Locals say angels quietly protect the dead buried beneath the live oak trees of Sacred Heart Burial Park in Falfurrias, Texas. Since the oil bust decimated the fracking economy in recent years, Falfurrias and other towns dotting the coastal plains of southeast Texas have taken on a ghostly quiet, a quiet so encompassing you can hear at a distance the hissing and flapping of big white owls.
Juan Manuel Villarreal, a 66-year-old groundskeeper, tends the oaks and other flora in the cemetery. And he sometimes also tends to the dead.
“Look,” he says in Spanish, pointing to a gravesite. “Those are truck tire marks. Someone just drove over these graves.” The graves are one of Sacred Heart’s many unmarked mass graves dug over the course of more than a decade. In addition to the families buried here since the founding of Falfurrias in the early 20th century, Sacred Heart also has corners and holes reserved for its newest group: immigrants found dead on the giant ranches farther south.
Villareal looks over at the graves, victims of the odyssey from Central America to the border. “The saddest thing is seeing the mothers and children, especially the skulls of bebitos,” he says. “There are many [immigrants] still in the mass graves ... and the season is getting hot again, and many more will die.”
Buried alongside them are some victims or relatives of victims of La Matanza, or The Massacre, when Texas rangers shot, hanged and killed as many as several thousand Tejanos and Mexicans throughout south Texas between 1910 and 1920, at the height of the Progressive Era.
Back then, when Mexicans and Tejanos were trying to hold onto what land remained after the Mexican-American War, land-owning progressives like Falfurrias’ founder, Edward Cunningham Lasater, invited state rangers to undertake what we would today call the “militarization of the border.”
Some of these white progressives are buried right next to Sacred Heart, where, Villareal says, they were once more clearly separated from the Mexicans by a long fence, a border of the dead that he says he played near as a boy. “There’s still mostly whites buried here on this side,” Villareal says, “but now there are some Tejanos here too.”
Villareal’s great grandparents arrived in Falfurrias during that time — back when the border was only a word. They witnessed the birth of the Progressive Era and the progressive politics that focused on reforming education, social welfare and the workplace, some of the same ideas that inform today’s progressive movement. Though today and yesterday’s progressives share a belief in the often destructive idea of “progress,” which leaves stolen land, mass exploitation, and even death in its path, today’s progressives are different in terms of issues like labor, women's suffrage and the environment, issues that have evolved or emerged since the early 1920s.
But ask Latinos whether they feel included today, and many will say, “No.” Just look at the boards and staff rosters of most leading US progressive organizations for the environment, women, labor or media. Many Latinos believe that in order to look beyond what still separates us, we have to also look backward at what separated us early on.
Today’s progressives in Texas have little to no idea about La Matanza and how it began to expand the barriers between Latinos and whites. Without looking at the history and the borders between them, Latinos and progressives will simply continue the decades-long dance that has resulted in Latino exclusion from leadership positions in progressive institutions and, some would argue, from involvement in the movement as a whole. The exclusion of Latinos leaves the progressive movement without the vital force of 55 million people. In order to undertake this necessary national, regional and local dialogue, the progressive movement will have to question what defines them, to the point where they question the term “progressive” and its etymological parent “progress” too.
Like in south Texas, Latinos throughout the United States have viewed and continue to view progress and progressivism skeptically. Some Latinos identify as “progressives,” but many more of us feel that, like the graves of Sacred Heart, we’ve been bordered off from a progressivism that has not really embraced us or our issues.
Progressives today are more evolved than Lasater and other elders of US progressivism, but remnants of the racial and political borders found in Falfurrias in the 19th and 20th centuries remain. Just look at the comments of any article on immigration in any progressive publication, and you will see the ghosts of south Texas. You will hear the voices of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Many Latinos feel progressives don’t understand why Latinos are disillusioned with President Barack Obama’s immigration policies that deport millions, jail hundreds of thousands, and result in the deaths of many — as shown by a 2013 poll released by Presente.org, a Latino advocacy organization I co-founded.
Latinos are creating super majorities like those in south Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley, where the population is about 90 percent Latino. The rise of the Latino population is becoming a unique force in its own right with its own history and destiny — not as a Spanish-speaking junior partner to the black community, which includes many Afro-Latinos who identify as both. If our political imagination does not expand beyond the black-white binary that began and still defines US culture and politics, including progressive politics, then the future of progressivism and left-Latino politics will look a lot like the cemeteries of Falfurrias: old and segregated. Such a political imagination would transcend the wreckage that progress leaves in places like south Texas.
In this sense, Latinos have much to offer whatever politic of the future replaces progressivism. “Latinos” and “Latin Americans” — two hybrid peoples born of the arrival and birth and perpetual crisis of capitalism during the discovery of the New World in the 15th and 16th centuries — remain a people who know crisis and how to face it. We know that the global forces destroying trees and land, displacing and killing migrants, and controlling ever greater amounts of space, governments and political imagination will require uniting with others within and beyond our borders.
Latinos are uniquely positioned for such struggles of the borderless world. Bigots, haters and even the well-meaning are threatened by how Latino identity and politics challenge sacrosanct ideas about borders or sovereignty. Many unique Latino characteristics — a population of 55 million connected by a contiguous border; a presence in the Southwest that predates the United States itself; a language reinforced daily, hourly by multi-billion dollar industries and the likes of Univision and Telemundo — connect Latinos to the rest of the planet and continent in powerful ways that scare some progressives.
Progressives who engage in global fights against issues like free trade and climate change are the exception in a body that uncritically accepts the bordering off of people as an “American” given. And the many of us who look at the debris of “progress” — impoverishment of the majority, greater wealth gaps, disintegration of the family — also see the urgent need to move beyond its borders.
In Falfurrias and across the United States, progressivism has ceded the Latino segment of the political system to the Democratic Party in much the same way that it has ceded considerable political space among working-class whites to the forces behind Trump and Cruz. The lack of investment in building a progressive infrastructure in these working-class communities is a problem for the progressive movement and its institutions.
The inability to link working-class Latino interests with those of the black and white working classes constitutes one of the greatest political failures of our time. Such a situation demands we do everything we can to expand the political imagination, including letting go of our long-held notions of “progress” and “progressivism.”
Though it’s clear that we’ve exhausted the limits of the two-party system, a sensibility fueling the passionate support for Bernie Sanders, we have yet to expand our conception of politics to include what is obvious to many: We need political parties tied to social movements. Those of us from or with roots in Latin America, where political parties are often tied to social movements, see the need to make “America,” the country, look more like América, the sometimes insurgent continent.
The unprecedented immigrant rights marches of 2006, when more than 200 cities and towns mobilized millions, were fueled, in part, by Latinos who have experience organizing in Latin America. Many Latino leaders from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, the Caribbean and South America first learned to fight against US-backed regimes.
We in the United States can, instead of moving forward with the march of progress, look backward. We can do the urgent and necessary work of altering “America” to include Latinos in the national conversation — not just when it comes to immigration and the Hispanic vote.
In Texas, excavations of mass graves and stories of matanzas of Manifest Destinies past will help the United States better understand the unacknowledged results of that past: Latin Americans made desperate by US economic and military policies migrating northward to the origin of the problem.
Latinos living in the United States already know the problem. We know it much like José Martí, the Cuban revolutionary poet who described our lived experience as living in the “belly of the beast.” The question is will we own that problem in a manner that acknowledges the limits of progress and progressivism that excludes Latinos?
Given the challenges facing progressives, Latinos, and the entire planet, those of us committed to keeping the beast healthy have no choice but to move beyond the limits of progress and progressivism that have failed to connect history with the outcomes of today.