Words by Nat M, edited by Gisela Zuniga
Words by Nat M, edited by Gisela Zuniga
The Black Lives Matter movement has affected each and every part of the U.S during summer 2020, our most turbulent year in recent history. The murders of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Ahmuad Arbery, Oluwatoyin Salau and countless others at the hands of police and other assailants piled more hurt and anger on top of the COVID-19 pandemic that has disproportionately taken Black lives.
Many Black people, myself included, have stopped watching these short clips of Black death, especially during a time when we’ve lost so many of our loved ones. It’s not that I don’t care. I just don’t want my first images of a person to be the tragic last seconds of their life. After several months in quarantine, an economic depression, high rates of unemployment and constant death all around us, it was just too much.
This time there was an immediate, massive, and instinctual response.
Uprisings and demonstrations were most intense in major metropolitan areas like Minneapolis, Atlanta, New York or Portland. Even less populous areas like the Rio Grande Valley witnessed people consciously break social distancing norms to march peacefully and hear Black folks speak out about their experiences with racial discrimination, such as during June 2020’s protest in Edinburg.
Longstanding inequalities specifically toward Black communities made the conversation about discrimination reach a boiling point in our home region. The Rio Grande Valley is a predominantly Mexican immigrant and Mexican-American community, with a strong bond to culture and family. In every community, anti-Black racism and colorism are present, a particularly ‘hush hush’ topic in the Valley. It’s ingrained, messy and hard to confront without pulling at the roots of a cultural mindset centuries in the making on both sides of the border.
As a Black person, reading certain local online threads or hearing conversations can feel like a punch to the gut. While protests resisting these narratives isn’t something new in the Valley either: locals marched after Mike Brown’s murder and many others. But this time felt different.
Past marches have been led by several organizers, including the Eromosele family, who have always been vocal and at the forefront of local actions and marches. Aimaloghi Eromosele made her voice heard again this summer with thoughtful Instagram live sessions, a speaking engagement with UTRGV’s Mexican American Studies Panel and a podcast appearance on BLASST with brothers Ohiozele, and Ohireime.
This cycle of reckoning and protest saw a new generation join the discourse and action. They took to not just the streets but also the internet to share the ugly truth about RGV racism.
Facebook and Twitter feeds can be soul-crushing places. So many people regurgitate white supremacist, Blue Lives Matter and stereotype-ridden talking points with ease on the internet, without consideration of cause or effect. American politics makes it very difficult to get to the root of the issue but very simple to pick sides as if people’s lives were a football game.
It can be easy to chime in: “What about Black-on-Black crime?” but it’s rare to include analysis of the decades-long War on Drugs, structural denial to quality education, job discrimination and overpolicing. When they do get brought up it’s swiftly drowned out with a dismissive or racist reply.
Destini Thomas’s viral early 2020 Twitter thread about living as a Black person on the South Texas-Mexico border explores some of these nuances, that it’s more than just taking a side. Thomas is an Afro-Latina college student from Donna who spoke about her experiences of local anti-Blackness on Twitter in May. Her tweet immediately blew up. In the coming days, her post encouraged countless Black and Afro-Latinx people to share their own stories of being Black in the RGV, surprising Destini. While the Valley is beautiful for many reasons, overflowing with culture, familia and community, every culture, including ours, is subject to anti-Blackness.
“Growing up I felt like me and my dad were the only Black people in the Valley, besides one girl who was a grade older than me in school,” she said. Teachers would ask if the two girls were related – they, of course, were not.
For women and girls responding to the Twitter thread, one common shared experience revolved around hair. Valley girls with curly and nappy hair that were a part of cheerleading, choir, dance or other activities shared stories of being singled out and told to straighten or “tame” their hair.
One user replied saying “I live in Rio Grande and in elementary kids made it so hard for me to accept my skin color and my hair texture. Because of racism here I was very insecure about my skin for years.”
Thomas said she is usually “pretty shy” so the post took some soul searching and courage, but she felt it was necessary. Nationwide protests were just reaching our corner of the world but Anti-Black Facebook posts about potential local violence or looting had spread.
She saw strangers and even peers repeat rhetoric that was anti-Black.
“To even make that post in the first place took a lot [of courage] honestly, and it was more out of [a feeling of] frustration,” she said. “I felt like so many people I had on my [Twitter] timeline, or even worse, [on] Facebook were making ignorant comments. I think starting that conversation was really uncomfortable but it’s that uncomfortable pressure that’s making a change.”
Keep in mind her post was before the summer 2020 protests and before a grown man with a chainsaw yelled the N-word at young Black Lives Matter demonstrators in the middle of downtown McAllen.
Her tweet and the viral conversation that stemmed from it made a big impact on me. Having also grown up in the Valley, scrolling the Twitter threads and reading the all-too relatable grievances people younger and older than me shared.
For me, growing up in the Valley got even more confusing because I am Black, but also Mexican American.
