'It's worse than ever': how Latinos are changing their lives in Trump's America

By Dani Anguiano

The first time someone called Lidia Carrillo a “wetback” she had to ask her teacher what the slur meant. She was only 13, and had recently moved to California from Jalisco, Mexico, with her parents and six siblings.

Carrillo had tried to explain that her family hadn’t crossed any river, but it didn’t matter. “They looked at us differently,” she recalled.

Carrillo, who is now 44 and works for a commercial loan company, would never forget the remark. It stung, as did the sideways glances at her worn white sneakers and the grocery bag in which she carried her textbooks. It was difficult then, Carrillo says. But she doesn’t remember feeling scared, not like she is today, eight weeks after 22 people were killed in the worst hate crime against Latinos in modern US history.

“Every day when I take my daughter to school we pray. I ask God to protect her,” Carrillo said “I don’t know if I’m going to see my daughter or my husband at the end of the day.”

For Carrillo and many Latinos across the US, the August violence in El Paso, wrought by a gunman who intended to shoot “as many Mexicans as possible”, marked a day they long feared would come. The killings came less than a week after a gunman, who had previously complained about “hordes of mestizos”, shot three people at a food festival in Gilroy, California. And they followed years of belligerent rhetoric by Donald Trump, who launched his presidential campaign in 2015 by calling Mexicans rapists and has directed his administration to crack down on undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers.

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Lidia Carrillo, 44, says she prays for her daughter every day. “I don’t know if I’m going to see my daughter or my husband at the end of the day.”
Lidia Carrillo, 44, says she prays for her daughter every day. “I don’t know if I’m going to see my daughter or my husband at the end of the day.” Photograph: Sarahbeth Maney/The Guardian

Hate crimes are up across the United States, said Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, rising steadily since 2016. Crimes targeting Latinos have increased nearly 80% in California since 2016. In 2018, nearly four out of ten Latinos in the US said they had experienced discrimination in the last year.

“The more that negative stereotypes are accessible and the more that they’re amplified by peer groups or leaders, it’s not unexpected they’ll be acted on,” Levin said.

Carrillo and others have changed their lives in subtle ways in response to a country that seems increasingly hostile toward them, forced to reckon not only with deadly violence, but day-to-day harassment: racial slurs screamed out of car windows, and insults for speaking Spanish in public.

Ricardo Castillo, who lives in Eustis, Florida, and is originally from Puerto Rico, generally feels safe in his city, but still saves family grocery trips for nighttime when stores are less busy. His family avoids crowded places, and Castillo tries to always be aware of the nearest exit. The El Paso shooting shocked him, but it didn’t surprise him. “There’s hate out there,” Castillo said.

Castillo’s own experience with racial harassment was seen more than 200,000 times on Facebook. A video of two women telling Castillo, the manager of a Burger King, to stop speaking Spanish went viral in July.

“Go back to Mexico if you want to keep speaking Spanish,” a woman, seated with another woman in the restaurant, told Castillo. “Go back to your Mexican country.”

“Guess what, ma’am? I’m not Mexican,” Castillo responded. “I’m not Mexican, but you’re being very prejudiced and I want you out of my restaurant right now.”

Such behavior seems more common and blatant than ever before, said Carlos Romero, who works in student services at a community college in Tucson, Arizona.

“I know it was always here in Arizona,” Romero said, citing the state’s efforts to ban ethnic studies in public schools, the “show your papers” law, and the echoes of former governor Jan Brewer’s rhetoric in Trump’s campaign. “But because of Trump, people are more willing to show that part of themselves now.”

The El Paso shooting, perpetrated by a 21-year-old who parroted Trump’s own words, made Romero worry for Latinos across the US, as well as his own family. “It made me think ‘what are we going to do now?’ My wife and I talked about whether we need to get passports.”

