Read more of our new series on American mythology, Rewriting the West.
You were born into a dream. This dream was not of your making, but it assigned your place in the world. The quality of your education and healthcare, your wages, and even where you live are the workings of this dream. This dream will exist as long as you believe it to be true. It is the common paradigm, accepted by everyone, including you. It defines the way things ought to be.
Dream-makers wield the power, but freedom comes to those who wake.
The parade in San Antonio glides along the river that snakes through downtown, the floats propelled by the spirit of warfare. Families and young couples crowd along the parade route, where kids and more kids laugh and play. And there are flowers everywhere. Flowers braided into long dark hair, crowns of pastel blooms festooned with long ribbons framing perfectly made-up faces. Flowers that honor the men who fought Mexicans at the Alamo, and defeated them at the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836. The women who adorn themselves with the flowers are Latinas, daughters to great-great-great-great-granddaughters of Mexicans.
The river parade is a feature in the 11-day city-wide extravaganza in April, known as Fiesta, which dates back to 1891. To witness Fiesta erupt in the nation’s seventh largest city is to behold a force that is uniquely local and unifying. It is beer and gorditas and big sombreros. It’s Christmas in springtime meets New Orleans Mardi Gras, with more modesty and less glam.
I turn to my uncle, a longtime San Antonio resident, who holds a drink in one hand while he dances around. I ask why Latinos celebrate the battles that have been used to demonize Mexicans. The 1835 insurgency against the ruling Mexican government resulted in the short-lived Republic of Texas. But, in its mythological retelling—which is still woven into public-school history lessons and popular culture—the Mexican victory at the Alamo represented cruelty and savagery, while Mexico’s ultimate defeat at San Jacinto cemented an image of inferiority. Without missing a beat, my elderly uncle says matter-of-factly, “The Anglos are celebrating they won. The Mexicans are celebrating that we’re still here.”
The lynchings were so severe, so widespread, that the New York Times reported in 1922 that “the killing of Mexicans without provocation is so common as to pass almost unnoticed.” With the arrival of the Anglos in South Texas in the late 19th century came violence, Jim Crow laws, and repression of Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Local law enforcement officials, Texas Rangers, and vigilantes—Anglo men—were known to shoot Mexican American men dead without provocation. The killings numbered in the thousands. To the outside world, much of the violence was justified in the name of border security and fighting “bandits.” Criminality on the newly formed borderlands did exist, but this campaign of violence was integral to the efforts by newcomers to seize land and impose a new power structure.
The insurgency against Mexico ended in 1838, and a treaty was reached in the U.S.-Mexico War in 1848. But, in the years that followed, a Texas genesis story—promoted by the wealthy elite—took root, shaping the state’s culture and the very notion of Texan identity. The Alamo became a “master symbol,” writes Richard Flores in Remembering the Alamo. Its cultural memory “slotted Mexicans and Anglos into an emerging social order.”
From that social order, based on a distortion of history that defines the present and determines the future, a dream was born. This dream transformed racial violence into law and order, and gave a blatant power grab the veneer of “taming the frontier.” This dream made whites the natural inheritors of Texas; it framed a white majority as a matter not merely of numbers, but of culture, custom, and mindset. Inside this dream, brutality and segregation were necessary to produce a Latino underclass and ensure the prosperity of whites. The machinations of those working to cement the new social order were obscured by narratives of Texas freedom—narratives tailor-made for non-elite whites, in order to quell class grumblings. Like a dream, it seemed real to anyone unaware of waking life.
Whatever transformation was not accomplished through violence and segregation happened through simple neglect and erasure. Consider that “Mexican” was not added as a category to the U.S. Census until 1930, and then only in response to racist sentiment. Meanwhile, Mexican Americans were excluded from the voting process by the creation of all-white primaries and poll taxes. Local businesses outfitted their storefronts with signs that read, “No Dogs, No Negros, No Mexicans.” Bathroom signs read “Colored Men” and “Hombres Aquí.”
