Bad hombres, rigged elections and dangerous immigrants sound like themes from a stock campaign speech from President-elect Donald Trump, but the ideas themselves aren’t new. Mexican-Americans faced similar attacks over 160 years ago across Texas. At that time, they voted in large numbers, enough to sway the election.
Latino and Latina voters have found themselves having to respond to these sorts of attacks once again in 2016. Trump’s presidential campaign made building wall on the border with Mexico a cornerstone. He also made broad statements labeling Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers who are a threat to American values — driving home the point when he claimed a federal judge’s Mexican ancestry prevented him from carrying out his sworn duty.
Historians have rightfully compared Trump’s appeal to the Know-Nothing movement of the 1850s. Generally thought of as anti-Irish, anti-German and anti-Catholic, Know-Nothings also targeted ethnic Mexicans in Texas. In 1854, Know-Nothings dominated municipal elections in San Antonio under the American Party banner, winning the mayorship and a majority of city council seats.
“Why do we appear like foreigners in the very land of our birth?” Tejano leaders asked in response to the political challenge. Mexican Americans didn’t stand silent in the face of these attacks. They formed a key constituency that helped the Democratic Party to regain its political power and contributed to the permanent defeat of the American Party in Texas.
One of the first Tejano responses to the Know-Nothing victory was to support the Democratic Party by forming the Junta Democratica de Los Ciudadanos Mejico-Tejanos del Condado de Bejar. The meeting, conducted in Spanish, began by restating stakes of the upcoming election as a choice between two parties. “One is widely known as the Know-Nothing, and is marked by their hostility to the wise articles of the Constitution, excluding from its political rights all those who are not of the Anglo-Saxon race,” noted the meeting chairman Narciso Leal.
The loudest voice in support of Tejanos came from Jose Antonio Navarro. A native son of San Antonio and one of only two Texas-born signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence, Navarro felt the need to defend his people against the Know-Nothing attacks by declaring his Americanism. He implored his compatriots, “Let us be then true Americans, for good reason and for the future.”
Navarro embraced Americanism and rejected the idea that Tejanos are unpatriotic. “The American flag covers us and we belong to it, and for it we should sacrifice our lives if necessary,” he said. He stood up to anti-Catholic politics, stating, “Mexican-Texans are Catholic, should be proud of the beliefs of their ancestors, and will defend in unity against such insults.”
The American Party lost the subsequent election in resounding fashion, due in large part to heavy Tejano turnout. The American Party denounced their defeat to the Democrats. They claimed an “unholy and unnatural” alliance between Germans and Mexicans overcame their principles of true Americanism. The claims turned to manipulation as one Know-Nothing newspaper concluded, “It is plain that the increase of the vote of this county has been the result of pipe-laying, fraud and corruption.” The Know-Nothing supporters saw this as a repudiation of the Texas Revolution. “It is a political defeat of Texians by the very men whom their valor defeated on the ensanguined field of battle.”
Latinas and Latinos once again face challenges to their Americanism and political participation. And likewise, efforts to increase voter turnout and representation are met with legal obstacles at the state level. Undeterred, voter registration has increased dramatically this year in states with large Latino populations, such as Texas, California and Florida.
Latino and Latina legislators and elected officials across the nation have responded to attacks on Mexican Americans with similar appeals to Americanism. During the 2016 Democratic National Convention, another San Antonio political figure, Joaquin Castro, praised “children of immigrants who have contributed to our country as doctors, police officers and — guess what — even impartial judges. Their story is our story. It’s America’s story.”
Increased Latino and Latina voter registration numbers and public calls against racism are heartening. The truth is that they have been Latino traditions for over a century.
On the other hand, denying Latino inclusion in American politics has also been a long-standing tradition. Political parties over the centuries have established a politics based on resentment and division. Regardless of whether Trump is anti-Mexican or truly racist, his statements and demands stoke anti-Mexican sentiments.
Increased Latino and Latina voter participation and inclusion in Texas and national politics has the potential to change the fundamental direction of the country. Before that can happen, a deeper shift in our culture and sense of community needs to develop to counter centuries of anti-Mexican sentiments. This will happen culturally and demographically before it happens politically.
Raúl A. Ramos is an Associate professor at the University of Houston