Identity politics along the border: Dissecting why some Latinos love Trump

Life in the Rio Grande Valley helps explain Trump's popularity in some Latino communities

Published June 11, 2016 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Samantha Sais/Photo montage by Salon)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Samantha Sais/Photo montage by Salon)

My mother is considering voting for Donald Trump. She broke the news to me on the phone the other night, prefaced it with, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but…”

This is the same woman who, when I was in first grade, took me to a Clinton campaign rally in 1993 keynoted by the soon-to-be First Lady. At the event, having pushed our way to the front, the local newspaper interviewed me and recorded forever in history me saying that when I grew up I wanted to be a lawyer just like Hillary, a sentiment that was undoubtedly coached by my mother’s fervor for the woman we referred to as “Hil” in our house.

Our adoration for her continued through the Clinton presidency, strengthened during the Bush years, and reached its apex in 2008, when both my mother and I canvassed for her during the presidential primary — her from our home state of Texas, and me from Indiana, where I was enrolled in college. When Obama eventually won the nomination, we naturally (and only a little begrudgingly) threw our support behind him because, after all, we both identified as “staunch Democrats.” We actually used those words. I learned them from her.

So how does a woman who loved Hillary practically as much as she loved the Virgin Mary defect in such dramatic fashion?

Well, if you knew something about where we’re from, about the place that has shaped who she is, who I am, her shifting allegiance wouldn’t seem so uncharacteristic. As my mother articulates it, her decision is the inevitable result of one issue in particular being pushed to the center of the political conversation—immigration. Of course, many voters cite this cause as deal maker or breaker. The peculiar and confounding difference, when it comes to my mother, is that she’s Mexican. Of course, this means that I’m Mexican, too. And the difference between us, the reason I’m not brandishing a Trump button? I left the Rio Grande Valley and she didn’t.

The Texas region geographically defined as the Rio Grande Valley, informally known as “The Valley” to locals, “El Valle” to the locals who some locals don’t count as locals, and simply “home” to me, extends (most will agree) from Rio Grande City southwest along the Rio Grande River, which separates Mexico and the United States, to where it flows into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Most of what people know about my home is about it only indirectly, defined instead by what happens on that side of the border, instead of this side. Drug cartels, kidnappings, dirty cops, dirty politicians, all spreading like a disease onto our side, or at least that’s the narrative I was raised with. The more national attention it received over the last two decades, the more resentful the local rhetoric became. The nightly news, for example, in an effort to cater to the widely held opinions of its viewership, spoke of the terrors that were sneaking in under the doorway, and people all over the Valley nodded in agreement and repeated the sentiments to friends and neighbors.

But growing up, when it came to life beyond the border, it was measured solely in glimpses I acquired on weekends every two or three months, when my family drove to the small tourist enclave of Nuevo Progreso, about half an hour away. Though we mainly went to restock on prescription medications, these were trips of leisure more than necessity, and while we were there we’d pick up avocados and tortillas for the drive back, and little toys or candies that caught my eye and for which I would beg, but not too desperately because “yes” came easily when things were dirt cheap and it was no skin off my parents’ backs to drop a few dollars on some little something or other.

As we returned to the U.S. on foot across the bridge over the Rio Grande River, on the riverbank of the Mexican side were children my age begging for money, sticking their hands through the chain link fence that enclosed the bridge. And as the bank sloped and the height distance grew, they would prop against the fence bottomed-out milk jugs fastened to long wooden poles into which we could toss quarters as we passed.

I begged my mother for quarters in much the same way I had only just begged for a brightly colored jewelry box or another strand of paletón de cajeta quemada, the goat’s milk lollipops that I loved. In this negligible act of charity I found some fun, like a queen in a carriage tossing gold coins to the people of my kingdom, and just like that it was easy for me to separate myself from them.


In the most superficial ways, the Valley is clearly an embodiment of Mexican culture. There’s the food — tacos and enchiladas suizas and menudo and fideo and fajitas and gorditas and on and on, with cheese on top, and not just for special occasions, no “I feel like Mexican food tonight,” because it’s on the menu every night. Then, the music — reggaeton at the school dances, mariachi bands that played at Christmas and Easter Mass, and Tejano bands at every wedding and quinceañera reception (and there were many). And the Mass itself —  I learned very quickly that processions up to the crucifix to kiss Jesus’ feet weren’t a thing that happened in any Midwestern Catholic churches.

