I was born in Texas, but I have no memory of our time living there. I was too young. I've been told stories of the promise that the city of San Antonio and the surrounding area held for immigrants, which was why my parents moved there from New Jersey. A death in the family brought us back northeast, where my mom and dad initially immigrated from Central and South America, respectively. The only home I knew as a child was a small town in New Jersey called Mendham.
Children are not colorblind. They're hypercurious without stigma, assumptions, and prejudice until they are taught, biases imbibed over time. I heard the racism lurking in my predominantly white hometown echoed in the voices of my peers at a young age. My response was always combative.
By high school, I began seeing Latinos working in the local pizza shop, landscaping my boyfriend's yard, and babysitting my friend's younger sister. Most intimately my uncle's wife, my aunt, was one of the janitors at my school.
One day during social studies class, our teacher led a discussion regarding immigration. In that room, I was the authority on the topic, the only person with first-hand experience and therefore the one most susceptible to attack. The universal topic became focused on Latin American immigrants as students shared their feelings on the changing demographics in town. I interrupted. I scoffed as the teacher allowed the debate to escalate. Finally, a female student, one often the target of ruthless bullying herself, said of the recent influx of Latinx migrants, "I feel like they're invading our town." I was enraged. I searched the sharpest parts of my tongue for every knife I could find and hurled them at her. I was sent to the principal's office.
Rumors spread quickly about the incident, casting me as the villain. I pleaded my case to every peer, teacher, and parent I saw. I needed someone to acknowledge I was right, that I was the victim. To admit these migrants were being used for cheap labor. To understand that they weren't trespassing, they'd been found. They weren't siphoning wealth, they were working. Just like my family. Just like my parents. Just like me.
As I contemplate Hispanic Heritage Month this year, I cannot help but feel conflicted. Daily headlines targeting Latinx tear at the connective tissue of my heritage, activating my defenses and triggering past trauma. Likening immigration to an invasion, using that term, is a dog whistle for white supremacists. Its use is insidiously common, reverberating through media reaching our classrooms, coffee breaks, and dinner tables. As a child, I genuinely assumed this thinking would dissipate, fall shamefully out of fashion, that I and future generations would inherit a more benevolent society. I never imagined I would hear the taunts of my childhood bullies repeated by the president, transcribed into manifesto by a domestic terrorist, and witness these craven words manifest into a deadly hate crime.
The El Paso shooter, Patrick W. Crusius, held back nothing when confessing to police his intent to target "Mexicans" when he opened fire in a Texas mall, killing 22 people. Before he had driven nearly 11 hours to the US-Mexico border, Crusius published a four-page manifesto declaring his mission to carry out the attack in response to what he called the "Hispanic invasion of Texas." This is just one incident of many that hits too close to home.
For me, being Latinx in America today means that I vow to advocate for those who are victimized, call out injustice whenever possible, and fight for the future I imagined as a child. It means that I will not accept the vitriol of others — that I will not seek redemption for being a hyphenated American — rather, I will take equal pride in every aspect of my identity.
Hispanic heritage is about stepping into our power and delighting freely in our joy. It is a commitment to stand firmly in the indisputable truth that we are worthy of attention without our stories of sorrow.