“It can happen again.” That’s what Arlinda Valencia said last year, at a ceremony in Texas marking the 100th anniversary of the massacre of 15 Mexicans and Mexican-Americans by a group of white men.
Valencia’s great-grandfather was one of the 15 unarmed men and boys who were woken up in the middle of the night in Porvenir, Texas, in 1918, taken outside, and shot to death. The slaughter, which was carried out by white Texas Rangers, US soldiers, and local vigilantes, was justified by labeling the Mexican American families “bandits” and criminals.
The attack on Latino families in El Paso nearly two weeks ago left Valencia deeply afraid. “It’s history repeating itself a hundred years later,” she told the Guardian.
The 3 August mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, which left 22 people dead, appeared to be the deadliest terror attack and hate crime against Latinos in recent American history. A white nationalist manifesto that appeared to be linked to the shooting claimed that Latinos were “invaders”, even though Latinos had been living in the area long before Texas became part of the United States.
Valencia, 66, is the president of the local teachers’ union in El Paso, where she has lived for three decades. When she learned, as an adult, that her great-grandfather had been murdered in a massacre, she was shocked, at first, and then determined to raise awareness.
“Every since I’ve been working on getting the Porvenir story out, I have always made reference to the fact that it can happen again,” she said.
Lynchings and massacres
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, public lynchings were an act of terror used against hundreds of Mexican Americans across the south-west, as well as against black Americans across the United States. The Porvenir massacre in 1918, which claimed the life of Valencia’s great-grandfather, was part of a sweeping effort to consolidate white economic control of Texas, according to Monica Muñoz Martinez, a professor of American studies at Brown University and a founding member of Refusing to Forget, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for public reckoning with racial violence in Texas.
“Historians estimate that hundreds of Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals were murdered between 1910 and 1920, in Texas alone,” Martinez said.
“Politicians and the media and local residents described Mexicans, regardless of their citizenship, as violent people, as a threat to the nation and people who needed to be violently policed,” Martinez said.
The Texas Rangers, legendary as the “good guys” of frontier law enforcement, were at the center of the violence and racial terror against Latino residents.
To this day, the Porvenir massacre remains controversial: some white local residents in Texas bristled at the attempt to set up a public memorial to the massacre’s victims and reportedly pushed for more public recognition of Mexican American violence against white residents.
‘A tremendous loss of life’
In the past decades, violence by white residents against Latinos has often been tied to public debates over immigration – and to the federal government’s decisions about how to treat migrants and refugees.
More than 7,000 people, many of them from Mexico or Central America, have died trying to cross the border into the US in the past two decades, as changing US policies made the crossing more dangerous, Martinez said. “There are federal policies that have led to mass death at the border,” she said. “That is a tremendous loss of life that the American public has largely ignored.”
Far-right citizen militia groups have organized since the 1980s to patrol the US-Mexico border, Martinez added. Just this April, the American Civil Liberties Union condemned the actions of a rightwing militia group, after video appeared to show militia members detaining a group of migrant families. A member of the militia group was later arrested for illegal weapons possession.
Anti-Latino hate crimes carried out by individual people are often closely connected to anti-immigrant polices and the broader public debate over immigration, said Juan Cartagena, president of the civil rights group LatinoJustice.
Cartagena pointed at the death of Marcelo Lucero, a 37-year-old from Ecuador, who was stabbed to death in Long Island in 2008 after being attacked by a group of local teenagers, who had reportedly said before the attack that they were planning “to go jump a Mexican”.
Latino residents of the suburb outside New York City have been repeatedly attacked by white residents. In 2000, two men with white supremacist tattoos hired two Mexican day laborers for what they claimed was a job, drove them to a secluded building, and stabbed them. In 2003, a group of teenagers were charged with arson and reckless endangerment after law enforcement officials said they had thrown a burning object into the home of a Mexican family, causing them to flee in terror.
Cartagena said some of the attacks on Latinos were prompted by “the perception that the federal government wasn’t doing anything to stop immigration, so they took it into their own hands … people picking up a bat, [saying] go back home, go back to where you came from.”
Lucero, murdered in Long Island, had lived a quiet life in the United States for 16 years and had reportedly been sending money back to support his mother, a cancer survivor.
‘El Paso is a turning point’
The El Paso attack is not the first time large numbers of Latinos have died in one of the United States’ frequent public mass shootings.
More Latinos were killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in 2016, than in the El Paso attack, Cartagena said. Activists estimated that 90% of the victims of the 2016 shooting at the popular LGBT club, which left 49 people dead, were Latino, may of them Puerto Rican. During the attack, the gunman made phone calls in which he pledged his loyalty to Islamic State.
But the El Paso shooting felt different, Cartagena noted. “It was clearly a manifestation of anti-Latino hate, anti-Mexican hate, to be very specific.”
“El Paso is a turning point because it’s citizen and non-citizen alike,” Cartagena said.
“The pre-El Paso feeling was, if you’re not a citizen, keep your head down. If you are a citizen, watch out, everyone gets lumped together. Post-El Paso – now everybody’s suspect, and it’s very scary for us to think that you cannot go about your livelihood, your work and your family life.
“To think that a person can be motivated to kill, quote unquote invaders, and of all places he goes to El Paso, Texas, where Mexicans have been living before this country was even forged,” Cartagena said. “It’s ahistorical.”
Martinez said that at least two previous major attacks in the United States may have been acts of terrorism against Latinos, though they were not portrayed that way in news coverage at the time. Both attacks deserved renewed scrutiny, she said.
In 1970, a white man deliberately flew a plane into a Roman Catholic church near Brownsville, Texas. More than 130 people were in and around the church, including many Mexican American schoolchildren, but no one was harmed – an outcome hailed as a miracle.
In 1984, a white man opened fire at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California, leaving 22 people dead. Most of the victims were Mexican American and Mexican. The news coverage focused on the white shooter’s mental health issues, Martinez said.
Valencia, whose great-grandfather was killed in Porvenir, said the government of Donald Trump was contributing to a climate in which hate against Latinos thrived.
“With the president we have, the things that he’s been saying, it just gives me chills,” Valencia said. “The fact that he’s calling us murderers and rapists and drug dealers.”
The current administration was “empowering white supremacy to step out into the light”, she said. “It’s always been there. You’ve got to understand that. But it’s kind of been in the darkness. It’s kind of been hidden. And what’s happened, with this president, it’s that he’s let them out. It’s OK to hate Mexicans. It’s OK to mistreat them. It’s OK to hate anyone who’s not white.”