The possibility of "selective" enforcement is in the back of many Latinos' minds
By Jim Estrada, Special to NILP
Publisher's Note: This essay was excerpted from Jim Estrada's soon-to-be-published book, The ABCs & Ñ of America's Cultural Evolution.
Proponents of "enforcement first" immigration reform say, "If you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear!" Let me remind the "law and order" types that since the end of the Mexican American War in 1848, the U.S. Latino community has experienced abuse and brutality at the hands of law enforcement officers and have been denied due process by the criminal justice system. Granted, Latinos have had their of share of criminals, but there has been a marked difference in how law enforcement officials have historically meted out their versions of "protect and serve" when it comes to Latinos.
The possibility of "selective" enforcement - in the form of current anti-immigration laws - is in the back of many Latinos' minds. Those attitudes are based on personal experiences with prejudice and discrimination at the hands of U.S. police and legal and criminal justice systems. Many activists and members of the Latino community say they (or someone they know) have encountered violations of their civil rights with unwarranted search and seizure, brutality, disrespect and profiling practices due to being Latino.
For many years, relations between Latinos and law enforcement agencies suffered because of the distrust that existed between the two groups: white European Americans and Latinos. Much of the apprehension on the part of Latinos stems from accounts beginning with the Mexican-American War, when border states' police and sheriffs were used as tools for moneyed interests to enforce property evictions and perform acts of terrorism to have Mexican American property owners abandon their homes and properties, allowing for them to be acquired by unscrupulous individuals.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican American War in 1848, ceded large portions of what is now the Southwest to the U.S. in return for $15 million and relief from debt. The treaty was supposed to protect the existing civil rights and land claims of Mexican citizens and provide full U.S. American citizenship to those who stayed in the newly ceded territories. However, the U.S. Senate's ratification of the treaty deleted those guaranteed land rights and citizenship; opening the door for U.S. lawmen and businessmen to run rampant over Mexican Americans and their holdings.
The Texas Rangers
One of those law enforcement groups was the Texas Rangers. Accounts of atrocities committed by Texas Rangers (a.k.a. los rinches) against Tejanos and Méjicanos have been handed down by "word of mouth" for generations in a variety of forms: cuentos (folk stories), corridos (musical ballads of famed heroes and injustices), articles in Spanish-language newspapers - and most recently in film documentaries.
In the early 1900s, alleged Mexican revolutionaries plotted an uprising against white landowners in Texas that was never fully carried out. There were however raids that resulted in property theft and the deaths of some white settlers. The Texas Rangers were called in, but protection quickly turned into retaliation; the Rangers were responsible for the 1918 massacre of the entire male population (15 Mexican men and boys ranging from 16 to 72 years of age) of Porvenir, Texas in western Presidio County.
In January 1919, an investigation by the Texas Legislature found from 300 to 5,000 people, mostly of Mexican ancestry, had been killed by Rangers from 1910 to 1919, and members of the Rangers had been involved in many acts of brutality and injustice.
One such atrocity led to the 1975 production of a documentary film, "Border Bandits." It focused on Roland Warnock, then a 19-year-old working at the McAllen Ranch in South Texas. In 1915, he witnessed a team of Texas Rangers shoot and kill 67-year-old Jesus Bazán and his son-in-law, Antonio Longoria. Warnock's recollection and ensuing investigation into the facts surrounding the murders were the subjects of the film.
Roland's grandson Kirby Warnock who remembered hearing the story when he was a child directed the documentary film. "The thought of the Texas Rangers shooting an unarmed man in the back was unbelievable - but also unthinkable," Warnock narrates his reaction to his grandfather's story. Later in the film, he comments how "most Texans" refused to believe the vaunted Texas Rangers were capable of such atrocities. The film was a counterpoint to the heroic and "larger than life" accounts of the Texas Rangers proudly promoted in white Eurocentric films, print and electronic media and Texas folklore.
While the film undermines the mythology of this "elite cadre" of lawmen by exposing their use of state-sanctioned terrorism, it uncovered the racial hierarchy of "white over brown" especially as it related to "illegal" land acquisition, forceful repression and racial discrimination. Initially, Warnock's investigation focused on the deaths of Bazán and Longoria as if the murders were an isolated incident. Their killing didn't even warrant death certificates; they were viewed as just two more dead Mexicans out of an estimated 5,000 who lost their lives during this time period - men, women, children who committed no other crime than to be "brown" in an increasingly white Texas.
According to William D. Carrigan, associate professor of history at Rowan University in New Jersey, "The Rangers responded (to these uprisings) with brutality, with assassinations, murders, lynchings and massacres." Among the numerous historical texts written about the violent period (c. 1915-1920) is Carrigan's book, "The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas."
"Thousands of Mexicans fled the region, were killed without tral, taken out of jail and executed," wrote Carrigan. "It was a terrible, bloody period of violence even defenders of Texas Rangers (write about)."
Similar stories continue into the 1960s and 1970s when Texas Rangers were called in to break up labor strikes organized by Latino civil rights activists. Such stories continue to be "salt in the wound" for some Latinos who still bristle at the mention of los rinches. Latino sentiment towards the Texas Rangers is another of the many challenges of accurately recording history in a multi-ethnic democracy.
The question remains, "When will history include the Latino side of the story?"
Turn the calendar pages forward to the early 1940s in Southern California for another example of why Latinos are wary of white Eurocentric law enforcement and justice. This episode revolved around the "Zoot Suit" riots, which was set in an environment of ethnic and racial paranoia that defined Los Angeles and Southern California in the early 1940s.
The Zoot Suit riots refers to a series of events where white U.S. servicemen were unleashed to attack, strip and beat young Mexican American males "at will" in Latino neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles - with the complicity of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and local media. The flash point leading to this vigilante-type "free for all" was an altercation between Latino youths from neighboring communities, which left one of the participants bleeding and unconscious on the street - and who later died.