When the desegregation case Hernandez v. Texas reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, Justice Felix Frankfurter—evidently searching for a point of reference—asked the attorneys: “They call them greasers down there, don’t they?” Are they citizens, asked the justices in the case that established Latinos as a protected class under the 14th Amendment, or are they assimilated? Gus Garcia, the lead attorney for the plaintiff—who was challenging the all-white jury that decided his case—shot back with a dose of unfiltered Texas history by taking aim at a “hero” from the battle at San Jacinto, who was himself a transplant from the U.S. South. “If there is any assimilating to be done,” Garcia said, “it seems to me the other people have to do it. After all, General Sam Houston was nothing but a wetback from Tennessee.”
Many civil rights battles were waged on political and legal fronts to dismantle barriers to inclusion. But culture and identity, more resistant to change, are the codes we live by. To this day, in parts of Texas, racial terms echo the 19th century. Mexican is still used over Latinos, even when ancestral ties to the Texas pre-date the Alamo. Whites are still Anglos or gringos, which means foreigners—a reminder of who arrived first.
Nearly two centuries after the battle at the Alamo, Texas is confronting another critical moment in its narrative. Whites no longer dominate numerically, and now represent 42 percent of the population, while Latinos, Blacks, Asians and Native Americans together are the majority. In the nation’s second-most-populous state, Latinos are expected to represent the largest demographic group by 2022. The way that Texas responds to this new demographic change will come down to whose perspective is centered: who is included in the definition of “us.” This is not just a philosophical question, not just an abstract idea about belonging. From that center, political priorities are set, the deserving and undeserving are anointed, and the future of Texas is charted.
If the dominant paradigm is left unchanged, demographic shifts in Texas could amount to a state that resembles Fiesta: a dream world that conceals pervasive segregation and inequality. The Latino masses are presided over by a Fiesta king; King Antonio has been historically represented by a white man, while a Rey Feo, an “ugly king,” represented the city’s Latino majority. Tellingly, with time, power overtook demographics and both kings were represented by white men—the wealthy class—with candidates for Rey Feo competing for the crown by tapping their networks to raise scholarship money for the working-class masses.
While it appears to be a celebration of “diversity,” said, Rogelio Saenz, dean of the College of Public Policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Fiesta is actually an entrenchment of the status quo, “making sure that business has been as it has always been and there will be no changes, that there’s no kind of rocking of the boat.”
The dream has prevented you from realizing that you belong to the majority. But numbers do not mean power. In the dream, you are not the center, the hero. You are the landscape that exists in relation to the protagonist.
I noticed the contours of the dream at a bar in Marfa, out in West Texas, while talking with the son of a Mexican immigrant about the workings of white supremacy in the “making of the West.” He tried to quiet me by saying, in a lowered voice so none of the white people around us can hear, “They’re still in charge.” It was the uncontested edges of this dream that I encountered one day while pumping gas in Austin. The radio was on, and two DJs began joking about a supermarket selling delicacies including cow head and tongue. It occurred to me that they were talking about meats that I grew up eating—the people they were referring to at that grocery store were working-class Latinos. In the dream, the minority is subject to ridicule.
It was while listening to the car radio that Camille Vargas realized that the dream had its grip on those closest to her. Camille, who is 26 years old, listens to her music loud, and the radio dial is often tuned to one of the Spanish-language stations in Austin. One day, she turned the ignition and the speakers rattled with the sound of her music. Camille’s boyfriend started to dance in his seat. He was white, and her first love. The sight of him dancing was a moment loaded with deep meaning. “To have this fleeting feeling that this identity is going to be accepted by this person,” she said inhaling quickly. Then, came reality. “He was doing this goofy dance, like it was a joke,” making fun of the music she loved. With his body, he communicated a familiar and painful message: This is not the place for your music, and that’s not the part of you that I’m interested in.
In Austin, her bosses employed Latinos while demonstrating no compunction about expressing support for the Trump administration, which has repeatedly vilified Latinos and promoted anti-immigrant policies. “It’s a slap in the face for me,” she said. If she belonged to a burgeoning majority, or even a sizable population, Camille doesn’t feel it. “It is this dreamland,” she said, one where her identity and culture is fetishized and playfully denigrated, even as the locals revel in Latino culture—tacos! margaritas! Like her boyfriend’s dancing, the dream seems to say, Be Latina, but our idea of Latina.
