Just before he died this year, my grandfather told me a story about his childhood in Laredo, Texas. In the winters, the Rio Grande would flood its banks and water would pour over the ranch land on both sides of the border. My great-grandmother, a Mexicana named Francisca, would shake the children awake and they would drive in a truck down the length of the river into the Rio Grande Valley, at the southern tip of Texas. There, they would work to rescue animals from the mud: pigs stuck up to their bellies, young calves treading water. My grandfather, who died in February at age 81, said he learned to swim when he was four years old, when his mother told him to go catch a chicken, which raced away into a large puddle.
I thought of my grandfather as I made that same drive last month—hundreds of miles from Laredo to the RGV, along the curve of the Rio Grande as it makes its final sweep to the Gulf. Along the highway, clouds lay huge shadows across the green mesquite, shapes that moved slowly northward in the wind, crossing the border and over my head. To my right, almost always in sight, lay Mexico.
About 70 miles south of Laredo, I crossed into Zapata County—the reason I had come to South Texas. It was a week after the election, and a magazine had sent me to write about people like my grandfather: people who grew up speaking Spanish on the U.S. side of the border, in southern Texas. In the wake of the presidential vote, the country’s attention had suddenly centered on the collection of counties at the tip state. Here, more than anywhere else in the county, President Donald Trump had improved upon his 2016 margins. And in Zapata County, Trump had become the first Republican to win the vote in 100 years. In a county that is over 94% “Hispanic or Latino,” according to the U.S. census.
The story was, on its surface, one of irony. Trump has spoken with more derision about Mexicans and Mexican immigrants than any president in the last 60 years. In the first minutes of his campaign, back in 2015, he offered the now infamous sentence, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best …They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” The question, then, was how Trump had won so many votes along the Texas border, where the vast, vast majority of people have at least one Mexican ancestor.
“They’re trying to be white.” That was the hypothesis I had heard from Mexican American friends back in my home city of San Francisco. And on Twitter, I saw plenty of Latinxs making the same accusation: They accused South Texans of self-hate and self-denial. It was a brutal claim to make—and the Trump voters I spoke to in the counties along the border had all heard it. A retired army colonel in Starr County who chaired the local Republican Party said young Latinxs on Facebook called him a wannabe white person, and other harsh words. A high school teacher in Laredo who voted for Trump says she’d seen the same on her social media feeds. In our conversations, they laughed it off, but I could see it hurt them. They felt connected to their heritage: They were proud to speak Spanish, to know how to fold tamales. But they were explicit in claiming they were not Mexican, and not immigrants. And they did not feel a sense of solidarity with recent Latinx immigrants—especially undocumented people.
As I drove, I thought about what “trying to be white” means. The word “white” is peculiar in a place like South Texas. My grandfather often didn’t use it. Instead, he called white people “Anglos,” a word Latinxs in Texas have long used to talk about non-Latinx white people—the U.S. settlers and their ancestors who populated the Mexican state of Tejas, and who eventually ripped it away from Mexico, just as the Mexican state had ripped it away from the Coahuiltecans and other Native peoples. Looking back at my childhood, I now understand why my grandfather used the word Anglo instead of white. My abuelo, who did not speak English until he began school, had blue eyes and fair skin. His friends used to call him “bolillo” (white bread) and “guero,” words Mexicans use to describe light-skinned people. My grandfather opted for the word Anglo, then, to avoid a sort of confusion when he talked about those other people; he himself, after all, was white. A white Mexican American person.
As I jumped between towns in South Texas in November, I saw plenty of people who looked like my grandfather—bien guero. More than once, while driving down a road or walking through a town, I’d look up suddenly, almost thinking I’d seen him. South Texas has a diverse representation of Latinxs, from recent immigrants that traveled from indigenous communities in Central America to fifth-generation Mexican Americans. But towns are lighter and whiter than, for instance, the Latino-majority neighborhoods back in San Francisco. In that way, South Texas reminded me of the Mexican state of Jalisco, or Durango.
