NYT: The Tragic Story Called ‘United States History’

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The Tragic Story Called ‘United States History’

Like the mobs that killed Americans of Mexican descent across the West in the early 20th century, the El Paso shooting suspect believed that Texas was better off as a territory run by, and for, white people.

Héctor Tobar


Contributing Opinion Writer


In the cities and towns of California, Colorado, Arizona and other Western states, there are countless highways of memory leading back to El Paso. That Texas border town on the Rio Grande, site of a horrific mass shooting on Saturday, is the Ellis Island of the American Southwest.

My mother-in-law, now in her 80s, lives in Los Angeles but was born in neighboring Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and lived in El Paso, too; she can remember a time when residents of the two sister cities flowed back and forth easily on the bridges across the river. And every summer and winter vacation season, thousands of American families drive through El Paso on journeys to see their Mexican relatives.

“It was still pitch black, but a light shined on the American and Mexican flag,” one of my California university students wrote recently, describing a night drive through El Paso and Juárez. “Both stood tall with pride.”

Saturday’s attack on El Paso was an attack on the Mexican heritage of millions of Americans — and also part of a history of white supremacist and nativist acts in Texas across three centuries.

The suspect’s arguments are not entirely coherent. In the screed he left behind, he lambasts the consumerism and individualism of white Americans as much as he does “Hispanics,” but decides it is the latter group who must suffer his anger. He praises the industriousness of the average Latino immigrant but argues they must go in the name of “racial purity.”


Every mass shooting is a kind of grim, unreadable novel, with a lonely and deeply troubled protagonist at its center. I can imagine the future El Paso shooter enduring an ugly and embittered existence, most likely haunted by demons that have nothing to do with Latino people or Mexico. But the man now under arrest read a lot, apparently, and listened to the arguments of pundits of the right and left on cable news. His statement cites the racist work “The Great Replacement,” expresses concern for the environment and mimics President Trump’s rhetoric in referring to immigrants as “invaders.”

In the end, he traveled more than 600 miles across Texas to El Paso and sought out the place where he could find the largest number of brown-skinned people gathered together. Like the vigilantes and mobs that killed thousands of Americans of Mexican descent across the West in the early 20th century, he believed that Texas was better off as a territory run by, and for, white people.

For scholars, the long history of white supremacist movements and violence in Texas begins with the migrations and conflicts that led to the Mexican War and carries on into and the excesses of the Texas Rangers and the widespread lynchings of the 19th century, and the de facto anti-Mexican-American segregation of the first half of the 20th century.

Robert Keil entered the town with Texas Rangers and U.S. cavalry troops and ranchers investigating a cross-border raid during the Mexican Revolution. He heard the wails of women pleading for the lives of their loved ones. Then he heard gunfire, and saw “the most hellish sight that any of us had ever witnessed.” Fifteen men and boys had been marched out of the town and executed, their bodies gathered in a heap of limbs and blood at the foot of a bluff. “It reminded me of a slaughterhouse.”

As The Times reported in March, the reasons given for these extrajudicial killings varied wildly: The victims were accused of “cattle theft, murder, cheating at cards, refusing to play the fiddle … even witchcraft.”

As a candidate and as president, Mr. Trump has done much to spread a modern-day notion of people of Latin American descent as a menacing horde, devoid of humanity. At a rally in Florida in May, held after a caravan of Central American immigrants reached the United States border, Mr. Trump lamented: “How do you stop these people? You can’t.” A member of the audience shouted back, “Shoot them!” The audience cheered, and the president smiled.

The El Paso suspect dedicated a large portion of his “manifesto” to listing the weaponry he would use in his attempt to help start a race war. He said he would carry an AK-47, an assault rifle with its origins in the infantry battles of World War II.

Across the United States, police departments practice active shooter drills as they prepare to encounter such men. At our workplaces and schools, we are given instructions as to what to do when we come under fire. We are told to “run and hide.” And to “yell and fight.” “Throw items and improvise weapons,” one police department suggests.

I, personally, am not excited at the prospect of having to make one last charge against a spray of bullets. On most days, there are safer ways to fight white supremacy. We can study the beautiful and tragic story called “United States history,” for instance, and spread the message of the idealism and hope there — including the resilience of millions of Mexican immigrants and their descendants. And we can vow to learn from this past, and “yell and fight” against the demagogues whose words encourage the lonely killers among us.

Héctor Tobar (@TobarWriter), an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine, is the author of “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free” and a contributing opinion writer.

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