MCALLEN, Texas — Jessenia Herzberg and Lorena Houghton, two idealistic college students outraged over the recent killing of George Floyd and racial injustice, were chanting “Black Lives Matter” with a trickle of protesters as they marched last summer past the quinceañera dress shops and discount stores on Main Street in this sleepy Texas border city.
Suddenly, a blue pickup truck pulled up in front of them. Out sprang a man in a baseball cap, jeans, and work boots.
“Get the [expletive] home,” he furiously shouted at the group of mostly young Latino activists. The man, who also was Latino, hurled a racial slur referring to Floyd, saying the outrage over his murder didn’t “belong here.”
He pointed to the sky. “This is not up there,” he said, his breath catching in exasperation as he apparently gestured toward Minnesota. His arm flew back down, and he wagged a finger in the faces of the protesters. “This is here.”
In this region of South Texas where Donald Trump made massive inroads with Latino voters last November, shattering stubborn notions of this slice of the electorate as a monolithic bloc, both Democrats and Republicans have spent months trying to figure out the roots of the ex-president’s appeal — and whether the GOP will be able to capitalize on it in the future. Political analysts have floated the possibilities that Latino voters were attracted to Trump’s American brand of macho culture or his perceived business acumen or concerns over pandemic-related shutdowns that cost so many of their jobs.
But an under-discussed issue — one that Latina activists like Herzberg, 21, and Houghton, 20, faced head-on last June 5 — flows just under the surface: racism and disapproval of the Black Lives Matter movement among a swath of the Latino community.
Trump made white nationalism, racial division, and bigotry signature features of his presidency, and much has been made of how this motivated some of his white supporters. Through the summer of demonstrations after Floyd’s murder, he often used coded — and not so coded — language to blast Black Lives Matter protests, calling participants “thugs,” and once promised that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” When activists tore down and defaced statues they saw as glorifying Confederates, he signed an order to prosecute anyone who did so to the fullest extent of the law.
While many in the political world simplistically assumed these dog-whistle gestures would turn off all people of color, many Hispanic voters in the Rio Grande Valley and across the nation, who enthusiastically rode in “Trump trains” and flew his flags, gravitated to the rhetoric and even celebrated it.
To many, he was not a racist or a bigot, but a successful businessman unfairly maligned by the press and someone who stood up for police, as a Latina GOP House candidate in McAllen put it recently, amid a rise in “the monsterizing” of law enforcement that they saw on the left.
Now Trump is gone, but Trumpism is not. Republicans continue to try to harness the racial and ethnic anxiety that stirred Trump’s base heading into the 2022 midterms, passing laws intended to limit the way race can be taught in schools even as they paint Democrats as “woke” enforcers of political correctness and censorship.
Republicans’ focus on race as a political battlefield might have more of an impact on the way Latinos vote than those waging political campaigns yet understand. While often lumped together vaguely with “people of color” who are presumed to vote Democratic, Latinos are a multiethnic and multiracial population with complex and varied views on race and politics. Even as some Latinos in the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere felt repelled by Trump’s rhetoric targeting Black people, others embraced it.
These forces collided last summer on Main Street in downtown McAllen.
Herzberg and Houghton stepped back as the man lumbered toward them and the other protesters. “Leave them alone — they’re not doing anything,” a protester interjected, as another young woman shouted, “Let’s go around [him].”
But the assailant blocked her path. He snatched a sign from her hands, a poster on which she had written Latinos for Black Lives, and tossed it. When the crowd still did not disperse, the man headed to his truck, left stationed in front of, of all places, a local history museum, and returned with a chain saw. Revving it, he continued to lob racial slurs and warned, “Don’t let those [expletive] trash, the Antifa [expletive] people fool you. Don’t let them lie to you — this is the Valley.”
The man appeared to be trying to make the case that he “didn’t think that Black Lives Matter was necessary here,” Houghton would later tell the local newspaper, The Monitor, “but I think he disproved his own point by violently attacking people that were walking on the street.”