To belong to a minority group is to be reminded from the cradle to the grave that yours is a subjective experience relative to the majority. The minority exists within a social context—constructed through violence and discriminatory policies with the complicity of media and culture-makers—defined by the dominant group that occupies the center and refers to anything in its orbit as diversity. Belonging to the majority means enjoying the luxury of rarely being made aware the dream world even exists.
If demographics is a numbers story, then in Texas that story is one of inequity and segregation. Minority versus majority means a median household income of $70,000 for whites and $42-44,000 for Blacks and Latinos. It means that 93 percent of whites earn a high school diploma compared with 63 percent of Latinos and 87 percent of Blacks. Anxieties among whites over their waning demographic advantage tend not to take into account state figures that show 38.6 percent of whites earn a college degree, versus 24.2 percent of Blacks and 14.5 percent of Latinos. Texas’s demographic reality also stops short of the statehouse, where 2 of every 3 lawmakers, is white, mostly male.
“We live in a modern-day apartheid,” said Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez, executive director of a civic leadership group called the Jolt Initiative, and an emerging voice in the Texas political landscape. “Latinos make up 40 percent [of the population], but you wouldn’t know that by reading the newspaper and looking at who is in power.”
But there are signs that the dream world is increasingly becoming contested territory. In July 2017, the all-girl Latinx DJ collective Chulita Vinyl Club, or CVC, was hired to play the soft opening of a new bar, Upstairs at Caroline. The group played their regular mix of funk, Motown, and R&B. For their last set, they switched to the hip-shaking cumbias of legendary musician Fito Olivares. They were soon approached by a club representative who requested that they pack up and stop spinning, saying their music did not go with the club vibe—it was a downer. The club manager later issued an apology, saying the situation was mishandled.
In the moment, the Chulitas got the message and, armed with a phone camera, they posted a video of the confrontation, which ricocheted across the internet, eventually attracting media coverage. The incident, familiar to generations of Latinos who were told theirs was foreign culture, sparked a reaction by the Chulitas that reflected that a generational intolerance to de-centering their identity. They fired back with their own message, denouncing “the commodification and objectification of elements of our culture, while at the same time not accepting our culture or welcoming its community.”
“We stayed in trucha (on alert),” said Claudia Saenz, the founder of CVC, which now counts 55 Chulitas living in California and Texas as part of the collective. “As women, and as women of color, we feel like we are alone when the country is almost going backward in time.”
Claudia landed in Austin in 2014, and two years later put call out for female DJs, would-be Chulitas, an affectionate term for beautiful. “Austin can be very whitewashed,” she said. “I felt, why is my identity only known to myself? Why do I have to leave [my records] at home because it’s not Tejano night?”
Like Camille, Claudia had received the message there were parts of her identity that had to stay home. And she rejected it. “We want to be accepted by the community that we are serving,” she said. That community includes people from all backgrounds.
Camille broke up with her boyfriend and quit her job with the Trump supporters—a dicey proposition for someone with a working-class background and without a safety net. But, she said, if there are parts of herself that are a “separate piece that has to be explained it, can also be hidden, turned off, or it can feel like it can be taken away.”
This is a sensibility found among many millennials, part of a larger phenomenon that has been observed by activists and researchers that could potentially shift the political and cultural landscape in a powerful way, akin to what their Baby Boomer grandparents brought on the scene.
Many of these activists happen to be women, but their experiences are not limited to the female purview per se. “There’s not one reality anymore,” said Crystal Zermeño, director of political strategy for the Texas Organizing Project. “We have seen in millennials, and we talk about it as women of color—wow, it’s the confidence.” It’s mindset over numbers, a sense of entitlement often concealed from people trained to believe they orbit the center.
Perhaps this sensibility is actually youthful exuberance, bursting through before the accommodation and sacrifices that jobs, success, and even survival often demand. On the eve of the 2018 midterm elections, I met Gabriela Garza, a student activist with Jolt at The University of Texas at Austin. As I watched her lead a multi-racial group of students through workshop on the candidates’ policy positions, it occurred to me that they don’t see an out there, a “mainstream” apart. “I’m not trying to convert someone who is not in the same field of vision. I’m not trying to convince far right wing,” Gabriela later told me. “I’m [addressing] people who look like me.” Like her peers, she claims the center for her experience, which has long been synonymous with less-than. “We’re post-hope,” said Gabriela, before adding, “Welcome to the future.”
