Charlotte Hilbrich Davis is a 2019 graduate of Harvard College, where she studied History & Literature, focusing on Latinx Studies. Although Charlotte grew up in Kansas, she is eagerly awaiting her big move to Austin, Texas, where she will soon begin working as a criminal investigator supporting individuals on the state’s death row.
From Mexican Prisons to Texas’ Death Row:
My Journey in Exploring Contemporary Narratives of Criminality
By Charlotte Davis
Four years ago, I never would have guessed that during my Harvard undergraduate career I would devote myself to studying criminal justice and the historical criminalization of Latinx communities—nor would I imagine that I would spend the majority of my senior year writing a thesis centered on the popular memory of Mexican American female lynching victims.
Like happened with many others around me, the academic interests I explored in college were not ones that I intended to study as I timidly entered Harvard in 2015, an eager yet academically wandering freshman. I had grown up in Stilwell, Kansas, and prior to college, lived the stereotypically apolitical life that often, it seems, accompanies circumstances of racial homogeneity and sheltered middle-classness. I entered college relatively unaware about the issues plaguing communities around me—with particular ignorance about the issues of racial and social justice that I would soon find myself deeply invested in. Freshman year, I discovered that I enjoyed learning about the lopsided history of U.S.-Latin American relations, and in no time, I grew interested in studying our nation’s broken immigration system. At this point, I knew little, if any, about the nation’s criminal justice system.
It wasn’t until an planned summer internship—working at a Mexican center on migrant rights—fell through in 2017, that I was connected, last minute, to a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Mexico City that focused on prison reform and criminal justice reform at large. Stumbling upon the work was fate—personally, intellectually and professionally. That summer, my most meaningful work moments occurred during weekly trips to Mexican prisons, where I interviewed prison visitors and collected information about their loved ones’ alleged crimes, sentences and human rights abuses. The stories were heart-wrenching, and yet, they simultaneously motivated me to learn more in order to understand how and why criminal justice systems operate. Although I was learning about the justice system of our southern neighbor, I began to understand how certain elements of the U.S. system trickled down into Mexico. How did racial and class disparities, as they pertained to the criminal justice system, differ between the two nations?
I returned to Harvard after my summer working in Mexico with a burgeoning interest in exploring the ways that stories surrounding criminal justice are fashioned by those in power and, ultimately, understood by the public. How and why do national understandings of “criminality” form, and in what ways are these conceptions of “criminals” racialized? In the United States, how can policies that purport to protect public safety impact the Latinx community—a community which, although not monolithic, has largely been sidelined in the U.S. black-white binary debate on mass incarceration? In order to more intimately understand the U.S. justice system from a domestic perspective, I spent the summer of 2018 interning as an investigator with Washington D.C.’s Public Defender Service, each day attempting to help indigent clients seeking legal representation. My deep awareness about the justice system’s racialized nature arose from this experience and encouraged me to take a variety of courses on mass incarceration and the history of race-making in the United States upon my return to Harvard my senior year.
These courses pushed me to consider the way that, throughout the last centuries, U.S. dialogues of race have been created and sustained in order to prioritize whiteness and incarcerate Latinx communities alongside other communities of color. Particularly, I explored through my research and studies the way that dominant white society has historically criminalized Mexicans ever since the U.S. nation-state expanded into Mexican territory in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. After identifying the concept of “criminality” as the crux of my academic interests, I wanted to devote the rest of my Harvard career towards studying the term as it intersected with the legal system, racial violence, white power and Latinx immigration.
In order to study what I understood as the most extreme form of racialized criminalization, in my senior thesis I explored the popular memory of two Mexican American women who were lynched by white “Anglo” Americans in the middle of the 19th century. One of my primary questions was: how does the United States remember and memorialize these lynching victims in recent decades, given that the women existed on the margins in the 19th century, and their histories are either largely forgotten, or largely contested? In my thesis, I explored the political contexts into which two women’s lynching stories resurfaced in recent decades.
