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Bridging the Borderlands

Sonia Hernandez, of the College of Liberal Arts' history department, has been selected as the recipient of the Fulbright-García Robles Border Scholar Grant.

By Allen Junek ‘18

Long before the days when the borderlands of U.S. and Mexico garnered national controversy, the area birthed a transnational alliance of workers on both sides of the Rio Grande.

Mistaken for “a medium-sized Mexican” who was accused of stealing a horse, Gregorio Cortez was forced to traverse the borderlands between Texas and Mexico, evading Texas Rangers, local sheriffs, and vigilantes, all in effort to save himself from being lynched.

This was the story Sonia Hernandez, of the College of Liberal Arts’ history department, stumbled upon when she was first conducting research for her Ph.D. dissertation. The document she found was a 1901 petition from workers in Monterrey, Mexico to workers across the border to raise money in the defense of Gregorio Cortez.

With her interest peaked, Hernandez has since been selected as the recipient of the Fulbright-García Robles Border Scholar Grant. This award allows scholars to either lecture at a Mexican university along the border or conduct research in any discipline relevant to U.S.-Mexico border relations.

“I was thrilled to learn that I had been awarded this grant,” Hernandez said. “It’s a privilege really, because the Fulbright Program considers its recipients to be cultural ambassadors.” Further, this particular Fulbright border program only funds one fellow per year.

Her project, “Por un Compatriota,” (For a [Fellow] Compatriot) captures Cortez’s story and examines it as a microcosm of larger national processes of racial formation and citizenship, transnational collaboration, and community response to violence.  

News of Cortez’s story reached sympathetic ears on both sides of the border, people organized the Comisión Organizadora Para Ayudar en su Defensa al Mexicano Gregorio Cortez (Organizing Commission for the Defense of the Mexicano Gregorio Cortez).

“I’m not so much interested in recreating Cortez’s story, as I am interested in how people came together despite issues of nationalism, race, and gender in an effort to mitigate violence,” Hernandez said. “The violence was horrible, but the community responded as best they could.’”

Hernandez’s research will fill an important gap in the history of violence in the Texas and Mexico borderlands during the early 20th century.

“We often think of lynching in terms of African-American history, but there’s this whole other story of violence against Mexican-origin people,” Hernandez said. “Texas actually led in the number of recorded lynchings of Mexican—origin peoples.”

Hernandez anticipates this project culminating in her third book. She hopes her research will bring a greater awareness to both state-sanctioned violence along the Texas-Mexico border during the early 20th century and the larger efforts to address it. Additionally, Hernandez makes the case that violence along the border region today is much more cyclical, nuanced, and complex than media outlets and critics claim.

To read about the other research grants Hernandez has received, click here.