In an interview with Javier Villalobos in early June, Fox Business host Stuart Varney presented his guest with a riddle. Villalobos, a Republican, had just won the mayoral election in McAllen, the Texas border town at the end of the last great curve of the Rio Grande. Varney, barely containing his glee, wanted the politician to help viewers understand the victory. “Your honor,” Varney addressed Villalobos, “you are right on the border, eighty-five percent of the voters in your county are Hispanic, you are a Republican, and you won. Can you explain that? Because not many Americans expect a Hispanic electorate to go for a Republican mayor!”
Villalobos promptly set Varney straight. “I think a lot of people know, or should know, that Hispanics generally are very conservative.” His triumph, he explained, wasn’t stunning; he had simply met his voters where they were, with a “conservative agenda” of low taxes, limited government spending, and pro-business policies. Satisfied, Varney moved on to other questions familiar to South Texans who make national news. What did Villalobos think of the border wall? What about “illegal entry” of migrants? This part of the interview should have been routine. But Varney had apparently not learned the name of the town where Villalobos had been elected, mistakenly (and repeatedly) referring to McAllen as “McLaren.”
The error was par for the course. South Texas lately has become an object of political fascination for pundits, some of whom have not taken the time to understand even the most basic facts about the region. Until recently, officials from McAllen typically found themselves on the national radar only when they welcomed visiting national politicians. But Villalobos’s win—albeit in a race in which his party affiliation did not appear alongside his name on the ballot and fewer than 10,000 of the city’s 73,000 registered voters went to the polls—was noteworthy for one reason. It seemed to confirm what Democrats had spent the past seven months denying: they have a deep problem in South Texas—and therefore in statewide races as well.
Last year, McAllen experienced the biggest shift in party vote share, toward Donald Trump, of any large city in the country save for Laredo, 150 miles to the northwest. In both border towns, Trump improved on his 2016 results by more than 23 points. Many predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods in Texas’s major cities, such as San Antonio’s Prospect Hill, also experienced double-digit shifts toward the incumbent president, though they ultimately stayed Democratic. But no area fled further into the GOP camp than South Texas, where 18 percent of the state’s Hispanic population lives.
In Starr County, just upriver from McAllen, Republicans increased their turnout by almost 300 percent between 2016 and 2020. While Hillary Clinton won there by sixty points, Joe Biden barely scraped out a five-point victory. In Webb County, home of Laredo, Trump cut his 2016 margin of defeat by more than half. And in Zapata County, which didn’t even have a local Republican party, Trump became the first GOP presidential candidate to win since Warren G. Harding was on the ballot a century ago.
This shift has shattered years of political assumption—and perhaps arrogance. Democrats ranging from Barack Obama’s Latino outreach coordinator, Cuauhtémoc Figueroa, to former San Antonio mayor and presidential candidate Julián Castro had long maintained that Hispanic voters would be the party’s salvation in the Lone Star State. Their logic was syllogistic. In the early 2020s, according to the state demographer’s projections, Texas’s Hispanic population would achieve plurality status, constituting around 41 percent of the state’s total and surpassing non-Hispanic white Texans as its largest demographic group. And most Hispanic Texans—more than 60 percent in 2016—voted Democratic.
Banking on an identity-based appeal, Democrats last year trotted out the sort of bilingual messaging in South Texas that has played well among Mexican Americans in Los Angeles and Puerto Ricans in New York, focused on a celebration of diversity and immigration. Republicans, by contrast, recognized that Hispanic South Texans share many of the same values as non-Hispanic white voters elsewhere in Texas and swept in with a pitch about defending gun rights, promoting the oil and gas industry, restricting abortion, and supporting law enforcement. Republicans proved more persuasive.
Indeed, for decades, the dominant ideologies in South Texas have been the same as in other rural areas and small towns across the state—that is, conservative. Many Democrats in South Texas are ardent supporters of gun rights who spend fall and winter weekends hunting white-tailed deer. On Sundays, churches—mostly Catholic but also evangelical—swell to the brim. In hotels, mud-caked boots line the hallways at night as oil workers travel from job to job. As nine-term U.S. congressman Henry Cuellar, a Democrat whose district stretches from the banks of the Rio Grande all the way to San Antonio, told me, “Aside from our Mexican heritage, much of South Texas has . . . demographic similarities with some of the more conservative strongholds and white rural communities in the state.”