The first woman whose lynching I studied was Juanita “Chipita” Rodriguez, a woman who was hanged in 1863 in San Patricio, Texas. Charged with the murder of a white horse trader, Chipita was denied due process in a dubious and hastily-performed legal proceeding before the District Court sentenced her to death by hanging. In my first chapter, I explored a 1985 Texas Senate resolution that provided a symbolic redress to Chipita, nearly a century after her death. However, in light of the redress operating as an apology for the state’s hanging of Chipita, I traced the way that the 1985 government resolution was intentionally devoid of racial language—even though her hanging occurred amidst a context of wide-spread borderlands violence. Although many Latino communities in 1985 considered Chipita a lynching victim, the majority-white Senate considered her death but an incident of denied due process, an accidental execution. In this thesis chapter, I examined the colorblind language of the government resolution in the context of the post-Chicano movement’s turn toward accommodationist thought and explored the implications of the white-washed resolution. I argued that the state apology was limited insofar as it failed to accurately grapple with the prejudice underpinning Chipita’s hanging.
In the second chapter of my thesis, I explored the story of Josefa Segovia, a woman who was lynched in 1851 in the gold mining town of Downieville, California. A make-shift mining court killed Josefa after they accused her of killing a well-liked white miner—even though some purport that Josefa acted out of self-defense. More than 180 years after Josefa’s lynching, in 2017, opera director Peter Sellars debuted Girls of the Golden West, a two-part opera that told the story of Josefa as a story of violent racism and indignant resistance. The opera upended the typical all-male and all-white Gold Rush narratives that pervade the genre, and instead highlighted voices of the historically excluded—such as women and ethnic Mexicans. In the opera, Josefa is portrayed as a woman who killed the white miner in self-defense, after he tried to rape her. The opera portrayed the violent racism of the Gold Rush that led to Josefa’s death, as a near analog to modern-day racism. I argued in this chapter that the depiction of racial violence and sexism in the opera was a fiery political response to the pervasive anti-Mexican sentiment incited by Donald J. Trump, and the political outrage of the MeToo movement.
Throughout my thesis research I was consistently disturbed by similarities between the 19th-century treatment of ethnic Mexicans in the United States, and modern-day manifestations of such violence such the criminalization of ethnic Mexicans in the United States today. Although our nation is fortunately beginning to grapple with its horrific history of racial terror against black communities, we still appear to keep our eyes closed to the anti-Mexican violence upon which our national identity was built, and upon which it often continues to stake its exclusionary identity. U.S. historical violence against Mexicans is erased from popular narratives—I, as well as most of my classmates I recounted this story to, was alarmed to learn that thousands of ethnic Mexicans were lynched throughout the 19 th century. This tragic stain on our nation’s history is widely ignored.
I remain interested in combatting the criminalization of Latinx communities. I recently accepted a position serving as a criminal investigator with the Office of Capital & Forensic Writs, a public defender service that represents individuals on Texas’ death row in post-trial state appeals. In August I move to Austin, stepping further onto the path—this time, professionally—towards fighting for a more just criminal justice system. The hours I invested
into learning about and memorializing the lynchings of Chipita and Josefa culminated in much more than an 86-page long thesis about how and why we fashion stories depicting anti-Mexican violence and capital punishment. Rather, my academic career at Harvard ultimately inspired me to continue my work on the subject matter. Texas is the state with the most active death chamber. Furthermore, in Texas, Latinx folks are not only disproportionately incarcerated, but they are also disproportionately sent to death row. I have no doubt that these legacies of 19th-century lynchings are embedded in the folds of capital punishment today. The historical—and continued— misuse of capital punishment in the United States, and the state’s role in perpetrating lynchings by either enacting them, or failing to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions, ought to deeply concern each of us. Erasing the state’s past role in perpetuating racial violence against ethnic Mexicans in the 19th century only continues to obscure the way that state power continues to execute those on the margins of society in the present day.