The LAPD arrested 24 members of the so-called "38th Street Gang" - as the group of youths had been labeled by local white media reporters - and charged all of them with murder. The media reported on the death of a lone Mexican American as proof of a "Mexican Crime Wave."
A special grand jury was appointed by the city of Los Angeles to investigate the alleged crime wave. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department also decided to investigate and formed its own "Foreign Relations" bureau to investigate crimes committed in the county. Although the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department's staff accurately identified the discrimination occurring against the Latino community, they drew startling, racially charged conclusions.
Excerpts from the Sheriffs' report cited: "Mexican Americans are essentially Indians and therefore Orientals or Asians. Throughout history Orientals have shown less regard for human life than have the Europeans. Further, Mexican Americans had inherited their 'naturally violent' tendencies from the 'bloodthirsty Aztecs' of Mexico who were said to have practiced human sacrifice centuries ago."
In 1942, the media vilified "Zoot Suiters" to the point of portraying them as members of murderous and dangerous gangs. This demonizing pattern was well recognized by most Latinos of that era and became a theme of Hollywood movies and established stereotypes associated with Latinos that exist to this day.
Led by media portrayals, a public outcry for justice and vengeance against the Zoot Suit-wearing youths motivated the LAPD to conduct a round-up of "suspicious looking" individuals on the nights of August 10 and 11, 1942 - with the help of "unofficially deputized" white servicemen. In all, over 600 individuals were arrested on suspicion of assault and armed robbery - 175 people were held on those charges. Of those arrested during the round-up riot, every one was Latino. The Los Angeles incident triggered similar attacks against Latinos in Beaumont, TX; Chicago, IL; San Diego, San Jose and Oakland, CA; Detroit, MI; Evansville, IN; Philadelphia, PA; and New York, NY.
In October 1944, the Second District Court of Appeals reversed the murder convictions, but the seeds of distrust of law enforcement within the Latino community had been validated - once again.
Déjà vu, all over again?
Some law enforcement proponents will defend the Texas Rangers' atrocities and Los Angeles Zoot Suit riots as isolated events. On August 29, 1970, more than 20 thousand Latinos gathered in East Los Angeles to protest the war in Vietnam as well as the disproportionately high casualty rate of Latino soldiers. Among all U.S. soldiers from the Southwest, nearly 20 percent of the war casualties were Latinos - nearly twice their proportion of the U.S. population at that time.
Demonstrators also protested the denial of equal employment, housing and other civil rights to Latinos here in the U.S. A peaceful rally at Laguna Park in East Los Angeles was disrupted when 1,500 LAPD officers and sheriff's deputies attempted to disperse the marchers by shooting tear-gas canisters into the crowd. Three Latinos were killed and another 400 were arrested.
Among those who lost their lives was Los Angeles Times reporter-columnist Rúben Salazar - killed by an armor piercing tear-gas projectile fired into the Silver Dollar Café where he and others had sought shelter. Salazar had brought considerable attention to abuse of Latinos by the LAPD, which had become a target of his investigative reports. He also had repeatedly written about the higher than average Mexican-American casualty rates in the Vietnam War. As a result of his reporting and commentaries, Salazar was under investigation by the LAPD and Federal Bureau of Investigation. Due to his media popularity and recognition as a role model, his death had far-reaching consequences and led many community activists to continue their focus on police brutality and unequal justice.
Historically, Latino communities had experienced a greater share of police mistreatment and harsher penalties in the criminal justice system. Demonstrations related to law enforcement abuse and profiling were becoming commonplace in a growing number of Latino communities located in the Southwest, Northeast and Midwest.
But wait, there's more
On May 1, 2007, the LAPD again used unwarranted physical force against the Latino community. This time, law enforcement officers attempted to disperse a crowd at an immigration-rights rally. There police wielded batons and fired 240 "less-than-lethal" rounds at demonstrators and news reporters. The police actions left at least 10 people with minor injuries - including seven news reporters - and raised questions about overly aggressive tactics to disperse a largely peaceful crowd that had obtained a legal permit to stay until 9:00 p.m. The LAPD police chief labeled some of the officers' actions "inappropriate."
For these and numerous other instances, many U.S. Latinos had grown wary of law enforcement and the criminal justice systems. They wondered: "Had we not sufficiently attempted to demonstrate our civic pride, our work ethic and our patriotism? Had we not for generations given our young men's lives voluntarily to protect the ideals of a country that too often denied access to those same ideals to us and our families?"
These are only a few of many examples of the inequities visited upon Latinos by police and other law enforcement officials. The advent of community and storefront police presence - along with the diversification of sworn police personnel - has improved police-community relations in recent years; but a growing number of Latinos believe it is their involvement as taxpayers and voters that is changing attitudes and behaviors on the part of law enforcement. By gaining influence within many municipalities and local governmental units that hire police personnel, Latinos are helping to retire the notion that the traditional law enforcement mission is about protecting white people and their property from a growing "non-white" population.
The anti-immigrant legislation being enacted by states throughout the nation are reminders that Latinos are still viewed as threats by some of their white peers. As a result, we could easily be subjected to the whims of individual law enforcement personnel who cannot distinguish between an undocumented immigrant and a citizen of the United States.
Jim Estrada is a former TV journalist (KOGO-TV10), marketing (Anheuser-Busch), advertising (McDonald's), and community/public relations executive (Estrada Communications Group, Austin, TX). Estrada is the author of The ABCs & Ñ of America's Cultural Evolution. (forthcoming in late 2012). His essays can be viewed online at: http://jimestrada.posterous.com/ and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.