State leaders are looking for solutions after El Paso. Texas Latinos say they can start by changing the words they use.

Texas Tribune News

Hundreds mourn for the victims and their family outside the El Paso Walmart where a mass murderer killed 22 people.
Hundreds mourn for the victims and their family outside the El Paso Walmart where a mass murderer killed 22 people.
Nick Oza/USA Today Network via REUTERS

Barbara Canales’ family history is in some ways shaped by a deeply rooted understanding of bigotry and racism.

Her mother attended high school in Corpus Christi where the Mexican American students were segregated from their white peers; they were assigned separate gym lockers and even required to attend separate senior proms.

Her uncle, Héctor P. García, was a physician who initially wasn’t allowed to serve as one in World War II because he was Hispanic. When he returned to Texas, he founded the American G.I. Forum to advocate for Mexican American veterans. Canales remembers hearing about his fight for fellow veteran Félix Longoria, who was denied burial in a local cemetery because of his ethnicity. He was eventually buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Now the first Latina to serve as county judge of Nueces County, Canales says her upbringing made her conscious of the sort of hate that was embodied in signs once posted outside of businesses that read “No dogs or Mexicans allowed.”

“All those stories, we carry them and we think they’re behind us and so its painful,” Canales said. “When you see that your history has caught up to you again, it feels strange. It doesn’t feel right.”

The stories of her childhood came screaming back into mind this month when a white gunman traveled across Texas to El Paso with the intent of murdering people who look like her. With state lawmakers set to begin roundtables to form a legislative response to the massacre, Canales and Latinos across the state are wondering what Republican leaders — some of whom have used troubling rhetoric about immigrants and Latinos in the past — will do to protect them after a deadly attack by a 21-year-old who described the onslaught as a “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

Acknowledging that lawmakers can do little to legislate the hate away, some Latinos say they are looking for a new type of understanding among the state’s mostly white leaders of the way in which the pain of a racist past in Texas is now intersected with its present. For them, that starts with a change in the words state leaders use.

“This isn’t political. This isn’t hyperbolic. This is the reality of the situation,” said Miguel Solis, a Dallas ISD school board member. “Words not only matter but in today’s world, words are having more and more significant existential consequences in our society — a guy drove 10 hours with the intent of slaughtering Latinos.”

In recent weeks, Texas Republicans who control the state have found themselves fielding the calls for action that spike after increasingly frequent mass shootings. But given the racist motive behind the El Paso massacre, they have also been pressured to find the words to talk about racism, bigotry and white supremacy in ways most of them haven’t in recent history.

The early responses to the El Paso shooting by statewide elected officials like Land Commissioner George P. Bush and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who are both Hispanic, marked a change in tone with each official speaking plainly in linking the attack to “white terrorism” and white supremacy.

But when several days went by after the shooting without a similar, loud condemnation from Gov. Greg Abbott, the silence filled some Latinos with dread about what would — or wouldn’t — come next.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, and other elected officials who represent the area were calling on state leaders to denounce the white supremacy that drove the gunman from the Dallas area to an El Paso Walmart where he opened fired and ultimately murdered 22 people — most of them Latinos.

If they didn’t, Escobar warned, they’d be giving it cover.

“It makes me feel like they don’t understand the issue,” Mario Carrillo, who is from El Paso and serves as the Texas director of the immigration reform advocacy organization America’s Voice, said days after the massacre. “I’m concerned that the leaders in our state aren’t really willing to have the conversation about what it was that led to the shooting in El Paso in the first place.”

At the beginning of a meeting with El Paso’s legislative delegation as those complaints were growing louder, Abbott’s brief public remarks made no mention of the gunman’s reported motive and the racist manifesto authorities were investigating.

Behind closed doors, though, the delegation composed completely of Democratic Latinos stressed to Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen that the language used in the aftermath of the attack was consequential. One member of the delegation suggested that if state leaders did not mirror the words the affected community was using to process the shooting — white supremacy, white nationalism, racism — they risked giving the impression that they weren’t actually listening, according to a person in the room who asked for anonymity in order to speak candidly.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Abbott — whose office did not respond to questions for this story — characterized the state’s response as one that needed to tackle “broad-based challenges” like domestic terrorism, white supremacy and racism. (He announced the creation of a Domestic Terrorism Task Force a week later.)

