Growing up in El Paso, TX (EPT) and embodying three marginalized identities—gay, Black and Mexican—made me acutely aware of the sinister ways that structures of inequality impact the lives of vulnerable populations. I am the son of a Black U.S. Army Veteran and a Mexican immigrant from the town bordering EPT, Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. It was in my hometown, that Patrick Crusius, the deranged 21-year-old White man drove all the way from a Dallas suburb, to shoot and kill 22 Mexican people and injured 26 others at a local Walmart (Romo, 2019). It is also the location where parts of Donald Trump’s border wall are being built, as he desires to keep out Mexicans whom he has constructed as “murderers” and “rapists” (Lambie, 2018). Most importantly, EPT is also the place where I first began organizing against inequality. Back in 2009 when I was 22, two gay men were harassed by security at the popular restaurant Chico’s Tacos for kissing, causing me and several LGBT activists to stand outside of the popular restaurant protesting the homophobia and demanding justice (Jones, 2019). This experience would continue to influence me several years later.
In El Paso, I was a young kid in a far west Texas border town, barely coming to terms with my sexuality. Being in a majority minority town meant that culturally I was offered some relief in that I could focus on my sexuality more so than my race since both Black and Mexican people were socially constructed as racially undesirable to Whites. Now, I am a 34-year-old adult living in Appleton, Wisconsin, a majority White town in middle America. Focusing on my sexuality at the expense of my race is a luxury I can no longer afford. The police killings of cis and trans Black men such as George Floyd and Tony McDade, as well as the murder of Latina US soldier Vanessa Guillen and Black woman Breonna Taylor, have weighed heavily on my mind. When Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, was shot several times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin (two hours south of where I live), the racism directed towards Black and Latinx people was inching closer and closer to my doorstep. I knew the time was now that I needed to fight for change, but how would my identities and experiences as a gay, mixed Black and Mexican man from El Paso, TX impact my organizing on the ground in Appleton, Wisconsin? My experiences in EPT shaped me into becoming the man that I am today, they gave me the compassion and understanding as well as the knowledge necessary to collaborate on a Pride Black Lives Matter protest in a way that was inclusive to all of us being harmed by systems of oppression while still focusing on the plight of Black lives in the U.S.
Growing up in the Sun City, I had the honor of being raised by two incredible parents. My mother, a Mexican immigrant from the town bordering El Paso, Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, knew more than many about what it meant to cross borders. She crossed borders literally, as she traveled back and forth to El Paso from her hometown, and metaphorically, crossing the racial border barley three years after it became legal in the U.S. There, in the sun city of EPT, she married my father who was stationed at Fort Bliss in EPT, presenting their marriage as an example of love and solidarity between communities. My mother taught me that compassion and understanding for others could help bring about positive change. My father, born in 1943, lived through legal segregation, racist violence and oppression as a Black man in the U.S. This is knowledge he imparted on me as I grew into a man. Together, they demonstrated for me how knowledge, compassion and understanding can unite across differences, lessons I always held onto.
In college I worked as the Rainbow Miner Initiative (RMI) Intern at the Women’s Resource Center at the University of Texas in El Paso (UTEP). There, I recruited for and trained speakers for SpeakOUT UTEP, an LGBTQIA Speaker’s Bureau. The opportunity to do so allowed me to work with a variety of different queer folks, helping empower them (and myself) to embrace our authentic selves while attempting to educate straight people on campus about queer issues. This meant I had to learn to lead difficult discussions with people who didn’t always agree with me or share in my beliefs, making myself vulnerable to others by sharing personal details about my life in hopes that people’s hearts would be changed, and they would be more accepting. This also meant I had to reach out to different departments, from Mathematics to Women’s Studies, to convince them that they should request our speaker’s panel for their classes because everyone would benefit from this knowledge about LGBT folks. I even added straight people to our panels sometimes to drive home the idea that many heterosexual people feel like they didn’t choose their sexuality or gender identities any more than queer folks and to create solidarity between gender identities. After collecting data on our panels, I discovered that many people’s lives and opinions were in fact changing for the better as a result of exposure to SpeakOUT. Through SpeakOUT UTEP, I was able to use compassion and understanding, values I gained from my mother, to make connections with people who might not have otherwise agreed or believed in me. This skill would become important in Appleton, WI.
