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Beto at the Border

Latino voters and the fight for the right’s weapon of choice

This is part three of a three-part series on the border by Michelle García. Part one can be found here, and part two can be found here.

The U.S.-Mexico border functions as a proxy for a thriving American dystopian worldview, one defined by violence and exclusion. Images of a “lawless” border, where immigrants are depicted as a looming brown menace, flash on television sets throughout the nation in the form of campaign ads for candidates who stoke political fealty through fear. And, with just a few days left before the midterm elections, the President of the United States his given this abstract fear a shot of credibility by ordering the deployment of military troops to the border, where they will await the arrival of an exodus of Central Americans fleeing violence and upheaval. The political and moral future of the nation, it has to be said, turns on the very idea of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The region is of such importance that O’Rourke told a Texas Observer reporter, “It’s everything. It’s everything.

Meanwhile, the actual border, where people work, live, and vote, will be pivotal to a midterm election outcome that may reshape the nation’s political possibilities. In the Texas Senate race, Rep. Beto O’Rourke has taken on incumbent Ted Cruz and his markedly divisive and violent politics; in doing so, he has set out to wrest one of the Republican’s most powerful political weapons and favored bones: the U.S.-Mexico border itself. Unlike the countless Democrats who have abetted the Republican demonization of the border and its insatiable demands for more border security, the El Paso representative has challenged the dominant vision of the border as a violent wasteland. At one event in the borderlands of the Rio Grande Valley O’Rourke told an enthusiastic crowd, “The U.S.-Mexico border, in so many ways for me, is the center of the universe.”

O’Rourke’s campaign has anchored his message of inclusiveness and socioeconomic justice on a vision of the border as a site of unity. And O’Rourke has bolstered his hopes for victory by courting the long-neglected Latino voters of the South Texas borderlands. The region is of such importance that O’Rourke told a Texas Observer reporter, “It’s everything. It’s everything.”

If O’Rourke succeeds at mobilizing Latinos, who along with blacks, Asians, and Native Americans represent the population majority, it could portend a wave that would put Texas’ thirty-eight electoral votes into play in the next presidential election. Without Texas, in other words, Republicans risk losing a well-worn road to the White House—let that sink in. A decisive vote in an election with national implications will depend on voter turnout in one of the most politically maligned, highly policed, and grossly underfunded regions in the country, where the president has made construction of a border wall a centerpiece of his legacy. Nor is it a coincidence that Trump plans to send thousands of troops to this region ahead of the election; it is a show of force that smacks of a repressive and violent political system, one that for decades held South Texas in a vise grip designed to control and limit Latino political participation.

Boss Politics Redux

This system of political control was often called “boss politics,” and it thrived in South Texas for more than century and well into my lifetime. In its wake, it has been rare to see candidates for the U.S. Senate appear in South Texas, midway between San Antonio and the border. But over the summer and just days apart, Cruz and O’Rourke held town hall meetings in my hometown of Alice. Cruz later turned his attention elsewhere, but O’Rourke has returned to the region numerous times, traveling through small farming counties and ranch towns that bear the names of the political bosses who once ruled the region and controlled the votes with the backing of law enforcement. My home county, Jim Wells, is named for an attorney and political boss who operated along the border and exercised power over its citizens. The prevailing racial sentiment, which guided politics into the twentieth century, is reflected in an engraved plaque honoring Wells mounted inside the county courthouse: “. . . [H]e remained a might influence for good, in the affairs of his state and nation, living to assist in the transition of this half-Mexican borderland into the splendid American wonderland today.” In this wonderland, Mexican-Americans were considered “unfit to have a vote,” writes historian and folklorist Jovita González in Life Along the Border.  

Few bosses were as notorious as Archer “Archie” Parr and his son, George B., each known during his respective reign as the Duke of Duval—in reference to Duval County, which neighbors my home town. The latter ruled until the 1970s. My father often said that when I was a toddler, I shook hands with this younger Duke. He also described the fear Parr that instilled. Parr’s outsized influence was known nationally, and it was in his fiefdom where the missing ballots that handed Lyndon B. Johnson his U.S. Senate seat were found. Like much of South Texas boss politics, the Parr machine operated through ballot tampering—selectively distributing the poll tax receipts necessary to vote—and outright brutality.

Latinos in Texas are still referred to as Mexicans and whites as Anglos.

