This essay concerns gun violence and includes language centered around race and racism in The United States.
Mason, my oldest son, hazards a prayer: “Dear God, thank you for my Pokémon cards.”
“No, m’ijo, no. God is the most powerful force in the universe. He, She, It — whatever — created the ocean we saw in Mexico, the mountains we stood on in Albuquerque, all the animals you learn about in that show you like, Lionel Messi. God is the source of all the incredible things you see and taste and feel, and all the terrible things, too, which is something we can talk about another time. My point is, your Pokémon cards cost $2.99. Do you understand what I’m getting at?”
“Dear God,” he counters, irritated now with this all-powerful force which has caused him a full minute of discomfort, “thank you for my rare Pokémon cards.” He scoots deeper into his blanket, face glowing electric-blue under the balloon-shaped nightlight on his wall. I can’t tell whether he’s trying to be funny or defiant, but I surrender to my fatigue: kiss his forehead, rise from the edge of his bed, tell him that I love him.
We are no good at praying because it’s something we almost never do. In the interest of transparency, I should confess that I treat God largely in the manner that my high school students treat me: my regard for His authority seesaws between unmitigated awe and unmitigated skepticism, but mostly I’m too preoccupied with Earthly nuisances to make time. It’s an admission I’m ashamed to share in print because, of course, the moment I am reminded of my relative insignificance in the infinite frenzy of the universe, I call upon that same God like we’ve been best compadres all along.
On this particular night, August 3rd, 2019, Mason and I are praying because just a few hours earlier a young man whose name will not appear in this essay walked through a Wal-Mart in El Paso, Texas firing a semi-automatic rifle that probably shouldn’t exist outside of advanced military warfare. In total, 23 innocent people have died, 23 more have sustained injuries, and a definitive majority of the names on both lists are of Hispanic/Latinx origin. News outlets will soon confirm that the attack was a pre-orchestrated hate crime: a manifesto posted online articulates the attacker’s intention to target Brown people as a warning against the impending immigrant invasion that stands to ravage white America from within, and so on.
Mason, who is five, knows that something’s awry because my wife and I are communicating in coded mutterings, but we don’t have the energy to explain the situation in language that won’t give him nightmares. Our daughter is too young to understand anything — she’ll be two in a few months. Our youngest son won’t be born until March. Reportings of the first confirmed COVID case in our home city of Austin will break the day before we check into the hospital for his delivery. The year that lies ahead for my family (and my country, the world) will grow exponentially more troubling and uncertain; things are about to turn gacho in ways that will be cataloged in history books, ways that I’ll recount to impatient grandchildren from the respite of a comfortable chair. But right now, in the fresh wake of the tragedy in El Paso, I can’t imagine feeling worse about anything.
We are praying, in other words, because I don’t know what else to do.
A human being, even the American kind, is fundamentally good — I believe that, so I’m trying to practice stronger compassion toward people who disclose, or even brag, that they don’t pay attention to the news. Because it’s also true that human beings fundamentally act in the interest of their self-preservation, and with the avalanche of messages that gains on us larger and louder every day, we all practice some degree of curation when deciding what to read and watch and listen to, what to care about.
Still, that act of curation is, like so many other things, largely a function of privilege: if you can choose not to burden yourself with the nuances of a particular issue, then you probably don’t stand to be materially affected by its consequences solely on account of your race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc. Because if you do belong to a community that has been targeted or isolated or discriminated against in a particular news story, your response will more than likely manifest in some version of this sentiment:
That could have been me.
Which is why the tragedy in El Paso shook me unlike any other of its kind, why it’s still got me in its clutches a year later. A lamentable fact of contemporary American life is that mass shootings have become an unexceptional phenomenon, and the frequency with which they occur has created a kind of standardized response: first, we feel unspeakable grief for the victims and their families; second, we feel unspeakable outrage toward the shooters and the country that created and enabled them; finally, we debate what James Madison and Company actually wanted for us. I don’t mean to sound glib about this; it’s my usual response, too, because there ain’t much else we can do.
