Photo still taken from a Facebook video of protestors against the visit by AG Sessions.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly visited my hometown of El Paso along last week while I was in Indianapolis. I watched the protest on Facebook Live, listening to people yell "No Somos Criminales!" We are not criminals. I thought about the real frontera, the one that I know and live. Not the one that Sessions paints of a lawless place of "depravity and violence." Jeff Sessions says my border city is "ground zero," a "beach head" in a war against gangs and cartels.
Earlier on his visit to the Arizona border Sessions said that cartels “turn cities and suburbs into war zones, that rape and kill innocent citizens, and who profit by smuggling poison and other human beings across our borders... It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand against this filth.”
El Paso civic leaders quickly responded. The Texas Monthly reported that everyone from the Chamber of Commerce to the County Judge to the Congressman complained that this was one of the safest cities in the nation, and that these kinds of statements make it harder to attract people to our city. (See http://www.texasmonthly.com/the-daily-post/jeff-sessions-likened-el-paso-war-zone/ for their report.)
In Nogales, Sessions declared, "This is a new era. This is the Trump era"
Indeed, and still shockingly, it is the Trump era but it is not that new. The border has been villainized, criminalized, and mischaracterized for over a century. During the Mexican Revolution of 1910, reporters and others found their deeply held perceptions of Mexicans as untrustworthy and lawless "bandits" reinforced by the civil war that tore Mexico apart. U.S. fears of German alliances with Mexico as well as revolutionary organizing on this side of the border added to the fear. In South Texas, the Texas Rangers killed unknown numbers of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, justifying the killings as their stopping "Mexican bandits." Postcards like the one below were made popular, portraying the Texas Rangers as keepers of law and order. In 1919 Texas state representative J.T. Canales called for an investigation into the Texas Rangers and the investigation concluded that the Rangers had killed possibly 5,000 Mexican Americans between 1914-1919.
The investigation produced hundreds of pages of testimony.
The Rangers, los rinches, have been immortalized by a joke people used to tell in South Texas, one that I learned from my graduate school professor who was born on the King Ranch.
Did you know that every Texas Ranger has Mexican blood? [Here people usually respond with surprise.]
On his boots! [Here people don't know whether to laugh or get angry because people still remember the violence.]
Postcards like the one shown below were popular across the United States. Titled "Dead Mexican bandits," the 1915 postcard reinforced the image of the border as dangerous and border people as criminals. Although it was probably staged, the violence it represents resonated with border people who lived the anti-Mexican violence in their daily lives and reinforced the beliefs of those outside the border that dramatic means were necessary to stop the criminal Mexicans.
This is not dead history. In South Texas, stories of the violence against Mexican Americans have been passed on from generation to generation. A group of historians created "Refusing to Forget," a public history project that uses museum exhibits, curricular materials, lectures, and historical markers to tell the history of this time, to remember the murders of innocent Mexican Americans and to tell this story that is often hidden in the laudatory story of Texas "freedom.".
In El Paso, this is not dead history. As I watched the Facebook video of the protesters telling Sessions he was not welcomed here, I also heard them chant, "We are not criminals! We are not criminals!" After a century, border people are still demanding our dignity be respected in the face of politically-motivated attacks on our very being and on our character.
I long for the day when instead of chanting "We are not criminals," we can say instead "We are. And we will be. We are on our land."