But so much more than just ideology—whether one is conservative or moderate or liberal—determines how a person votes. Cultural factors matter too. While ideology has been strongly predictive of whether white voters opt for Republicans or Democrats since the late eighties, that had not been true of the state’s Hispanic voters. David Shor, an iconoclastic data scientist who has polled South Texas extensively, explains that about 40 percent of American voters are conservative, 40 percent are moderate, and 20 percent are liberal. Those numbers don’t vary much by race or ethnicity, whereas party loyalty does. And for decade after decade, part of being Hispanic in South Texas, just like wrapping tamales on Christmas Eve or listening to Selena at family reunions, meant voting Democratic, even as the party became less welcoming to those with conservative views. What changed in 2020 is that conservative Hispanic South Texans voted like their non-Hispanic white neighbors. Ideology suddenly became polarizing for the group in a way it never had been before.
Many Hispanic South Texans shared something else with non-Hispanic white rural Texans: their racial identity. Hispanic residents of our state are much more likely to identify as white than Hispanic residents of cities elsewhere in the country. With roots many generations deep in lands that were annexed from Mexican control to that of the U.S., many also actively reject being cast as immigrants. In 2020 ignorance of these facts embarrassed state and national Democrats. While Hispanic South Texans are proud of their Mexican heritage, many do not consider themselves to be “people of color” at all.
All this means that, despite Democrats’ blithe assurances, demography is not destiny. Texas will indeed have a Hispanic plurality soon. However, “Hispanic” describes neither a race nor a political loyalty. When it comes to race, Texas will remain overwhelmingly white, with more than 75 percent of its residents identifying as such. And if Democrats continue to hemorrhage votes in places like McAllen and Laredo, Texas could turn even redder.
The GOP has looked at South Texas and seen voters who walk and talk like Republicans. The challenge facing the Democratic party is not just how to win back Hispanic voters. It’s how to win back voters with Hispanic names who may not even use that adjective to describe themselves.
For Ross Barrera, election night in 2020 was tinged with disappointment. The former chair of the Starr County Republican party, he had lost a bid for mayor of Rio Grande City, a town of about 15,000. With the same diligence and discipline that had driven his rise from raw recruit to colonel over 34 years in the U.S. Army, he had run an enthusiastic campaign. He had donned a mask and knocked on doors and, like any modern politico, posted regularly on his Facebook page. (“SÍ SE PUEDE: Voten por Barrera” read one post, complete with a GIF of a woman in a baile folclórico dress; in another, he shared an earnest corrido that a local band had recorded for one of his political allies.) But when he learned he had lost the race early that night, it was hardly a surprise: Rio Grande City has elected Democrats for decades. Around 11 p.m., he made a final post on Facebook before heading to bed: “The fight remains!”
The next day, Barrera awoke to an onslaught of calls from reporters across the country. The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Politico all had the same question: What just happened? While Biden had carried Starr County—it had been called for him late the night before—Republicans had increased their turnout there almost threefold, and the county had shifted more dramatically toward Trump than any other in America.
Starr County is almost entirely Hispanic. Barrera’s house overlooks a belt of reeds and tall grasses along the Rio Grande. Mexico’s Ciudad Camargo sits just a short walk—or swim—away, on the opposite bank. If you picked someone up, spun her around, and placed her on one side of the river or the other, it might be hard for her to tell what country she was in. At least half the signs on the U.S. side are in Spanish: the jeweler is the “Joyería”; the Aetna insurance office is plastered with posters asking “¿Tienes Medicare?” Those strolling the streets in each town look about the same. Based on conventional assumptions, Republicans should not do well here.
So, reporters wanted to hear how they had. Barrera talked through different theories. The Democratic platform calling for the U.S. to wean itself off fossil fuels had scared many voters in an area dominated by the oil and gas industry. (Those fears had been inflamed by misinformation about Biden’s stance on fracking and other energy issues.) Others had been hammered by the economic impact of business shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic and had voted for the candidate in favor of fewer restrictions. Still more were put off by liberal national Democrats calling for the “defunding” of law enforcement and railing against the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which employs thousands of Hispanic South Texans.
Between calls with reporters, Barrera checked Facebook. Another, simpler theory for Starr County’s rightward swing—put forward by left-leaning Hispanic voters in the Rio Grande Valley—was dominating comment sections and posts: the Mexican Americans in Starr County were “trying to be white.” “All over social media, they were hating on us,” Barrera told me.
He had heard the insults before. Mexican immigrants and their descendants in the United States have adopted a litany of terms to accuse another person of Mexican descent of “trying to be white.” There’s “vendido”—which translates literally as “sellout” and means someone who’s turned his back on Mexican culture. A “malinchista”—an allusion to Malintzin, an enslaved Aztec woman whom Hernán Cortés brought with him in his conquest of her people’s empire—is someone who has betrayed her community. Adrienne Peña-Garza, the Republican party chair of Hidalgo County, which neighbors Starr County, says that people have told her “Tienes el nopal en la frente” (“You have a cactus on your forehead”), an insult for someone who looks Mexican but denies it. Once two women, she says, swung a sledgehammer and cracked open a coconut in front of the local Republican headquarters. The implication was clear. “Coconut” is a word for someone who is supposedly brown on the outside but white on the inside. It frustrates Peña-Garza how her conservative stances get interpreted: “National Democrats have done a fairly good job making it seem like if you support border security, you must be a self-hater.”