This bears out in the data we have available—the U.S. census, flawed as though it is. Remember that the Census asks two questions for race and ethnicity: First, it asks if a person is of “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin.” Then it asks one to mark your race, where there is no option for “Latino.” Many people who mark yes to the first question go on to mark “other,” for race, or Black, Native American, and every other racial option. And nationwide, about 53% of people who mark yes for “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin” go on to check the box for “white.” However, in South Texas, the percentage of people who marked white is much, much higher. In Zapata County, for instance, 94 percent of people marked Hispanic or Latino on the latest Census. And over 98% of all residents marked “white.” That means that Zapata is simultaneously one of the most Latinx and also one of the whitest counties in the United States.
I’m not a racial essentialist. I do not think that the way a person is racialized determines how they vote. But I do think whiteness plays a role in understanding Mexican American politics in South Texas, and the rest of the state. The vote in a place like Zapata looks like less of an aberration if you think about the white people in that county voting like other people in rural, majority-white counties. In this election cycle, the Republican Party massively expanded their efforts to win Latinx votes in South Texas. Could the racial identity of these voters play a role in how conservatives came to see their votes as winnable?
Asking questions about whiteness within Mexicanness can prove awkward and painful. There’s no agreement of what it means to be white and Mexican, and, indeed, many Mexican Americans consider their race to be Mexican or Latino. This struggle with identity is one I recognize. It’s one I inherited from my family.
I once asked my grandparents what it was like to live in Texas during Jim Crow, as a Mexican people. They both remembered the signs on the restaurants: “No Black, No Mexicans, No Dogs.” They shared stories of how they were treated in school. When they talked about segregated bathrooms and water fountains, I asked them which bathroom they used. “The ‘Whites only’ bathroom,’” my grandmothers answered easily. Besides their fair appearance, she and my grandfather were legally white in Jim Crow Texas.
When Mexico lost the Mexican-U.S. War in 1848, the losing government extracted some final conditions of surrender, one of those conditions would be that all Mexican citizens on the land claimed by the U.S. would be offered full U.S. citizenship, and complete civil rights. In the 1848 U.S., a white supremacist slave state, that condition meant that Mexicans would be legally considered white.
Of all the states that were formerly part of Mexico—from Texas to California, and as far north as parts of Wyoming—Texas was by far the largest slave state, and the only state to join the Confederacy. In Texas history through the end of the 19th and through the first half the 20th century, Mexicans held an odd place in Texas society. Decidedly second-class citizens, they faced wide-spread discrimination and prejudice. Lynch mobs hung and shot Mexican Americans across the state; sometimes they burned them alive. However, in matters of law, they remained white. Thus, in Jim Crow Era Texas, my grandparents were legally permitted to use many “whites only” spaces.
I once asked my grandmother how Mexican Americans with darker features navigated the legal color line. She talked about a cousin, someone who carried Indigenous features. “He used the white water fountain,” she says, thinking for a minute. “I guess he couldn’t be sure what he was, but he knew he wasn’t Black.”
This was, and continues to be, the nature of white supremacy in the U.S.: While systemic prejudice exists against all different groups of people of color, the very structure of racism on this continent has been predicated on anti-Blackness since 1619. The earliest laws in the U.S., from the first colonies to the Constitution, explicitly targeted and condemned Black people. Over and over in North American history, we see the nature of whiteness shift to accommodate the oppression of Black people. When Irish and Italian immigrants first arrived in the U.S., they faced wide-spread discrimination. But as Black people continued their push for enfranchisement and basic civil rights, the “WASP” majority (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) conscripted people of Irish and Italian heritage into whiteness, in order to improve their chances of enforcing a white supremacist order in the U.S.
While lynched by white mobs in Texas, non-Black Mexicans have also fought on the side of white supremacy in the state’s history. In the Civil War, thousands of Mexican Americans donned the grey uniforms of the Confederacy. This included one of my ancestors. One early morning, my grandfather had called me over his kitchen table, and showed me a series of documents. He told me about an ancestor we both shared, a man named Jesús Herrera. Conscripted into a Confederate militia, he spent the war patrolling an uneventful Laredo. Though by all accounts he never saw combat, and did not himself choose to serve, my family and myself carry the shame of this ancestor, and the despicable cause he fought for.
