President Donald Trump’s performance along the west and South Texas border in 2020 was nothing short of remarkable. Just five years after he’d called Mexican immigrants drug dealers, criminals, and rapists, the enthusiasm of Latino voters for the 45th president dashed Democratic dreams of a blue Texas, resulting in voting shifts in Texas border counties unseen in over a century. The Democratic Party and its media sycophants blamed the lackluster showing on Covid-19, the “defund the police” backlash, and the specter of socialism.
But for two longtime amigos born and raised in Laredo, the urge to further investigate the cause of this political earthquake was too great to ignore. Rick had firsthand experience in Texas politics, coming up short in a 2018 underdog race as a Justice Democrat in the state’s massive 23rd Congressional District. And Jaime’s nascent legal career representing school districts from West Texas to Corpus Christi Bay had him meeting fronterizos of all backgrounds.
According to the Texas secretary of state, the voting shifts were substantial, with Trump collecting more than 30 percent of the vote in every border county. In a majority of those counties, Trump received 10 percent more votes than he had in 2016, with some, like Starr County, showing shifts as high as 28 percent. Traveling 2,000 miles of Texas highway in seven days, we interviewed several dozen Latino Trump voters in 10 border towns. But after exploring this vast expanse, we came away with more questions than answers—and new Parler and Rumble accounts to stay in touch with those we met along the way.
“I don’t sell snake oil.”
We started our trip at Cristell Laurel’s high-end health spa, Skintology, after hours. The Laredoan gave us a quick tour of her establishment and introduced us to some cutting-edge antiaging treatments. “I don’t sell snake oil,” Laurel declared, expressing her frustration with an industry full of hucksters.
Laurel, 36, voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but she recalls the experience as unfulfilling. Her love affair with specific, decidedly liberal social causes—gay marriage, the legalization of marijuana—piloted her to the Democratic Party in her early years, but the party’s stance toward Latino voters alienated her. She didn’t appreciate being told what political ideals she ought to hold. “You’re either a Republican or a Democrat, and the media puts you in little boxes, and once they decide where you go…if you’re a conservative, you’re either super money-hungry or a racist,” she told us. “I don’t have a box!”
Laurel’s frustration with the political discourse on social media and the traditional news networks motivated her to shop around for different news sources, which is how she discovered The Daily Wire. They “stopped telling me what I wanted to hear and gave me facts and statistics. I wanted to learn where these stats came from. They don’t give an opinion as news.”
Laurel’s participation in a Webb County Trump Train last year solidified her turn from an Obama liberal to an “out-and-proud conservative.” The news coverage and some locals’ reactions to the demonstration brought home for Laurel how divided the country is. “There’s a newspaper article saying how bigoted, racist this all was, and how horrible it was and a stain on Laredo…. Why are you writing about something I know is not racist? We’re just riding around in our cars!” While she was riding in the Trump Train in her pearl-colored SUV adorned with “Trump” and “Blue Lives Matter” flags, an elderly woman walked out onto her lawn and flipped Laurel the bird. When we asked Laurel to imagine what the woman might have been thinking, she humored us and said, “The old woman saw me as a racist. Just an ignorant dumb bastard with no right or reason.” She paused, allowing the sound of meditative waterfalls to fill the room, then added, “What a miserable way of being.”
“Everyone’s going to get it eventually.”
As we entered Zapata County, the streets bustled with maskless children at play. On one road, a group of preteen boys raced a pricey-looking dune buggy down the block. A separate trio of young caballeros rode ponies through the barrio. Nearby, a small bilingual sign signaling “Free Covid-19 testing” caught our eye, and we decided to get a test. The virus raged during our travels, taking more than 5,000 lives along the border in 2020 (including 22 here in Zapata County), according to The New York Times.