To Barrera, accusations of being a traitor feel like barbs. He compares them to a term sometimes used in the Black community: “Uncle Tom.” “They say that I’m a self-loathing Mexican person,” Barrera told me. He grew up speaking Spanish and is proud of his heritage; he would never deny who he is and where he came from.
However, the question of who exactly he is is complicated. Barrera doesn’t like to use the descriptors he’s seen used by the media and national Democrats. “Latinos con Biden” signs were a particular allergy; Barrera never calls himself Latino, which he says is “a word from Hollywood.” Likewise, he doesn’t call himself Hispanic, which he considers “too metropolitan.” He’d never call himself Mexican, and he has an aversion to the compound “Mexican American.” He said, “I’m just American.”
He added, “Around here, we like to say that we’re Tejano.” Peña-Garza agrees: “I’m Tejana.” A term that dates back to when Texas was a region of Mexico known as Tejas, “Tejano” fully entered the vernacular in the seventies and was often used as an alternative to anti-assimilationist descriptors that had come into vogue, such as “Chicano.” “There’s a difference between ‘Mexican American’ and ‘Tejano,’ ” Barrera said. “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.”
If Tejanos have a slogan, that’s it. Many of the present-day residents of Starr County claim a lineage back to the time when Mexico was Nueva España and when both banks of the Rio Grande were Mexican territory. While “Tejano” means different things to different people, many use the word to telegraph a specific message: their ancestors are the early Spanish settlers who colonized the province of Tejas for the Spanish Crown. They don’t see themselves as immigrants.
Multiple times, when I asked him “What is your race?” Barrera jumped into detailed, eloquent explanations of Latin American history and sensitive perspectives on the differences among various Latin American expat communities in the U.S. Eventually, he gave me an answer: “I am a Caucasian, and my government says I am Hispanic,” he said. “Because my surname goes back to Hispaniola, to Spain.”
What does it mean to be “white”? In his famous investigation How the Irish Became White, historian Noel Ignatiev argues that race isn’t a stable biological fact. Rather, whiteness is a social construct, a flexible fabric that at any particular moment can be wrapped around certain groups while excluding others. In the nineteenth century, Irish immigrants to the U.S. were of an unmistakable second-class status and, early on, were often depicted in newspaper illustrations and cartoons as alien, even simian. They supported the politics of the downtrodden, including public investment and social democratic reform. But as they rose through labor unions, police and fire departments, and public offices and gained economic and political clout, the Irish were increasingly regarded, and depicted in public imagery, as white. By the mid-twentieth century, large numbers of them supported anti-immigrant, nativist, and segregationist politicians. In Ignatiev’s telling, by becoming co-custodians of the nation’s racial caste system, Irish Americans were able to rise to the same social position as the country’s earlier Anglo-Saxon settlers.
Might Ignatiev’s thesis apply, in some ways, to Tejanos in the Rio Grande Valley and lighter-skinned Hispanic Americans more generally? Across South Texas, I met resident after resident who, like Barrera, struggled to find a simple answer to the question of his or her identity. National Democrats have often treated Hispanic South Texans as sharing the same characteristics as Chicanos in California or Salvadoran Americans in Maryland. As Sylvia Bruni, chair of the Webb County Democratic party, told me, campaign signs targeting Hispanic voters in South Texas were the same as those rolled out in Los Angeles, reading “Todos con Biden” (“Everyone With Biden”). “They never found a message specifically for people in South Texas,” she said.
Tejano culture is distinctive. As Cynthia Villarreal, a retired high school counselor and lifelong resident of the border town of Zapata, explained to me recently, “My grandfather always told me, ‘No soy mexicano. No soy americano. Soy tejano.’ ”
Villarreal, who has voted blue most of her life, was a prominent Democratic organizer in Zapata in 2020. With light-brown hair and hazel eyes, she would not look out of place in Spain. In fact, like many in the Valley, she traces her family history back to the earliest European colonizers (and unlike others with more apocryphal lineages, she has access to the records from the Spanish Crown to prove it). When the Mexican region Tejas became Texas, Villarreal’s ancestors became American. This blending of identity, almost two centuries later, has left her feeling out of place in both countries. “I’m too white to be Mexican,” she joked, “and too Mexican to be white.”