The elder Parr, a Democratic state senator, consolidated power by appealing to whites and members of the Mexican-American elite, strategically distributing political offices and offering Mexican-Americans protection from the racist policies of the whites dominating civic and business life, often in exchange for votes.

In the current political landscape, such social engineering of race relations is reflected in those Latinos who support the GOP’s anti-immigrant politics, believing that proximity to power exempts them from underlying racism. But Latinos in Texas are still referred to as Mexicans and whites as Anglos. And the notion that acceptance can be found by siding with the Republicans’ “tough on the border” stance is undercut by the power elite itself. Evan Smith, co-founder of the Texas Tribune, recently made this plain when he told The New Yorker, “White people are scared of change, believing that what they have is being taken away from them by people they consider unworthy.”

Historically, fear has been the essential campaign tactic for those who would control the Latino vote, and, specifically, fear of the Mexican-American majority in certain counties. “For the architects of this oppression, fear is great,” said Benjamin Johnson, author of Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans Into Americans. “The more fear, the more people they can kill, the more they can run people off their property, not let them vote, not let them on juries. Intimidate them into working for the pittance. It’s the fear that lets them get away with terrible things.”

In one case, this politics of fear was deployed by the Texas Rangers, who were summoned by opponents of Parr to investigate the votes cast by Mexican-Americans in a state senate election that pitted Archie Parr against D.W. Glasscock. The Ranger’s campaign spread among the Latino population “a spirit of terrorism,” according to the lawyer acting in Parr’s defense. Mexican-American voters were told by the Rangers, “if they could not read, write and speak the English language and they voted, they would be put in the penitentiary.” David Richards, a longtime Texas attorney who litigated numerous voting rights cases in Texas, recently told me, “Texas Rangers thought that state law enforcement was an intimidating force in electoral politics. It was, in every aspect.”

Oppression Meets Pushback

Fear rarely falls out of favor with politicians. When thousands of migrant children began arriving alone at the border in 2014, the state government responded with the deployment of the state police and Texas National Guard—a border surge—along the borderlands of the Rio Grande Valley. Nor has the border surge abated. In some towns, it is common to see troopers parked on every street corner. A recent state law has empowered state police, who issue driver’s licenses needed to vote, along with local authorities and campus police, to ask anyone they detain, if only for a traffic violation, about their citizenship status. Such a powerful show of state force prompted Richards to muse whether “this current display of law enforcement can trigger a fear about going to the polls.”

But oppression has not gone without pushback. During the U.S. Civil Rights movement, Chicano activists formed independent political parties such as La Raza Unida, and in Duval returning veterans formed the Freedom Party, both with the aim of challenging the “boss politics” machine. In 1973, when a Raza Unida candidate defeated a white candidate for mayor in Pearsall, located south of San Antonio, a county judge tossed out ballots submitted by illiterate voters, claiming the absence of a signature rendered the votes invalid. The winner, Paul Morales, was removed from office, an example of strong-arm tactics that, under the guise of protecting the vote, had a chilling effect that persisted for decades. “These problems of political participation and turning out to the vote,” said historian Benjamin Márquez, “[are] the legacy of discrimination and marginalization.”

Pearsall’s local La Raza Unida party chairman at the time, Modesto Rodriguez, a farmer, later testified before the U.S. Congress about the oppressive voting conditions in Texas, and his testimony was instrumental in the expansion of the Voting Rights Act to include Latinos. Although Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the benefits didn’t reach Texas Latinos until a decade later, in 1975, when an “extension” was created to include them and other so-called “language minorities.”

In the absence of institutional barriers, voter neglect has been pervasive.

With the new law, activists were able to undermine the machine, said Márquez, the author of Democratizing Texas Politics: Race, Identity, and Mexican American Empowerment, 1945-2002. Across Texas, too, the new law was used to prevent a massive purge of Mexican-American voters, writes Ari Berman in Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, and it became a tool used by civil rights groups and the federal government to legally challenge discriminatory policies that undermined Latino representation.

The Voting Rights Act also triggered an exodus of whites to the Republican Party. During the following decades, however, Democrats essentially deserted Latino voters, preferring instead to wait for political demographics to swing in their direction. In 2010, the late Carlos Guerra, a longtime political columnist, wrote that Democratic Party strategists chased after whites while “imagining that targeting Hispanics means translating material into Spanish.”

