in The Quorum Report (taylor@quorumreport.com):



BORDER BANDITS DOCUMENTARY STIRS EMOTIONS

Warnock hopes PBS will pick up movie on Valley's turbulent past

Dallas filmmaker Kirby Warnock hopes to get his provocative new documentary Border Bandits shown on PBS or the History Channel.

Judging by the reaction of the audience at Monday night's showing at Austin's Alamo Drafthouse, there might just be enough buzz to make it happen.

"I get this reaction wherever the documentary is shown. It stirs the emotions," Warnock said. "It's a western, but not a western in the style of Gene Autry. And it's certainly not the feel-good movie of the year, is it?"

Border Bandits recounts the oral history of the filmmaker's grandfather, Roland Warnock, a cowboy on a Rio Grande Valley ranch who tells how a posse of Texas Rangers shot and killed two unarmed Mexican Americans in the back on a dirt road north of Edinburg in 1915.

Members of the family of Jesus Bazan and Antonio Longoria were in the audience Monday evening. Bazan, a rancher in northern Hidalgo County, was 67 years of age when he was shot. Longoria, Bazan's 48-year-old son-in-law, was a teacher and a postmaster.

"My parents never talked about Jesus' death. I wish they had," said Bazan's granddaughter Mercedes Gosalvez, from McAllen. "People are now talking about a memorial at the gravesites. I would like to see that happen."

Warnock retraces the killing of Bazan and Longoria and also the context in which it took place. There was turmoil in the Valley at the time. The Mexican Revolution was underway to the south, Anglo developers eager to sell to newly arriving Midwesterners were making land grabs, sediciosos (seditionists) were making raids from across the Rio Grande, and a highly politicized Texas Rangers were administering their own brand of justice.

In the film, University of Texas-Pan American professor Rodolfo Rocha estimates that around 5,000 Tejanos were killed during the period.

Warnock invited three history experts from UT-Austin and author and former Texas Department of Safety spokesman Mike Cox, all of whom appear in the documentary, to participate in a question and answer session after the screening.

While certainly not condoning the actions of the Texas Rangers, Cox explained that a war was going on at the time. "It's really not valid to compare today's Texas Rangers with what happened back then," Cox said.

Cox's comments appeared to anger some Mexican Americans in the audience. "As far as we are concerned, they were all pinches gringos," said Dan Arellano, a San Antonio native and historian, referring to the Texas Rangers.

Warnock prefaces Border Bandits with a tribute to the professionalism of today's Texas Rangers. Cox credits legislative hearings into the massacres of the period, which were requested by Texas' only Hispanic state representative of the time, Brownsville's J.T. Canales, as going a long way to modernizing the Rangers.

Though the movie does not really touch upon the work of Canales, UT-Austin Professor Don Graham said the lawmaker was one of the unsung heroes of Texas history. Graham said that while the legislative hearings were taking place in Austin, Canales' life was in danger. Dr. Richard Ribb, an academic advisor at UT-Austin, said he was working on getting transcripts of the hearings posted on the Internet soon.

Warnock said that while researching for an earlier book on his grandfather's story, he got something of a scoop when Diorica McAllen came forward. In the documentary, Texas Rangers chase after sediciosos who tried to raid a ranch house belonging to the McAllen family. The documentary explains that a Mexican maid helped rancher James B. McAllen in the shootout.

In the movie, Diorica McAllen displays a birth certificate which, she said, proves she is the granddaughter of the maid and McAllen. The city of McAllen is named after John McAllen, father of James B. McAllen. The family became wealthy in the 1950s when natural gas was discovered on their ranch.

"There are two sides to every story and I know the McAllen have their own version," Warnock said. "I have written four letters to the McAllen family but they will not talk to me."

Border Bandits has already been shown in the Valley and Dallas. Warnock said it would soon be shown in Houston, San Antonio, New York and Los Angeles. A member of the audience said Border Bandits really ought to air in Phoenix, Arizona, because immigration issues were such a big deal there. Warnock said he had just been invited to show the documentary at a Western Historical Association convention in the city in Oct. 2005.

Renewed interest in this period of the Valley's history has also been heightened by "Revolution in Texas - How a Forgotten Rebellion and its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans," a book by Southern Methodist University Associate Professor Benjamin Heber Johnson.

"In my opinion, the richest stories to tell in Texas are in South Texas," said Graham. "History is still real there. It's very vivid. There are still issues that keep bubbling up."

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