One of the difficulties in understanding whiteness in South Texas is the double valence of that word. In Tejano regions, “white” can mean güero (slang for a light-skinned or fair-haired person), but it can also mean gringo, WASP, or Anglo—the words Mexican Americans have long used, with varying degrees of disparagement, to describe non-Hispanic white Texans. On the border, more than just appearance determines a person’s social position—citizenship papers do too. Many recent Mexican and Central American immigrants to South Texas come from Indigenous communities, and the basic rights offered by citizenship often overlap uncomfortably with a racial hierarchy.
Tejanos are more comfortable calling themselves white than are Hispanic Americans elsewhere in the country. On recent censuses, respondents were asked their ethnicity—e.g., Hispanic or Latino—and their race. While many Hispanic Americans use “Hispanic” to describe both their race and ethnicity, the census differentiates between the two categories; after all, someone who is Hispanic—descended from inhabitants of a Spanish-speaking country—could be of any race. Latin Americans with Indigenous heritage could mark “American Indian” as their race, and hundreds of thousands of Latinos could check “Black.” Others could mark “Some Other Race” and perhaps include their family’s country of origin.
On the 2010 census, 53 percent of Americans who answered that they were Hispanic or Latino also marked their race as white. Last year, in Starr County, where 96 percent of respondents were Hispanic, almost 99 percent identified as white. On paper, that means the county isn’t just one of the most Hispanic in the country. It’s also one of the whitest.
Such results were common across South Texas, where 76 percent of Hispanic residents identify as white, substantially more than the 62 percent who do statewide. In Laredo, 95 percent of respondents marked Hispanic or Latino—making it the second-most Hispanic city in the country—and 96 percent identified as white. The numbers look similar in Brownsville, Zapata, and elsewhere along the Rio Grande—but are markedly different from those in other Hispanic pockets of the country. In Salinas, California, east of Monterey, almost 80 percent of census respondents selected Hispanic or Latino as their ethnicity, but only 37 percent said they were white. Santa Ana, in Southern California, is ethnically 77 percent Hispanic or Latino and racially 40 percent white. (Notably, neither city experienced a pronounced rightward shift in the last election.)
Some researchers caution against reading too much into the data. Patricia Sánchez, chair of the department of bicultural-bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, says that when given a limited set of options, many Hispanic respondents acquiesce to a racial identification they wouldn’t normally use and will select “white” as the best option among a crop of incongruous choices. Sánchez herself identifies as mestiza, a term Mexicans use to refer to someone with mixed Indigenous and European heritage. Her parents, by contrast, always called themselves Mexican, but on her birth certificate their race was marked as “white.”
Still, the data does tell us something. When it comes to the Hispanic South Texans most likely to identify as white—or least likely to identify as people of color—there’s a fascinating generational dynamic. Younger, light-skinned Hispanic locals have grown up amid a sophisticated dialogue about race and power. They tend to be more liberal than their parents and grandparents, and many doubt whether identifying as people of color sufficiently acknowledges their privilege. Recently, when Sánchez helped her nineteen-year-old daughter fill out college applications, her daughter listed her race as white on a form that included a Hispanic or Latino option. “Mom, I feel really weird checking off ‘Latina/Hispanic’ because I am just so white-looking,” she told Sánchez. “I don’t feel threatened [by racism].”
Older Hispanic Texans, many of whom survived intense discrimination, did not grow up around the sorts of messages of racial pride familiar to their middle-aged children. Those who came of age in the first half of the 1900s, in particular, can remember a time when “Mexican” was frequently used as a slur. The vicious negative connotations led many to avoid the term. They also grew up at a time when assimilation and patriotism went hand in hand. Villarreal, who is in her sixties, told me she feels conflicted about her identity, but her cousin Xavier, who is 75, was blunter when I interviewed him for Politico last year. “You young folks all want to call people Hispanic, Latino, white, brown, Black, green, whatever,” he told me. “When we were growing up, nobody was a Hispanic, Latino, Latina, brown, any of that. Everybody was an American. I’m still an American here.”
Of course, the history of families like the Villarreals goes back much further than the twentieth century. Even when Texas was part of Mexico, people living in Tejas who could claim to be white were the only ones who enjoyed basic civil rights.
Almost two hundred years ago, Javier Wallace’s Black ancestors were trafficked into the Mexican region then known as Coahuila y Tejas, somewhere near modern-day Austin. They had come from the American South in bondage, enslaved by Anglo-American settlers who were part of the empresario Stephen F. Austin’s project to colonize northeastern Mexico. Today Wallace—who just earned a PhD in education at the University of Texas at Austin— leads workshops about the ways in which white Latinos benefit from white supremacy. While his mother’s roots in Texas are older than the state itself, Wallace also has Latin American heritage—his father is from Panama.
