For Mexicans in America, Joy Is an Act of Survival

We get up in the morning and we tell ourselves we are worthy, we won’t be decimated: we will live.
Alex Zaragoza
Brooklyn, US
Mark Ralston / Getty Images 

Every time I walk into a room, I immediately scan for exits, hiding places, or objects I could shield myself with should a man—a white man, his every fiber filled with hate—force his way in and spray it with bullets, leaving holes in families and communities. This has become commonplace for people in the U.S., a sort of horrifying mental exercise in survival. And with each news notification alerting us to yet another shooting, it feels less like a tragic freak occurrence and more like an inevitability. When a motorcycle backfired in Times Square on Tuesday night, it sent a panicked mass running for their lives, fearing it was another shooter. This is the state of our cultural anxiety, but it's also the reality that Black and brown people have lived with forever.


As a Mexican-American, this has all been compounded by the constant reminder that my life is considered worthless, expendable, and a blight on this country. From the childhood taunts, to the daily push notifications alerting me to another attack on my community, I've been told my whole life that I'm not worthy of space or humanity. Now, Mexicans and Central Americans are being hunted down by both white supremacists and government agencies, empowered by the hateful rhetoric and policies coming from on high.

The moment Patrick Crusius entered the Cielo Vista Walmart in El Paso, he had a mission: to kill as many Mexicans as possible, to deter what he called a "hispanic invasion of Texas" in a 2,300-word screed he posted online. He was so intent on this mission that he drove nearly 10 hours from his home in Allen, Texas, to the border town of El Paso so he could find the most Mexicans to kill.

Such was his hatred, fueled by racism spewed by Donald Trump, who himself has referred to Mexicans and Central Americans coming to the U.S. as an "invasion"; who has called us rapists and criminals; who has locked our children in cages and separated families; who has confined our people to inhumane concentration camps on the border; who, when warning of this "invasion," smirked and joked after someone in his rally audience yelled "shoot them!"

Now 22 people, most of them Mexican, are dead, many others are injured, and a whole community—in El Paso and beyond—is mourning and will live with the trauma for generations to come.


Through all this, we have to live our lives. And it has been a struggle to live as usual, let alone joyously, when you're in fear for your life, the lives of your loved ones, and the lives of the people in your community. These shootings, along with ICE and Border Patrol agents going to inhumane lengths to remove people from the country and the hateful rhetoric surrounding our existence, create an unending panic, infringing on our capacity for joy or even hope, which are both essential to living a dignified life where we can chase dreams and opportunities unencumbered by fear. When the public spaces where we congregate, shop, learn, earn, or enjoy something we love become rife with danger, it renders community gatherings specifically meant to nourish resilience unsafe.

I was less than a month old when, on July 18, 1984, James Huberty opened fire at a San Ysidro McDonald's—located just across the San Diego-Tijuana border, and killed 21 people. "I'm going hunting…hunting for humans," he told his wife before leaving to incite this bloodshed. Years later, I would wait at a different McDonald's just down the road after school until my mom could pick me up. People still point at the spot where the mass killing happened when they pass it: “That's where all those people were killed.” We don't forget.

Like many of those victims in El Paso, I grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border, crossing from Tijuana to San Diego daily, and thus grew up with the hate, the derision, the taunts, the demonization, the ridicule, the AKs worn by patrolling army members and federales, and the fear that comes with being a Mexican living in a heavily politicized space. Like in El Paso, racism there has long been rampant. From the white kid in college who offered me quarters to iron his shirts; to the Border Patrol agents who would interrogate my very existence on a daily basis; to the one agent who made me pull down my underwear to prove I was on my period and not smuggling drugs in my maxi pad at 16; to the dead body of a migrant man I watched be lifted off the freeway after being hit by a car; to the wooden crosses lining the border walls on the Tijuana side in memory of all who've lost their lives; to the boyfriend who asked me why my parents would "regress" by moving back to Mexico; to the hours you wait in a car to get to el otro lado (the other side, what we call the U.S.); to a 21-year-old white man entering a Walmart and massacring 22 people; it's constant. And with each new xenophobic policy made, it spreads.


Most mornings, especially since the news of the shooting in El Paso reached me, I wake up sore, my body stiff with pain from clenching my jaw and remaining tense for hours, not just during my waking hours but even in my sleep. I have nightmares. On a recent visit to the doctor after I was experiencing regular heart palpitations, she asked if I was under any stress. “I’m a Mexican woman from the border working in an unforgiving industry,” I said. “Yeah, I’m pretty stressed.” My eye twitches constantly, and my head regularly pounds, especially during the moments where I try to suppress tears while I sit at my desk trying to hit the story quotas that will keep me employed.

I’ve become jumpy, gasping in surprise when approached without warning. When coworkers have asked me if I’m okay, whether because of El Paso, ICE raids, violence at the border, or whatever the day’s menu of terribleness offers my people, I either well up in tears as a knot the size of a grapefruit grows in my throat, gently choking me, or I spout the rehearsed lines that won’t lead to my entire day going into emotional disarray. I take cry breaks in the bathroom, then I wipe my eyes, splash water on my cheeks, and go back to work. I mine this pain for content, in the hopes that it will give me somewhere to empty all the grief and dread that sits heavy on my chest, and give others like me solace or reassurance that they're not alone.


I've lived with this sensation in small doses most of my life—to the point where I've become accustomed, even desensitized to it—but lately, I have found myself asking: How can you possibly thrive in these conditions? How do you find happiness? Do you set your fear and sorrow aside because, frankly, you have more immediate issues to tackle? Do you ignore it until you can handle the tidal wave of emotions that will overcome you? Do you curl up and cry? Do you hide? Do you stand taller and proclaim that this won't break you, and choose to fight back any way you can? Do you try to do it all? Do you even have a choice?

It's all of it; it's some of it; it's unfair. But we certainly don't have a real choice.

The biggest challenge through it all is reminding myself that I am worthy of life and space in this world, and reminding the people around me who are impacted by the degradation of their humanity, that they are too; that our Black and brown skin is beautiful, and that our flesh and bone, minds and hearts, deserve to live and flourish; that we're the living emblem of survival—proof that our Black and brown ancestors weren't completely decimated by our white ones. We cannot see ourselves as they see us. Some of us are already lost in this, because white supremacy has long flowed viciously and deeply through the veins of our varying cultures and managed to convince many they're only good if they're white; convinced our societies that whiteness is sacred and must be protected at any cost.

So how do we continue to live or find joy? We just do. We have to. There is no choice that doesn’t amount to our spiritual death. Joy is elusive to me at the moment when it feels like survival is the best I can muster. But I've learned joy is a vital part of survival. To smile and joke and love; to drink a beer with friends and call my mom and tell her "te quiero mucho, mami"; it's intrinsic to survival. We get up in the morning and we tell ourselves we are worthy, we won’t be decimated: we will live.

Follow Alex Zaragoza on Twitter.

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