Mexican Americans hear that music. After all, owing to the “Mexican” side, our tribe has been known to listen to sad songs to make ourselves feel happy. If there is mourning in America, we’re here for it. Besides, even though we’re not really 100 percent Mexican or 100 percent American—and because we’re truly men and women without countries, considered “Mexicans” in the United States and “Americans” in Mexico—we’re nonetheless raised to be fluent in the narratives of both countries.
And now, as the result of the tragedy that occurred in El Paso, Texas, our version of Ellis Island, Mexican Americans have an additional date of our own that we’ll never forget: Aug. 3, 2019. The date will live in infamy, because it was on this date that the bastards hit us.
That’s right, the noun is plural. After all, despite the tendency of many Americans—when faced with tragedy—to narrow the crime to the act of a single person, sometimes a lone gunman has accomplices or at least enablers.
When Patrick Crusius—a white supremacist who appears to have been radicalized by racist websites into believing that our nation is rotting from within due to immigration (stop me if this sounds like the rants of White House adviser Stephen Miller or the Republicans in Congress talking about an “invasion”)—took it upon himself to make America white again, he did so with the confidence of someone who believes he is acting on behalf of millions of others.
In a manifesto he left behind on social media, the resident of Allen, Texas—a comfy, mostly white suburb north of Dallas—decried the “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” condemned “race-mixing,” warned that immigration had brought the country to “the brink (of) destruction,” accused Democrats of selling out the country in order to pander to Hispanics, and made it clear that he had a problem not just with legal and illegal Hispanic immigrants but also “the tens of millions (of Hispanics) that are already here.”
Crusius now sits in a jail cell, awaiting separate trials on state and federal charges including nearly two dozen counts of murder and as many counts of attempted murder.
All because, according to the federal indictment, the 21-year-old drove from his home in North Texas at least eight hours Southwest with a high-powered rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition to the overwhelmingly Hispanic city of El Paso. If this ghoul had come hunting Mexicans and Mexican Americans, then he had come to the right place. According to the indictment, he pulled into the East El Paso Walmart Supercenter store near Cielo Vista Mall, where he opened fire on hundreds of people. When the carnage was over, 22 people were dead and 24 more wounded. In the year since, one of the wounded individuals would die, raising the death toll to 23. At least eight of the dead were Mexican nationals who had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border that morning. They came not to pick up welfare checks or to take jobs from Americans or to smuggle drugs, but to shop for back-to-school clothes before heading back across the border into Ciudad Juarez—a city that is supposedly much more dangerous than El Paso. Though not on this day.
For the last year, white media commentators have casually referred to the bloodbath in El Paso as the worst attack on Latinos in U.S. history. With respect, it’s not really. Not even close. Scholars who have examined the body count left behind by that notorious gang of lawmen known as The Texas Rangers estimate that, in the early 1900s, the Rangers killed hundreds if not thousands of Mexicans in the Lone Star State, often at the behest of wealthy white landowners.
In a single massacre in 1918 in the tiny province of Porvenir in South Texas, Rangers marched 15 men and boys out of town and shot them. Historian Ben Johnson tells the story in his book, Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans. Johnson writes: “Even observers hesitant to acknowledge Anglo brutality recognize that the death toll was at least three hundred. Some of those who found human remains with skulls marked by execution-type bullet holes in the years to come were sure that the toll had been much, much higher, perhaps five thousand.”
In 2020, the United States is having an essential and overdue conversation about police violence. But once again, the dialogue about social justice and holding institutions accountable is mostly Black and white.
The United States hasn’t been Black and white for 50 years. In cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Denver, Albuquerque, and Phoenix, Latinos know all about police violence. Maybe we need a better publicist to get the white liberals who run the worlds of media and politics to add more colors to their crayon boxes. As it stands, Latinos are airbrushed out of TV news, newspaper newsrooms, Hollywood movies, television shows, textbooks, documentaries, and just about every other form of media.
Let’s back up a bit. The subtitle of Johnson’s book on the Texas Rangers is about turning Mexicans into Americans. That’s easier said than done. What with a constant stream of Mexican immigrants coming across the U.S.-Mexico border to do jobs that Americans won’t do, some say that the assimilation process for Mexican Americans has developed a hitch in its step.
That’s ridiculous. Mexicans are still becoming Americans, and assimilation is still taking place like clockwork. In my case, I’m writing this piece in English because—as a third generation Mexican American on my dad’s side, and a sixth-generation Tejano on my mom’s—my Spanish is not so good.
The real issue is that—even though many Mexican Americans will continue to leave behind their Mexican roots, and the best and brightest will still be whisked off to Ivy League schools with nary a roadmap for how to go home again—tragedies like the one in El Paso remind us that, to some people, we’re all the same. Witnesses say that Crusius was quite efficient in carrying out what he told police was his mission to “kill as many Mexicans as possible.” He didn’t care what college you went to, or how much money you had, or what neighborhood you lived in, or that you married a white person, or that you had light skin and only spoke English. To him, we were all Mexican. And so we all needed to be exterminated.
For the nation’s estimated 30 million Mexican Americans, last year’s massacre in El Paso was a wake-up call from a long siesta. I won’t say that generations of going along to get along has gotten us nowhere. Progress has been made. But it has gotten us a bit lost. We can love this country and still be proud of our ethnic heritage. And we must defend one another against all attacks—whether they come from domestic terrorists who dread the displacement of white people, or people in Washington who often sound a lot like those terrorists.