Wallace observes that Mexican Americans in South Texas have been legally classified as white for hundreds of years and have fought for that identification. In colonial Mexico, race was legally determined, and its attendant rights enforced, through the casta system, which delineated a whole host of categories. A famous oil painting from the eighteenth century depicts cartoons of sixteen unions: The child of a Spaniard and an “Indian” was a mestizo; the child of a mestizo and a Spaniard was a castizo; the child of a Spaniard and a Black person was a “mulato” (today an offensive term for a mixed-race person). Black Mexicans were at the bottom of the ladder and vulnerable to enslavement. White Mexicans of direct Spanish descent were at the top. This strict hierarchy meant that almost anyone who could pass as Spanish would do so.
When Tejas became Texas, at the end of the Mexican-American War, the casta system gave way to the legalized white supremacy in the U.S. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in Mexico City in 1848, famously established the new border on the Rio Grande. It also guaranteed that Mexican citizens living on lands newly annexed by the U.S. would be given the full rights of citizens, including the right to own property. In the slave state of Texas, that guarantee dictated their racial classification: former Mexican citizens would be considered white.
In the decades that followed, the U.S. census would record all former Mexican citizens that way. Thousands of Mexican Americans fought for the Confederacy (including one of my ancestors, who was conscripted into a patrol on the outskirts of Laredo—a source of shame for my family today). After the Civil War, Mexicans, while discriminated against, nonetheless enjoyed certain privileges in the Texas of the Jim Crow era. Langston Hughes, the famed Black poet of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote that when he traveled through the state by rail in the twenties, he slicked back his hair with pomade to mimic the Mexican style popular in that day. At the ticket station, Hughes would go to the “Whites Only” waiting room and say “Dame un boleto Pullman a Chicago” (“Give me a Pullman ticket to Chicago”). Believing Hughes to be Mexican, officials allowed him to board the “Whites Only” section.
In 1930 “Mexican” would appear for the first time as an answer to the census’s race question. (There was no ethnicity question.) Hispanic activists, including many veterans of World War I, gathered in Corpus Christi to form the League of United Latin American Citizens to lobby against the change and to secure civil rights for Mexican Americans. When I talked to Wallace, he slipped into an impression of early LULAC organizers and other advocacy groups: “We’d rather be the ‘other white’ than Black people. We’ll advocate for that.” By the 1940 census, “Mexican” had disappeared as a racial category, Hispanic Americans were back to legally self-identifying as white, and LULAC had established itself as one of the most influential civil rights organizations in the country. (LULAC has evolved from its early mission of maintaining the social privileges of whiteness and today champions multiculturalism and racial equity.)
Despite their white classification on the census, Mexican Americans did face segregation—both de jure and de facto—in settings ranging from schools to restaurants to workplaces. In addition to the daily humiliation of legal discrimination, hundreds of Mexican Americans were lynched in Texas. In 1910 Antonio Rodríguez, a twenty-year-old Mexican migrant worker, was tied to a tree in Rocksprings, 140 miles west of San Antonio, and burned alive. In 1918 a group of Texas Rangers, U.S. Army cavalry soldiers, and cattle ranchers descended on a Mexican American outpost in Porvenir, 175 miles southeast of El Paso on the Rio Grande. They ripped more than a dozen men and boys from their beds and executed them on a bluff over the river.
The imminent danger of racist violence that Mexicans faced in Texas for much of the twentieth century encouraged many to distance themselves from Mexican identity. “You have to understand that the word ‘Mexican’ was in some ways a slur,” Daniel Arreola, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University and the author of the cultural geography Tejano South Texas, reiterated. Villarreal said that when she attended Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University), in San Marcos, in the seventies, other students advised her to call herself Spanish, not Mexican. Some even urged her to reject any association with Mexican ethnicity and identify as American.
My grandmother, whose parents immigrated from Monterrey, in northeastern Mexico, has told me stories about growing up in San Antonio during the Jim Crow era. In the fifties, my grandfather, a Mexican from Laredo with blue eyes and skin so fair his friends teasingly called him “bolillo” (a type of white bread), began courting her. Their options for dates were limited: at that time signs hung over many movie theaters and restaurants stating “We Serve Whites Only, No Mexicans or Spanish.” The pair’s appearance—my grandma’s skin is also alabaster—usually wasn’t enough to insulate them from legally enforced white supremacy.
Except for the times it was. My grandmother’s parents ran a factory that made soda bottles. After school she would go to soda fountains, where the drinks often bubbled in containers her family had made. At her favorite fountain, there were two entrances: one for white customers, and a shabby side entrance for Black patrons. My grandmother always used the “Whites Only” door.