But when I learned that the assailant’s motive was to thwart an “invasion” of Mexicans into our country, that the surnames of the 23 deceased were made of the same stuff as my own, the story emerged from the realm of the abstract and inconceivable and settled directly across from me on the living room couch. The tragedy felt like it was mine. I knew then, and still know today, that it was not, but that’s how it felt. My thoughts shuffled through the stages of the standardized response — another young, white, male shooter; another unreasonable firearm — and instead fixated on the details that made this story a personal one: The fact that El Paso is the symbolic and geographical midpoint between Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I lived for the entirety of my childhood and adolescence, and central Texas, where I’ve lived for the entirety of my adulthood. Or that the city was the last American reference point my family would see when we’d drive into Mexico to visit los primos and las abuelas, the five of us stuffed into a royal blue Toyota Corolla hatchback that stank of our dog Zorro’s urine whenever temperatures tipped above 90. Or that the shooter was a student at the community college where I’d taught a few years earlier.
And most of all, I imagined a version of the incident in which the anti-Mexican extremist in El Paso happens to be an anti-Mexican extremist in Austin, and my family happens to be shopping at Wal-Mart that day, buying groceries and Pokémon cards.
That could have been me, my wife, my children.
This last detail is a bit messy because Mason, the boy I’ve raised since he was four months old, is not my biological son. The story is long, but I suspect that it’s more interesting to me than to anyone else, so here’s the abridgment: I fell in love with my wife while we were working together at a bookstore the summer before my first teaching job — she was my boss, a technicality that still serves as the default tie-breaker to any household stalemates — and when I learned that she was raising a baby mostly on her own, everything I admired about her suddenly carried a new and deeper beauty, like the sentences of a great novel you rediscover through older, wiser eyes. At the time, the only thing I held in lower esteem than the world around me was the world inside my head, but as she and I grew closer, I felt happier than I had in years. When she trusted me enough to introduce Mason into the relationship, I saw a life with both of them in it and understood that nothing else would do.
Out of respect for Mason’s biological father and his family, who are nice people and who have been categorically supportive of my relationship with him, I’ll skip that chapter and just say that when my wife and I committed to spending our futures together, I was also committing to a lifetime of fatherhood. Since he first began to speak Mason has known me as “Daddy” and has expected of me all that comes with the title. Together we have learned to read and write, to stay up on two feet and then on two wheels, to swim and catch and throw, to play basketball and chess, to love the game of soccer like it’s something sacred and necessary. We have written and illustrated two graphic novels with uncannily similar plot lines, built dozens of Lego sets to 96% completion, read the first 170 pages of Don Quixote, memorized everything there is to know about the Komodo Dragon. We choose Whataburger over In-N-Out, exercise over screens, Messi over Ronaldo, comedy over drama. We are working on striking the ball with both feet and taking our first touch into space, speaking Spanish, exercising discipline and patience and manners and kindness, always more kindness.
I don’t mean to indulge in self-congratulation; Mason has done much more for me than I can ever hope to do for him, and I know that one day, the standard-variety resentment that every adolescent harbors toward their parents might charge into his life with all of this as added fuel. But for now, the fact of his genetics is one that scarcely enters our orbit unless I’m filling out legal paperwork or dropping him off with his grandmother for a weekend.
The problem with blessings that come easy, though, is that they inevitably collide with the harsh dealings of the adult world. And as Mason grows older, the world will ask him to reconcile the history that lives inside of him with the one that lives inside of me. He was too young to understand this when we prayed together on the evening of the El Paso shootings, but for the first time in our relationship, I had to accept the fact that one day, he won’t be.
That could have been me, I thought, just as I would have at any other act of violence against my community, any other reminder of the hostility that forever looms in the fringes of your life when you’re Brown in America. But what about Mason? Does it matter that his biological father is white? One wouldn’t know just by looking; his skin presents in varying shades of brown — from chestnut to pecan, depending on the season — and he wears his dark hair faded high and tight like mine. No living soul would mistake his relation to his mother and siblings, who will never have to question which box to check, and actually, I hear acquaintances who aren’t aware of Mason’s background comment on how similar we look so often that I don’t even register the irony anymore. So what happens to my oldest son if he’s confronted by someone who wishes to bring harm to Mexicans? Will he be forgiven for the part of him that is not? Will he be judged by my last name, which is apparently unpronounceable to the guerro tongue, or by his first name, which very possibly couldn’t be whiter? Will he be spared on account of technicalities, or worse yet, not spared because of the perceived sin of who and what I am?