It’s easy to dismiss the attack on Main Street, as many did, as an isolated incident, one man with some ugly thoughts and a violent temper. The assailant, later identified as Daniel Peña, then 44, was arrested and charged with four counts of deadly conduct and one count of assault. His case, which some now wryly refer to as the “McAllen Chain saw Massacre,” remains pending. (Peña’s lawyer declined to comment.)
His actions drew the condemnation of McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, a Democrat, and more than 1,000 people came out in solidarity with the Black community days later in what was the largest Black Lives Matter protest the area had seen yet.
“It was disappointing, disgusting for someone from our community to be using that racist language,” Herzberg said.
But many also rushed to Peña’s defense. A senior Trump campaign adviser and former White House aide approvingly retweeted a video of the chain saw incident, though she later apologized, saying she hadn’t heard his use of a racial slur. The online fund-raising site GoFundMe deleted several pages seeking donations for his legal defense; at least one local YouTuber who attempted to call out his anti-Black racism received a greater number of thumbs down than likes for his critique. And at a “Back the Blue” barbecue here just this month, where “Blue Lives Matter” flags flew and local conservatives mingled, Dr. John Guerra, a longtime Republican and 2020 House candidate, said he believed Peña’s reaction, though maybe more aggressive than it should have been, rightfully reflected the anger of others in the Valley.
“I believe it was just his reaction,” he said of the chain saw wielder. “I think at a certain point people reach that breaking point, that they feel that certain things need to be done.”
Even many who found Peña too extreme shared a belief in the heart of his rant: that racism was not a problem in a city like McAllen, where roughly 85 percent of residents are Latinos. It was a sentiment particularly prevalent among Trump supporters, who tended to see claims of bigotry and racism as overblown, Black Lives Matter protesters as looters, and police as the real victims. And the views weren’t unique to Hispanics in the Valley. They could be heard at “Latinos for Trump” rallies in predominantly Latino communities across Texas and the country, and in divisive online content and false political news in Spanish that pitted Latino voters against Black Lives Matter and proliferated like wildfire ahead of the election. Some of the most egregious claims came out of Miami, where mainstream Spanish-language radio hosts accused protesters of practicing “lo negro — evil and witchcraft,” and baselessly argued they wanted “to burn down your property and kill police officers.”
The anti-Black narratives appeared to take hold, and beyond that, seemed to awaken distinct and long-lasting differences between Latinos and other ethnic and racial groups — as well as among Latinos themselves — about American identity and where Latinos fit into the country’s complicated racial picture. In El Paso, where a self-proclaimed white supremacist killed 23 people at a Walmart, acting on fears fueled by Trump and Texas Republicans of a Hispanic “invasion,” some conservative Hispanics who had survived the attack denounced protesters tearing down statues that celebrated white supremacy, saying it was disrespectful to their adopted country.
In Houston, Hope Cruz, 64, decked in a hot pink “Latinas for Trump” shirt, was part of a Trump train that thwarted several campaign stops by surrogates for then-Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the fall, shouting, “I am not oppressed.”
A retired business owner who identified as a fourth-generation Hispanic with heritage from Spain and Mexico, Cruz believed, falsely, that Latino Democrats were mostly first-generation immigrants influenced by parents who likely did not know English and were unlawfully in the country.
“I am not saying that I am better than some Latinos, but what I am saying is that their culture is so much different than mine,” she said.
Few studies have been conducted on how Latinos’ relationship to race, racism, and racial resentment factor into their political ideologies and decisions. The questions are crucial, as the nation seeks to maintain a multiracial democracy amid changing demographic and immigration patterns, and as bigotry, racism, and theories of white ethnic replacement — that is, the loss of cultural dominance — have moved from the fringe of Republican Party discourse to the mainstream.
