Their U.S. roots date back centuries, but these Latinos still wonder if it’s enough to belong
It’s a tricky thing, what makes up an American.
There are Latinos whose families have been on this land since long before the Statue of Liberty greeted newcomers from New York Harbor, before the Civil War and the Declaration of Independence.
In the days since the El Paso massacre, many have found themselves reflecting, wrestling with their place in society and asking questions about how their heritage, their language and their skin color has shaped them and the way other Americans perceive them.
The history of violence targeted at Latinos in the U.S. is lengthy. From lynchings in Texas to the forced repatriation of U.S. citizens to Mexico in the 1930s, each has reverberated for generations.
Some say the El Paso shooting, which targeted Mexicans, along with the white supremacist rhetoric that led up to it, has put the entire U.S. Latino population under attack.
In California and Texas, two states where people have continually crossed borders and borders have continually crossed people, many families feel they’re living at a time when a painful kind of history is repeating itself.
These are some of their stories.
“It feels as if all these things that belonged to me, that were my birthright, were stolen from me.”
— Angela Sauceda, on how much she feels she has lost of her Mexican identity
Down in San Antonio, a 60-foot sculpture bears the name of one of Angela Sauceda’s ancestors.
Galba Fuqua died in the Battle of the Alamo in 1836. His jaw was broken as he fought on behalf of the Republic of Texas at 16 years old.
At that same age, Sauceda led a vastly different life in Hacienda Heights in suburban Los Angeles. She attended private school and lived in a two-story condo, the daughter of two Mexican American professionals.
“My parents always made sure that I was taken care of,” said Sauceda, 33.
When she learned that a gunman had stormed a Walmart in what is possibly the worst hate crime against Latinos in decades, she felt vulnerable. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that her family had been on this land for six generations. None of that would protect her.
She read the gunman’s manifesto on her phone and found herself, angry and hurt, asking the shooter in her mind, “Why do you hate me so much?”
Sauceda’s roots run so deep in the U.S., she can’t recall a time when there was an immigrant in her family. She doesn’t speak Spanish and can’t roll her Rs, at least not as well as her boyfriend, who happens to be white.
Many times people see her light skin and label her “Anglo.” Sometimes they say insensitive things about Latinos in front of her.
“It puts me in this awkward situation,” she said. “I have to ask myself: Do I walk away and save face, or do I confront the person and have some sort of conflict with them?”
In recent years, Sauceda, a personal stylist from San Dimas, has struggled to accept how much she’s lost of her Mexican identity, because of decades of political oppression and pressure to assimilate. She tries to fill in some gaps by learning about historic figures like Frida Kahlo, following Latino artists on social media and shopping from Latino vendors online.
“It feels as if all these things that belonged to me, that were my birthright, were stolen from me,” she said.
She also harbors a fear of the police and the military, passed down to her through earlier generations’ encounters with racial harassment and violence. The sight of uniformed men reminds her of her grandmother’s frightful stories of the Mexican repatriation of the 1930s, when hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans — some of whose families had been living in the United States for decades — were forcibly sent back to Mexico as a wave of angry nativist sentiment swept the country after the 1929 financial crash.
The week of the El Paso attack, Sauceda learned from news reports that the shooter had set free white and black shoppers and purposefully held back those who looked Latino. That thought haunted her. It filled her with guilt to think that she might have been among those who were set free and escaped death.
“It’s a privilege I carry, my ability to pass as white,” she said. “I don’t bring it up because I want any sort of sympathy. I just hope others will stop and acknowledge their own privilege too.”
Monica Ruis Morton
“There was a lot of shame. For people who weren’t dark-skinned it was like, ‘Just act like you’re white.’”
— Monica Ruis Morton, whose parents did not teach her Spanish growing up
As a child, Monica Ruis Morton learned to feel a sense of shame about her family’s Mexican roots.
Her grandfather had both a road and an elementary school named after him in what is now El Cajon in San Diego County. Pete Rios raised horses and cattle and was a renowned horseman who rode until he was 88. He was born in California to a Mexican-born father and Mexican American mother in 1875.
But Morton’s parents never spoke much about their ancestry. When they did, they often emphasized their European roots. They didn’t talk about the racism they endured. They also didn’t teach her Spanish, fearing it would put her behind in school.
When she asked her grandmother why they had not passed on the language, her grandmother lamented, “Ay, mija. We were afraid. Back in them days you didn’t want to send your kids to school speaking Spanish.”
