The Mexplainer: A History of Anti-Brown Violence in the American Southwest

Mi familia had just moved into a big, white house in a “good” neighborhood, the kind of place where the windows weren’t supposed to have bullet holes. Nonetheless, here they were, pocking the panes of my little sister’s bedroom. I ran, found my father, and brought him to survey the vandalism. His green eyes squinted. Rage, terror, and disgust contorted his face. His brown bald spot glistened. He marched to the phone and dialed the sheriffs.

We, the second Mexican-American family to “pioneer” this elite community, awaited law enforcement. We milled about in racial anxiety. None of us dared speak about what had happened. White people had fired in our direction. I wanted to believe it was an accident pero I knew mejor. Mi familia had taught me the history of our gente so I understood the gringo capacity for chicanery and atrocity. Since gringos first decided to manifest their destiny on our land, Latinx people in the United States have been forced to live under a regime of fear and degradation: White supremacy.

Mainstream media consistently fails to comprehend or capture the racial anxiety provoked by this current administration. Instead, coverage of Latinx people often filters us through the White gaze, thus distorting the Latinx massacres in Gilroy, California and El Paso, Texas. These slaughters have made Brown folk tremble and for readers unfamiliar with how the White gaze operates – allow me to mexplain. During the fourth grade, my little brother, a Brown nerd, forgot to bring his homework to school. His White teacher scolded him in front of his White classmates, barking, “If you keep this up, you’re gonna wind up working in the field picking berries with your parents!”

The school district next door employed our parents. Our mother taught bilingual kindergarten at Miller Street Elementary School. In Mexico, she’d worked as a chemist. Our father worked in a messy government office with Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother pinned above his desk. A trained linguist, he directed the Migrant Education Program, a federal project which aims to ensure that all migrant students achieve academic success and graduate from high school ready for “responsible citizenship.”

Sedentary Americans ought to enroll in the Migrant Education Program because irresponsible citizenship is the order of our day and disgusted by widespread gringo apathy. I’m here to SHOUT that we feel powerless. I am here to SHOUT Toni Morrison’s words, “The function of freedom is to free someone else!” Wake up, gringos, please! Dispense with the performative hand wringing and act.

When I asked my friend, poet Griselda Suarez, about her well-being in the aftermath of the attacks, she answered, “I can no longer tell anyone who engages in cordial greetings that I’m doing OK. It’s time for all of us to say that we are terrorized, being hunted.” Los dos gabachos who massacred nuestra gente in Texas and California did so as avowed Mestizo hunters. The manifesto posted by the El Paso killer roots his motives in the 1845 American doctrine propounded by John O’Sullivan: “Our manifest destiny [is] to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” Manifest Destiny has yielded to Manifesto Destiny.

The history of anti-Latinx vigilantism in the American southwest is bone-chilling. Historians William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb spent years excavating this horror, studying the lynching of persons of Mexican origin or descent in the United States from 1848 to 1928. Their research reveals that “scholars persistently [overlooked] anti-Mexican violence.” According to Carrigan and Webb, the lives of Black and Brown people have long been imperiled – “the chance of being murdered by a mob was comparable for both Mexicans and African Americans.” Their definition of lynching as a “retributive act of murder for which those responsible claim to be serving the interests of justice, tradition, or community good” qualifies the recent massacres as anti-Latinx lynchings.

Strange Fruit, the anti-racist dirge popularized by Billie Holiday, conjures gothic images of this violence, the “bulging eyes” and “twisted mouth.” Bodies reduced to “a bitter crop.” To this red harvest, we may add Stephen Romero, whose six-year-old corpse now rests in a small white casket; he’s one of three victims lynched in Gilroy, California. The notion of future funerals for lynched Black and Brown children sickens me but such is our legacy.

I’ve taught in California high schools for fifteen years and have taken stock of the omissions I’ve found in textbooks when it comes to representing the terrorism Whites have perpetrated against Black and Brown folk since the eighteenth century. Teaching materials omit the Ku Klux Klan’s commitment to terrorizing Latinx people in California, particularly in San Diego County. According to historian Carlos Larralde, “an alien laborer who challenged his employer’s authority might be hanged.” Dead Mexicans hung from oak trees, stomachs torn open, tripas spilling. White women who accused Latinx men of arguing with them could have these men silenced by Klansmen who slit throats. These same men raped, beat and blinded Brown women. Severed brown heads dotted fence posts, terrifying Mexicans into submission. In Santa Maria, California, the town where mi familia’s windows were shot, photographs featuring the Klan participating in a civic parade hung the public library foyer.

Back to those bullet holes.

The sheriff who responded to my father’s phone call went and spoke to our neighbors. He returned with a smile and “good” news: Some White boys had been playing with guns next door and never intended to do us any harm. He suggested we not worry about what happened. Boys will, after all, be boys.

Mayor George Hobbes governed Santa Maria when we moved into that White neighborhood, and in the summer of 1990, Hobbes attracted national attention after delivering a speech at the Santa Maria Valley Economic Development Association. “At this time in Santa Maria,” Hobbes explained, “we have a Mexican problem. We have a difficulty with scads of illegal aliens that have come across the border, and they’ve made our neighborhoods look not like Santa Maria.” Hobbes proposed a solution to the “Mexican problem.” He urged the federal government to construct camps along the US Mexico border in order to contain the threat.

My father would grimly joke, “A solution, a solution, a solution, where have I heard that before?”

Myriam Gurba is a writer, podcaster and artist. Her most recent book, the true crime memoir Mean, was a New York Times editors’ choice. Publishers Weekly describes her as a “literary voice like none other.” O, the Oprah Magazine, has hailed Mean as one of the "Best LGBTQ Books of All Time." Gurba co-hosts the AskBiGrlz advice podcast with cartoonist MariNaomi. Her collage and digital artwork has been shown in museums, galleries, and community centers.

Myriam has written 1 articles for us.

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