Tornillo, Texas is the border farm town and international crossing where the Trump administration has created a tent city for migrant children. It is one of many small historic settlements alongside the Rio Grande near my hometown of El Paso, Texas. Tornillo is also the place where many migrant families eventually settled, including my paternal grandparents, Salvador and Margarita Muñoz. After a decade of migrant farm work, my abuelos chose Tornillo to raise their children. They wanted stability after years of following the fields and seasons throughout the Southwest: California, Arizona, New Mexico.
In the Southwest desert, the extreme conditions are unrelenting. Temperatures can regularly surpass one-hundred degrees for weeks at a time. My mother often retells a family story about how her father, a vaquero, once encountered a dehydrating man strewn in the desert. He’d been there for days, his tongue a bloated and purple thing spilling out of his mouth. My mother’s family lived on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande across from Tornillo, long before any walls or fences.
Well-meaning Americans say, “This is not us.” But the America here has long been one of hate and brutality. Border patrol agents regularly destroy and vandalize jugs of water that humanitarian groups leave out for migrants and refugees. I’ve watched recordings—they empty them out and laugh as they do it. They do it because they prefer people die, their tongues bloated and purple.
Stores around here used to hang signs that read “No Negros, No Dogs, No Mexicans.” The signs are down now, but that doesn’t mean that racial tension is gone. Take a road trip through Texas. Pump gas in some of those farm towns. There’s a thinly veiled white supremacy. A controversial billboard recently erected in the Texas panhandle advises travelers that liberals should just keep driving until they leave the state. Even in Texas’s most progressive districts, landowners, elected representatives, and school boards remain overwhelmingly Anglo.
In 1917, a Juarense named Carmelita Torres was arrested along with several women, for instigating what is historically called, “The Juarez Bath Riots.” The “riots” were actually a response to the US government policy of delousing every Mexican or Central American worker who crossed the border. The process involved stripping people naked and spraying them down with cyanide-based Zyklon-B. If you stayed longer than eight days, you were deloused again. If they found lice on you, you had to bathe in kerosene and vinegar. The cyanide-based Zyklon-B was later used in Nazi Germany’s gas chambers. According to the Houston Chronicle, “In 1937, a German scientist named Gerhard Peters wrote an article for a science journal touting the effectiveness of Zyklon-B as an agent for killing unwanted pests.” That’s the brutality of our hatred in America. We gave the Nazis ideas.
I think about Carmelita a lot. She was persecuted for protesting being doused with a deadly chemical. She was protesting a cruel policy. The law of the land.
In 2017, Trump pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio, infamous for his inhumane treatment of inmates in his tent city in Maricopa County, Arizona. The heat in the desert surrounding El Paso County is surpassed by only one area in the Southwest: Death Valley. It’s area stretching up from Arizona to parts of eastern California. The president pardoned Arpaio and then chose a portrait of Andrew Jackson to hang in the Oval Office. Jackson, responsible for the Indian Removal Act of 1830, is widely known among indigenous and First Nations peoples as a sanguinary mass-murderer whose policy led to the Trail of Tears and the massacre of thousands of Natives. This is the same president who recently called children seeking asylum “not that innocent.”
Seeking asylum is not a crime in the United States, though it is being treated as a criminal act. Trump’s racism was outwardly part of his campaign platform. In his candidacy announcement video, he stated:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best; they’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
He flaunted his hate, and American voters overwhelmingly showed up at the polls in support.
Well-meaning activists keep advocating for the current administration to see the humanity in brown people. But government policy never has seen humanity in marginalized people. Brown women’s bodies are always on the front lines of violence. They’re experiencing it in their own communities. Women in Mexico and Central America are being kidnapped, trafficked, and murdered by the thousands. Many are fleeing narco-governments that are complicit in their abuse. Now our government is placing families in cages because it further breaks the spirit. It’s a war tactic; sadness makes the soul pliable. Just like kicking buckets of water. Denying life. Denying help. Denying humanity.
After widespread criticism of his administration’s policy of separating children from their mothers, President Trump has signed an executive order halting family separation. When previously questioned by CNN’s Jim Acosta in regard to holding refugee children and families in tent cities, White House Spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed it was Biblical to enforce these inhumane laws. Later, Jeff Sessions read Romans 13, a Bible passage Nazis also referenced to justify the Holocaust. Families in cages are still being treated inhumanely. Recall, some families were united during Japanese internment.
The issue is not only centered around refugees. Many detainees have been living and working in the United States peacefully. These are our neighbors; their children attend neighborhood schools. ICE agents regularly terrorize brown neighborhoods, instilling a culture of fear and panic. Signing an executive order to halt the separation of families is not enough.
Remember the man with the purple tongue my grandfather saw in the desert? He didn’t die. My grandfather pulled him onto his horse and took him into his own home. My grandmother and aunts nursed him back to health. They dropped water into his mouth every few hours and draped him in damp towels. My mom was a girl then, but she says she remembers how daily, the man’s tongue started getting smaller and lighter, until one morning it was tiny and somehow folded back into his mouth.
He eventually spoke, and when he did, he rose and gave us thanks and a blessing: “¡Gracias, Cheno! ¡Que Dios te lo pague!” He later left in search of his family, wearing new clothes and carrying a satchel filled with cured meats and supplies. You see, a good man doesn’t leave someone to die in the desert, and when he uses God’s name, he does it to bless, not to kill.
Feature image sourced via Creative Commons.