The largest group of people of color in the nation, Latinos now make up 32 percent of registered voters and roughly 60.5 million people, or about 18 percent of the population, up from 6.5 percent in the 1980s. The US Census projects Latinos will make up 30 percent of the population by 2060.
Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans form the largest groups, at an estimated 60 percent and 11 percent, respectively. Cuban Americans, who largely reside in the key swing state of Florida, account for roughly 4 percent of the population. And the makeup of the electorate itself is in the midst of demographic change: In more recent years, Latinos arriving to the United States have increasingly traced their roots to El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Yet, it wasn’t until Trump’s improved performance among Latinos nationwide in the 2020 election that a largely white political class woke up to Latino voters’ diversity and Democrats began fearing they could lose their edge with the group. To be sure, Trump performed better than he did four years earlier with all people of color, including Black voters. But his larger gains among Latinos have been particularly intriguing because of the vast political power they could hold in the future in key political battlegrounds like Texas, where Democrats had long assumed population changes would work in their favor. In the Rio Grande Valley region, he improved upon his standing from four years earlier by double digits, though Joe Biden still won the area by a few percentage points overall. Recent research paints a picture of an electorate in flux and up for grabs.
Unraveling the role race and racism — and anti-Black racism specifically — played in that shift is a complex issue among Latinos, roughly two-thirds of whom were born in the United States. Latino has been classified in the US as an ethnicity, not a race, but throughout American history, Latinos, largely Mexican Americans in the Southwest, have been racialized. They have been the targets of lynchings, hate crimes, and discrimination and have formed part of the struggle for racial justice alongside Black, Asian, and Indigenous communities. Yet, like Asian Americans, Latinos also have been used as a political wedge group often pitted against Black and Indigenous people. The battles against segregation of Latinos in schools and whether Latinos should be racially classified as “white” on the US Census are just two examples in a long legacy of racial and ethnic struggles over the place of Latinos in American society. More recently, Floyd’s killing has sparked more discussions about the invisibility of Afro-Latinos under such a broad ethnic label.
But despite being the targets of racism, many Latinos do not see themselves as people of color, and believe that they can guard against — if not entirely escape — the threat of racism through hard work. One 2020 study, a collaborative effort by liberal researchers, found that all eligible voters were susceptible to Trump-style political messages stoking racial and ethnic division, yet Latino voters were more susceptible than white and Black voters overall. And how Latino voters understood the racial identity of Latinos as a group was the best indicator for that receptiveness, the analysts found.
About two-thirds of Latinos see their “values distinct from a white culture, but at the end of the day they see themselves as white people,” said Tory Gavito, who co-conducted the study and is the president of Way to Win, a progressive electoral coalition. “That relationship to race was a better predictor of their ideology than whether they saw themselves as progressive or conservative.”
After the attack last June, some of the protesters were so rattled that they went straight home, but Herzberg and Houghton continued onward to their final destination of City Hall. A few days later, they connected with other friends, including Natalie Glasper and Shaena Reyes, both 21, who like themselves came from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, had gone to McAllen schools, and were now attending colleges across the country.
As they discussed the disturbing attack on Zoom, they also talked about their love for McAllen, a place they’re proud of for its binational border culture, and where class and racial divides weren’t as stark for them growing up as the ones they see for children in the cities where they now live. But they also knew there was a tendency in their hometown to overlook Black and Asian histories of racial struggle. Some like Reyes, who is Filipino American, had not even learned that Juneteenth commemorated the end of slavery until they were in college.
“People will talk about their lack of knowledge over these issues like, ‘Oh, there aren’t really any Black people in the Valley,’ which is obviously not the case,” said Glasper, who is Black and lived in McAllen her entire life before heading off to Baylor University.
The group formed the “Grande Narrative” to petition the McAllen Independent School District to include perspectives of people of color throughout the history curriculum and to require readings by Black authors and writers of color. If racism is a social construct that can be learned, they thought, then it also can and must be unlearned. “That starts in the classroom,” Glasper said.