Last year, I asked her what door her cousin Mariano used. Mariano’s skin was a deep brown, and his face bore the proud cheekbones common to Native peoples of this continent. Were he alive today, few would call him white. But in forties-era Texas, he always used the “Whites Only” entrance. “I guess even if he wasn’t sure he was white,” my grandma told me, “he knew he was not Black.”
The year 2020, in all its foul intensity, unleashed a sort of identity crisis in South Texas. For years, in the day-to-day lives of many Tejanos in places like Laredo and Rio Grande City, labels simply weren’t necessary. Townspeople were, after all, so similar. Kids grew up visiting grandparents in Mexico and listening to rancheras. Almost everyone spoke Spanish or was bilingual. There was no real need for South Texans to find words to describe themselves because their neighbors understood, naturally, who they were.
But the question of race arrived in South Texas like a heat wave during the protests against the murder of George Floyd last year. On a sweltering day in late May, a group of a hundred demonstrators, most of whom were young Mexican Americans, marched on Laredo’s city hall. They carried signs declaring Hispanic-Black solidarity (“Tu Lucha Es Mi Lucha: Your Struggle Is My Struggle”) and “Black Lives Matter.”
As the protest proceeded, Melissa Castro, a 28-year-old English teacher at one of the city’s public high schools, who was not at the rally, posted a picture on Instagram. It was minimalist: a photo with banner text reading “All Lives Matter.” The reaction from her friends was immediate and severe. One woman, whom Castro had known almost her entire life, sent her a message saying she should take it down. That friend launched into a diatribe against the lasting legacy of slavery and the ongoing oppression of Black people. But ultimately, she centered on one point, repeated multiple times: “You are not white.”
When we met for the first time in a hotel lobby near downtown Laredo, Castro spoke with the lucidity and patience of an educator, slipping between languages, as many in Laredo do. She joked that if someone from a northern state met her, they’d probably call her Mexican. But she was clear she doesn’t see herself in that way. She’s American.
Castro told her friend the same thing and kept the picture up. That day, the friend blocked Castro on all social media. The two haven’t spoken since. Others I met across the Rio Grande Valley told me similar stories: Barrera, the former Starr County Republican chair, said that his childhood neighbor suddenly refused to talk to him this fall. “What did I do, señora?” he asked her. “Estás con Trump,” she replied.
Race alone does not determine how an individual votes. But it is impossible to understand the politics of Texas without reckoning with its racial history. The state was a reliable blue stronghold until the sixties, when Democrats, once the party of the Confederacy and Jim Crow, began to embrace civil rights, alienating some non-Hispanic white voters. By the nineties, most of the state had turned red, while South Texas remained a blue time capsule, one of the last remnants of a Democratic South. The region was, and is, dominated by a collection of political machines—each part of the so-called patrón system—and in this system, almost everyone, even those who personally identify as Republican, runs for local office as a Democrat.
Last fall, as some of those traditional ties seemed to fray, Bruni, the Webb County Democratic chair, said she read about Democrats accusing conservatives of “trying to be white.” Bruni is plenty disappointed with her neighbors who voted Republican in 2020. But she doesn’t think they made that choice because of any sort of identity crisis. “I’m no sociologist; I have to go by what I know and what I saw in this campaign,” Bruni said. “And we [Democrats] made a big mistake.”
Bruni said that Republican success in South Texas came down to reaching the community on the ground. Republican candidates and volunteers “were knocking on doors; they were having asadas; they were meeting people and talking to them,” she said. “And we weren’t.” Because of the pandemic, Bruni received instructions from the state Democratic leadership to prioritize outreach via phone calls, texts, and social media. Her team diligently contacted Tejanos remotely. But, she said, Democrats didn’t have comprehensive messaging, and the distance that grew between organizers and locals made the party blind to the anxieties growing among many in the area.
Half an hour or so south of Laredo lies the gorgeous small town of San Ygnacio. On bluffs overlooking the green banks of the Rio Grande, Spanish-style colonial houses and walls have stood for almost two hundred years. Bruni used to visit regularly. When it came time to campaign, she considered San Ygnacio a shoo-in for Biden: the town’s historic buildings would be threatened by Trump’s wall project. “But what I didn’t take into consideration is the fact that that little town depends very, very, very much on the oil and gas industry,” she said. “And while Democrats were phone-banking with a bland list of messages, Republicans were knocking on every single door and telling people that . . . if they don’t vote for Trump, they’re going to be [jobless and] homeless.”
By focusing on ethnicity in their pitch to voters and assuming that demographics alone would carry the party to victory, Democrats ignored that selfhood in South Texas is also shaped by the geography and economy of the region. Many jobs there depend on the oil and gas industry, ranching and farming, and law enforcement, including Customs and Border Protection.