“There was a lot of shame,” said Morton, 58. “For people who weren’t dark-skinned it was like, ‘Just act like you’re white.’”
But acting white didn’t stop people from hurling racist invective at her. Not in elementary school when a little girl told her, “Get out of here, you’re just a dirty Mexican.” Or at a slumber party when another girl mocked her: “You wetbacks have those hard-to-pronounce names.”
She struggled as a kid to understand those incidents without guidance from her parents. “I felt scared and insecure — and less than,” she said.
After high school, she joined the Navy and later worked as a civilian on military bases. Because she is light-skinned, when she married a man with an English last name, it became common for people to assume she was white.
Then came Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and his election, his embrace of racist conspiracies, his painting of immigrants as part of an invasion.
“When the campaign started, I was just an absolute nervous wreck,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything.”
Since the massacre in El Paso, she is terrified that her grandchildren could be targeted for the color of their skin.
But the last few years have also brought her a measure of confidence in who she is. That strength has come from unlikely places.
During Trump’s campaign, she got into an argument with a man over immigration on social media. The man saw her maiden name, Ruis, on her profile and told her to go back to Mexico. He told her to calm down, eat tacos and drink a Corona.
Soon after the exchange, she went to the DMV and had “Ruis” put on her driver’s license. Now she uses it all the time: Monica Ruis Morton.
“It’s my way of saying, ‘I’m here and I’m not going anywhere, and I am proud of who I am.’”
“I felt a deep sense of pride. I knew I came from a tough line of people.”
— Mike Estrada, on the stories he was told about his family history
A few days after the shooting, Mike Estrada found himself at a dining room table surrounded by family, tiptoeing toward a topic that’s triggered arguments in the past: the politics of Trump.
“It’s like World War III when we all go there,” Estrada, 43, said. “Everyone takes it very personally.”
To the community college professor from Berkeley, El Paso seemed like a straightforward conversation about a massacre rooted in hate against Latinos, a hate he believes Trump has nurtured.
But to some of his cousins, that hostility had little do with them. The target, they’ve argued for some time, are immigrants who take advantage of the U.S. immigration system. Those who come into the country illegally, don’t work hard enough, don’t pay taxes.
Growing up with a fair mix of Republicans and Democrats in the Central Valley in a Mexican American family that’s been in the U.S. for more than a century, there’s bound to be political differences.
Estrada remembers leaning right in his beliefs as a kid raised in the 1980s. He was shaped by Ronald Reagan’s celebrated speeches, the macho anti-communism of “Rambo” movies and conservative “Just Say No” anti-drug campaigns. In high school, he used to argue against allowing gay people in the military and bought into the idea, to some degree, that immigrants took a toll on U.S. resources.
At home in Fresno, his parents were working class. They grew up picking cotton, grapes and peaches in the fields. His grandmother distrusted la migra.
Some afternoons, driving home from school, his mom, Josie, used to tell him some of the family’s greatest legends — how her grandfather once rode alongside Pancho Villa and how she once marched alongside Cesar Chavez. Estrada knew little about these men, the roles they played in history. But he saw how his mom’s face would light up each time she said their names.
“I felt a deep sense of pride,” he said. “I knew I came from a tough line of people.”
There were his grandparents Catarino Gaeta and Pascuala Mena Gaeta, who immigrated north at age 19 and 14 during the Mexican Revolution. On his father Raymond’s side, the family’s roots reach back to Texas and Spain.
In college, Estrada took a series of courses that gradually helped him understand American history and motivated him to become a political science professor. The more he learned, the more progressive he became and the closer he paid attention to race and politics.
El Paso was a tragedy he had dreaded for some time. It’s left him with a mix of anger, helplessness and fear.
In his classroom, he’s learned to navigate his students’ questions with care, how to help them address their anxiety.
At home, he knows it’s best to show restraint and keep political conversations brief. That way, things don’t blow up and create resentment.
“It hurts that we see things so differently, but it’s also complicated,” Estrada said. “I don’t want to create more distance with my family.”
“I turned around to my husband and said, ‘It’s here. They’ve come to kill the Mexicans.’”
— Arlinda Valencia, describing her reaction to hearing about the El Paso shooting
In the mid-1950s, when Arlinda Valencia was 4 years old, she and her family were among the first Latinos to integrate the white side of a tiny town called Monahans, Texas.
