Not 'invaders': Some Hispanic families in the Southwest predate the US entirely

Jared Weber

Lorenzo Candelaria’s life story centers around four acres of land in the south Atrisco Valley of New Mexico.

Candelaria, 73, was born on this farmland. He's lived his whole life here. These days, he makes his livelihood growing fruits and vegetables under the farm name Cornelio Candelaria Organics.

This land has been passed down through his family for eight generations, dating back to the Atrisco Land Grant of 1692, through which Candelaria's Spanish ancestors were gifted a large parcel of Native American land by the Spanish empire's monarchy. Now, Candelaria, who identifies as Latino, said he has never been more afraid o live in his homeland.

“It has become very dangerous to be Mexican or Native, or to have that skin color,” Candelaria said.

Many Latinx Americans across the U.S. have expressed fear in the wake of the August 3 mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, when a gunman murdered 22 people — most of them Latinx — at a Walmart store frequented by Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans. The suspected shooter is believed to have posted a manifesto on the fringe online forum 8chan alerting of a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

But in the Southwest U.S., some Hispanic Americans such as Candelaria can trace their families back many generations, when the region was presided over by Mexico, Spain and prior, Native American tribes. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the nation's Hispanic population in 1860 was 155,000 people and 81.1 percent of whom had Mexican descent.

They identify as American, Hispanic or Native American. They are sometimes subject to racism and discrimination because of the color of their skin or their last name, despite their centuries-long connection to the place they call home.

Memorial in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 8, 2019.

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Some Hispanic people who live in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona or California say their Hispanic and Native American ancestors never crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. Rather, the United States acquired their land, either at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848 or after the ratification of the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, by which the U.S. acquired territories that came to include parts of present-day Arizona and New Mexico. Thus, the border, in effect, came to encompass them.

Candelaria doesn’t identify as American. Nor does he see himself as Mexican, as the Mexican government only oversaw present-day New Mexico for 25 years. He calls himself “Nuevo Mexicano.”

"I have a Native American village on both sides of my heritage, and I have my Spanish heritage," Candelaria said. "Spanish was the only language spoken in the house."

While white settlers were initially invited to Texas by the Mexican government to boost population growth during the early 19th century, many didn’t follow the legal requirements. They flooded in illegally, before eventually edging Mexican residents of Texas out of the territory entirely.

And though the state's borders were established during the mid-19th century, that boundary wasn’t closely enforced until more recently, according to Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez, founding director of the Arizona State University School of Transborder Studies.

Vélez-Ibáñez said southern parts of the region have always been bustling with transborder communities, such as El Paso, where the city’s residents live in a bilingual, bicultural community alongside Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

He said that the name El Paso is actually short for “el paso del norte,” or the northern passage, adding that the Spanish coined the name due to the area’s reputation as a frequent migrant stop for northbound colonists. Last year, nearly 12.4 million personal vehicles crossed the Paso del Norte International Bridge that separates the two cities.

Texas state Rep. Leo Pacheco, D-San Antonio, said he has the fairest skin of his eight siblings and is often seen as passing for white. He is a direct descendant of the Canary Islanders of Spain who founded San Antonio, Texas in 1731, as well as neighboring Native American tribes.

Pacheco said he always believed he was Mexican, until he conducted a genetics test to learn he was, in fact, 30.8 percent Native American and 60 percent Iberian.

“It was more of a label that was given to us by the Anglo society,” Pacheco said of the his Mexican identity.

He said his pale skin and red hair have given him insight into the bigotry within his home state, albeit in conversations behind closed doors. Since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, this racist rhetoric has gotten worse, he said.

Many feel emboldened by Trump, who launched his presidential campaign in June 2015 by calling Mexican immigrants "rapists." That rhetoric has persisted throughout his presidency. Last week, The New York Times reported that Trump's re-election campaign has already run more than 2,000 ads on Facebook that feature the word "invasion."

“They’d say these things in front of me, and then have a concerned look when they’d see I wasn’t laughing,” Pacheco said. “The sentiment has been there all along, but now they think it’s okay to be racist because of our leadership.”

He views the country's demographic changes in this region as simply a righting of what has been taken from brown people on the continent for generations. The U.S. Census Bureau has predicted that the majority of the country will be comprised of current minority populations by the year 2050.

“This land was the brown people’s land to begin with,” Pacheco said. “It’s only returning to its natural state of order.”

Patricia Perea, 43, is descended from people who lived in the Llano Estacado, a region that includes parts of eastern New Mexico and Texas Panhandle. A first-generation college graduate, Perea decided to become a lecturer in the Chicana and Chicano Studies Department at the University of New Mexico because, when she was younger, she said she felt discouraged by her teachers from learning about Mexican American and Native American history in the region.

“The thing that’s probably the most maddening is that, as Latinos or Latinx, we’re never thought of as being older members of U.S. history,” Perea said. “We’ve been here hundreds of years, so it’s frustrating to always be put in terms of immigrants.”

According to a report released by the Pew Research Center in 2017, 34.4 percent of Hispanics in the United States are immigrants, dropping from 40.1 percent in 2000. Roughly 65.6 percent of Hispanics in the U.S. are native-born citizens.

“Whether it’s New Mexico or any place in the Southwest, a lot of Mexican Americans, like people in my family that have been here over a few centuries, we’ve worked in communities with people who are more recently from Mexico or Central America, so a lot of us are intermarried,” Perea said.

Locals of El Paso visit the memorial for shooting victims at the Cielo Vista Mall Walmart in El Paso, Texas on August 8, 2019.

From an early age, Charles Dominguez, 23, can recall being chastised by classmates. They told him to “go back to where [he] came from,” despite the fact that he was already there. In reality, Dominguez’s family line predates the Gadsden Purchase in Arizona.

They identify as Mexican American, a combination of the family’s past and present. As he’s gotten older, Dominguez, a student at Arizona State University, has come to cherish his family background, becoming involved in political activism for immigration and Latinx issues in his home state.

“This is my home,” Dominguez said. “My family has been here for generations.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Not 'invaders': Hispanics lived here before US expanded border