South Texas is afflicted by poverty and a dearth of opportunity for education and employment. In 2015 the five southernmost counties along the border, from Zapata (home to San Ygnacio) to Cameron (surrounding Brownsville), were the five poorest in the state, each with about 35 percent of residents living below the poverty line. Locals take very seriously any new policies—discouraging fracking, “defunding” the police, or reducing immigration enforcement—that might threaten precious jobs.
Voters’ identities are also shaped by the social realities of the region. At Sunday mass, South Texas priests inveigh against abortion. (Although Bruni is anti-abortion, she felt she had to find a new church after the priest at her old one called Democrats “baby killers” from the pulpit and encouraged the congregation to vote for Trump.)
Castro said Democrats prioritized the wrong sort of pitch, which motivated her to vote for Trump in 2020 though she hadn’t in 2016. They tried to appeal to her as someone who cared only about her Mexican heritage or the plight of undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers, she believed, instead of as a voter interested in issues such as border security and the economy. “It felt like they were pandering,” she said. Other swing voters I interviewed over a period of months stressed similar opinions: their choices were motivated by policing and energy policies, not by pluralistic and humanitarian appeals. Peña-Garza, the Hidalgo County Republican chair, said Hispanic South Texans, who have long been conservative, “have become liberated” to vote on their long-held beliefs. “People have been bullied into voting Democrat. If you got involved [in conservative politics], people said, ‘I’m not going to give you this contract; I’m not going to give you this job.’ But I think the bullying has backfired. People are more empowered and courageous.”
Perhaps no Democrat has courted Tejano voters more successfully than Henry Cuellar, the South Texas congressman who was born and raised in Laredo and whose parents immigrated from Mexico. Cuellar voted in line with Trump 41 percent of the time, more often than all but three members of the Democratic caucus, according to analysis from the popular statistics blog FiveThirtyEight, and is regarded as one of the most conservative Democrats in the current House. He supports the oil and gas industry and law enforcement. But even though he has won elections in the region since 1986 and held his seat in the House for nine terms, he says he’s faced repudiation from his colleagues for voting in ways judged too conservative for someone representing a district that is almost 80 percent Hispanic.
“When I vote up here [in D.C.], some of my Hispanic colleagues have told me, ‘You’ve got to be careful about the way you vote,’ ” Cuellar said. “I tell them, ‘I think I know my district, and I think I know it better [than you do]. I don’t want to tell you how to vote in California, New York, Miami, or wherever. But I’m doing what I think is right, listening to my folks.’ ”
Cuellar told me he doesn’t believe the 2020 election results in South Texas marked a permanent “political realignment.” But he does think Democrats need to improve their outreach and messaging in the region. Many voters there see New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, both avowed democratic socialists, as the loudest voices among Democrats and are turned off to the whole party. Cuellar observed that even though Biden and many other Democrats rejected the calls to “defund the police” embraced by a few nationally prominent members of the party’s left wing, those messages seriously injured the party’s image in South Texas. There is some data to support this. Shor, the pollster, believes “defund the police” messaging cost Democrats more votes among conservative and moderate Hispanic voters than any other single issue. Hispanic voters with more conservative views on crime and policing, his polling finds, shifted more toward Republicans this year than Hispanic voters at large.
While Cuellar won reelection in 2020 by a margin of 58 percent to 39 percent, he lost ground: his Republican opponent gained 23 points compared with the incumbent’s top challenger in 2018. Cuellar told me that his first step toward winning in 2022 will be fund-raising and spending more aggressively against Republican opponents. Last year, after putting up millions to narrowly fend off a primary challenge from human-rights lawyer Jessica Cisneros—who was backed by AOC and the Justice Democrats organization—he spent only about $150,000 campaigning in the general election.
In 2022 Cuellar will again face Cisneros, along with at least one other challenger from the left, community organizer Tannya Benavides. Last year, Sanders swept South Texas in the Democratic presidential primary. Cisneros and Benavides are betting that a leftward pivot—they’ve endorsed single-payer health care and railed against an economy rigged in favor of the rich—can win over Tejanos, at least in the primary. No matter who wins, the victor will know he or she can no longer bank on winning a general election race purely because a “D” appears next to his or her name on the ballot.
There are three main theories on what’s driving Tejano voters’ shift toward Republicans. One, embraced in part by Cuellar, is that the movement toward Trump, who was uniquely attractive to some Tejano voters, was a fluke. Many down-ballot Democrats won a larger percentage of the vote in South Texas than Biden did. Tejanos I spoke with across the Rio Grande Valley—male and female—were attracted specifically to Trump’s brutish and unapologetic masculinity, his machismo. He also had a remarkable ability to reach people who felt left behind in an elite-driven economic system. And he benefited from the decision by Democrats to campaign by phone and text rather than in person. For all these reasons, some believe the 2020 results are unlikely to be repeated in 2022.