Without being fluent in Spanish and with little-to-no Black family and culture around me locally, it’s easy for me to feel confused about my race, culture, and heritage, especially when people don’t often talk about being Afro-Latino in the Valley. When I was a teenager, the girl I was dating at the time didn’t want her mom to know I was Black, so I was “Puerto Rican” until our mothers met and the jig was up. (At the time, I didn’t know that many Puerto Ricans are Black, many of Afro-Taíno descent due to the slave trade in the Caribbean). I did eventually grow into my passion for Black self-determination, cultural theory, and Pan Africanism through learning about it online and in college, but it would have been so affirming to learn about these things at grade school or in a community setting.
Racism across the Americas, not just in the U.S., have the same roots in Spanish and Portuguese colonialism, but they’ve grown into different weeds through each place’s unique history. The RGV, being at the “herida abierta where [Latin America, specifically Mexico] grates against the [United States],” comprises “the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country,” as famously said by legendary cultural scholar Gloria Anzaldua. However, this means that the anti-Blackness from both of these worlds merges as well, something not touched upon in lengthy detail in Anzaldua’s foundational texts.
Medical student Juan Calero knows firsthand how this confusing mix of attitudes can affect people. Calero is from Colombia, identifies as Afro-Mestizo (mestizo meaning mixed Native and European) and moved to the RGV when he was 10 years old. He explains how “parts of the U.S. have anti-Blackness rooted in the shared history and scope of the Spanish and French Colonies throughout Latin America.” Through his lived experiences, oral family histories, and undergraduate studies, he’s observed how infighting between different communities in the African diaspora about who “had it harder” during colonialism or slavery can be counterintuitive because “each region’s struggles fermented in their own unique ways.”
Juan has noticed how “in some circles, there can be a widespread and erroneous belief that African culture survived more in Latin America and the Caribbean than in the U.S., and that just does a disservice to both sides.” Not everyone believes this, but some people come across it enough to take note.
Cultural challenges faced by the Black population in the Valley are a dime a dozen. At the forefront is having a predominantly mixed race but ultimately non-Black community recognize the existence of Blackness in the Valley. Not every Latinx person is Black (even if many of us have partial African ancestry; being seen as Black these days is not determined exclusively by blood) but to ignore the existence of Afro-Latinos and other Black people in the diaspora is what allows racism to live under the surface in our own community.
No one is born racist; it is taught, socialized and passed on. It’s as common as inheriting a widow’s peak or dimples. Race itself is strange because it isn’t something tangible — it’s a concept made up by certain people to treat others horribly, to oversimplify it. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. As seen in how people are treated online, in person, and even after they are killed, discrimination based on race harms people in a very real way. How do we break this cycle of anti-Blackness if people still benefit financially, socially and economically from the institutions that disproportionately target Black folks every day?
A local group of college students who all attended high school together decided to tackle anti-Blackness through challenging how the public school education system has traditionally taught (or not taught) about it. Led by Natalie Glasper, this team co-founded ‘The Grande Narrative’ to encourage McAllen ISD to include African-American history and literature in public school curriculums.
“Protesting is important, but I think down here we [have] a lack of education about these issues.” she explained. “One of [The Grande Narrative’s] main goals is to start positive conversations around race…if people could talk about it in the classroom then it would be easier for them to get involved outside of the classroom.”
It’s an uphill battle because decisions about what’s included in school curriculums are made by the state. The Grande Narrative knows it’s important anyways to equip young people for important conversations, whether the topic is trending online or not. “[Young people would] feel much more confident to enter that discussion if we knew more of the background behind it,” she said. That was part of [why] we targeted education.”
Village in the Valley (ViVa), another group focusing on education, is a non-profit founded by Black community members highlighting local Black history and culture. With the African proverb in mind that it “takes a village to raise a child” they founded ViVa to strengthen community ties within the Black community, as well demonstrate that Black culture has been a part of the fabric of this community for centuries.
There’s a lot to be said about the importance of Black parents knowing they can find community and that their kids will be safe. When my family first moved to the Valley in 2001, my mom was devastated to leave our West Coast Black community behind. She eventually found ViVa, a group similar to our community on the West Coast, and it helped make an immeasurable positive impact on softening the blow of culture shock and the isolation of always being the only Black person in a room or in a workplace. Community matters.
History of Black folks in the Valley is vital because Destini’s Twitter post isn’t a one-off. Black people’s lived experience in the RGV has been shaping local culture for hundreds of years, in too many ways to count. From Jackson Ranch and Eli Jackson Cemetery in South Pharr, which served as an important stop on the Underground Railroad for Civil War era slaves seeking asylum in Mexico, to Melissa Betts, who served as the first African American teacher in the Valley in the 1950s, the RGV has a wealth of overlooked Black innovation.
Last year, as in so many years past, we witnessed generations of Black parents, activists, youth, newcomers and born & raised Valley residents show the power of Black existence in this beautiful river delta. But it is not enough to merely exist. If 2020 demonstrated anything positive to us, it’s the hope that more non-Black Valley residents can be more than bystanders or fairweather allies in this constant struggle for justice. That way everyone can celebrate and uplift Black joy and life in the RGV in good times and rough times alike.
“I feel like I’m just as much a part of this community as anybody else,” Natalie Glasper said. “I think people get the idea that because we’re trying to change things, we don’t care for this community and just want to criticize it. That’s not where we are coming from. My family’s been here a long time and I love [the RGV]. Because we care for this community, we want it to be the best it can be for everyone here.”