In recent years, however, voting rights advocates have argued that the state’s relatively new voter I.D. laws, along with its voter purges and gerrymandering, have diluted political power for non-whites. In 2013, a Supreme Court ruling essentially gutted key components of the Voting Rights Act, specifically the provision that requires U.S. states with a long history of discriminatory tactics to clear changes to voting requirements with the federal government. And this summer the Supreme Court upheld Texas’ congressional maps, which had been invalidated by the lower courts on the basis that they weaken non-white representation.

Border Visions and Revisions

In the absence of institutional barriers, voter neglect has been pervasive. In September, when O’Rourke was within striking distance of Cruz in the polls, Latino Decisions, a political opinion research group, confirmed that some 41 percent of Latinos in Texas reported no party or candidate had contacted them, a number that comes in under those states with smaller Latino populations, like Virginia. These outreach numbers are paltry for a region where past voter mobilization efforts have proven successful. In 2010, a special outreach project by the Democratic Party in Austin managed a 34 percent increase in Latino and black voter participation. Rather than merely arriving in time for the election, the mobilization effort was sustained over months, relying on media ads and door-to-door outreach—it cost only seventy-eight cents per door knock.

To court Latino voters, O’Rourke has vowed to defend Obamacare and expand access to health care—Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured people in the nation. He also advocates for raising the minimum wage in a state where 47 percent of workers earn less than $15 an hour, and where on average women are paid just eighty cents for every dollar paid to a non-Hispanic white man (Latinas in Texas earn just forty-four cents per dollar, lower than any other racial or ethnic group).

O’Rourke’s positions on health care and income would yield benefits for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, though it’s fair to say that political candidates across the country have similar stances. One difference, though, is that O’Rourke in particular has tied his class politics to the politics of the border region, in effect undermining the Republican border narrative, which relies on fear of immigration as a mask for racist and elitist ideology—one that paves the way for tax breaks and the rolling back of much needed health care.

In the revised version of the border offered by O’Rourke and others, for example, even the notion of a “border surge” can be upended. Veronica Escobar, who will likely become one of the first Latinas representing Texas in Congress, sent busloads of volunteers to the Valley in a “border bus surge” designed to register voters. Through O’Rourke’s own messaging, too, which relies on public events and streams of border videos, we can find a revised idea of the border. The day after debating Cruz, O’Rourke, along with three prominent Latinos, including the possible presidential candidate Julian Castro, traveled to the border, gazed across the Rio Grande, and talked about fishing. O’Rourke captured the meeting in a Facebook Live video, offering his viewers, in effect, an image of the border that is wholly unreflected in broader media. Such efforts present to the public an idea that cuts against countless political ads about the danger of “open borders” and unfettered immigration.

The notion of a lawless border persists, deeply ingrained in the national consciousness.

At the same time, candidates and political action committees, often in support of a Republican agenda, have plunged some $150 million into immigration-related ads, according to a CNN analysis—it should go without saying that these ads don’t feature conversations about fishing. Why would they, when the alternative—stoking border fear—has paid limitless dividends? Trump, for his part, staked his presidential campaign on provoking fear of the border, and this fact, perhaps more than anything else, explains why he has now threatened to shut down the border by sending troops: it is the highest achievable act of border theater. Add to this the racist presentation of anti-immigrant “border security” demonstrated in his latest political advertisement, or his most recent attack on birthright citizenship—itself an attempt to demonize border residents and undermine their legitimacy. “Texas is already a majority/minority state,” said Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez, executive director of Jolt, which mobilizes Latinx political participation. “They are just [as] afraid of parents who are immigrants as they are of their children who can vote.”

On the other hand, it might be argued that hardline border security stances have reached their limit, even among Republicans. This summer, images of children taken from their parents on the border provoked outrage from supporters of both parties. Apparently even Ted Cruz noticed. In June, he introduced an emergency bill that would end child separation and speed up the review of asylum claims. 

Yet the notion of a lawless border persists, deeply ingrained in the national consciousness. When O’Rourke was asked about his plan to secure the border, during the second debate against Cruz and at a Town Hall event in the Rio Grande Valley that aired on CNN, his response about beefing up the ports of entry seemed like a punt. In reality, most illicit cargo coming from Mexico enters the country on tractor trailers hauling our cheap TVs and produce. Rather than a border crosser forging the river with a pack of meth, the nation’s drug supply is, less glamorously, packed into the undercarriage of a rig beneath a worn-out, underpaid truck driver.