The other two hypotheses, however, suggest the party faces a more challenging future. According to Shor, the Democratic base has shifted recently in ways that might be hurting it among Hispanic voters across the country. In the past four years, Democrats have self-consciously invested heavily in the political priorities of progressive, well-paid, highly educated Americans who live in big cities and suburbs. Often maligned as “woke” politics, tacking left socially has helped Democrats attract and energize young white liberals, while at the same time alienating conservative and moderate Hispanic and, to some extent, Black Americans. While the Republican gains in South Texas were large enough to flip entire counties, Hispanic neighborhoods across the country—from East San Jose, California, to South Tucson, Arizona—also shifted toward the GOP, even as Democrats maintained comfortable leads in the final totals. The party historically has needed more than 60 percent of the Hispanic electorate to win on the national level. If it is losing conservative Hispanic voters, it could be facing an extinction-level event.
The final theory does not portend doom for national Democrats but is nevertheless dour news for the party’s chances of flipping Texas. Even if Hispanic voters across the country largely stay blue, Tejanos, like Cubanos in Miami, may be outliers: “The Rio Grande Valley is just super weird,” in Shor’s words. Though the language of “trying to be white” is crude and ascribes intent that may or may not exist, it’s clear that political anxieties were powerful enough to overcome traditional party allegiances in 2020. And that suggests that Tejano identity is changing. Tejanos, like the Irish Americans before them, may continue to align more closely with the interests shared by their Anglo neighbors than with those of immigrants and people of color.
Regardless of which theory proves most prescient, the Texas GOP is enjoying a ripe opportunity to court a large new bloc of voters. On a Sunday this spring, as the borderlands began to feel the first inklings of the stifling heat of summer, Tyler Kraus, the former chairman of the Webb County Republican party, drove out to South Laredo to canvass. It was well before he’d typically start going door-to-door in a nonelection year, and even though he wouldn’t be campaigning for Trump that day, he wore a red “Keep America Great” hat and was primed to get ugly looks. Neighborhoods in South Laredo are almost 100 percent Hispanic, and their residents are some of the poorest in the city.
The first question Kraus, who is Mexican American on his mother’s side, had for those who opened their doors was “¿Inglés o español?” Then he’d launch into a pitch in the prospective voter’s preferred language, usually framed around protecting the Second Amendment or opposing abortion. “We’re basically trying to tell them that the Republican party aligns with their values,” he told me.
That day, Kraus received hardly any negative feedback; even those uninterested in his pitch were polite when they turned him away. “A lot of people I talk to are several generations removed from their grandparents who moved from Mexico,” he said. “They’ve formed the mentality of American citizens, and so they don’t take the things Trump said [about immigrants] as offensive.”
Trump and other Republican elected officials have made repeated pilgrimages to the Rio Grande Valley since the 2020 election. In late June, the former president toured a portion of the unfinished border wall in Pharr, just east of McAllen, with state leaders including Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. A lone elected official from the Valley joined the cadre: Javier Villalobos, the Republican mayor-elect of McAllen who earlier that month had sidestepped Fox Business host Stuart Varney’s questions about the border wall, declaring the matter a federal issue beyond his purview.
The morning Trump was set to arrive, a hundred or so of his supporters—a mix of Anglos and Tejanos—gathered as a welcoming party underneath a highway overpass near the Edinburg airport. Some draped themselves in American flags, while others waved Trump signs. A few even paraded behind cardboard cutouts of Trump. Shortly after the former president wrapped a press conference, in which he slammed immigrants as drug traffickers, Barrera shared images of the event on his Facebook page.
A few months before, at his house in Rio Grande City, Barrera had explained to me why many in the Valley didn’t find Trump’s agitating at the border, or his statements calling Mexicans rapists and criminals, personally insulting. Barrera launched into a diatribe distinguishing himself from those who cross the border illegally; while he has compassion for people fleeing harsh circumstances, he said, some in South Texas call border crossers “mojaditos”—the Spanish word for “wetback” (albeit in its less harsh, diminutive form).
I pressed him: Would non-Hispanic white Texans as easily draw the distinction between him and recent immigrants? Barrera doubled down. “I think when people say they don’t like Mexicans, it means a Mexican citizen, a Mexican national, someone who crossed illegally,” he said. “So, when someone says they don’t like Mexicans, I don’t think it means me or you.”
Jack Herrera is an independent reporter who covers immigration and race.
This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Why Democrats Are Losing Tejanos.” Subscribe today.