Completing a questionnaire was the only requirement, and participants then queued up in a large gymnasium. The process moved briskly, and after an oral swab test that was over in less than two minutes, we bumped into a new voter outside—a 23-year-old waitress at one of the amazing Mexican restaurants in this unincorporated town of 14,000. Though she didn’t want to be named, the woman told us her husband was one of the thousands of oil and gas workers laid off during the pandemic. The industry has lost an estimated 80,000 jobs since the end of 2018, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
Regular close contact with hungry diners motivated the young woman to take advantage of the free Covid test. “They say Trump got it…. Everyone is going to get it eventually,” she lamented. “It’s better we all get tested so we can get out of these masks!” Before leaving for her second shift, she shared both her hopes for the vaccine and her frustrations with customers who refuse to wear a facial covering. Yet she also seemed comfortable with Trump’s handling of the pandemic. She wanted the election results overturned, she told us, suggesting that “it would help out a lot of people—not just me and my family, but everyone around the world.”
Her confidence in Trump reminded us of a Del Rio nurse practitioner and his spouse, a registered nurse, who both braved a Val Verde County windstorm to share their approval of the president’s handling of the pandemic. The couple had voted for Obama in the past but wished to remain anonymous now, citing “paranoia” and a general fear of retaliatory attacks against Trump voters that alt-right media figures on Parler and Rumble warned them about. Sadly, the couple’s local paper, the Del Rio News-Herald, had recently shuttered after 136 years in operation, forcing residents of the small city to seek their news elsewhere.
The two bemoaned anti-mask protesters, some of whom demonstrated outside the Texas State Capitol building in Austin this past April to attack business closures, mask mandates, and government scientists. “I’ve seen [Trump] wear a mask; sometimes [he] doesn’t,” the nurse practitioner said. “I don’t know if it’s true, where they are posting that he wasn’t wearing a mask, because they say the same thing about Biden.” The couple never seemed to draw the connection between those protesters, the news that they consume, and the president they proudly voted for. “In Austin, nurses, they’re dying!” he added. “Protesters were screaming, ‘No mask!’ and they’re attacking nurses, like, ‘You’re the devil!’” He shook his head in frustration. “We take care of the sick, you guys, come on…. I have friends that died at the hospital, and I saw them two days before. And there are people who think it’s a hoax?”
“We were expecting something weird.”
You take the last lonely stretch of Route 67 south to get to Presidio. The old town of western lore sits on the eastern end of the Chihuahuan Desert, where the Rios Grande and Conchos converge. People of different cultures and creeds have crossed this river junction on their journeys for millennia, and that legacy lives on today. Recently widened to accommodate increases in truck and pedestrian traffic, the Presidio bridge tallied an estimated 250,000 pedestrian crossings in 2018 alone, according to the Texas Department of Transportation, up 165 percent from 2017.
We talked to residents off the town’s main thoroughfare about the uptick in activity, which they’ve noticed. Outside a busy Dollar General, a buckaroo-wearing vaquero in a 2X Stetson said he voted for Trump because of the area’s improved economy. “We saw a difference the last four years. Better jobs. Better living for everybody.”
This economic boost is borne out by the data. When Trump rode a red wave of nativist sentiment to the White House in 2016, Presidio County’s unemployment rate stood at 12.2 percent, according to Texas Labor Market Information’s unemployment statistics. It fell to a low of 5.1 percent by April 2019. Sadly, the pandemic destroyed those gains, and by the time we arrived in this mountainous county of 7,000, the rate had increased to 15 percent, the second-highest of any county in the state.
To our surprise, the vaquero didn’t vote for Trump four years back, so we asked what changed his mind. “At the beginning, it was kinda confusing, especially for the border towns,” the man said as he swept his hand along the horizon, following the mighty river as it flowed south. “I’m a Latino. We were expecting something weird. But we saw the difference.”
“We can’t do a thing about it.”
