Why Democrats are Losing Texas LatinosHistorians in the News
tags: Whiteness, Texas history, Latino/a history, ethnic history, Tejanos
In an interview with Javier Villalobos in early June, Fox Business host Stuart Varney presented his guest with a riddle. Villalobos, a Republican, had just won the mayoral election in McAllen, the Texas border town at the end of the last great curve of the Rio Grande. Varney, barely containing his glee, wanted the politician to help viewers understand the victory. “Your honor,” Varney addressed Villalobos, “you are right on the border, eighty-five percent of the voters in your county are Hispanic, you are a Republican, and you won. Can you explain that? Because not many Americans expect a Hispanic electorate to go for a Republican mayor!”
Villalobos promptly set Varney straight. “I think a lot of people know, or should know, that Hispanics generally are very conservative.” His triumph, he explained, wasn’t stunning; he had simply met his voters where they were, with a “conservative agenda” of low taxes, limited government spending, and pro-business policies. Satisfied, Varney moved on to other questions familiar to South Texans who make national news. What did Villalobos think of the border wall? What about “illegal entry” of migrants? This part of the interview should have been routine. But Varney had apparently not learned the name of the town where Villalobos had been elected, mistakenly (and repeatedly) referring to McAllen as “McLaren.”
The error was par for the course. South Texas lately has become an object of political fascination for pundits, some of whom have not taken the time to understand even the most basic facts about the region. Until recently, officials from McAllen typically found themselves on the national radar only when they welcomed visiting national politicians. But Villalobos’s win—albeit in a race in which his party affiliation did not appear alongside his name on the ballot and fewer than 10,000 of the city’s 73,000 registered voters went to the polls—was noteworthy for one reason. It seemed to confirm what Democrats had spent the past seven months denying: they have a deep problem in South Texas—and therefore in statewide races as well.
Last year, McAllen experienced the biggest shift in party vote share, toward Donald Trump, of any large city in the country save for Laredo, 150 miles to the northwest. In both border towns, Trump improved on his 2016 results by more than 23 points. Many predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods in Texas’s major cities, such as San Antonio’s Prospect Hill, also experienced double-digit shifts toward the incumbent president, though they ultimately stayed Democratic. But no area fled further into the GOP camp than South Texas, where 18 percent of the state’s Hispanic population lives.
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.”
What does it mean to be “white”? In his famous investigation How the Irish Became White, historian Noel Ignatiev argues that race isn’t a stable biological fact. Rather, whiteness is a social construct, a flexible fabric that at any particular moment can be wrapped around certain groups while excluding others. In the nineteenth century, Irish immigrants to the U.S. were of an unmistakable second-class status and, early on, were often depicted in newspaper illustrations and cartoons as alien, even simian. They supported the politics of the downtrodden, including public investment and social democratic reform. But as they rose through labor unions, police and fire departments, and public offices and gained economic and political clout, the Irish were increasingly regarded, and depicted in public imagery, as white. By the mid-twentieth century, large numbers of them supported anti-immigrant, nativist, and segregationist politicians. In Ignatiev’s telling, by becoming co-custodians of the nation’s racial caste system, Irish Americans were able to rise to the same social position as the country’s earlier Anglo-Saxon settlers.
Might Ignatiev’s thesis apply, in some ways, to Tejanos in the Rio Grande Valley and lighter-skinned Hispanic Americans more generally? Across South Texas, I met resident after resident who, like Barrera, struggled to find a simple answer to the question of his or her identity. National Democrats have often treated Hispanic South Texans as sharing the same characteristics as Chicanos in California or Salvadoran Americans in Maryland. As Sylvia Bruni, chair of the Webb County Democratic party, told me, campaign signs targeting Hispanic voters in South Texas were the same as those rolled out in Los Angeles, reading “Todos con Biden” (“Everyone With Biden”). “They never found a message specifically for people in South Texas,” she said.
Tejano culture is distinctive. As Cynthia Villarreal, a retired high school counselor and lifelong resident of the border town of Zapata, explained to me recently, “My grandfather always told me, ‘No soy mexicano. No soy americano. Soy tejano.’ ”
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