The Carrillo family had planned to go to the Gilroy garlic festival on the day the shooting happened, but weren’t able to.
The Carrillo family had planned to go to the Gilroy garlic festival on the day the shooting happened, but weren’t able to. Photograph: Sarahbeth Maney/The Guardian
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Eight hundred miles away from El Paso in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, Irene Sanchez couldn’t bring herself to leave the house in the days after the shooting. The 36-year-old educator struggled to figure out how to explain the events to her six-year-old son.

“I had to explain to him why mommy didn’t feel well,” she recalled. There was this bad man and he went and killed people. There’s certain people who don’t like brown people, she told him. It wasn’t the first time they’d had such a conversation. They discussed gun violence because of the active shooter drills he participates in at school and they’ve been forced to talk about prejudice, and racism. In kindergarten, the boy had come home from school one afternoon telling her she shouldn’t speak to him in Spanish because he was going to get “pushed over the wall”.

Sanchez lived in California in the 1990s, when then-Republican Governor Pete Wilson backed a ballot measure that cut off state services such as healthcare and public education to undocumented immigrants. There was an animosity toward immigrants then, Sanchez recalled, but it wasn’t as bad as this.

“The climate of fear is heightened more than I’ve ever seen it in my life,” she said.

Incidents such as the El Paso shooting impact people far beyond those experiencing the violence firsthand, according to Lisseth Rojas-Flores, a clinical psychologist and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. Mass violence should be thought about like an earthquake, she argued. There is the epicenter, the people directly impacted by the shooting, and there are layers around that: those who live in El Paso, and even further out to people who don’t necessarily have a direct connection to the event or city.

“It still impacts you because it rattles you at your core, especially if you realize they were aiming at Latinos, you ask: ‘I am Latino what does it mean for me?’” Rojas-Flores said. “I was very troubled by it because I understand the levels of exposure and impact, it keeps on adding to an already anti-immigrant climate.

“It brings to the forefront more fear.”

The fear and violence are the results of a president who is openly anti-Latino, said Thomas Saenz, the president of Maldef, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“The discrimination is certainly more direct, more open than in my lifetime and certainly emanates from the president of the United States,” Saenz said, adding that Trump’s policies and practices seem, “intent on eliminating the Latino community as an essential part of the country”.

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Adriana Lopez, Lidia Carrillo’s 13-year-old daughter, avoids wearing anything that could make her a target.
Adriana Lopez, Lidia Carrillo’s 13-year-old daughter, avoids wearing anything that could make her a target. Photograph: Sarahbeth Maney/The Guardian

Since the shootings, the 13-year-old daughter of Lidia Carrillo won’t wear her Mexican soccer jersey outside the house.

“It could make me a target,” said Adriana Lopez, a ninth-grader who likes skateboarding and reading the bible.

The Carrillo family had planned to go to the Gilroy food festival the day of the shooting, but weren’t able to. Thank God, Carrillo thought.

For her daughter, coming of age in an era of mass shootings has meant she’s always been worried about such violence, but it’s even harder knowing people who look like her are being targeted.

“I always thought this just happened in history, like this stuff didn’t happen anymore,” Lopez said. She thinks about the shooters in El Paso and Gilroy – a colleague of her mother’s knew the man responsible for the deaths at the garlic festival – and wonders why. What would make someone want to commit such violence?

She wants people to understand that immigrants come to the US to make better lives for themselves, not to make things worse. It’s personal for her, the daughter of immigrants. Earlier this year her aunt was deported.

In school, classmates have made jokes about “building the wall”. The US is all she’s ever known, and she is patriotic, but thinks sometimes about how some of her fellow Americans are against her.

Her mother tries to remind her that what other people think doesn’t matter. Carrillo tells Lopez that she’s not less than anyone else, she was born here and she can do anything. Carrillo, who is also a US citizen, is grateful that her family is in America, but wishes it were a kinder place to people like her.

“I just wish it could be different for us minorities and Hispanics. I know it’s not our country,” she said, her voice trailing off before she corrected herself. “I wasn’t born here, but I work just like anyone else. I contribute. I pay taxes. It is my country, too.”