And while Valley people will cling to some of these traditions — which is actually a word that is rarely invoked in the Valley because a thing isn’t special enough to be called a tradition when it’s woven so seamlessly into everyday life — other traditions fall into the category of being extraordinarily and disdainfully Mexican.

Yes, as I understood it growing up, there were Mexicans and there were Mexicans. It wasn’t like I was sat down and explained the differences between the two. Indeed, this latter category is a nebulous one that is perceived more through a racist sixth sense acquired only by being raised in and around it: Mexicans let their kids run around barefoot at the grocery store; Mexicans go to a curandera instead of the doctor; Mexicans don’t have health insurance; Mexicans will crash into you on purpose and make it look like it’s your fault — “that’s how they get you.” A sampling of their invocation in everyday speech would look like: Dude, that’s super Mexican or Don’t go to the beach this weekend because all the Mexicans will be there or All the Mexicans messed up the shirt display and now I can’t find my size.

One might be tempted to attribute the difference to class. After all, Mexicans aren’t the only ethnic group to have experienced intra-ethnic class-based tension. (The “lace curtain Irish” come to mind.) But when it comes to Mexicans, included in the italics aren’t just the lower class; there are also the “nationals” from interior Mexico who are blonde, blue-eyed and filthy rich and — the most egregious offense — expect special treatment wherever they go. They will drive or fly across the border simply to shop in our malls and are the ones we have to thank for the construction of an outlet mall just a decade ago.

No — were there a more definitive algorithm for identifying whether something or someone is Mexican or Mexican, it could be more easily argued against. Instead, when I find myself correcting a disparaging remark about Mexicans, reminding the offender that they too are Mexican, it is not uncommon to hear in response, “It’s not the same.”

I once asked my mother to consider a life in which she was born on that side of the river instead of this one. Her response: “But I wasn’t.”

That’s it. Case closed.

But the point is that this kind of thought experiment isn’t so far-fetched. The history of land acquisition in Texas will prove that our good fortune was simply being on the right side of the river when the borders were drawn. Living somewhere that is so geographically close to one place and imprinted by it in ways political, social and cultural, yet nationally of another, inevitably leads to confusion over identity. As I have witnessed time and again, Latinos along the border are desperate to separate themselves from the flood of Mexican immigrants who enter the U.S. both illegally and legally everyday. It is not uncommon to encounter vehement opposition to immigration reform in casual conversation with other Mexican-Americans in the Valley. That national news that so casually conflates life on both sides of the border only fuels their indignation as they point to the river and shout, “The border starts there,” and then point to the north, where the flat South Texas brush stretches endlessly into the distance, and shout again, “Not there.”

So you can start to see how when someone asks, “How could a Mexican possibly support Trump?” I know exactly how, especially when it comes to my mother, who was born and raised in another border town, Laredo. Laredo, that strange universe only three hours away, where the most celebrated occasion is George Washington’s birthday and girls both Mexican and white march in the annual commemorative parade wearing colonial dresses custom-made for thousands of dollars; where the Catholic grade school they attended severely disciplined Spanish-speaking on school property; where the popular longtime mayor, Joe C. “Pepe” Martin, was both an embodiment of ethnic ambiguity and a symbol for the social standing it could earn. Indeed, in a place where Anglo culture was put on a pedestal, to be white was to belong.

In this regard, the Valley is not unlike Laredo, so it is no wonder to me why people would want to obscure their Mexican background, even if it means the marginalization of their Mexican brothers and sisters.

But when it comes to my own relationship to my ethnicity, which I am forming here in the Midwest and not in the Rio Grande Valley, I have to reconcile the Latino I was raised to be with the Latino that I, even to my surprise, want to be.

To complicate matters, it was also the case that for all the status whiteness enjoyed in a place where being too Mexican was a punch line, trying too hard to be white was equally ridiculed. I believe it was the navigation of this in-between place that determined the headache of my life, which is that wherever I go I’m not white enough for white people, and not brown enough for brown people. If you’ve ever been called a Coconut or an Oreo, you know what I’m talking about.