“At the end of the day, it’s a start,” Canales, the county judge, said of the change in words. “I relish that start because it seems to me that how we got here, how this moment of hate got to El Paso is because we didn’t do enough understanding of one another.”

For some, the El Paso massacre went a long way in doing away with the pretense that harsh rhetoric about immigrants didn’t affect the people who look like them. In the aftermath of the shooting, Latinos pointed out that the gunman didn’t stalk shoppers to ask for their papers or birth certificates before opening fire.

“There’s no going around the conversation at this point. … Actually using the term racism, actually using the term white supremacy is a step forward,” said Krysta Ortíz, a nonprofit program director currently working in the New York area who still claims residency — and still votes — in her hometown near San Antonio. “But the endgame is to dismantle it. The conversation has to progress to what are we doing.”

To Kim Pineda, calling the El Paso massacre what it is isn’t nearly enough when he lives with enough anxiety about his visibility as a Latino man living in Lubbock that he carries his passport almost everywhere he goes.

The 60-year-old music historian started attending what’s known as “coffee with a cop” so they recognize him if someone ever calls the police on him while he’s on his usual runs through his neighborhood. Pineda is acting based on experience. Growing up in a mostly white neighborhood in California, he was stopped by police probably once a month on his walks to school.

Pineda believes it’s incumbent on elected officials — from the governor to his congressman to his state representatives — to actually call out racist rhetoric, especially from President Donald Trump. But the reality has left him feeling “helpless and hopeless.”

“I’m upset big elected Republicans are being scared or quiet,” Pineda said.

Some wonder whether state leaders speaking in those terms will actually lead to a real change in the political discourse after one of the deadliest attacks on Latinos in recent history. That sort of reform may not change a white supremacist’s attitudes, they argue, but maybe they’d feel less emboldened.

“When we have leaders who hide behind the rhetoric to advance their politics … we perpetuate violence,” said Antonio Arellano, the interim executive director of Jolt, a progressive organization focused on mobilizing young Latino voters.

The manifesto linked to the shooter repeatedly decried a Hispanic “invasion” of Texas and warned of Texas Hispanics’ burgeoning political clout through which they would “take control of the local and state government” and change “policy to better suit their needs.”

Though at first he largely focused on the role of video games and social media in mass shootings, Patrick has since echoed Abbott in describing the El Paso attack as domestic terrorism and has called it “racist violence.” But like Trump, Patrick has previously decried an “invasion” of immigrants across the state’s southern border. On conservative shows, he’s talked about a “manufactured cover-up” by Democrats and the mainstream media who want millions of immigrants to “pour in” to the country so they can turn them into votes and “control the country.”

A spokesperson for Patrick did not respond to a request for comment about the lieutenant governor’s past choice of words.

At a town hall in East Texas less than two weeks after El Paso, Abbott faced a question about the president’s rhetoric, which a few fellow Republicans like U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of Helotes have condemned as divisive and hurtful to people of color.

Abbott responded with one of the president’s talking points — low unemployment rates among black and Hispanic workers.

“You mentioned, if you would, rhetoric, and what I find voters really look at is results,” Abbott said.

In a two-page fundraising mailer dated Aug. 2 — a day before the El Paso massacre — Abbott spoke in alarmist terms about the need to “DEFEND” Texas at the border, cautioning the supposed political implications that could come with unchecked illegal immigration.

“The national Democrat machine has made no secret of the fact that it hopes to ‘turn Texas blue.’ If they can do it in California, they can do it in Texas — if we let them,” Abbott wrote in the fundraising appeal, which was obtained by The Texas Tribune.

Though only U.S. citizens can vote, the governor signed off with another pointed warning: “Unless you and I want liberals to succeed in their plan to transform Texas — and our entire country — through illegal immigration, this is a message we MUST send.”

Hector De Leon, a chairman of the Associated Republicans of Texas, believes it’s unfair to link the El Paso massacre to the rhetoric of Trump and other Republican leaders. But he was troubled by the governor’s words and he stands by his previous indictment of Patrick’s use of the term “invasion” as racist.

Doing more of the same after El Paso, he argued, would be detrimental.

“It’s easy to go out and shoot a bunch of ‘Mexicans,’ if you don’t view them as people,” De Leon said. “I think state leaders and national leaders cannot pander to the worst in human nature or the worst in their party; they can engage in rhetoric that shows were more than that.

“Instead of talking about invasions,” De Leon added, “we need to talk about how we can make America a better place.”