The Boers of the Mesilla Valley

This originally appeared as an op-ed in the Las Cruces Sun-News on July 14, 2019.

In 1905, a group of migrants from Chihuahua crossed the border between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, settling in the Mesilla Valley. They were destitute, mostly undocumented, and struggled to speak English. The Rio Grande Republican, a Las Cruces newspaper, had written that their kind of people were “about as low a type of man that exists,” that their personal habits would “shame an Apache Indian. Their underclothing is seldom changed, indeed apparently never till it falls to pieces.” They were outcasts unfit for civilization, some politicians claimed.

These migrants had fair skin, what now might be called “white,” though most folks didn’t think of them that way. They were Boers, or Afrikaners, a people with Dutch and French ancestry with roots in southern Africa hundreds of years deep. These border-crossers had emigrated from their former republics after the South African War (1899-1902), defeated by the British Empire and seeking refuge in foreign lands. Many Boers chose exile over British rule and settled in other countries, notably Kenya and Argentina. A small group formed a colony in Mexico and, later, the Mesilla Valley.

In 1903, Mexican President Porfírio Díaz saw the potential of these agriculturalists and courted them with tax concessions and the opportunity to be land-owners once again. State authorities shuttled Boer leaders around the country, showcasing the nation’s promise. In one of history’s surreal moments, at a train-stop in Michoacán, a Mexican band welcomed the Boer leaders, hoisting one upon the shoulders of nearby men, shouting “Viva Boeros!”

These self-exiles chose to settle that year near Meoqui, Chihuahua. The principal families — the Viljoens and Snymans — spoke no Spanish. They had no funds, just hopes of peace and, if fortunate, prosperity. They selected the Hacienda de Humboldt area due to the president’s financial incentives, to the state’s proximity to U.S. markets, and to its fertile lands for irrigation agriculture.

Early attempts to integrate culturally led to odd phrases in Afrikaans, Spanish and English, such as, “Keer die maranas daar, and ponga them back in the kraal” (Stop those pigs, and put them back in the pen). Native Mexican workers sharecropped their lands, but internal and external social frictions, together with some bad luck — the great flood of 1904 — doomed the colony. It failed in two short years. In 1905, then, all but one family of Boer emigrants looked north. The Mesilla Valley, with irrigated lands and the shimmer of American dreams, immediately appealed to them.

Some New Mexicans welcomed them to the region, but these immigrants fought against anti-Boer prejudices, the direct result of British propaganda during the recent South African War. Pro-British outlets had painted the Boers as dirty, backward and degenerate, a people needing to be conquered. The campaign was so effective that readers in towns far-removed from the war, like Las Cruces, believed the them to be impediments to civilization and wearers of unkempt skivvies.

These views slowly dissipated with the immigrants’ participation in civic life in the Mesilla Valley. They resided in La Mesa, Mesilla Park, Chamberino, El Paso and Fabens, Texas, cultivating fruit, asparagus and alfalfa. The Viljoens and Snymans danced at social gatherings in Anthony and later vacationed in Cloudcroft. They led regional Fourth of July parades with the American flag and that of the vanquished Boer Republics.

With time, the Boer exiles began to thrive in Doña Ana County, but they were human, too. Several had their own warped views about race in the African context, only to bemoan prejudice in the United States. They lived a paradox: that racial bias does not discriminate.

By 1910, most of them had become U.S. citizens. Upon naturalization, the Los Angeles Times reported, one of the colony’s founders, Benjamin Viljoen, “made those about him a stirring little speech in which he declared that for seven years he had been ‘a man without a country,’ and that this was the proudest moment of his life.” He declared that “every oom and tante" (uncle and aunt), “every man and maid, every boy and girl of them was already loyally American to the core.”

A number of their descendants still call New Mexico home, though most are spread from southern California to New York. They confirm the importance of citizenship to their ancestors. Two Snyman descendants, now of retirement age themselves, recalled their grandfather’s American pride. When attending high school football games in the 1950s, he would stop kids playing during the “Star-Spangled Banner” by saying, “You are an American citizen! I came from a country where there was not freedom. You stand at attention. Take your hats off. Your hand on your heart!” For him, tears often accompanied the song “God Bless America.”

These Boer immigrants trekked from southern Africa to Chihuahua and to the Mesilla Valley, but they also survived a greater journey of social rank: from being perceived as unwanted, dirty, poor immigrants to being accepted members of the community. Indeed, this social struggle may have proven more difficult for them. It certainly took more time.

Their history is largely unknown, but it appeals to us contemporary readers for its novelty. Boers? Here in the Mesilla Valley?

Beyond this immediate appeal, though, the themes of this unique history follow a narrative arc common to border communities. These emigrants escaped war-torn regions (even British concentration camps) to seek a better life elsewhere. They simply sought peace and the chance at prosperity wherever possible, first in Mexico, and then in the United States.

The Viljoens and Snymans crossed the border and eventually proved their value as U.S. citizens, even admonishing American schoolchildren to honor the national anthem. Their story reminds us of the great promise of hard work and a dogged belief in a better tomorrow. By most measures, their history is an example of an immigration success story.

But their case also reveals American shortcomings in how these immigrants were perceived, and how race and nationality have been redefined ever since our nation’s founding. Those seeking new beginnings, or the chance for a brighter future, or the protection of political asylum, face perilous journeys to safety, as well as challenging paths to inclusion.