In Zapata, however, these questions have been met with mild chuckles to outright frustration. The shift, residents and scholars of the region say, shouldn’t be surprising if, instead of thinking in terms of ethnic identity, you consider the economic and cultural issues that are specific to the people who live there. Although the vast majority of people in these counties mark “Hispanic or Latino” on paper, very few long-term residents have ever used the word “Latino” to describe themselves. Ascribing Trump’s success in South Texas to his campaign winning more of “the Latino vote” makes the same mistake as the Democrats did in this election: Treating Latinos as a monolith.
Ross Barrera, a retired U.S. Army colonel and chair of the Starr County Republican Party, put it this way: “It’s the national media that uses ‘Latino.’ It bundles us up with Florida, Doral, Miami. But those places are different than South Texas, and South Texas is different than Los Angeles. Here, people don’t say we’re Mexican American. We say we’re Jeans.”
Though not everyone in the Rio Grande Valley self-identifies as Tejano, the descriptor captures a distinct Latino community—culturally and politically—cultivated over centuries of both Mexican and Texan influences and geographic isolation. Nearly everyone speaks Spanish, but many regard themselves as red-blooded Americans above anything else. And exceedingly few identify as people of color. (Even while 94 percent of Zapata residents count their ethnicity as Hispanic/Latino on the census, 98 percent of the population marks their race as white.) Their Hispanicness is almost beside the point to their daily lives.
In the end, Trump’s success in peeling off Latino votes in South Texas had everything to do with not talking to them as Latinos. His campaign spoke to them as Tejanos, who may be traditionally Democratic but have a set of specific concerns—among them, the oil and gas industry, gun rights and even abortion—amenable to the Republican Party’s positions, and it resonated. To be sure, it didn’t work with all of Texas’ Latinos; Trump still lost that vote by more than double digits statewide, and Joe Biden won more of the nationwide Latino vote than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. But Trump proved that seeing specific communities as persuadable voters and offering targeted messaging to match—fear of socialism in Miami-Dade’s Venezuelan and Cuban communities, for example—can be more effective than a blanket campaign that treats people as census categories. And in the end, it was enough to keep Florida and Texas in his column. If the Democratic Party’s 2020 postmortem for Texas—indeed, for the whole nation—goes only as far as to try to increase their appeal to “Latinos” as an undifferentiated bloc, they’re going to experience even harsher losses in the next election.
In the past two weeks, national newspapers have put forward more than one theory about why Zapata, and the surrounding counties, experienced a red tide. According to the New York Times, Zapata’s vote can be explained by the area’s dependence on the oil and gas industry—and it’s true, many natural gas workers worry about unemployment under a Biden administration. The Wall Street Journal summed up their own hypothesis in a word: the economy. Pre-pandemic, many in Zapata say they attributed job growth to Trump, and many remain wary of new economic shutdowns under a Democratic administration.
What this coverage makes less clear are the ways in which the modern Republican platform appeals holistically to many people in South Texas. Few Trump supporters in Zapata think of themselves as single-issue voters, and while Biden-Harris signs are as prevalent as Trump ones, the region’s culture is, in many ways, conservative—despite being one of the most reliably Democratic up to now.
The roots of the region’s blue history go back to when, in the first half of the 20th century, Democrats controlled political life in Texas. Historians say it’s hardly an exaggeration to say there were only two parties in the state: Democrats and conservative Democrats. Like much of the South, Democratic dominance began to change when the national party began to embrace racial integration, beginning with President Harry Truman’s desegregation of the military. However, the Democratic Party machine was powerful enough that Republicans were still fended off for decades.
Today, the Rio Grande Valley is many ways a legacy, a last holdout, of a once blue Texas. There of course have always been discrete political preferences that can explain why certain individuals vote Democratic. But there’s also just the basic fact that for generations most people have been born into Democratic homes and voted year after year in local elections where the only party on the ballot was the Democratic Party. Not to mention, 2020 is the first year Texas didn’t have one-punch voting, where you could walk into the polling booth and opt simply to vote the straight-party line. (Even some Democrats in South Texas have lamented the lack of political diversity. In 2006, Aaron Peña, the Democratic state representative for the district just to the south of Starr County wrote on a now-defunct blog about “the sad legacy of South Texas boss or strongman politics which relied heavily on patrón-managed turnout rather than the advocacy of ideas.” Peña, now working for the state land office, has since switched parties.)
Trump’s success in the Rio Grande Valley, says Daniel Arreola, a cultural geographer and author of Tejano South Texas, “peels back the onion on how really conservative that Tejano ranch and small-town rural population is.”
From the brush of Laredo across more than 200 miles to the lush delta of Brownsville, there’s a legacy of a frontier culture that lives on. A place like Zapata is oil country. On weekends, the town empties out as people head into the ranchland to hunt, and nearly everyone is proudly gun-toting and God-fearing. In the deeply Catholic county, support for abortion is practically nonexistent, while support for law enforcement, the military and even Border Patrol is rock-solid.
For Sergio Garcia-Rios, a professor of government and Latino studies at Cornell and the polling director for Univision, that people in the border region are more culturally conservative makes sense. “What bothers me,” he says, “is that people understand that about the white vote. Campaigns don’t have the same discourse in rural Pennsylvania as they do in Philadelphia.” He adds: “It’s a racialized oversimplification, one that holds that, if it’s Latinos, they should all look and act the same. … I think they hoped that Latinos would all be, you know, offended by Trump.”
In some ways, by pursuing the coveted “Latino vote” nationally, the Biden campaign created a massive blind spot for itself in South Texas, where criticizing Trump’s immigration regime and championing diversity just does not play well among a Hispanic population where many neither see themselves as immigrant or diverse.
Take Cynthia Villarreal, a lifelong Democrat and lifelong Zapata resident. She, like many along the Texas border, holds that her family history begins with the Spaniards’ colonial regime along the Rio Grande.
“We like to say here that we didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us,” Villarreal says, as she adjusts her face mask and slips in and out of English and Spanish. It’s a sentiment one hears frequently, from Republicans and Democrats, across the region. It’s also that very history that explains why Tejanos don’t fit easily into racial boxes.
“I’m too white to be Mexican, and I’m too Mexican to be white,” Villarreal says with a laugh. “I am not Mexican, nor a gringo. I’m texan.”
In 1848, at the end of the Mexican-American War, the Treaty of Guadalupe ceded all Mexican land north of the Rio Grande to the U.S. As part of the conditions of surrender, Mexico extracted a guarantee from the U.S.: All Mexican nationals who remained on the land would be offered U.S. citizenship, with full civil rights. In the U.S., with Texas still a slave state, the second part of that agreement had a specific consequence: Mexicans would be considered white. If only it were that simple.
Tejanos were conscripted to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War but were also forced into racially segregated platoons in World War I and World War II. In 1930, “Mexican” appeared as a race option on the census. But by 1940, it was gone again. After a Supreme Court decision in 1935 ruled that three Mexican immigrants were not white, the Mexican government pressured President Franklin D. Roosevelt to remove “Mexican” from the census and again record all Mexican-descended people as white. In 2020, the census treats Hispanic as an option to select before asking one’s race, though election exit polls often don’t distinguish between white Latino voters and non-white Latino voters, instead drawing the demographic lines around non-Latino white voters versus Latino voters of all races. For Tejanos, especially older ones, all the labeling can be tiring.
“You young folks all want to call people Hispanic, Latino, white, brown, Black, green, whatever,” says Cynthia’s uncle Xavier. “When we were growing up, nobody was a Hispanic, Latino, Latina, brown, any of that. Everybody was an American. I’m still an American here.”