Dismantle Walls: From Bystander to Upstander For Latinos

Dec 17, 2019
11:14 AM

As the year comes to an end, the  border wall between the U.S and Mexico remains an unrealized threat. A federal judge in Texas recently blocked the U.S. Defense Department from diverting money authorized by Congress for other military construction projects to build the wall.

Yet the hateful anti-Latino rhetoric spewed by the current administration and its supporters is taking its toll on Latinos across the U.S.

Violence against Latinos is at an all-time high. According to the recently released FBI’s 2018 Hate Crime Statistics, the total number of hate crimes against Latinos has increased by 41% in the last three years.

Videos of white people screaming at Latinos for speaking Spanish while going about their daily lives are continually emerging.

A woman yelled at a member of the U.S. Air Force outside of a Starbuck’s in Hawaii for speaking Spanish in a private phone call while in uniform. In a Colorado supermarket, two Latinas were startled when a white woman screamed at them, insisting they must stop speaking Spanish.

Even in Mexican restaurants customers have been filmed yelling at workers and clients for speaking Spanish.  A white woman in a Mexican restaurant in West Virginia was captured on tape harassing a Latino manager for speaking to his colleagues in Spanish.


While such insults begin by focusing on language, they often escalate to racist gibes such as “go back where you came from,” “rapist” and “get out of my country.”

Nationally, Latino children are bullied and taunted at schools with chants such as “Build the wall,” “Go back to your country,” “You’re gonna be deported.”

More frequently Latinos silently endure these incidents. ProPublica’s Documenting Hate Project tracked over 54 cases of such harassment across 26 states studied in an eight-month period.

Latino children already have a higher rate of depression and suicide than other children and the current political climate heightens their sense of anxiety and fear. Latina adults are similarly apprehensive.

Such incidents are not only damaging to Latinos’ sense of belonging and safety in the U.S. but can escalate to acts of deadly violence.

No one can forget this summer when a 21-year-old  white man picked up an AK-47 assault rifle, drove 11 hours to El Paso, entered a Walmart, and murdered 20 men, women, and children. Upon his capture, the man readily admitted that he had driven from a Dallas suburb to a border town with the intent to kill Mexicans.

In a manifesto published online before the killing spree, this man railed against the “invasion” of Latino immigrants. What if across his life people had engaged and challenged this young person as he was developing hateful attitudes?

While a direct cause and effect relationship between anti-immigrant rhetoric and the rise in anti-Latino violence is not possible, it is hard to deny that the ongoing demeaning rhetoric linking Latinos to crime, unlawfulness, and foreignness does not impact how people view and engage with Latinos.

Racist language engenders violence.

Every individual can respond when hearing taunts. Interrupt. Let the speaker of the taunt and others in the surrounding area know such hateful speech is not acceptable. Be an upstander.

Research on bystander action suggests that interrupting perpetrators may cause them to reexamine their attitudes because the actions interrupt the “false consensus effect” or the idea that everyone agrees with them. Such actions help them and others realize that such positions are at variance with local social norms especially if they are confronted by people of their same community.

Regardless of politics, all citizens are responsible for addressing the targeting and demonizing of neighbors and fellow community members. Ignoring or minimizing demeaning taunts against Latinos makes everyone complicit in normalizing hateful rhetoric and the actions such rhetoric may engender.

Community accountability means everyone can intervene whenever they witness injustice.

Looking ahead to a more fair future in 2020 that does not repeat the acts of hate against Latinos, it is possible to dismantle the wall of hate, one brick at a time.


Lourdes Torres is professor of Latin American and Latino studies at DePaul University, editor of the journal, Latino Studies, and a Public Voices Fellow through The Op-Ed Project.