Her mother was ostracized by other mothers. She remembers the little boy who lived next door and how every morning he used to walk outside, draw a line in the dirt with his shoe and say, “You Mexicans can’t cross this line.”
“Every chance we got we would put our foot on the other side,” Valencia, 66, said.
It was a small act of resistance with deep roots in her family, which has lived on the rugged land of what is now West Texas since the late 1600s.
In 1918, her great-grandfather Longino Flores was rounded up by Texas Rangers. He and 14 other Mexican men and boys were executed in what became infamous as the Porvenir massacre.
The families that survived the attack fled to Mexico. Some never returned. But Valencia’s great-grandmother, Juana Bonilla Flores, did. She fought for years to hold the U.S. government accountable.
“She stood and fought for her family,” Valencia said. “She was a strong woman.”
In the decades after the massacre, Valencia’s family continued to struggle against anti-Mexican sentiment. Her mother was determined to move the family out of the barrio. They saved money and managed to convince a builder to sell them a new home where only white families lived. They thrived there but also paid a price, enduring constant racist slights.
In the 1980s, she and her husband, Ysrael Valencia, became teachers in Monahans. They fought discrimination and retaliation by the school district after Ysrael was passed over for a promotion. Federal officials eventually ruled in his favor, but the battle lasted years and ultimately pushed Valencia’s family to leave town.
In El Paso they found a refuge — a majority-Latino city that can feel just as Mexican as American. And she began to feel like she’d left behind the bigotry that had long beset her family.
Then Trump launched his presidential campaign with an attack on Mexicans and won the 2016 election.
From the moment he called Mexican immigrants rapists, she felt, “You can’t help but know deep down in your stomach that there’s something wrong.”
When she heard that a man had hunted down Walmart shoppers less than three miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, she knew even before reading his racist screed that the attacker had acted out of hate for people like her.
“I didn’t have to hear his words,” Valencia said. “I turned around to my husband and said, ‘It’s here. They’ve come to kill the Mexicans.’”
She sees the violence that hit El Paso as no different from what happened to her family at Porvenir.
“They want us to go back to Mexico,” she said. “What they don’t understand is we were here. They crossed us. This is where we were.”
Despite what her family has endured, Valencia remains hopeful as her four grandchildren grow up in El Paso.
“There are good people in this country,” she said. “There are so many good people.”
“Discrimination is part of the history of this country. It was here long before the president came and will continue to be here long after he’s gone if we don’t stop now and ask bigger questions.”
— Tim Rosales, a Republican political consultant
Several hundred years have passed since Tim Rosales’ ancestors left the Spanish-controlled Canary Islands and embarked on a perilous voyage through Mexico to settle in what is now Texas.
His father, Miguel Rosales, still doesn’t like to speak of his childhood days down South — of being turned away from certain restaurants or swimming pools because of the color of his skin.
“He doesn’t like remembering that old Texas, that old feeling,” said Tim Rosales, 43.
Miguel Rosales came to California in the 1950s and found a more accepting home in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles. He married a blond, blue-eyed woman from North Dakota whose family migrated from Norway more than a century after his. Together they raised eight children, each a different shade of brown and white and with a mix of political opinions.
Tim Rosales, the sixth child, planted Republican Party roots early on. Rather than watch cartoons, he loved listening to “the Great Communicator,” Reagan, on television.
“I felt a closeness with him,” Rosales said. “I liked to hear him talk about hope and opportunity for everyone.”
Most of his life, he’s voted for Republicans. He opened a political consulting firm in Sacramento and has helped steer high-profile campaigns, including one for the most recent Republican candidate for California governor, John Cox.
When Rosales heard about El Paso, he was with his daughter at a swim meet. He thought it was “unfathomable that someone could do something so evil.”
Still, he wasn’t surprised because “there’s a high level of toxicity right now” for a number of reasons: polarized political discourse, anxiety over the news and social media’s ability to stir up people far and wide.
Rosales said he doesn’t like Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric. He didn’t vote for him or Hillary Clinton because neither felt like the right choice.
This far into Trump’s term, Rosales won’t say whether he considers the president’s words racist because “I can’t speak to what’s in someone’s heart.”
In order to move on, everyone must look beyond Trump, he said. They also should stop and learn about the contributions made by Latinos like his ancestors.
“Discrimination is part of the history of this country,” Rosales said. “It was here long before the president came and will continue to be here long after he’s gone if we don’t stop now and ask bigger questions.”
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