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Facing a sad Christmas, Mexican Americans still grieve for El Paso

Ruben Navarrette Jr. on

SAN DIEGO -- In El Paso -- and throughout the Southwest -- many Mexican Americans will have a blue Christmas.

This year, our hearts are filled with pain because, fewer than 150 days ago, a white man who was terrified of brown people picked up a high-powered rifle and drove more than 10 hours to that border city. Then he allegedly opened fire at a Walmart aiming to -- as police say he told them -- "kill as many Mexicans as possible."

Twenty-two people died that day. Last month, residents witnessed the unveiling of a memorial to the victims -- a 30-foot-tall golden obelisk called the "Grand Candela" -- in the parking lot of the big box store, which has now reopened.

People were just starting to get back on their feet. Then came the wallop of Christmas.

On Aug. 3, anyone who looked Mexican was a target -- no matter which side of the border they call home.

The day after the massacre, my wife and I were having Mexican breakfast -- huevos con chorizo -- with my parents. My dad couldn't wrap his head around the idea that, if he had been at that El Paso Walmart that day, he might have been killed. He was born in the United States, and English is his primary language. He served in the U.S. Army and spent 37 years in law enforcement. He takes as a given that he belongs on this side of the border. Yet, because he also has dark skin, he would have probably been singled out.

For the nation's nearly 30 million Mexican Americans, the shooting was a poignant "guess what" moment. Over the past few months, I've had heartfelt conversations with other Mexican American journalists about the tragedy that brought us down to earth. For those of us who have earned passage on the American Dream Express, the blood spilled in El Paso forces us to think about the price of the ticket.

One veterano journalist, an El Paso native, described how -- despite the fact that he has, at 60, checked off all the items on his personal "bucket list" -- he had begun to feel like a "failure." It wasn't because of where he was in life, but because he knew that life was so difficult -- and in some cases, dangerous -- for other Mexican Americans. Nobody wins unless everybody wins.

Trapped between Mexico and the United States, between whites and blacks, Mexican Americans are cursed to spend our lives invisible. The media lets African Americans speak for us. Hollywood casts white actors to depict us. In the presidential race, political pundits welcomed an Irishman named Robert Francis "Beto" O'Rourke as a stand-in for Mexican American Julian Castro.

When they visit the Southwest, the 2020 Democratic front-runners -- Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders -- boil down their outreach to the only three issues they think Mexican Americans care about: immigration, immigration and immigration.

Americans will mark the anniversaries of Selma, Kent State, Wounded Knee and the Stonewall riots -- any tragedy with a constituency -- for decades after the event.

Yet, over the last few months, many people have been eager to get past the worst massacre of Mexicans and Mexican Americans since the land grab known as the U.S.-Mexican War. One reader told me to stop writing about the shooting, lest I become "just another obnoxious Mexican."

 

I won't stop. For a columnist, "obnoxious" is part of the job description. Besides, the people who died deserve to be remembered, along with why they died. Let's not sugarcoat racism to make it easier to swallow. We can't stamp it out for good, until we call it out by name.

In a hail of bullets, we got the message loud and clear. Some of you will never see us as your equal, or accept the fact that we belong in this country as much as you do.

That's your problem. We're here. We've been here for generations. In fact, when your grandparents came out to the Southwest from Ohio, Missouri and Oklahoma, we welcomed them. And we're not going anywhere.

Meanwhile, in the border city they call "El Chuco," it's no surprise that the song "Amor Eterno " (Eternal Love), by the Mexican singer Juan Gabriel, has become the unofficial anthem of the horror.

"Tanto que me duele que no estés. ... Como quisiera que tú vivieras."

(How much it pains me that you're not here. ... How I wish that you were still living.)

The haunting ballad will break your heart, just like the atrocity that left so much of my community limping into this holiday season battered and bruised. But not broken.

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Ruben Navarrette's email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com. His daily podcast, "Navarrette Nation," is available through every podcast app.

(c) 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group

 

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