Those who haven’t been subjected to bigotry — or who don’t believe such a thing exists anymore — might see these questions as evidence that the very concept of “race” is one to which we assign more meaning than is deserved. The same people who claim not to “see color” or who don’t quite understand the importance of specifying that Black lives matter will likely consider the absurdity of bigot calculating the Mexicanness of my son and say, See, there’s no Black or Brown — we’re all just human. The problem with thinking of this kind, though, (besides the obvious fact that it disregards four centuries of American history and grants a fat pardon to the institutions that have shaped that history’s ugliest junctures), is that it neglects the most important detail from the scenario in question: the very matter of the assailant and his crime. If we don’t see color, how do we explain a man being so disgusted by a particular race or ethnicity of person that he’s driven to commit mass murder to make his point? How do we reckon with the long and many-layered legacy of prejudice against Hispanics and Latinxs that fed his theories of invasion and cultural decay? How can we carry on with any delusions of American egalitarianism knowing that those theories have been echoed, in some cases verbatim, by a man who was elected to be our President?
Because I am certain that Mason loves, and is loved by, his family, I am certain that he will stand puños up against beliefs and institutions that perpetuate harm toward the Latinx community. What I don’t know, however, is whether his willingness to fight will emerge out of choice or necessity. With the issue of race pulsing louder than ever, the conversation I tried to start with Mason in the aftermath of El Paso has become more urgent, more complicated. His brain can’t yet conceptualize the mechanisms of bigotry, but he understands pain, understands what it looks like when you hurt someone on the inside, and fortunately, he carries his mother’s big and empathetic heart. Still, my fear that he might one day be subjected to attacks on his identity is eclipsed only by a fear that his understanding of such attacks might be limited to what he learns from books, stories, social media. There’s an act of translation required when you talk about race with people who only have a theoretical or academic understanding of it: No matter how pure their intentions, how thorough their knowledge of history and policy and the infinite acronyms that are used in contemporary social discourse, they can never understand how it feels to be called beaner, spick, wetback, dirty Mexican, dirty fucking Mexican, fucking dirty Mexican. To believe your parents are invincible, just like any other child, and then see disdainful eyes close in when they insist on speaking Spanish in public. To hear your own President breathe new life into ancient prejudices that put people like you in direct harm, and to know that your criticisms will be dismissed as “political” opinions.
But really, I can’t predict how intimately any of my kids will identify with their Mexican roots: my daughter and youngest son will be second-generation Americans, natively fluent in the language and culture of their country, and that fluency might very well enable them to pass through life without feeling particularly burdened by this variety of identity crisis. All I know for sure is that “Mexican” is a designation I’ve carried with conflicting pride and insecurity, authority and reluctance, love and anger, through every turn of my otherwise immensely privileged life, and so I suspect it will be a constant passenger in the lives of my children, too.
Most of us, regardless of our backgrounds, envision what we want from adulthood because we were children first. We work hard to imitate the virtues of our own parents, and we work harder to avoid their mistakes, until one day we find ourselves losing our tempers too easy and reiterating the same vulgar fashion habits and shouting grocerías at our TV’s. When I first became a father to Mason, what I wanted more than anything was for him to live in a household with all the tastes and smells and language and history as the one I grew up in, a household whose culture stood in stark incongruity to the world outside of it, whose culture was so idiosyncratic and vibrant that I can close my eyes and take you there whenever I choose. Walk in and smell the mole my mother is cooking, bold and bitter, spreading its tentacles to the far corners of every room. Hear my parents shouting in Spanish over whatever crackles on the pan. The TV is on, of course, but most likely tuned to Telemundo or Univision. If it’s Saturday, we’re watching Liga MX soccer instead of college football; on a weeknight, it could be Juan del Diablo, or another novela of its kind, instead of Cheers. See the crosses mounted on the living room wall, tin and wood and porcelain; see the plastic sandwich bag half-filled with water hanging from the door frame that leads to the back yard — to keep the flies out, duh. Respect, above all else, the authority of la chancla on my mother’s left foot.