Dream-makers confuse the dream for reality. They believe facts will free them from dreams when, in fact, their facts are used for dream-making. Look closely, and you will see that the dream is a narrative contained and protected by an echo chamber that bears the imprimatur of legitimacy. But, there are dream-breakers among you.
The most obvious sign of changing demographics is the ongoing battle over the chronicling of reality. Last year, after a U.S. Border Patrol agent shot and killed Claudia Patricia Gómez Gonzáles, a Guatemalan immigrant, artists posted collages on Instagram of Gómez depicted as a saint . After migrant children, including Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin, died while in Border Patrol custody, they were rendered as saints by the artist La Ofrendas. The images were later reposted widely.
At the end of the year, The Dallas Morning News named agents of the U.S. Border Patrol, collectively, as a finalist for Texan of the Year, citing “their dedication not only [to] securing the border, but also [to] saving the lives of vulnerable migrants.”
A military deployment to the border is framed in news reports as a border security measure at best, or a stunt at worst. The sight of troops unfurling concertina wire in a Latino-majority Democratic stronghold is criticized as an intimidation effort, nothing more. News reports have described the president’s demand for a border wall as a border security and campaign issue. But the wall has come to symbolize a racist ideology, with the fiercest opposition, according to one poll, found among Blacks. The government takeover of Latino-owned land and destruction of natural habitat for the wall represents, to many, the latest chapter of racial violence cloaked by border security.
Such parallel narratives are most evident, and, in part, made possible through social media, which offers a window into political realities beyond the dream. Social media engagement by Blacks and Latinos across most platforms exceeds that of other racial groups, according to the Pew Center. “These kids—their access to other kinds of narratives is different than anyone who came before them,” said Sara Inés Calderón, a technologist, former journalist, and activist. “Social media as a conduit to an alternative reality is really potent.”
After the 2016 election campaign season, which was characterized by the demonization of Mexicans and the border as a political weapon, Dani Marrero Hi launched the online progressive news source NetaRGV in the borderlands of the Rio Grande Valley. Neta set out to redraw the border narrative based on local experience.
“When people think about the Valley, they think about Border Patrol and immigration,” said Marrero Hi. “We wanted to look at how we view ourselves, and how does that impact our personal and professional goals.” This has resulted in features about Hot Cheeto pizza, a social calendar with a listing for a UFO conference, and a Get Out the Vote video that features a woman selling paletas (popsicles). Asylum seekers aren’t covered as “them” desperate for local charity. “The way we perceive our help is not charity,” Marrero Hi said. “It’s not this helpless person, without agency.” With the redefinition of the situation, comes a rethinking of reality.
“We need to re-narrate what’s going on,” said Ian Haney Lopez, professor of public law at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s going to be Latino millennials who are going to lead that story, that moves away from assimilationist story to say, we are human, we are deserving, we firmly believe in the human dignity of ourselves, and that’s how we create the good society.”
But they are not alone. In September 2018, a white female police shot and killed Botham Jean, a Black man from St. Lucia, after she entered his apartment. She later told police she mistook his door for hers. A police report that indicated marijuana had been found in Botham’s house was released by police on the day of his vigil, and the local newspapers promptly reported on it.
Local activists responded by protesting in front of the newsroom of the Dallas Morning News, objecting to what they said was complicity with the questionable timing of the police report and, more importantly, a seeming blind faith in the police account of an investigation into one of their own.
In a meeting with community activists that was beamed out on Facebook Live, newspaper editor Mike Wilson stated that a journalist’s job was to present the facts. Rev. Frederick Haynes III countered that often, facts are assembled in the service of the dream. ““Even if the facts are there, the narration will give birth to an interpretation that will be skewed and often informed by racism,” he said. “That is the history that we are up against.”
Wilson responded by acknowledging past expressions of racism in journalism, seemingly missing Rev. Haynes’ attempt to draw attention to the larger issue: an uncontested belief system, the unexamined dream world.
Wilson declined a request for comment, saying in an email that he needed to focus on his newsroom. While I was trying to reach him, 20 people were laid off from the newsroom, in addition to other layoffs.
