By Rosemary M. Marin
As our great country grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic and a push for racial justice continues to make headlines, common messages such as “Black and Brown” and “Tu Lucha Es Mi Lucha” (My Fight is Your Fight) remind us that this is not a new issue for Latinos, either.
Ever since the United States won the Mexican-American War in 1848 and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo granted 55 percent of Mexican territory to the United States, Mexican-Americans have lived in the U.S., but haven’t always been welcome.
In fact, many Hispanics have long been treated as second-class citizens, with their detractors perpetuating stereotypes that paint Mexican-Americans as lazy, stupid or undeserving of equal status with their fellow countrymen and women. There are countless examples that demonstrate this, but for me, the story is told in the everyday experiences of Latino-Americans.
In the early 1950’s, more than 100 years after the war that won this part of Mexico for the United States, a wide-eyed clarinet player from Bowie High School had an opportunity to travel with the Bowie band to Snyder, Texas, to march during a football game. She couldn’t contain her excitement as she boarded the bus for this trip with all her friends.
But upon arrival, the students noticed signs on different businesses that read, “No dogs or Mexicans allowed.” This girl was a first-generation American, with strong familial roots in Mexico, so she knew immediately that those signs were meant for her. When the band unloaded the bus to eat at the local cafeteria restaurant, where reservations had been made, they were turned away because the staff refused to serve what they used as a slur for “Mexicans.”
The principal arranged for the students to eat boxed lunches at the park, instead. Later, when they tried to check in at the hotel, the kids were again turned away. Ultimately, they had to sleep on cots in the school gym. Before the band arrived, in a story that is much better known, the Bowie football team had received the same treatment, until Coach Buryl Baty stood up for his players.
Thirty years later, a second-generation Hispanic high-schooler from El Paso traveled to Austin for a statewide academic competition and was called “Spic” and “Beaner” by other students as she made her speech. The same young lady later witnessed the word “Enchilada” and “Go back to Mexico” written on a Hispanic colleague’s vehicle in a law school parking lot.
Another 30 years later, on Aug. 3, 2019, El Paso lost its innocence when evil traveled 656 miles to kill “Mexicans” at a local Walmart. He killed 23 innocent people – all because he felt threatened by “Mexicans” in what he must have perceived as his country. I recently had the privilege of meeting the daughter of one of the victims – a single mom, whose talented child was left to spend her senior year in high school fending for herself.
Anyone who has lived in this community for any period of time knows that we are unique in that we are a big city that functions and feels more like a small town. We have shown, over and again, that we are open and friendly, mostly get along, look out for each other, help raise each other’s children, and are generous with others in times of need.
So it is not surprising that this event that targeted Mexican-Americans did not just affect Mexican-Americans. It significantly impacted our entire community, regardless of race or background, and reminded us – all of us – that race-based hatred still exists in this country and has the potential to kill.
The community’s united reaction in the aftermath also showed the world who we are: El Paso Strong. But there is more to do.
We must decide today that we will no longer allow it. We must stand together as countrymen and women – all of us – regardless of race, color, ethnicity, creed or political affiliation – and decide that we will no longer tolerate or perpetuate racism. Period.
We tolerate and perpetuate racism by saying nothing, turning the other way, or politely changing the subject when it comes up. We tolerate and perpetuate racism by excusing the behavior by renaming it “ignorance.” We tolerate and perpetuate racism by failing to show up at the polls or refusing to vote against candidates who support or ignore it.
As we remember and honor the fallen and other victims of this detestable act, we must all decide our role in this critical moment in history. At Community en Acción, we formally stand against racism and hatred directed at anyone because of their race, color or creed and are taking actions to combat it. We urge all the good people of this community and all communities to join us.
Rosemary Marin is an attorney and serves as board chair of Community en Acción (CEA), a non-profit organization of Latino business leaders who strive to enact positive change and support for the Borderplex community.
Cover photo: The family of Javier Amir Rodriguez, 15, the youngest person killed in the Aug. 3, 2019, Walmart shooting, visited the makeshift memorial near the store 15 days later. (Kate Gannon/El Paso Matters)