As a graduate student in the sociology program at UTEP, I began to develop the critical knowledge regarding systemic racism that assisted in my organizing on the ground in Wisconsin. Though I previously mentioned how culturally I was able to focus on my sexual identity more so than racism because of the racial and ethnic breakdown of the town, the reality is that racism was and continues to be a structural impediment in EPT. For instance, while poverty has lessened in Texas as a whole, in heavily Latinx locations such as El Paso, poverty remains higher when compared with Whites. El Paso for instance, is one of the poorest cities in the state (Williams, 2018). Aside from the income inequality, El Paso has a long history of racism such as the murder of Mexican women in the who worked in Maquiladoras in the 80s and 90s, whose murders, dubbed femicides, international corporations were indifferent too (Kladzyk, 2017). EPT also has a long history of protesting White supremacy, such as the bath riots of 1917 when Mexicans crossing the border rose up against border patrol who were forcibly stripping them naked and bathing them in kerosene and Zyklon B (a practice that would later inspire Nazi Germany).
My graduate studies program taught me about the similar forms of racism employed against Black and Latinx bodies, such as lynching’s (Mosley, 2019) and school segregation (Roos, 2019). For my master’s thesis, I explored sexual racism in the gay community on the border, where I was able to interview Black gay men about their experiences with racism which included being called the n-word, rejection, and increased exposure to HIV risk (Smith, 2014). This knowledge regarding the way racism repeats itself through time, impacts different communities in similar fashions and pits communities against each other would end up being vital information to my organizing in Appleton.
Once I was moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, I was invited by a colleague to help organize a protest for Black Lives, an event that allowed me to put into practice all the things I had learned growing up in El Paso, TX as a gay mixed race man. By July of 2020, I had been living in Appleton for three years after obtaining my Ph.D. in sociology at Texas A&M University and beginning a job in the Ethnic Studies program at Lawrence University. I was invited to help plan, promote, and lead the march by my colleague, a mixed race, non-binary Black person alongside two queer Black womyn and my partner, a queer mixed race Black man. As Black queer folks, mixed race folks, and non-binary folks, we were used to being marginalized in both our racial and sexual communities (Han et al., 2019). Yet, as a result of this marginalization, we understood that in order to pass meaningful policy that protects vulnerable communities, we must work in solidarity with others. Tapping into my values imparted to me by my parents, training in SpeakOUT UTEP and my knowledge from my graduate program, we were able to work towards solidarity with others.
Understanding how White supremacy and systemic racism impacts minorities helped us magnify the connection between Black, Latinx, and queer communities. As Black Lives Matter (BLM) uprisings took place across the nation, it was only a matter of time before Pride marches during the summer would be transformed into BLM marches. Also, because of the racism that was rampant in mainstream gay communities, we knew we needed to change what got attention during Pride. As such, we made the focus of our Pride march about the lives of Black trans and non-binary folks lost to police violence, as well as the systemic racism impacting Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities in order to develop compassion and understanding across our communities. We developed a theme for our protest, making it “Pride was a Riot” in homage to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, the Black and Latinx trans women who protested police brutality during Stonewall (Jacobs, 2019). The theme was a reminder that Latinx and Queer communities, alongside Black communities, have experienced police brutality and state sanctioned violence, and that many of the privileges we enjoy today have been earned through hard won fights from poor and marginalized people in our past. It was also a reminder that my fight today for Black and Latinx people comes as an homage to my past in El Paso, TX.
Together the five of us split up the duties of organizing the march. One person dealt with the logistics of when and where we would protest, arranging the route and making sure we had street medics, water, and masks available. Another person researched extensively on the victims of police violence and worked with the local newspaper and news stations on promotion of the protest. Much like SpeakOUT which demanded reaching out to different departments and groups on campus, we reached out to other organizations in Appleton to collaborate with such as African Heritage Inc. the predominate African American organization in town, The Wisconsin Bail Out The People Movement, a national network founded to oppose the 2008 trillion dollar bank bailout, and Diverse and Resilient, the local LGBT of color organization. Recalling my time protesting Chico’s Tacos, I knew protests needed to be followed up with demands and plans for action. As a result, my partner and I crafted eight posters with eight research backed solutions for police accountability, including a call for redirecting funds towards better paying jobs and access to health care, issues pertinent to Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people as well as queer people of color (Woodward & Mark, 2020).