But Rev. Haynes’s analysis was later echoed in a short-term assessment of the coverage in the Dallas Morning News, conducted by two scholars who found that news coverage focused primarily on whites, mostly males. Instead, of reflecting the world around them, publications reflect themselves. In Texas, the demographics of the news media mirror those of the political sphere, meaning that state news is dominated by white journalists. In major Texas cities, including San Antonio and Houston—the most diverse city in the nation—whites make up roughly 70 percent of newsroom staff, according to the American Society of News Editors. Among statewide news outlets, whites account for 73 percent of the newsroom staff at the Texas Tribune, and at the Texas Observer—where I was once a columnist—the newsroom is 82 percent white.
“It’s not just who is telling the story, but from what perspective is it being told,” said Tracy Everbach, a journalism professor at the University of North Texas, who conducted the analysis of Dallas Morning News coverage. “You have can have a Latinx telling the story that upholds white male power structure.”
Confronting a central narrative created by the status quo means rethinking whether certain facts illuminate reality, or whether they perpetuate narrow impressions. Does the fact that roughly one-half of Latinx youth in Texas have an immigrant parent, according to an analysis by scholar Manuel Pastor, change the meaning of the demographic story, and the reckoning with the dream?
After I completed the reporting for this piece, I realized that most of the sources, coincidentally, were the children of immigrants. They were selected because of their civic work and reflections. Does that fact make this story an immigrant story? Would we be asking such questions if they were not Latino?
The dream thrives in your silence. Your accommodation, and at times complicity, has allowed the dream to fester. But it is not your fault. You did it to survive. Now your survival depends on speaking the dream into submission.
Not everyone sees a racially stratified world. Josue Gonzalez, a former Marine and security analyst for the company Triple Canopy, bristled at the suggestion. Racism, he told me, was not something he had experienced, even during his tour in the military, when he was among “hardcore Southern military people.”
Josue was one of the likely Texas voters featured in a town hall debate organized by Vice Media, Inc. in advance of the midterm elections. When the conversation turned to illegal immigration, Josue said he opposed as a pathway to citizenship. Criminality should come with consequences, he said. When asked where his parents were from, he said Mexico and, after some deflection, speculated that they had likely crossed illegally. The white people were incredulous.
We later spoke by telephone. Josue said that in his hometown in Grand Prairie, a Dallas suburb, he listened to Mexican music, his friends were all Latino (albeit mostly Democrats), and he is proud of his Mexican culture. But one detail about his television appearance caught my attention. Josue said that, after the show, a number of white people had contacted him and invited him to their gatherings. He took that as a show of acceptance, a refuting of the claims of racism in the state, particularly among conservatives.
His attempt to extrapolate one from the other—that by accepting him as a Latino, others were absolved of racism—overlooked that his acceptance was predicated on his position. It assumed acceptance equaled justice and equality. It reminded me of the men reenacting the uprising that made the Alamo famous. I asked the reenactors if their recreated battles reinforced an image of Mexicans as an enemy, as bad. The response I often heard was that Mexicans were not the bad guys. Some had fought for their cause. Siding with the cause is the cost of admission.
“It’s not about keeping whites in power,” said Josue. “It’s about my views. It’s always about views.”
For people long deemed unacceptable, mongrel, and foreign, acceptance promised an end to the brutality on the border: the lynching, the humiliation. Acceptance was survival. A few months ago, while I browsed the stacks at the Benson Latin American collection at the University of Texas at Austin, I came across an oversized bound text, written in 1970 by sociologist Ellwyn R. Stoddard and titled Mexican Americans: In Search of a New Identity. Stoddard begins by offering a description of the prevailing climate in Texas that included messages tailored to his readers.
To the Mexican American reader, he wrote, “You have patiently waited to be accepted as an equal by other Americans. You are still waiting. You may have some waiting yet to be done.”
To the Anglos, he wrote, “These young Mexican Americans are now beginning to question the worth of their parents’ decision to accommodate, and to question the price of accepting conventional tokens of Anglo friendship and concern as a ‘second class citizen.’ You still have time to seize the initiative and rectify past mistakes. It is late afternoon of ‘the day of the Anglo.’”
In Texas, the price of acceptance has been silence. The silencing of Spanish spoken in public. The immigrant son who attempted to silence me in West Texas. The Walmart employee in Houston who laid down the rules to a Salvadoran by admonishing him for speaking Spanish, saying, “We’re in Texas.”