Revisiting that place and time overwhelms me — with nostalgia, yes, but also with regret for the many ways in which my children are growing up in a different kind of home. But, of course, if my parents had their say, they would point out that these details I’ve recounted so tenderly caused me mostly tears and anger in real-time. As a kid, I wanted to watch The Simpsons and insisted on speaking English. When I snuck girls into the house, I swept them past the crosses on the wall and would’ve gone to any lengths to keep them from seeing that preposterous bag of water. I despised mole. Indeed, if my parents had their say, they would very likely tell me to stop being such a chillón. You think what you have with Mason is hard? Try leaving your country, your home, forever. Try watching the history and traditions that have traveled through your family in one steady arc skid left as your own children come of age.
And that, I think, is the point: To live in the United States as a Brown person is to experience your ethnicity, in some form or another, at every turn. It’s easy to recognize this burden when someone is trying to harm you with words or blows, but bigotry is at its most powerful when it moves invisibly, when it presents itself in your own voice in your own head. Am I acting Brown enough? Am I too Brown for my white friends and colleagues? Why can’t they understand my struggle when the headlines are so explicit? Why should I feel guilty for challenging them to think about equity? But then again, isn’t it possible that some of us are too quick to parlay that word, “equity,” for every misfortune — or mere inconvenience — that befalls us? Am I a sellout for validating that philosophy in print? Is it even fair to write an essay about discrimination when I have a middle-class job? Am I betraying my identity by trying to create a better life for my children? Or am I holding my community back by feeling beholden to stereotypes? Is there a right or wrong kind of Mexican? A right or wrong kind of father? A right or wrong kind of Mexican father?
For me, the tragedy in El Paso isolated this anxiety and stabbed it full of steroids. I wasted the day lost in questions about myself, my country, my family, my son. Now, a year later, those questions are no less daunting. What I do understand with new clarity, though, is why a hate crime — an attack on someone’s identity, rooted in disdain for who and what that person is — cuts deeper than violence of any other kind:
The power of bigotry is not just that it’s personal, not just that it finds what’s most fragile in you and shatters it for public viewing. And the power of bigotry is not just that it’s communal, not just that one single word or act or policy can devastate hundreds, millions. The power of bigotry is that it’s always both. It breaks your own singular heart and also hunts down everyone you didn’t even know you loved. It surges through the great big world and also settles across from you on the living room couch.
Early last school year (remember last school year?), I discussed much of what’s in this essay to a beloved teaching colleague, a white-bearded Theology instructor who seldom talks above a whisper and carries himself like someone who owns a crystal ball but doesn’t feel the need to look. I was preparing to deliver a speech of the “life-lesson” variety to our senior class and couldn’t decide if this story was too personal. My colleague encouraged me to go for it, talk about El Paso, about Mason. They won’t forget it, he said — which is the highest compliment one can receive in reference to the teaching of high-school seniors. I tried. I couldn’t.
With August 3rd looming near ahead, though, I was caught again in the long shadow of that tragedy and its particular impact on my life. So I started to write, hoping I might stumble toward a life-lesson about how and why such a thing can happen in this America. And still, I find Mason waiting at the end of the story every time.
What I do know for sure is that he will be the one to interrupt my writing on this redundantly hot Texas morning. He will stumble into my office — a room undergoing its own identity crisis, where my small desk and chair set among a pile of tutus, some framed maps, an exercise bike, and a five-foot-long stuffed triceratops — and ask for permission to drink his chocolate milk, scratching the back of his neck like he always does when his mind hasn’t yet caught up to his body. He will buzz in my general space until his mother and siblings wake, and then we’ll all endeavor to survive another day in quarantine without destroying each other. And at some point, when the others go down for an afternoon siesta, Mason and I will spend a couple of hours together again, alone, just a father and his oldest son. We might watch a soccer game, or play one on the Nintendo console he’s probably too young to own. Maybe we’ll go on an unreasonably long bike ride. Or I’ll move the cars from the driveway and we’ll run around with balls at our feet until the white-hot concrete melts our shoes.
He is my best friend. It’s a cheap sentence, I know — the sort of thing you say to your kids when you want them to leave you alone but also don’t want to hurt their feelings — but there’s no truer description of the joy I get from spending time with him, which has saved me. I’m certain I’ll develop similar bonds with my other two children when they’re older, but at this stage in their lives, what they need is so much greater, in abundance and significance, than what they’re able to give. I have such a bond with my wife, but right now, the world requires more from us. My relationship with Mason may be complicated in words and theory, but it’s the joy that steers us, pure, simple. He is my best friend, and he is my son, mi hijo, in all the languages we have and all those we don’t. •