Over the course of the past few weeks, our nation has witnessed unimaginable atrocities and lapses of humanity in the forms of a horrific attack on the Latino community in El Paso, Texas and public policy that seeks to relegate an entire people to the shadows of our society. What has stood out in these incidents is the underlying failure to understand our American history — or worse, an attempt to redefine and blur facts that would otherwise compel the transgressors to a more compassionate and unifying posture.
The gunman in El Paso explained that his actions were inspired by a perceived threat that the "original" white culture of Texas was being erased, overtaken by invaders. Mexicans, brown people, were threatening a white or anglo Texas that he understood to be the original identity of the state.
Read just a paragraph on the origins of Texas, and it is immediately apparent that he seeks to protect a Texas that never existed. With the Spanish, Mexican and indigenous settlements across Texas hundreds — yes, hundreds — of years before white European settlers ever landed on Plymouth Rock, the state was part of Mexico, home to Spanish settlers, and, ultimately, a republic before ever joining the Union.
The American story is undoubtedly a complicated one, weaving together the histories of families, cultures, nations and ideas. It cannot be summed up easily, and to leave out the voices of some is to leave out critical pieces of who we are as a nation — important links in the chain, fibers in the fabric that have built this country into the land of opportunity we have always claimed it to be.
Misconceptions of history aside, what is most striking is that the richness of what we know and appreciate about Texas is, in fact, thanks to the diversity of the cultures that came together, beginning with its original inhabitants. Perhaps if the gunman had a better grasp of Texas history, he would not have felt threatened by a community that has always been there, enhancing the flavor and identity he came to appreciate as Tejas.
Latinos in Texas, and around the country, have a long history of not only living in the United States, but of shaping our communities through leadership, innovation, and military service.
The stories of trailblazing Latinos who have left lasting impacts on our history could fill volumes. But too often, their legacies are left out of history books and relegated to the shadows. Forgetting the contributions of Latino Americans not only does these heroes a disservice — it robs us all of the pride we have in a country where innovators, creators and leaders can come from anywhere, be anyone. It robs our children of the same.
Even among the well-educated, we see attempts to not only ignore history, but to rewrite it. Changes to legal entry immigration policy announced this week were designed to establish a higher threshold for immigrants to enter or remain in the country. Our nation has always served as a beacon for those across the world who have sought freedom and opportunity regardless of financial means, — a beacon to all.
Yet, in an effort to justify these changes Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, stated that the well-known poem by Emma Lazarus intended to read, "Give me your tired, your poor, who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge."
This response is clearly an affront to anyone that has ever taken an American history class. Growing up, the poetry of those words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” captured the imagination of every student and, I am sure, millions in history classes around the country. Their symbolism and clarion call to the world stands out and makes us proud to be American. We were the nation others would look to and we would embrace all and inspire those who joined us to greatness, regardless of background, income or faith.
The United States has always been a nation of immigrants. Knowing our history is to know our identity in the present and the direction of our future. We must not abide by efforts to ignore or change history. As we are witnessing, it is a path that leads to destruction and dehumanizing acts which betray our American values and the torch held high by Lady Liberty for almost 150 years.
Estuardo Rodriguez is a political analyst as well as the president and CEO of the Friends of the American Latino Museum.