I am Mexican American with no hyphen and no apologies – and am haunted by a history of hate

by Marcos Breton

I didn’t know how to write about the El Paso massacre because for two weeks I’ve been too angry at too many people.

At the El Paso killer of 22 people who took aim and sprayed bullets inside a crowded department store because his expressed goal was to “kill Mexicans.”.

At the president of the United States for demonizing Mexicans from the day he announced his candidacy.

At my fellow journalists for framing El Paso as a gun control story when it’s about much more than that.

But more than anything, I’ve been angry because the cultural hatred that made El Paso possible, and our obsession with using Mexico and Mexicans as convenient scapegoats for our societal ills, have been specters in my life.

They existed long before I was born in California to Mexican parents in 1962. As recently as a decade ago, I hoped we would move beyond our long-held hostility toward Mexico and Mexicans. But El Paso and Donald Trump have convinced me that this specter will haunt me for the rest of my life.

I am Mexican American with no hyphen and no apologies. You got a problem with that? Well, many people do. Identifying strongly with my ancestral homeland has come with hassles big and small, annoying and hurtful.

Of course, this is not unique in the immigrant experience in the U.S. The Italians and the Irish were dumped on for generations.

But the U.S. doesn’t share a border with Ireland or Italy. Italian and Irish workers aren’t currently propping up American and California industries dependent on cheap labor. Italian and Irish kids aren’t filling our schools and communities.

Denigrating Italy or Ireland doesn’t make for winning politics. Trump proved winning politics lies in denigrating Mexicans. So did Gov. Pete Wilson in California in 1994.

Does that mean that Trump and Wilson invented the art of hating Mexicans? Of course not. But each recognized the electoral gold in focusing public anger toward “dirty Mexicans.”

Trump has been a direct messenger of ethnic hatred on his Twitter feed and in campaign speeches. Wilson hitched his political star on demonizing the border, but the results are the results:

Votes, wins and a trail of traumatized people whose ethnic backgrounds became wedge issues in heated electoral cycles. I’ve lived through all this and I can tell you these campaigns made you feel like a target regardless of your legal status.

Our love for our parents, our grandparents, our relatives and their customs placed us on the losing side of American culture and politics. That’s been my experience living nearly all of my 56 years in “liberal” Northern California.

For me, this has meant responding by sometimes doing things and saying things for which I am now ashamed.

Before Wilson, and before Trump, when I was just starting community college, I would sometimes lie when people asked me my ethnicity. I actually sometimes said I was “Spanish.”

I never did this before college because I had attended neighborhood schools with big Latino populations. But suddenly, outside the protective cocoon of my neighborhood, I was lost, and tried to become invisible.

I have fair skin, light eyes. I could “pass,” as the saying goes, and so I tried to pass as white.

In the U.S., the stereotype of Mexicans are people with bronze skin, black hair, dark eyes. I have relatives who fit that description. If you have traveled to Mexico, you’ll see a nation of varied hues and features. But in the U.S., the stereotype is the stereotype and in my youthful ignorance, I tried to avoid it for a time.

Why? Because you get tired.

Tired of the jokes, the condescension, the slurs: “beaner” “greaser” “wetback.” You probably have known someone who was physically attacked for being Mexican. I do, my father in early 1960s San Jose.

You probably have known someone who was screamed at for speaking Spanish in a public place. I do, my mother.

You have known someone was harassed at the U.S.-Mexico border by border patrol agents. I do, a dear friend, a Stanford graduate, who was too brown and too uppity for two agents at the Tijuana border 30 years ago. They turned him loose eventually, but not before humiliating him and me as I watched them scream at him because, well, they could.

The thing about trying to “pass” as something other than Mexican when that is your heritage is that you really can’t. Not without denying who you are.

In college, more than once, fellow students made caustic remarks about Mexicans in my presence. I couldn’t “pass” because I could hear. I would become enraged by the smug expressions on their faces. And I would be disappointed in friends who knew who I was but still thought the cracks were funny.

Those moments taught me that some friends could be friends until Mexican animus suddenly materialized and you were left with a choice:

Speak out or shut up. I’ve done both and both are exceedingly unpleasant.

By the end of college, I had regained my footing somewhat, but not completely. At the beginning of my journalism career more than 30 years ago, I pondered using my full name as my byline: Marcos Bretón Martinez.

Martinez was my mother’s maiden name and in Mexico, everyone uses full names and everyone knows how it works: Your first name, father’s last name, mother’s maiden name.

But I decided against Marcos Bretón Martinez because I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of constantly explaining that my last name was not Martinez.

Even sadder, I didn’t want to be accused of being a “fake Mexican.” That’s someone who “doesn’t look Mexican” but trots out a Spanish surname to get a job.

You see, when you have my ancestral background, you can become a “minority hire.” When that happens you can become a token in a news industry that is still woefully lacking in diversity.

Your white colleagues view you as a “minority hire” who is only around to fill quotas. And people with shared background question your street cred if your skin is too light. The thought being, you trotted out a Spanish surname to qualify for the quota.

Sounds crazy right? It is, but I lived it, a lot of people have. It’s a destructive head trip. It’s based on the premise that you don’t really belong, that you are taking the place of someone who actually is “qualified.”

It’s actually the same sentiment that drove the El Paso killer, enraged that Mexicans were invading his country – his country – and not ours.

And then, when an American media industry turned El Paso into a “gun control” story devoid of the ethnic hatred that drove the killer, well, I became more angry than I have ever been in my life.

Largely obscured in the aftermath of the massacre is that the victims were not only Mexican citizens. They were American citizens, too.

Why, you might ask, is it significant to emphasize this largely muted point?

Because it proves that the killer didn’t really give a rip about the so-called “invasion” of “illegals.”

In his gun sights, the killer concerned himself only with people who fit an ethnic profile that he hated. When he saw them, he started shooting regardless of the legal status of his victims. He killed them because they looked Mexican to him. He killed them because he felt they didn’t belong here.

I know the feeling because I have felt that I don’t belong here. I have tried to hide from who I was. I have made concessions I wish I hadn’t made. I have been the “minority hire.” And I’m done with all that now. My anger has turned to resolve:

I’m Mexican American. No hyphen. No apologies.

The United States is my country and as someone who was born here and belongs here, I’m not wasting time anymore.

This isn’t some “racial divide” like so many ignorant journalists have said and written. Speaking for the side that is between the rhetorical sights of Trump and the literal sights of a killer, we’re not the ones with the problem except, of course, being targets.

This hatred is so insidious that when some of us call it out, we’re the ones accused of being haters.

That’s OK. I’m not a victim. No, I’m a citizen speaking with a well-earned sense of entitlement that no one owns exclusively.

I love the United States of America enough to call it out. I love it enough to ask my country to look at itself in the mirror and do better. It starts by being honest.

I see my white colleagues in journalism constantly saying and tweeting: “This isn’t who we are.”

I’m sorry guys, but it is who we are. This is who we’ve been for a long time and this is who we will continue to be until more of us decide to be different.

Marcos Breton writes commentary and opinion columns for Sacramento Bee about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. 


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