Throughout my life, my grandmother had a dicho for everything. She could pluck out the perfect saying from memory to make a situation lighter or assuage pain. In times of grief or sorrow, she’d sometimes say, “No hay mal que por bien no venga” (“Something good always comes from the bad”). She’s no longer here, but even if she were, I don’t know if she’d ever be able to find the right combination of words to soften the blow of the El Paso tragedy.
Since the recent shooting, I have been exhausted. My brain has worn itself out trying to process the deaths of 23 people, all of whom died because their killer, a white supremacist, and the president of the United States himself characterized Latinx citizens’ presence as an “invasion.”
I have always been so proud to be Latina. Sixty-five years ago, my grandfather came to this country from Mexico with a third-grade education, speaking only Spanish. And every year since his arrival, my family has performed a minor miracle: holding firmly to our roots and culture on the other side of the border while building something just as firm and beautiful here in Texas.
In the living room of my grandparents’ house, I learned to roll my r’s and trained my tongue to slip between English and Spanish, sometimes clumsily in the same sentence. Around the kitchen table while munching on tortillas con mantequilla, I learned about my history through devouring the words of Sandra Cisneros and works crafted by artists including Frida Kahlo and Carmen Lomas Garza.
As a kid growing up in the predominately Latinx town of San Antonio, it felt like we were all part of the same fight. But it’s been harder to feel that same sense of pride when our heritage has made us a collective target for white supremacists.
Scrolling through social media over the past week and a half, I know I’m not the only one struggling to parse the hurt and confusion. Latinx people are afraid to go out in public, and when they do they’re hypervigilant of their skin color and of speaking their own language. Derogatory remarks or passing insults on the street have cut a little deeper and feel more threatening when they come in the days after the deadliest attack on Latinxs in modern history.
Angelica Cisneros, a paralegal from Fort Worth, moved to Texas from Mexico when she was 5 years old. Now 45, she says the years since Donald Trump was elected have taken their toll on her and her family. “I fear for my kids,” she says. “I’ve been in Texas for forty years, and I have never been so self conscious of my skin color or heritage than now. It’s shaken me to my core.”
During Trump’s visit to El Paso following the shooting, U.S. representative Veronica Escobar declined to meet with him, pointing to the racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric that he’s built his presidency on. In reflecting on the tragedy that took place in her hometown, she said the connection between the president’s words and the shooter’s actions is clear. “The words the president has used to describe my community need to be acknowledged,” Escobar tells Texas Monthly. “Those words have inspired people with hate in their hearts to see us as something other than human. We are a loving community, and the people in El Paso who put themselves at risk to help people in the midst of the attack represent the best of who we are as Americans.”
There’s a famous scene in the 1997 movie Selena where, in one sentence, the late singer’s father boils down a complexity that’s often emblematic of the Latinx experience: “We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time. It’s exhausting.” If it feels impossible to check everything off the list in order to be the “perfect Latinx,” that’s because it is. We’re a beautifully diverse community made up of nearly 60 million people with roots in twenty different countries. We speak different languages and different dialects. We’re white, we’re brown, we’re black, we’re mixed, we’re indigenous to this continent. Some of us don’t practice a particular religion, and some of us don’t speak Spanish at all. We have different immigration statuses. And whether we got here yesterday or two hundred years ago, we’re Texans, we’re Americans, and we’re humans just like anyone else.
But some of us, myself included, pass for white, and that means that we can choose to tell people we’re Latinx before anyone can hold it against us. Others, like several of my friends and family members, don’t have that same privilege. They don’t get to check their feelings at the door after the mass shooting earlier this month, because their heritage is not something they can hide. Jessica Carranza, a teacher from Brownsville, says she learned early on not to bring too much attention to herself. “When you’re darker, you learn to be invisible,” she says. “And it’s sad, because I’m proud of who I am.”
So what are our options? How does the largest minority in the U.S. defend itself against stereotypes or misinformation when newsrooms are overwhelmingly white? How do we fight back against the politicians who call us rapists and criminals when we make up 9 percent of Congress? How do we challenge the perceptions of us when, in a decade of films, we make up only 6.2 percent of the speaking roles?
I don’t have an answer. I was born and raised in Texas, and I’ve seen the way this state rallies around our food, our music, and certain palatable aspects of our culture while ignoring our history and keeping us at arm’s length.
I know that many of us are scared, many of us are angry, and many of us feel defeated. But I also know that we are strong. Over the years, I’ve gotten to speak with immigrants who moved mountains to be with their families, I’ve listened to Latinx veterans who have often been left out of the narrative, I’ve seen the way we give back to our community, and, in my own backyard, I’ve seen the way we’ve fought against a system that has always been unequal.
In the months before his death this past April, I spoke with my grandfather about his journey to the United States. For over six decades he resided here legally, built a life, and helped raise a family, but he maintained that his heart remained in Mexico. At his house, he flew an American flag that he saluted every morning because, as he would say, “Mi corazón pertenece a México, pero a mi me fue muy bien bajo su sombra” (“My heart belongs to Mexico, but things went well for me under the shade of the American flag”).
This country has the power to give people like my grandfather a chance. When he arrived here, he had to teach himself English by reading the newspaper. Now, within two generations, I’m a college graduate writing stories that feature people like him. Being Latinx is complicated and imperfect, but it’s also beautiful. So without knowing what lies ahead, I hope that what happened in El Paso does not force us into hiding or change who we are. So many of us—immigrants and children of immigrants alike—are proof that we can achieve great things, but it is tiring to feel as though we constantly need to prove ourselves in order to be a part of the United States.
Our origins predate the founding of this country, and our struggles and triumphs are part of the blueprint of its DNA. We deserve to be human, we deserve to tell our own stories, and we deserve to be here just as much as anybody else.