Editor’s Note: Sergio Troncoso is the author of “A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son,” forthcoming from Cinco Puntos Press in October. He has taught at the Yale Writers’ Workshop for many years. A Fulbright scholar and winner of numerous literary awards, Troncoso was inducted into the Hispanic Scholarship Fund’s Alumni Hall of Fame and the Texas Institute of Letters. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
I am and always will be the proud son of Mexican immigrants from El Paso. My parents came from Juárez, Chihuahua, to the United States in the 1950’s, newlyweds with only a few dollars in their pockets. In the east side neighborhood of Ysleta, they built an adobe house that at first had no electricity and an outhouse in the backyard. Yes, in Texas. They followed other Mexican immigrants who had been coming to the United States for decades. They followed even some Mexicans who were already in the state before Texas was ever Texas. These Tejanos didn’t cross the border; the border crossed them.
August 3 will always be one of the saddest days of my life. I love my hometown of El Paso, Texas. Many times in a typical trip home, I have shopped at Cielo Vista Mall and that Walmart where the mass shooting unfolded. This mass murderer from Dallas (Plano, actually) knew nothing about how great this community is and the values practiced by many there.
This hateful white nationalist killed more people in one day than El Paso – a city of 700,000 – typically has in murders in an entire year.
It’s been reported that the killer wrote that his heinous act was to preserve his culture, which he believed was being replaced by Mexican Americans and other immigrants.
Anyone can see in the hateful words that are used how the dehumanizing of individuals begins, and it always starts with abstractions. Immigrants crossing the border become “illegal aliens invading our country.” Invasions and aliens bespeak of something less than human, vermin, not individuals. These hateful abstractions also purposely conflate legal and illegal immigration.
But the truth is that the culture is not being replaced, it is being renewed by immigrants like my parents and grandparents. They exemplify the best spirit of America.
And they are the reason why I became a writer: to counteract generalizations too often exploited in the media.
As a writer, I discovered that ethical quality of stories: If you create complex characters and a great story from places at the edge of the world like El Paso, you can get readers to understand and empathize with a community they would otherwise overlook.
When I was growing up, my maternal abuelita, Doña Dolores Rivero, was the most important person in my young life. She lived in an old apartment in El Segundo Barrio in downtown El Paso, and there, with a coffee cup in one hand and a cigarette in the other, she would tell exciting stories about surviving the Mexican Revolution as a teenager. She would give you true-to-the-heart advice about life and how to live it. On Saturday nights, five or six of her neighbors would seek her out and surround her on her porch, with her grandson of course, and listen to her every word under the desert stars. An outsider would have only seen a poor Mexican woman without a third-grade education. But if you spent a few hours with her, if you listened, you would know, as did many of my Harvard friends from college who later visited me in El Paso, that you were meeting a remarkable human being with singular stories and a righteousness born of hard-won experience.
My family came for opportunity. They simply wanted an equal chance to succeed, and even when they qualified for welfare benefits, they refused them. My parents thought it would be disgraceful to accept any handouts. But what rising up from poverty did was to make me more empathetic, not less, to those who came before me: Native Americans, some of whom were my ancestors too; the downtrodden and dispossessed at the first European settlement in Plymouth Harbor; the Irish immigrants fleeing famine in the nineteenth century; and Jewish refugees fleeing hate in Europe in the 20th century. This quintessentially American story continues and should continue.
Like the many immigrants before them, my parents worked until they were exhausted and got up and did it again the next day. That work ethic is what they taught all of their children. We had to clean the irrigation canal behind our house, because my parents said it would be good for the community. Of course, we didn’t own the canal. After his regular, 40-hour-per-week job as a draftsman for a construction company in El Paso, my father picked up my two brothers and me to work construction. We carted away rubble after demolition or ferried cinder block and building materials to apartments he renovated on the side. Again, this was after school, on many Saturdays and Sundays. As my mother often said to me, “There is no tired in my house.”
My parents taught me to work hard for yourself and your community, and that meant everyone with a good heart whether or not you were Mexican. The week before the massacre in El Paso, my mother recounted to me the story of how “un Americano,” which to her meant someone who was not Mexican, helped them by the side of a rural road decades ago. My parents’ car had broken down, all the children were less than 5 years old, and a good Samaritan stopped to take my father to get the part he needed for his old Chevy Impala. My father and mother embodied that spirit of freedom, self-reliance, and working together that began with the Pilgrims.
The mass murderer from Plano didn’t care whether you were a Mexican American with generations in the United States, or a Mexican national from Juárez taking advantage of back-to-school specials at the Walmart in El Paso. He shot the abstractions in his head, with earmuffs so he couldn’t hear their screams.
On Wednesday, Donald Trump is scheduled to visit El Paso. By visiting so soon after the massacre, perhaps he will open his eyes and ears and appreciate this community for what it has been for generations: a binational, bicultural, bilingual American city of immigrants. But I doubt he can change. Emotions will be very raw because everyone has heard the President’s own words about the invasion of immigrants and has seen his smile and laughter when someone in a Florida crowd recently suggested shooting immigrants. He needs to earn our respect. I would ask El Pasoans who attend his speech to turn away from Trump, in silent and peaceful protest. Turn to remember the victims of the massacre instead. Turn toward El Paso and its dignity in the face of hate.
Mexican Americans are not going anywhere because the United States is our country too, despite this murderous hate against people of color. As much as others try to vilify Mexican Americans or stereotype us for political gain, we will fight to have a voice and tell our stories, and we will vote.