A Family Trauma From the 1920s Border

Late in my grandmother Lucia’s life, she told me about growing up in the 1920s along the border between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. Back then there was little in the way of an actual border between the cities, and my family (and many others) kind of lived on both sides, did trade on both sides, had friends on both sides… it was often a very casual affair. In this way, my cousins and I are especially “Mexican American.”

Anyway, one day in the early aught years I was watching the news with her or something and there was a story of a poor black man who was hanged from a tree. I said aloud something about how tragic that was, and how traumatizing it must consistently be for the black community.

Then she told me in a sharp anguished tone (the sort of stress that begs you to take their pain more gravely than another’s) that one of her early memories was going near the US/Mexico border one morning on the El Paso side to see Mexican (and very likely Mexican-American) men and women strung up in a row, hanged from trees and poles in a line between the countries.

Now if you knew her, she always resented being called “guera” as a child, which essential means “white girl,” as she was pretty fair. But in this time hearing this from her childhood peers was especially piercing because she identified more as Mexican, and associated White Americans with terrorism along the border. She was furious and disgusted by the association between her tone and the brutality she saw, and was very ashamed of her skin color, which she projected onto her sons. This is especially interesting in my family since her husband, my Mexican-born grandfather, identified strongly as American.

This is what Americans used to do at the border: murder brown people and line their dead bodies up the way Vlad the Impaler did. The outcome in my family was that my grandmother, like many American citizens today, became ashamed for just being who she was and disgusted by American culture, which she never fully trusted. And yet counterintuitively my grandfather, like many Mexican citizens today, believed strongly in the dream of America in spite of this terror and was intensely optimistic and grateful toward this country to his last day.

These were not isolated incidents, and not even really about citizenship or border security or even xenophobia (that word is such a dismissively meaningless euphemism to call violent hatred to me). Lynching these people was about terror, cruelty, an endless quest to dominate indigenous lands, and to annihilate indigenous people who were never given the basic right to determine where their own borders might be drawn. And America reenacts this first trauma, the crushing of indigenous people, constantly — it’s as core to our national identity as the Declaration of Independence.

I love you Grandpa, I still do, I have your name. Yes, America is about your dream, which became true for you. America can do this for people. We all believe this.

America also legalized the murder, trafficking and sexual exploitation of people, and children if it chooses. It calls people it wants to oppress criminals, sells its cruelty as “tough on crime,” and then uses this classification to terrorize legal citizens within our borders every day, like my grandmother. America also does nothing to those who sign these cruelties into law, even once they’re exposed. Oil and plastic executives that ruin our environment, gambling bankers that have pushed people into abject poverty, politicians who institute the terms of mass incarceration, and executives and investors that profit from these legitimate abuses are not arrested, or even stopped, despite ruining more lives than any criminal in jail now ever could, all from the comfort of a corner office. A systemic spiderweb of rich, nondescript mass murderers with expansive investments, several large homes and cars, vacations planned for later this year, golf this weekend with their friends, “very serious” idiocy on how poor people should get over poverty they spout over one another while being served drinks by someone making less than minimum wage they’ll tip 20% and feel great about… all abusers who will never, ever face public justice.

What is the message we send when America murders people indiscriminately? That we are strong? That America is a sacred place? That America is a great place to be? That Americans are good?

My grandmother and her siblings were natural-born citizens who learned early on that America can be hellish. And jailing children in internment camps proves this is true. This is not strong, not sacred, and not good. It is sick.

My grandmothers saw it. And it was always sick.

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Tony Chavira

Tony Chavira

Radical Empathy. Inclusive Morality. Reflections on Grief, Trauma, Modernity, Media, Shrift & Society from L.A. —LSE, USC, Pepperdine