How Black Lives Matter in the Valley
Black Lives Matter: we’ve heard it a lot lately in the wake of more police shootings of black men. It came up – in different ways – at both the Republican and the Democratic National Conventions. It’s also showing up in places where there are not a lot of black lives – places like the Rio Grande Valley – with a black population of just one percent.
The Black Lives Matter movement in McAllen, Texas is led in part by a teenager. Eighteen-year-old Aimaloghi Eromosele and her two older brothers planned a recent protest and vigil in the city adjacent to their hometown of Mission.
"A lot of people want to look at protests like they are going to be something crazy and violent,” Eromosele says, “but a lot of the time it's just community building and a place to start conversations and speak with one another.”
Eromosele, who’s black, lives in a community that’s more than 90 percent Hispanic – a community that showed up by the hundreds at McAllen’s Arch Park for the protest.
Before the march started, Danielle Lopez of Pharr burned sage to cleanse and bless the protest. That’s a practice by curanderas, faith healers in Hispanic culture. Lopez was at the protest as part of the Carnalismo National Brown Berets – a pro-Chicano movement that first emerged in the 1960s.
"Historically we have always been very united,” Lopez says. “The Brown Berets and the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement have actually been involved with each other since the civil rights movement.”
Rosa Vidal from Pharr echoes the need for minorities to speak out against social injustices facing other minorities.
"If we don't fix the system something worse is going to come,” Vidal says. “Right now it's our black brothers and sisters. But who's next? And if we don't stand up for them, who's going to stand up for us?"
In fact, Hispanics share a similar history of violence from law enforcement officers.
Maritza De La Trinidad is an assistant professor of Mexican-American studies and history at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
"The Mexican-American community also faced violence by the law enforcement especially in Texas by the Texas Rangers,” De La Trinidad says. “So there is documentation of police brutality and law enforcement brutality against Mexican-Americans, not only in Texas, but Arizona, California."
George McShan has lived in the Valley for more than 40 years. He grew up during segregation and later became the first African-American man to be elected to the Harlingen School board in 1988.
"What has happened now, the children and great grandchildren of the fathers of the ‘60s began to realize that the plights are very similar,” McShan says. “So you could begin to see a conversion of minorities particularly brown and blacks coming together saying that we had discrimination. Maybe not so much by the law but by the practice they discriminate against us."
And though, McShan says, the 1960s opened the door for equality, millennial minorities are recognizing that there are still injustices.
“The doors is already open,” McShan says. “Now when they walk through this door they expect equality, they expect equity, they expect liberty, they expect a good quality of life and to be treated with respect. If they're not getting that they are going to have that voice, they are going to speak out.”
Back at the protest there were signs reading "Black Brown Unity," #RGV4BLM and Mexican flags with glued felt letters spelling “Black Lives Matter.”
But not everyone was on board. While I was talking with organizer Aimaloghi Eromosele, just as the protest was set to begin, a counter-protest rolled in.
More than a hundred motorcyclists, from groups such as El Banditos and Blue Shield, encircled the tiny two-acre park. The group parked at an adjacent bank and walked across to the Black Lives Matter protest with "Blue Lives Matter" and "All Lives Matter" signs, flags and chants.
Among them was Efren Barajas who says he was there to voice his support of law enforcement.
“They protect us, they go into life-threatening situations to save our loved ones,” Barajas says.
The McAllen resident says he didn't understand the need to have a specific Black Lives Matter protest. He says because the area is mostly Hispanic, the culture along the border is more inclusive.
“Down here in the Valley,” Barajas says, “it is not us against them, no. We all work together."
Eromosele, however, says the Valley’s small black community doesn’t always feel that way.
"They feel alone,” she says. “People kept telling me we really needed this here, we really needed this here. So even though maybe racism and the issues that take place in the RGV are happening on a lower scale and maybe a little bit more hush-hush doesn't mean that they are not here.”
Jonely Alce, who’s Afro-Latina and lives in Weslaco, agrees.
"The Valley's not excluded from that just because a majority of our residents are Latino or Hispanic,” Alce says. “It does not mean that injustices are not happening or has not taken place here.”
And injustices have taken place here. In 1981 the McAllen Police Department made national headlines when a federal grand jury in Brownsville indicted five McAllen Police officers on brutality charges. Four of the five officers were Hispanic. The fallout, according to a police magazine at the time, resulted in a complete reorganization of the department.
Nowadays, the consensus among protesters in Archer Park was that the rapport between the community and police is generally positive.
"We're not anti-cop,” Eromosele says. “We're anti racist police. There are bad seeds in every bunch."
In evidence of that point, the protesters ended the night with a candle light vigil for both the victims of police brutality and the police officers that were killed in Dallas.