“I mean no disrespect, but I am American of Mexican descent,” I heard her say.
I was having breakfast alone but I was absolutely drawn to the conversation going at the table next to me. Donald Trump’s comments about a Latino federal judge have sparked discussion about racism and bias.
But, here, at this hotel along the U.S. border, this group of employees were having an incredible conversation about how personal those comments felt. It was just another instance, they said, in which a Latino has had his American identity put under a microscope.
In some ways, El Paso is the perfect place to talk about American identity.
It sits right along the Rio Grande. And its downtown is filled with reminders that this is a place where two cultures collide, a place where a border fence beckons you to pick a side.
Walking the streets, you’ll see Mexican flags and American flags; from store to store, you’ll hear pop music melt into corridos and in the distance, the jagged mountains of Ciudad Juárez — big, hulking boulders — make Mexico an inexorable part of the landscape.
About four blocks from the border, I stopped to talk to Berta Aceves. She owns a little store that sells pretty much everything — used air conditioners, ball gowns, toys.
I asked her if she considered herself American.
I could tell she was taken aback by the question. But she smiled politely and after a bit of silence, she said: “I have an American passport.”
Aceves said that Trump’s words hurt. More than 30 years ago she crossed the Rio Grande, got her papers in order and she worked hard to start a business and get her kids through college.
She said she was angry that Trump would question her American identity.
“It’s probably easy for him to say those things,” she said. “Because he didn’t have to struggle to become an American.”
Just across the street from her store, I met historian David Romo in a neighborhood known as the Ellis Island of the borderlands.
“Being Mexican American is one of the oldest ways of being an American,” Romo said.
What he means is that all of the Southwest was once Mexico. Hispanics have been in this country from the very beginning and the history of casting them as the other is long and storied. Trump, he said, is not the first to do that and neither is he the first to conflate Mexicans with Mexican-Americans.
Romo knows that from personal experience.
He said after he graduated from Stanford University, he came back to El Paso thinking he was “a big shot.” Of course, it didn’t take long before a Border Patrol agent asked him to declare his citizenship.
“I was frustrated,” he said. “I didn’t talk back to the border patrol.”
But he refused to answer the question and he said the agent put him in a chokehold.
“So, it doesn’t matter what papers you have, what your level of education is,” he said.
Romo says he tries not to let those indignities make him angry. Instead, he’s focused on history. He likes to remind the American people, for example, how in the past the United States has rounded up millions and shipped them over the border.
It happened in the ’30s and ’40s after the Great Depression, when Hispanics were accused of taking jobs from Americans. The same thing happened again in the ’50s when President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched what he termed “Operation Wetback.”
It’s a part of U.S. history that’s not well documented. But we know it was deadly and historians estimate that hundreds of thousands of American citizens were also rounded up.
“Rage isn’t enough,” Romo said. “We have to go back to the roots. We need to have a deeper understanding so that history doesn’t repeat itself.”
It’s worth pointing out that even before Trump questioned the American identity of Judge Gonzalo Curiel, he praised “Operation Wetback.”
I did apologize to the hotel workers for eavesdropping and told them I was a reporter. Adria Gonzalez, 34, called me a couple of days later, because the conversation lingered in her mind.
A few years back, she was on PBS’ Genealogy Roadshow. She found out that she was a relative of the Mexican revolutionary general Pancho Villa.
She’s proud to be American, she said, and it’s tempting to say one is simply American. But the history of Mexico and the United States are deeply entwined.
And nobody, she said, especially not Donald Trump, will make her forget that.