“It’s hard not to buy into whiteness when your romantic and professional future is contingent upon whiteness. I can’t blame someone who lives in a world that is telling them that if you’re Mexican, you’re not as good as me,” said Sara Inés Calderón, who reported on Texas for years. Getting by in a state with entrenched inequality, she said, often means keeping your head down and your mouth shut. “It’s like a Texas is a fucking hacienda and we are the peons.”
For decades, civil rights struggles in Texas were aimed at dismantling barriers to entry, by attacking the walls constructed around the center politically and through the legal system. To some, that demanded an assimilationist route, which amounted to a concession that functioned to preserve the prevailing social order: the dream.
Here, I think it’s important to acknowledge civil rights efforts. “Every time you plead for admission, you reaffirm your own exclusion,” said Ian Haney Lopez. “If you don’t name what the club is, [because] you aren’t challenging the nature and functioning of the club, you are reinforcing it.”
Accommodation of the white point of view has come at a cost, and jeopardized the future of the state. For decades, Steve Murdock, the former state demographer and later director of U.S. Census, has warned that the growth of the Black, Latino, and Native American population, coupled with “historical, discriminatory and other factors,” had set the state on a course to become less-educated and poorer.
A 2014 review in Texas Monthly magazine of the book Changing Texas: Implications of Addressing or Ignoring the Texas Challenge—which Murdock co-authored—asserted that “Our entire state has, in effect, thrown a high-growth party with low-wage Hispanic labor, and with very little reciprocal thought for the welfare of those workers and their children. After all, they were always ‘them.’”
For its own survival, Texas will have to confront and dismantle a well-entrenched social order. This isn’t simply a matter of policy with racial equity written in. It is an existential reckoning. It’s one already underway, among millennials and people of all ages. A few years ago, at a wedding for my cousin, someone told his grandmother—who was pushing 90—that his bride’s grandparents did not speak Spanish. His grandmother, my father’s sister, rose from the table at the reception and made her way over to the monolingual grandparents. Without any introduction, she asked: “Así que, no hablen español?” (So, you don’t speak Spanish?)
They started chatting in English, and soon became—as we say in Texas—friendly. Perhaps her brazenness could be attributed to old age. But in her gesture, I saw a proud woman affirming her place in the center.
If you look closely, you will see the cracks in the dream. Freedom is not given by invitation. You have to look for the signs and follow them out. Imagine what life might be beyond the dream world. Imagine who you might be.
I expected Lina Hidalgo to tell me that a childhood spent in Peru and Mexico, rather on a grade-school pilgrimage to the Alamo, influenced her decision to launch a long-shot bid for public office in Texas. Perhaps, I speculated, her immigrant background—Hidalgo was born in Colombia—had spared her the dream world, making a campaign for a judgeship in Harris County, which covers Houston, seem within the realm of possibility.
Two days after she was sworn into office, I spoke with Judge Hidalgo by telephone. It became clear that she possesses a worldview that replaces mythical notions of individualism with a conviction centered on collective effort. A life experience marked by fleeing the violence of Colombia, and emigrating to countries undergoing internal strife, has imparted a deep understanding of the dangers of divisiveness. She believes that communities pitted against each other jeopardize civic resilience, and democracy itself. As a result, she ran for a judgeship presiding over four commissioners, in a county court that responsible for a $4.36-billion budget, in an area with a population larger than 26 states.
But in the 2018 midterm election season, Hidalgo was described in terms of demographics: young (she’s 27 years old), Latina, immigrant, and Ivy-league-educated. She ran a grass-roots campaign with strong backing from groups like the Texas Organizing Project, and buoyed by an infusion of enthusiasm for the candidate at the top of the Democratic Party ticket, Rep. Beto O’Rourke. The detail in her campaign—and possibly even her victory—that could shake up the entrenched political culture was her confidence. “Lina Hidalgo didn’t ask,” said James Aldrete, a Democratic consultant. She went it alone, he said, without the party establishment—and, at the beginning, without much money. “I think the paradigm is shifting. The sense of what it takes to create a power structure is changing.”