With the support of Mexican American studies professors and the Black-led nonprofit Village in the Valley, the women worked with district officials to create a guide for teachers of recommended Black history lesson plans, activities, discussions, books, and movies. And they started taking turns researching and condensing some of the teachings on their Instagram account, with posts that have included a rundown on the history of the Ku Klux Klan in the Valley and an explanation of colorism, or prejudice against people of darker skin tones within the Latino community.
Now, the Grande Narrative cofounders are drafting recommendations for a new African American studies course that the state education board approved in April as an elective for high school students. But their work might be getting harder in a state where battles over how Mexican American and Black history should be taught have raged for years.
Just this month, the Republican-controlled state Legislature advanced legislation to limit how Texas public school teachers can talk about race in the classroom, and explicitly banned the teaching of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which explored how central slavery was to the nation’s early history. It’s part of a broader backlash to recent racial justice efforts like the one in McAllen that conservatives and Republicans have ramped up in other states and at the national level.
Even among their own families, reception to their work has varied. Houghton has talked about colorism and white privilege with her sister, who has darker skin, but she says their mom, who is Afro-Latina and from Colombia, would rather her daughters avoid seeing life through the prism of race. Reyes’s Filipino parents, who experienced greater discrimination in the Northeast than in the Valley, have long educated their children on race and have expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement but don’t talk about it much with members of her extended family.
“My mom, she has the opinion that she was able to maneuver through life,” Houghton said. “She is very understanding of what level you need to achieve to deserve respect in society, and so she meets that level, but she doesn’t understand why people wouldn’t do that.”
McAllen has moved on. On a hot spring day here, cumbia beats played inside the discount store that served as the backdrop in viral videos of Peña revving his chain saw. Inside, an employee said she had been working that day but hadn’t heard the commotion over the music. She couldn’t remember why it all started.
The Grande Narrative has helped spark new connections among many in the Valley, but those conversations had not seemed to reach Republicans at Hidalgo County headquarters, where an energetic group of rising Latinas now head the party and plan to make Trump’s improvement in the region a permanent shift. Questioning Latina and Latino Republicans here about how they were reckoning with the racist rhetoric now part of the party’s mainstream discourse was met with pushback that it was, in fact, Democrats who insisted on making everything about race.
“I was called a coconut,” said Mayra Flores, an up-and-coming Republican politician who was born in Tamaulipas and is making a bid for US Representative Filemon Vela’s seat. She was referring to the derogatory term used to describe Latinos seen as “brown on the outside, white on the inside” — a word she said had been used against her simply for being conservative, which she pointed out was racist in itself.
The Rio Grande Valley is distinct from many Latino communities across the country. Here, even some Latino Democrats tend to be antiabortion and conservative Catholic or Christian, and are as quick to echo calls for more border security and complaints about illegal immigration as Republicans. Border Patrol and law enforcement have become some of the only steady paths to upward mobility, which also fuels skepticism of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Often, a more apt identifier than Latino is Tejano. But here, like across the country, Latinos have fought against exclusion from political power and participation. By focusing much of his rhetoric on painting Black Lives Matter protesters as criminals during the election, Trump may have tapped into a longtime desire among some to officially belong in America’s white mainstream.
Local Republicans reject that theory, however, and contend race played little, if anything, into the party’s surge here. At the “Back the Blue” barbecue this month, Adrienne Pena-Garza, the county’s GOP chairwoman, insisted that here in the Valley, the enthusiasm for Republicans had more to do with broken trust in the Democratic Party and Democrats underinvesting in Latino voters. The GOP party here was ready to move on from Trump, she claimed. Nearby, just as the skies broke with rain, stood her mother — a Tejana — decked out in a black and gold, star-spangled cowboy hat and boots.
She held up a sign as others waved “Blue Lives Matter” flags and cars and trucks honked in approval. It read, “Tejanos for Trump.”