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The Whiteness of South Texas

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Is this a Cleetus safari? It might be. But we do have to figure out what on earth is going on in south Texas, with its amazing and horrifying transformation from being a Hillary stronghold in 2016 to a purple area in 2020, with majority-Mexican-American counties moving up to 30 points to Trump. So this has some use. Plus Texas Monthly publishes quality work so I’m inclined to give it more the benefit of the doubt than a lot of other publications.

Many Hispanic South Texans shared something else with non-Hispanic white rural Texans: their racial identity. Hispanic residents of our state are much more likely to identify as white than Hispanic residents of cities elsewhere in the country. With roots many generations deep in lands that were annexed from Mexican control to that of the U.S., many also actively reject being cast as immigrants. In 2020 ignorance of these facts embarrassed state and national Democrats. While Hispanic South Texans are proud of their Mexican heritage, many do not consider themselves to be “people of color” at all. 

All this means that, despite Democrats’ blithe assurances, demography is not destiny. Texas will indeed have a Hispanic plurality soon. However, “Hispanic” describes neither a race nor a political loyalty. When it comes to race, Texas will remain overwhelmingly white, with more than 75 percent of its residents identifying as such. And if Democrats continue to hemorrhage votes in places like McAllen and Laredo, Texas could turn even redder. 

The GOP has looked at South Texas and seen voters who walk and talk like Republicans. The challenge facing the Democratic party is not just how to win back Hispanic voters. It’s how to win back voters with Hispanic names who may not even use that adjective to describe themselves.

I’m sure whites using “Latinx” to describe Latin Americans, 85% of which have never even heard the term, will help…

Between calls with reporters, Barrera checked Facebook. Another, simpler theory for Starr County’s rightward swing—put forward by left-leaning Hispanic voters in the Rio Grande Valley—was dominating comment sections and posts: the Mexican Americans in Starr  County were “trying to be white.” “All over social media, they were hating on us,” Barrera told me. 

He had heard the insults before. Mexican immigrants and their descendants in the United States have adopted a litany of terms to accuse another person of Mexican descent of “trying to be white.” There’s “vendido”—which translates literally as “sellout” and means someone who’s turned his back on Mexican culture. A “malinchista”—an allusion to Malintzin, an enslaved Aztec woman whom Hernán Cortés brought with him in his conquest of her people’s empire—is someone who has betrayed her community. Adrienne Peña-Garza, the Republican party chair of Hidalgo County, which neighbors Starr County, says that people have told her “Tienes el nopal en la frente” (“You have a cactus on your forehead”), an insult for someone who looks Mexican but denies it. Once two women, she says, swung a sledgehammer and cracked open a coconut in front of the local Republican headquarters. The implication was clear. “Coconut” is a word for someone who is supposedly brown on the outside but white on the inside. It frustrates Peña-Garza how her conservative stances get interpreted: “National Democrats have done a fairly good job making it seem like if you support border security, you must be a self-hater.” 

To Barrera, accusations of being a traitor feel like barbs. He compares them to a term sometimes used in the Black community: “Uncle Tom.” “They say that I’m a self-loathing Mexican person,” Barrera told me. He grew up speaking Spanish and is proud of his heritage; he would never deny who he is and where he came from. 

However, the question of who exactly he is is complicated. Barrera doesn’t like to use the descriptors he’s seen used by the media and national Democrats. “Latinos con Biden” signs were a particular allergy; Barrera never calls himself Latino, which he says is “a word from Hollywood.” Likewise, he doesn’t call himself Hispanic, which he considers “too metropolitan.” He’d never call himself Mexican, and he has an aversion to the compound “Mexican American.” He said, “I’m just American.” 

He added, “Around here, we like to say that we’re Tejano.” Peña-Garza agrees: “I’m Tejana.” A term that dates back to when Texas was a region of Mexico known as Tejas, “Tejano” fully entered the vernacular in the seventies and was often used as an alternative to anti-assimilationist descriptors that had come into vogue, such as “Chicano.” “There’s a difference between ‘Mexican American’ and ‘Tejano,’ ” Barrera said. “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.” 

If Tejanos have a slogan, that’s it. Many of the present-day residents of Starr County claim a lineage back to the time when Mexico was Nueva España and when both banks of the Rio Grande were Mexican territory. While “Tejano” means different things to different people, many use the word to telegraph a specific message: their ancestors are the early Spanish settlers who colonized the province of Tejas for the Spanish Crown. They don’t see themselves as immigrants. 

Multiple times, when I asked him “What is your race?” Barrera jumped into detailed, eloquent explanations of Latin American history and sensitive perspectives on the differences among various Latin American expat communities in the U.S. Eventually, he gave me an answer: “I am a Caucasian, and my government says I am Hispanic,” he said. “Because my surname goes back to Hispaniola, to Spain.” 

OK, there’s a lot going on here. And maybe the move of south Texas into the Republicans is a Trump thing, though I tend to doubt it given he did everything possible to alienate them and instead attracted them. But a few points. First, there’s a very long history of claiming whiteness–bullshit Spanish claims especially–among light-skinned Latinos in order to gain access to the privileges that other Americans are afforded. This is an enormous issue in New Mexican history, for example. Second, the idea that the Mexican-Americans of south Texas have any sympathy for the Guatemalans and Hondurans and Salvadorans or even the Oaxacans and Chiapas residents moving north is pretty laughable if you know anything about just how racist Mexicans can be toward indigenous people. Third, as many people long pointed out, demography is not destiny. Whiteness is a shape-shifting phenomenon. If south Texas Tejanos claim whiteness and act on it through voting for the white supremacist party, then they might well claim the same kind of whiteness that Miami Cubans are now getting.

I don’t know what to do with any of this. Obviously the Biden administration did not pay nearly enough attention to this region. Heck, if it went to him by the same percentage as it did for Hillary, the state would have been awful close to flipping for him. So it’s not as if this is hopeless. But it’s a serious problem for Democrats. Whether reading stories like this helps or not, I really don’t know.

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