RIO RANCHO, New Mexico
The death of Antonio Valenzuela, 40, did not generate mass protests like George Floyd’s. In fact, his death at the hands of the police had almost no impact outside the city where it occurred, near the border with Mexico.
The details of the death of Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American killed by Minneapolis police, closely resemble those of Valenzuela, a man of Mexican descent who died in Las Cruces, New Mexico, three months before he worldwide protests broke out over Floyd’s death. Like Floyd, Valenzuela died of suffocation during an encounter with the police.
As the demonstrations of the Black Lives Matter movement grow, Hispanic activists are indulging in multiracial protests in which they try to focus attention on deadly police episodes, some of which occurred decades ago. Activists and families of people killed by police say they are not trying to distract attention from the Black Lives demonstrations, but to expose their own suffering at the hands of systemic racism and the police.
Activists cite cases from Phoenix to Massachusetts in which there are perceived patterns of violence in the treatment of Hispanics by the police, similar to those of African Americans. As with the deaths of black men and women, officers are rarely punished when the victim is Hispanic. Cases involving Hispanics, however, rarely make headlines across the country, even if they are filmed.
The low interest in Hispanics and the police reflects how little is known about the history of Hispanics in the United States and racism in the Southwest and on the border with Mexico. It also reflects the resistance that some Mexican Americans face when trying to participate in the national debate around race.
“It’s like they don’t care about Hispanics and the racism we face,” said Frank Alvarado, Sr., a 76-year-old retired Marine whose son was shot multiple times by police in Salinas, California, in 2014 while holding a phone that agents thought was a weapon. Alvarado has joined the Black Lives Matter rallies in neighboring Sacramento.
According to the Washington Post, between 2015 and April 2020, the rate of deaths of African Americans at the hands of the police is the highest in the country, with 31 deaths per million inhabitants. That of Hispanics is the second highest, with 23 per million, according to an analysis of the newspaper. Both are disproportionate rates with respect to their percentage of the population.
But Valenzuela’s death is a clear example of the scant attention generated by violent encounters between Hispanics and the police. Las Cruces, a city in which 60% of the population is Hispanic, registered a rate of 26.2 deaths at the hands of the police per million inhabitants. It is the highest rate for a city in the entire country, according to the Washington Post.
New Mexico, the state with the highest percentage of Hispanics in the country, also has the second highest rate of police killings in the country, second only to Alaska.
In Valenzuela’s case, the Las Cruces-Sun-New newspaper released a video showing officers chasing him after stopping him for a traffic violation in February and discovering that he had violated the terms of his probation. They applied the electric gun to him twice but he continued to struggle with the officers.
They finally managed to catch him and Las Cruces agent Christopher Smelser is heard saying “I’m going to (insult) suffocate you, brother.” Valenzuela is seen to have trouble breathing until he is immobile. The medical examiner determined that he died of suffocation and that he had methamphetamine in his body, which contributed to his death.
Smelser, who is also Hispanic, was fired and initially charged with involuntary manslaughter. Only after activists linked the case to Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations reached Las Cruces did the New Mexico attorney general charge Smelser with second-degree murder in July.
The agent’s attorney, Amy L. Orlando, said the charge was a political maneuver intended only to generate headlines.
“Agent Smelser used a technique approved by the police department,” he said.
On Thursday the municipality of Las Cruces and a lawyer for Valenzuela’s family reached an out-of-court settlement for a sum that was not disclosed. The municipality said it will offer its agents workshops on racial discrimination and will try to force them to intervene in instances of excessive use of force.
A series of deaths of Hispanics at the hands of the police in Salinas, California, finally generated interest after Floyd’s death. In this city of 160,000 inhabitants, where the Nobel Prize in Literature John Steinbeck was born, four Hispanics were shot and killed by police in 2014. And there were other cases.
Ana Barrera, 48, an activist and teacher, said the killings shocked the Hispanic farm workers in Salinas, who took to the streets to express their displeasure that the agents were not being punished. She said immigration status and fear of losing their job may have inhibited many from speaking. “But that has changed,” said Barrera, who has organized meetings with representatives of Black Lives Matter from Ferguson, Missouri.
Throughout the history of the United States, some killings of Hispanics by the police led to reforms.
– In 1973, 12-year-old Santos Rodríguez was killed when a Dallas police officer forced him and his brother to play Russian roulette after accusing them of stealing $ 8 from a vending machine. Riots broke out and there were calls for changes.
– In 1978, reforms were demanded of the Houston police after major riots broke out in the North Side sector a year after officers beat Joe Campos Torres, a Mexican-born Vietnam veteran, to death and discarded his lifeless body in Buffalo Bayou.
Monica Muñoz Martínez, author of “The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas”, says that the killings of Hispanics do not generate the same type of repercussion because Most Americans are unaware of this violent history of the Southwest against Hispanics. “The country cannot talk about race outside of the parameters of whites and blacks,” Martínez said. “And that doesn’t present the real story of white supremacy.”
Marisol Márquez, an organizer for the Los Angeles Centro CSO Community Service Organization, said Mexican activists know this story but immediately after Floyd’s death felt the need to focus on Black Lives Matter by participating in protests against police violence.
On June 7, the group joined a Black Lives Matter rally in the Mariachi Plaza in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Aztec dancers, horsemen and old pachucos remembered Floyd and supported the Black Lives Matter movement.
There were African-American speakers and descendants of Native peoples. But there were also many Hispanic speakers, which generated some discomfort.
“We got a message from angry people saying that we should have had more speakers who were not Hispanic or Chicanos,” Marquez stated. “I was furious. They spoke of people whose relatives were killed by the Los Angeles police. From Chicanos ”.