Hidalgo distinguished herself from her opponent by promoting a vision for public office that was less managerial and more about fundamental values: reforming a bail system that makes jail time contingent on wealth, and addressing issues of equity and transparency. After taking office, she launched a public-outreach program to collect ideas and concerns for county spending from the community, while working increase civic involvement in a powerful governmental body known for its midday meetings, when most folks are working. “You don’t need diversity in government for the sake of diversity,” she said. “It’s for making sure that government is working for every person in the community.”
By aggressively courting long-neglected Latinos and youth and expanding voter inclusion, O’Rourke came within two percentage points of unseating Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2018. Groups such as Jolt and Texas Organizing Project, along with others, dispatched volunteers in cities and towns to knock on doors: an aggressive voter mobilization campaign in areas long given up as hopeless by the political establishment. For the first time in 25 years, candidates running on the Democratic Party ticket were on the ballot in every race, making these races actually competitive.
Despite the relentless drumbeat of “Red State Texas,” the youth vote increased by over 500 percent in early voting. Overall, according to Latino Decision, voter turnout doubled in areas with a high Latino population. Signs of a dream defied. They turned out despite the barrage of messages about disaffected youth and apathetic Latinos, which carried the whiff of the old stereotype: Mexicans are lazy. They turned out despite one of the toughest voter I.D. laws in the country, despite gerrymandered districts that civic groups and at least one judge said diluted power. They turned out after decades of political parties demonized them and their parents, or simply wrote them off as too desperate to turn elsewhere. Most importantly, their turnout represented a rejection of the dream. With their vote they seized the center.
Even Republicans admit that Texas is now a competitive state. Three months after the election, state officials sounded the alarm, alleging that some 95,000 non-citizens, ineligible to vote, had cast ballots. Days later, the so-called voter fraud crisis was exposed as extremely faulty and inaccurate, after thousands were investigated and cleared. Some might say, it represented the dream biting back.
In mid-January 2019, thousands of people gathered in San Antonio. Not downtown, but two miles west of the Alamo, in the city’s working-class West Side. Trumpets of mariachis blared across the plaza, before dissolving into the party-sound of hip-swaying cumbias and, finally, the obligatory tribute to the late queen of Tejano music, Selena. Carmen Lidia, a millennial college student and the daughter of an immigrant, told me about the need to change destiny by changing conversation. Local activist Rosie Castro told the crowd, “the cornerstone of prosperity and opportunity has always been community.”
In the 1920s, Castro’s grandmother had arrived in San Antonio from Mexico, an orphaned child. She had crossed a border that was still smoldering with violence, and settled in a city where Mexican Americans were barred from nearly every aspect of democratic life. Rosie became a civil-rights activist and ran for city council in 1971—when Latinos were shut out of politics, neglected by city services, and barred from certain jobs—under the civil-rights banner of Committee for Barrio Betterment.
On that cool winter day in Texas, Rosie took the stage to present her son, Julián Castro. Countless Latina mothers have presented their sons and daughters to the natio, by turning them over to the military, in a long tradition established after the lynching and massacres that represented sacrificing the body in an effort to claim full citizenship. When Rosie turned her son over, she did so by defining where he belonged: “A son of San Antonio, a son of Texas, the great state of Texas, and a son of the West Side, a son of this country.”
Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio and cabinet member during the Obama Administration, delivered a political speech on health care for all and equitable education. His platform was embedded within the retelling of a family’s history that chronicled the story of Texas in the 20th century. And then Castro announced —in English and in Spanish—his candidacy for President of the United States.
I have told you about the dream, its origins and reach, so that one day you will know freedom. I have addressed you directly, because I know you. You are Latinx, millennial, Black, Native American, Asian, and white. Because you, too, are imprisoned in the dream.
But you were not the person I spoke to in my mind as I wrote this. Years of conditioning as a writer has installed in my mind the white observer who sits in judgment, skeptical and often dismissive of hints of anything that exists beyond the dream world. My words were drafted in anticipation of their judgment, their likely evaluation of facts and the strength of my analysis. And I have been torn: struggling between interpreting for the dream world, and imagining setting down the words that open to freedom.
I know my freedom, like yours, comes from unshackling myself from the dream.
This piece is made possible by a generous grant from the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University and the Open Society Foundation.