Which is to say that, in the current border narrative, border security is an endless pit. During the Town Hall that aired on CNN on October 18, when O’Rourke accurately stated that illegal border crossings are at historic lows, CNN correspondent Dana Bash responded by noting that we all agree that border security is a problem. Of course, it must be a problem, because the Republicans have been telling us it is for twenty years. More helicopters, more technology, more “boots on the ground.”

With his campaign more generally, O’Rourke has succeeded where news reporters, politicians, and border “experts” have persistently fallen short, and he has elevated the voices and concerns of actual border residents. Through the televised Town Hall, the largely unfiltered perspectives of border residents were finally heard by a national audience. In posing his question to O’Rourke, for example, attorney Carlos García referenced the children who had been taken from their asylum-seeking parents on the border. In response to “border crisis,” he told the candidate, “the amazing people of South Texas, regardless of political or religious affiliation, stepped up to the plate to help those in need because, uh, that’s what we do in South Texas.” From the residents of the border—white, Latina, young and elderly—we heard concerns about health care, proposals to legalize marijuana, retraining for aging workers. We also heard a student named Khalid ask the senate hopeful what the Latino community means to him.

Still, there have also been missteps and signs that a renewed border vision is effectively a campaign story for a border politician. When he served on the El Paso City Council, O’Rourke voted to advance a redevelopment plan that would uproot a working-class neighborhood in El Paso. His claims of fervently defending the border stand in contrast to the plan, which included an image study that described his hometown as “lazy” “dirty” and, negatively, as “speaking Spanish.” The O’Rourke campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

And rather than ask about O’Rourke’s plans to beef up border security, as CNN did, it would be more useful to question his vote for a federal spending bill that included funding for construction of the border wall, which he has repeatedly stated he opposes. After voting in favor of the bill, O’Rourke tweeted that he supported it because of its benefits for veterans and increased school spending. He called the bill a “compromise.”

Nor did O’Rourke mention Latinos specifically in either of his debates with Ted Cruz. When asked about the needs of those living on the border, he made recourse to his support for Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. But the number of Dreamers on the border are a fraction of those now residing in Houston or Dallas.

Fear of a Brown Wave

The efforts of a single candidate, even a media darling, can only be understood within an intensifying campaign by residents and activists to challenge the dominant image of the border, which plays out in political rhetoric and the news media. Border residents in particular regularly organize family-style events involving swimming and picnicking along the Rio Grande River, where sections of the planned border wall would make the river unreachable. Their gatherings are meant to communicate a too often ignored side of the border—one of beauty and fun.

If Latinos turn out in record numbers, it will represent the overcoming of an abject political neglect.

Likewise, in 2017 a group of Latinx millennials launched Neta, an online news source funded in part by the Progress Texas Institute, to report on border culture as lived by border residents, who, we discover through the site, are into punk, UFOs, and Hot Cheetos pizza—cultural news they juxtapose with intimate photos of refugees and a report on the risks posed to immigrant students by allowing state police (who can ask about immigration status) unfettered access to campuses. And during the summer, as part of its mission to register and mobilize Latinx youth, Jolt Texas unfurled a mural in front of the border wall. The appeal to new voters and a new political reality, said Ramirez, requires a redefinition of the Texas narrative. “There is the picture of the white cowboy who runs the state, and it is who the runs the state,” said Ramirez. “But if you look at the state, it is young, black, and brown.”

Indeed, early indicators show that turnout among Latinos has spiked by 214 percent, according to one estimate, and some 500 percent among young people in general. Despite the lack of investment in mobilizing Latino voters, Latinos have asserted their self-organizing power, encouraging their friends and neighbors to vote.

If Latinos turn out in record numbers, it will represent the overcoming of an abject political neglect that has followed decades of political peonage through violent oppression. With each ballot cast, Latinos take a defiant step in the face of a new era of updated scare tactics, one that has turned their communities into a military war zone in the name of Operation Faithful Patriot. They will have demonstrated resilience after Democrats deserted them, while waiting for Latino population growth to rescue their party from irrelevance. And if this massive turnout is realized, Latinos, who soon will represent the population majority in Texas, will no longer orbit the electoral universe, they will occupy its center. For some in Texas, and elsewhere in this country, there is no greater fear.