I also worked with organizers from Whitewater, Wisconsin, another rural town south of Appleton, in order to draft a letter for city council leaders that laid out the researched backed solutions to police brutality. Borrowing from the posters my partner and I created, the letter cited the research backed solutions on the posters and added the original studies as footnotes for council members to examine. Additionally, we created and distributed a survey for local Appleton residents in both English and Spanish, asking them about their feelings towards the local police and their support of specific police reform proposals. Currently, we are still collecting signatures for the letter and data from the survey to present to City Council as we advocate for change in our community. Using the knowledge I gained from my education at UTEP that illuminated the way racism impacted both Black Latinx communities, I crafted a speech for the protest that not only honored Black Lives but called for solidarity between groups.
After much work organizing the protest, we gathered in downtown Appleton on July 11th and marched down to the police station to demand justice. We then took over the streets and marched through the downtown area, proclaiming that Black Queer Lives Matter alongside Black Lives Matter. Once we reached downtown, I delivered my speech, opening myself up and becoming vulnerable, similar to my times in SpeakOUT. I called for different groups to join us, reminded people of the Latinx children locked up in cages on the US border, and I honored the murders of both Breonna Taylor and Vanessa Guillen. Part of the goal for my speech and our protest was not only to bring visibility to queer and trans people of color murdered by police, but to also bring awareness to the abuses of immigrants on the border, to highlight the missing Indigenous women, and to honor the death of Vanessa Guillen and Breonna Taylor. Recalling my SpeakOUT days where I added straight folks to panels as a way to show straight people that they can relate to us too, I even drew attention to the deaths of Whites in Middle America to the opioid crisis and the loss of jobs for poor Whites, so that they could see how wealthy White elites oppressed them as well and used racism as a weapon to keep them from marching in solidarity with us.
For us organizers more generally, and me specifically, our protest was against the way systemic racism is produced in our many and varied institutions such as police departments, border patrol agencies and the military. As the son of a mother who was a Mexican immigrant, I am sensitive to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) abuses on the border that have harmed immigrants of all colors (Warikoo, 2020). I am also aware, as a son of a Black man in the U.S. military, that the military does both: exploits the lack of employment for poor Black and Brown folks in order to increase their numbers while simultaneously providing a middle-class lifestyle for them (Cooper, 2020). I know how many men in the military and police institutions can engage in violent behavior (Friedersdorf, 2014), especially towards people of color. All of this was clear to me in EPT in the past and continued to be clear to me in the present. As such, we understood that when Black lives matter, including Black Latinx, Black immigrants, and Black queers, all lives will matter. For us as a group, joining in our Pride Black Lives Matter march was about building solidarity with others against this system of oppression that is harming us all. Clearly, the knowledge I gained studying systems of oppression at UTEP was vital to my organizing on the ground in Appleton.
After the protest, the five of us organizers got together as a group to reflect on what we learned, what we gained, and how to turn the energy from the protest into action. Results so far from our survey suggest huge support from the community towards policies that hold police accountable and our letter to city council has gotten several hundred signatures. Yet, some of the most powerful results of the protest for me was the fact that our march had people of all backgrounds in attendance including people of different races, sexualities and nationalities. The compassion and understanding I was taught in the Sun City were in clear display in Appleton, Wisconsin as we united as a group in solidarity. The knowledge I gained, first from my father who taught me about racism, and then from my alma mater that taught me about Black and Latinx solidarity, helped me create a speech and letter based on tangible solutions to complex problems. See, the Pride march for Black Lives for me, a gay Black and Mexican man, was about representing EPT, the town where my parents showed what love across racial borders looked like, the town that showed what a queer protest against discrimination looked like, and a town that showed what racial intellect regarding Black and Latinx communities could accomplish. Together, our organizing on the ground in Appleton along with my compassion, understanding and knowledge, skills and values I learned growing up in El Paso, TX as a person with three marginalized identities, helped make our protest a success.
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Woodward, A., & Mark, M. (2020). Research shows there are at least 6 proven ways to reduce police brutality — and 2 strategies that don’t work. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/research-based-methods-of-reducing-police-violence-2020-6
About the author:
Jesus G. Smith is an Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at Lawrence University.
Image: Photo courtesy of JB. Used with permission.