The pain and exclusion of this ethnic limbo didn’t reveal itself until I moved to the Midwest and erroneously tried to compensate for the fact that the kind of Mexican that was celebrated in the Valley, the kind I was with my porcelain skin and Anglicized tongue, had little street cred everywhere else.

A few years ago, I was working in Chicago for an arts and humanities organization. We had just hired a new PR manager, Carlos, who had relocated from San Jose, California. I liked Carlos right away, which resulted, unfortunately, in him becoming the subject of my shit-giving, a family tradition reserved for only those we love. What it meant for Carlos was that I teased him about being Mexican. A lot. I pointed to a framed photo of Central American children hanging above his desk, a photo that was part of some charitable campaign, and asked if they were his cousins. I joked about words that he might not know the meaning of, English being his second language (it wasn’t). Because he was a nice guy he laughed them off and I was none the wiser.

Two years later, Carlos and I had become close friends. We attended each other’s birthdays, talked about our relationships and our families. So, it surprised me when, over lunch, he finally admitted to me that my jokes had deeply offended him.

“Yeah, Mals, some of the things you said were really messed up. I was like ‘Who is this girl who thinks she can talk to me like this?’”

Who was I? I was someone who thought that humor would assist my entrance into both white and brown communities. As an outsider among whites, I could invoke my special Mexican status and tell the offensive jokes that they couldn’t, insisting, “I can say that!” Among Mexicans, it became “We can say that!” But years later, when Carlos called me out, it was the first time I was told that being Mexican didn’t make the jokes okay.

Generations of racial tension along the South Texas border were brought to bear in this sobering moment in which I realized the dark, self-denying place within me that had both made and rationalized these jokes. I had never felt less deserving of my status as a Mexican-American.

What followed was a self-imposed education in Latino identity, a penance of sorts, helped along by Carlos, who was my new passport into the Latino community in Chicago. I hung out with his Latino friends, went to Latino arts events, read Gloria Anzaldúa’s "Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza," and revisited Sandra Cisneros, who I had practically disowned after 12 years of public school education during which her "Mango Street" stories had been shoved down our throats while I silently screamed, “This isn’t my life! I’m not this Mexican!” Even if it felt a bit forced sometimes, I was still proud of the way I was embracing an identity that I had silenced for so long.

And then this past July, a Valley friend observed, “You’ve gotten really Mexican since you moved to Chicago.”

Of course, some things are easier from where I sit, almost fifteen hundred miles away from my hometown, in Columbus, Ohio. I’m a drop of brown in a vanilla town. I feel special everywhere I go, the shiny statistic that’s put on display when the word “diversity” comes up. I’m a capital M-Minority. Of course I’d want to cultivate that. Accentuate it, even.

It’s almost counterintuitive. One would think being Mexican would be easier in closer proximity to the motherland, but it’s not uncommon for the child to feel embarrassed by its mother, deny her, claim “She’s no mother of mine.”

When I weigh the pieces of my identity, I arrive at the conclusion that I am as much a product of Texas as of Mexico and as much of the Valley as of the Midwest. And perhaps it is because I feel most deeply that I am my mother’s daughter that for the model of womanhood my mother made her out to be, I might as well be Hillary’s daughter, too.

So, I guess you could say that right now I feel torn between all of my mothers. And to make matters worse, one of those mothers wants to vote for Donald Trump. It is tempting to attribute her decision to some kind of diabolical Trumpian manipulation that exploited the complicated identity politics of Mexican-Americans living along the border. And perhaps it is, in part. But to leave it at that alone would deny the very real, very complex circumstances of border living. I know that they’re real because I’ve both witnessed and experienced them first-hand. I’ve leaned into them, and struggled against them. And as hard as I work to contextualize the world I was raised in by educating myself, by being open to a different, more Mexican version of me, and finally, by leaving, I’d be lying if I said my old prejudices didn’t creep in every once in a while. In short, it’s not difficult for me to imagine an alternate universe in which home was still the Valley; in which I stayed behind and sank deeper into the ambivalence of my Latino identity; and in which I too was voting for Trump.

By Mallory Laurel

Mallory Laurel is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. Her fiction and nonfiction examine where place and identity intersect and are inspired by her experiences living in South Texas, Chicago, New York and Japan.

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