When the sun dips behind the Franklin Mountains and El Paso’s skies turn blood red, the Grand Candela memorial lights up the Cielo Vista Walmart parking lot. Completed in November 2019, the memorial consists of 22 metal panels, each representing a life lost in the mass shooting that took place on August 3, 2019 (a death toll that now stands at 23). Every panel of the 30-foot structure is beautifully perforated with different geometric shapes, stars and crescent moons. The memorial itself is emotionally powerful. But walking through the superstore, with its long lines and crowded aisles, you would never get the sense that this is hallowed ground. In a mall dominated by big-box stores, a Red Lobster, and a Hooters, the shoppers passing through the retail giant’s doors on the night we visited could have been anywhere in America.
Yol-Itzma Aguirre, a Mexican American community organizer and native El Pasoan, volunteered to act as our guide, bringing us to the memorial. Aguirre believes the El Paso massacre was motivated by hatred against her people, and it broke her heart to see so many of her “Latino brothers and sisters” vote for Trump.
While waiting for the sunset, we spoke to an older Latino couple in the parking lot about their vote. Like many Americans, Felix and Antonia Garcia were on their way to do some last-minute Christmas shopping. The unassuming couple jumped at the opportunity to talk to us, and they held each other’s hand while they spoke. Felix was born in Michoacán and Antonia in Morelos; both now live in El Paso. The two lifelong Republicans voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020. “We are Christians,” Felix explained, “and we believe Trump is a strong defender of religious freedoms.” When asked for another reason, Antonia cited Trump’s defense of “the state of Israel…the base of the Christian faith.”
The Garcias are unwavering Christians with convictions as strong as St. Perpetua. Viewed through their eyes, the world—including the 2020 election result—makes sense. Though they believe there was fraud against “Señor Trump,” the Garcias also believe that the outcome is out of their hands. Quoting the Book of Daniel, Felix declared, “God in His word says, ‘He removes kings and appoints kings’…and if Mr. Biden becomes president, we can’t do a thing about it.”
The Garcias heard about election fraud through Facebook and other social media platforms. In contrast to the hooting Trumpers who stormed the US Capitol, they seem to have handled the news of the purported theft with grace. As Felix put it, “The Bible says we must respectfully submit ourselves to our government.”
Facebook and YouTube use have surged among Latinos, especially during the pandemic. A report by Nielsen last fall found that Latinos were 57 percent more likely to use social media for all their Covid-19 information than non-Latinos. Additionally, of those polled, only 21 percent of Latinos thought that cable news was trustworthy.
We encountered an example of this move to social media—and growing skepticism about traditional media—in Cheo Breñas, a Cuban exile operating a flea-market boutique near the start of the famed Chisholm Trail in Brownsville. His Facebook page, “Donald Trump Para Hispanos,” is awash with pro-Trump YouTube clips. The man was still busy on January 6, posting more than 80 times. In one of Breñas’s Facebook posts, he says, “A new party for Trumpistas—who is with me?” (After we interviewed Breñas, the page was taken down.)
Before the Garcias departed, we asked about the 2019 mass shooting and whether they believed Trump’s notorious rhetoric about their motherland had played a role in it. They didn’t. “My wife and I were just talking about it,” Felix said. “A lot of innocent people died. In my personal opinion, Mr. Trump was not at fault.” Antonia firmed her grip on her husband’s hand. “It’s people that aren’t at peace with God or themselves, and for those reasons, they do evil acts,” she said.
When we returned to the memorial, dusk was near, and we found Aguirre sitting in her car, crying, thinking about the massacre and her country’s future. “How do you win, you know? They are still organizing. They’re still planning on 2024.” She stopped and fixed her watery eyes on the memorial. The sun had set, and the Candela was lit. It was time to go.
The 10-hour drive back to Laredo gave us time to think about the men and women we’d met. Both of us had expected to hear something different from them, honestly. Hardly anyone mentioned “socialism” or “defund the police.” Instead, we heard praise for the economy and for Trump himself. He remains a great favorite with the people we met. They all still believe he won the election and said they’d be comfortable if the results were overturned. In just four years, Trump managed to turn parts of what had been a strong blue border wall for Texas Democrats deep Republican red—truly an incredible feat. As to what lessons we can learn from it… we’re still trying to figure that out.