For me, part of the possibility of this ancestry means acknowledging the possibility of white supremacy in myself, my own family, and my community. Growing up, I struggled to understand my own race. I always knew I was Mexican American, but, given the way my family looks, I had trouble understanding if that made me a person a color. I got called spic in school—I remember the way my face burned each time. And I remember a Mexican friend explaining that they called us “beaner” because we ate beans. (“What’s wrong with eating beans? Beans are good!” was my reaction.) But I found that if I pronounced my last name incorrectly—her-air-ah, the Anglo way—and didn’t mention my ancestry, I could blend in with white classmates. I wouldn’t stand out.
That attempt to fly under the radar changed in high school and college—where I felt safe, for the first time, to proudly claim my Mexicaness. And in many of those spaces that I had found, “Mexican” was used as a synonym for “person of color.” It took a time in ethnic studies classes and long conversations with Black and Indigenous Latinx friends to come to what I now understand as a very obvious realization: That, while millions of Latinxs are Black, Indigenous, and otherwise people of color, Latinxs can be white. And white supremacy exists even with the banner of Latinidad.
I now consider that the discovery I made in high school—how I could blend in if I didn’t roll the Rs in my name—might be a broader historical process: That what is happening to people who look like me, and who have similar family stories, is what happened to Italians and Irish in the last century. We’re being conscripted into this country’s white supremacist order. Where once we faced blatant discrimination, we’re now being assimilated into the same racist hierarchy.
One day during my trip I drove from downtown Laredo and turned my car onto the highway that goes through the rolling mesquite hills along the river. I saw a white tailed deer run along the side of the highway, and a Son Jaracho song played on the car radio. In my mind, I was trying to understand how to describe the ideas in my head, the culture and the lineage I was trying to understand. There was one person I most wanted to ask questions, and he was gone. I missed my grandfather powerfully. I pulled over the car in a small town called San Ygnacio, and I called my father.
My dad was happy to talk about his dad. I told him how I was imagining my grandfather in this same landscape as a child—playing among the scraggly trees, or sitting on the hillsides looking out of the land. We talked about how he loved country that looked like this. Then I asked my father, who also grew up in Texas, what he thought about the election result—how Mexican Americans could support a candidate so ardently anti-Mexican.
“Growing up,” my dad said, “I would hear the Hispanic kids—kids like me—call the recent immigrants “w*tbacks,” or “m*jados.” “Mexican” was basically a dirty word back then; and there was an idea that you could make a distinction between people like us and the “real” Mexicans.”
There’s a legacy of the intense anti-Mexican attitude of 20th century Texas that lives on today. While in California, second and third generation Mexican Americans will still call themselves “Mexican,” many people I met in South Texas say they would never use that word. “Hispanic,” was a more common option, but many of the older people I met said that they just called themselves “American.”
My father told me he had a pivotal moment of consciousness when I was living in California in the 1990s, when Gov. Pete Wilson signed the infamous Prop. 187 into law. A shameful chapter of California’s recent history, the law mandated all state employees—teachers, cops, medical staff—to report anyone suspected of being undocumented. “It made it very clear to the racists, there wasn’t a big enough distinction between someone with my last name, and someone born in Mexico,” my dad told me. “When someone says they hate Mexicans, they’re not going to bother to find that fine line.”
After our call, I got out of the car and walked down a path to the Rio Grande. It flowed quietly south towards the gulf; on the Mexican side of the water, three speckled cows grazed unhurriedly. In my head, I worked through what I continue to work through as I write this: I am a deeply proud Mexican American person. But because of the way I look, I also have the privileges and class power of a white person, and part of the acknowledging that is acknowledging I’m white. Now I hope to find some sort of middle ground: I want to resist the assimilation of my family, and our descendents, into the power structures of whiteness. I want to be an accomplice to Black and Indigenous Latinxs and of undocumented Latinxs. I want to raise kids who do not invest in whiteness, because they understand that “white” is more a description of power than it is a description of culture.
This is the subtle line Mexican Americans in my position need to find—both acknowledging whiteness and rejecting it.