Monica Muñoz Martinez was born and raised in the South Texas town of Uvalde, a hundred miles west of San Antonio. Today, the 37-year-old is one of the world’s top experts on the history of racial violence along the Texas-Mexico border—but she didn’t learn much about her community’s past in school. Only at family dinners and barbecues did she hear about Uvalde’s history of segregated schools, the student walkouts her parents participated in, and the Texas Rangers who came to town to try to suppress their efforts. When she moved away to attend Brown University as an ethnic studies major, she finally learned about her history in a classroom. “It wasn’t until I left Uvalde that I realized it was an important place in the civil rights movement for Mexican Americans,” she says. 

For the first time, she studied the Chicano rights movement and figures such as Genoveva Morales, a tenacious activist, Uvalde native, and mother of eleven who sued the local school district for discrimination in 1970, prompting the integration of local schools. Martinez says it was surprising and empowering to learn about someone from her own community who did something so incredible: “That’s what kept me wanting to write history.” She later traveled back to her hometown to give a speech at the unveiling of the renamed Morales Junior High.

Now, as a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a founding member of the nonprofit Refusing to Forget, Martinez has continued to fight for the historical recognition of state-sanctioned anti-Mexican violence. Her 2018 book, The Injustice Never Leaves You, punctured the hero myth of the Texas Rangers by chronicling, in devastating detail, how they and other authorities massacred untold numbers of Tejanos in the first decade of the twentieth century. In addition to her scholarship, Martinez also is a public historian who helps curate museum exhibits, designs curricula for schoolteachers, and advocates for historical markers. A primary aim of her work is to provide justice for the victims of violence and their descendants. Refusing to Forget’s advocacy has led to the placement of new historical markers in Texas, despite significant pushback from local historical commissions and conservative activists.

This week, Martinez was recognized as one of 25 MacArthur fellows for 2021. She is the ninth UT-Austin professor to win the $625,000 “genius grant,” which will help fund her next project, Mapping Violence, a digital map of lost or forgotten cases of racial violence in Texas in the early twentieth century. Martinez spoke with Texas Monthly about her work, the importance of learning from our past, and how she remains hopeful for the future.

Texas Monthly: How has your relationship with history changed over the years?

Monica Muñoz Martinez: I didn’t even really know what a historian did when I was growing up. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, and when I got to college I realized it wasn’t for me. I took classes in U.S. history and ethnic studies, and started learning about Texas history. I was learning a history that I was taught parts of at home from my parents but I didn’t have access to in school. I realized there was a lot of history we needed to write that historians, museums, and archives had either ignored or overlooked. 

TM: The events that you study can be very dark. What keeps you going?

MM: As a historian, when I’m researching these events of racist violence that have not been documented, I don’t know what is going to happen or what the outcome will be. It is really hard to read newspaper articles that celebrate violence. For example, reading about John Shillady [of the NAACP] coming to Texas in 1919 to ask that the governor pass anti-lynching legislation and then being beaten by a mob that included a county judge who bragged about it to the press. Those are the hardest parts of history to read. But at the same time, if we don’t read about them, then we don’t understand how we’re still grappling with some of the same questions today. 

Studying the actions of survivors calling for justice or tending to the remains of their loved ones is so moving. Those actions, on the most basic human level, are a moving expression of love. They are acts of love in the face of hate, racism, and efforts to dehumanize someone. That’s why I’ve been so inspired by those seeking justice in the aftermath of violence, but also by generations that continued that effort.

TM: There’s an ongoing debate over if and how children should learn about racism and discrimination in school. As an educator and a historian, what’s your perspective?

MM: If you’re actually going to teach history, it’s unavoidable. If you want to teach the Texas constitution, you can’t avoid slavery. If you want to teach the history of the early twentieth century, you have to talk about Jim Crow and Juan Crow laws. These things are there in the records. We live in a world where kids are confronted with racism. Some of them are learning about it from television, movies, or the news. Others are confronted with it because they experience it. Kids are so smart; we can’t underestimate their ability to understand complex ideas and to have discussions about what’s happening today. The classroom is a place for them to learn and process those things. 

TM: The Injustice Never Leaves You focused on the racial terror and killings carried out by law enforcement in the borderlands during the early 1900s. Does that research affect the way you view the recent events in Del Rio?

MM: Seeing U.S. Border Patrol on horseback charging at unarmed asylum seekers triggered a lot of things for different viewers. Some people were reminded of photographs of slave patrols. For others, it brought up memories of policing on the border. What that tells us is that there are histories of racist violence that we as a society have not fully confronted. People live with the memories of these histories, and when they see images like this, those feelings of injustice resurface. That’s something that I realized in writing my book—people preserve these stories of injustice and pass them on, and because we don’t confront them, they continue to impact society. 

TM: The Mapping Violence project aims to create an archive of racial violence in Texas from 1900 to 1930. How do you hope to change our understanding of that period?

MM: When we think about the history of racist violence during this time period, we primarily think of lynchings, but that’s not the only type of racism that people suffered. By studying different cases and creating a record that’s more inclusive, we’ll have a better idea of what it meant to live in a climate of racial terror and learn how these acts were allowed to continue. This time period is the connective tissue that helps us understand how we got to where we are today. 

We don’t just want to mark these events as dots on a map. We want people to be able to learn about them through descriptions that include primary sources: legal records, newspaper articles, birth certificates, all of those kinds of things. 

TM: What are you looking forward to?

MM: I’m so motivated to collaborate with teachers, museums, and filmmakers to teach people through different platforms. This award is going to allow me to think even more creatively about how people can learn history outside the classroom. I really believe that people have a right to a truthful accounting of history, which can also be a more inclusive, sometimes more inspiring account of history. You shouldn’t have to go to college and take out tons of loans to access that. It’s exciting that the MacArthur Foundation gave this award to me and to other historians. It’s a signal that they realize how important it is for people to access and write about their own history. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.