Editor’s Note: Irene Sanchez is a writer and public scholar whose work has appeared in HuffPost, Zocalo Public Square, Inside Higher Ed and on multiple public radio outlets in California. The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
We cannot fight back against white supremacy if we don’t even know the history of what has taken place. It takes knowing that history to know that the rise in hate crimes since Donald Trump’s election to President as well as this past week’s horror is a continuation of a long legacy of violence since before 1848. What happened in El Paso was a massacre and a hate crime.
Since Trump was elected president, hate crimes against Latinos have increased: In 2018, an FBI report showed that reports of such crimes grew by 24% in 2017.
The shooter who killed 20 people in an El Paso Walmart Saturday drove many hours to target a city with a population that consists of over 80% Hispanics and Latinos, mainly of Mexican background, and is a popular destination for shoppers from Mexico on the weekend. A hate-filled screed that the shooter is claiming as his own is further proof that the killings were a hate crime against Latinos and immigrants, while tweets on the shooter’s account praise President Trump for wanting to build a wall. In his statement to the nation Monday morning, Trump called on Americans to “condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” but did not acknowledge his own divisive or racist rhetoric.
This staggering violence in El Paso comes on the heels of another shooting at the end of July, when a gunman opened fire at the Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California – an agricultural community with a population that is over 60% percent Latino (mainly of Mexican descent). Many news media outlets stated the authorities were looking for motives and reported that his motive may never be known, despite the fact that the shooting was done by a white man who cited a white supremacist text and made a social media post about “hordes of mestizos” being at the festival. Mestizo is a classification rooted in colonization from the Spanish caste system typically used to refer to someone of “mixed” indigenous and European ancestry in Latin America. Knowing this information is important to understanding the likely motivation the shooter had for violence.
Violence against Mexicans in the United States is nothing new. Ever since the invasion of what is now Texas in 1836, it’s been used as a tool by white Americans to fulfill what they believed was their destiny to expand the US. This invasion of Mexican territory by those set on keeping slavery alive sparked the Mexican American War from 1846-1848. The war ended in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, when Mexico was forced to give up a vast amount of territory in what is now known as the US Southwest.
White supremacy and violence at the US-Mexico border continued throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. Politicians and public figures often depicted Mexicans and indigenous peoples as criminals to justify the theft of land and resources. In the US between 1848 and 1928, thousands of Mexicans were lynched, along with Native Americans, Italians and Chinese. Historian Monica Muñoz Martinez has also documented the history of violence along the border, citing specifically the vigilante origins of the Texas Rangers, founded in 1823 by Stephen F. Austin to police the border. In the words of the Refusing to Forget project, of which Muñoz Martinez is a member: “A new, more brutal white supremacy had come to the border.” New York Times reporter Simon Romero wrote in March about a massacre in Porvenir, Texas, where on January 28, 1918, the Texas Rangers, US Army cavalry members and Anglo cattlemen took 15 men and boys from the town and lynched them before running the rest of the townspeople out and burning the town to the ground. That story is one of many the general public does not know about.
Over 180 years after the Mexican American War supposedly ended, some of us in the US are watching in horror seeing this newer and more brutal white supremacy again – and this time it is not just at the border. In 21st-century terms, the ghosts of that violence are visible in the rhetoric coming from our President, with national consequences. During his campaign for President, Donald Trump called Mexicans drug dealers, criminals, and rapists. He called to “build a wall” and said “Mexico will pay for the wall.” This appealed to his supporters who joined him and his claims to want to make America great again. This is the platform he was elected from, and very well may be re-elected from, as he kicked off his new campaign while thousands of immigrants from mainly Central America are locked up, separated from their families and denied their right to claim asylum in the US.
In June at Trump’s re-election kickoff, he continued to spread anti-immigrant hate and spoke about how he believes Democrats are betraying “middle class life” due to some advocating for immigrant rights. Does it sound familiar? It should by now. Especially after this week.
It takes knowing history to know when this all began, but it is hard to know this history when school authorities ban books such as “Occupied America” by Rodolfo Acuña for stating that the US invaded Mexico (when it in fact did). The school district argued that the books were merely confiscated. Schools in recent times have not only banned books, but entire programs such as what happened with the ban on Mexican American Studies in the Tucson Unified School District and the overall ban on Ethnic Studies in Arizona that was ruled in court to be motivated by racial animus toward Mexican Americans in 2017.
As an educator, I have learned through teaching history that it is simply not enough to remember. But we must start somewhere. Until we understand the history behind this war against Latinos and immigrants, we are doomed to repeat its darkness.