Black Lives Matter Protest Shines Light on Racism in a Small West Texas Town

street signs for various freeways along a street in texas

Standing on the steps of the Brewster County Courthouse in Alpine, Texas, Daedrien “Dae” Houston-Leyva told the crowd at the Black Lives Matter (BLM) rally on June 6 about “the talk” she received in fifth grade. Not the one about the birds and the bees, but the one that prepares Black kids for how to be safe in public.

“It is going to be hard,” Houston-Leyva told the crowd, recalling what her parents told her. “You need to know that you need to always be on your guard. Don’t drive around with your music too high. Don’t draw attention to yourself. If you get pulled over, make sure to have your ID [within] hands reach. Obey everything that the officer tells you to do. Do not resist. Don’t raise your voice. Don’t talk Black. Don’t move too fast. Stay as calm as possible. Make sure you get your phone call if you end up in jail. Don’t give them a reason to kill you. You need to stay alive for Mommy.”

Houston-Leyva is one of the few Black women to grow up in Alpine, the rural West Texas town that has less than 6,000 people. Her mom is Latina and her dad is Black and she self-identifies as Afro-Latina. Gina Leyva, Houston-Leyva’s mom, told Luz Collective that she and Houston-Leyva’s dad made the conscious decision when she was pregnant to raise their interractial daughter knowing both cultures. “We weren’t going to be divided,” said Levya. “We were going to come together and raise an interracial child together with my Hispanic culture and [his] African culture.”

two women during a protestSarah M. Vasquez

Latinos make up 46 percent of Alpine’s population and Black people make up less than one percent. President Donald Trump won Brewster County with 48 percent of the votes in 2016. Alpine is a college town with Sul Ross State University, named after the 19th Governor of Texas who was also a Confederate general.

Houston-Leyva said she never had it rough growing up as a Black person in Alpine, but looking back, she realized that she experienced microaggressions in her everyday life from both the White and the Latinx communities. “I’ve heard it all,” Houston-Levya told Luz Collective in a series of recent interviews. She heard people stereotyping Black people, asking why are they always “ghetto.” She heard the frequent use of the n-word from a Latino resident, who also told her that she wasn’t that because she was “smart and only half [Black].” Houston-Leyva shared in her speech that people have assumed she was good at sports or that she listened to hip hop, which she informed the crowd were racist assumptions.

Pushback on this kind of racism is starting to emerge. There’s currently an online petition to remove Devon Portillo, the Republican challenger from the ballot for Brewster County Sheriff after racist tweets including the n-word surfaced earlier this month. But growing up in this environment also led Houston-Leyva to internalize the racism around her, including a time when she hated herself for being biracial. “I would question myself why,” said Houston-Leyva. “I would pick on other Black kids and other Black kids would pick on me,”

Over 300 people marched under the blazing Texas sun and listened to speeches at the courthouse on June 6. It was one of the smaller demonstrations happening around the world in response to the murder of George Floyd, one of the many Black people who has been killed while in police custody, but has garnered national attention with mentions in the New York Times and The Rachel Maddow Show.

Before the Alpine protest, Houston-Leyva cried as she saw the protests in larger cities like Austin and San Antonio, because she felt like she couldn’t do anything in her rural town. She signed online petitions, gave donations, and attended a candlelight vigil at the Presidio County Courthouse in Marfa. At the vigil, she and her mom joined the small crowd wearing masks and practicing social distancing as they listened to two songs by Nina Simone and a short speech.

Shortly afterwards, Houston-Leyva joined a Facebook group created by a few Alpine residents who were organizing a protest for the following weekend, which led to one of the organizers asking her to speak at the protest. At first she was excited, but then a public Facebook thread revealed threatening comments towards the protesters that included the phrases “get a rope” and “lock n load,” and assumptions that there would be civil unrest during the 9:30 am protest. “I started getting nervous once we got those threats because I was like something could happen,” said Houston-Leyva. “I was worried about the other speakers. I didn’t know how many people were going to be there. I was worried about people just standing on the side of the street with big machine guns and stuff.”

At one point, she thought maybe she shouldn’t speak at the rally, but then she told herself that she had to do it as one of the few Black people in Alpine. Thankfully, the protest remained peaceful. A few people wearing red MAGA hats watched the march pass by, and one guy interrupted a speech with cries of “it’s conspiracy theories, not racism.” The crowd responded by chanting “I love you” at him. The hardest day for Houston-Leyva was the day before the event. It was her birthday as well as the birthday of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was fatally shot in her home by Louisville police officers during a now illegal no-knock search warrant. “It was just a lot, and I had to get there emotionally,” siad Houston-Leyva. “I had a couple breakdowns. I cried. I was really worried. But when I got up there, I looked at everybody and I knew that I had to do this.”

It was when she left to study in San Antonio a few years ago that Houston-Leyva realized there was a racism problem in Alpine. She saw more diversity and people from other races and cultures attending her school. “It opened my mind, but it was like, wow,” said Houston-Leyva. “Looking back at it, it’s like I was hearing all this negative stuff about these people and they’re nothing like that.”

Houston-Leyva said Alpine is like a little fantasy world where everybody is set in their ways. “They’re more worried about what people are going to think instead of what’s right,” she said. In her speech, she shared a story that she hadn’t told many people, not even her mom, about a sleepover in elementary school. Two of her white friends were making plans for an out-of-town trip in front of her and a Hispanic friend. “My Hispanic friend and I were baffled and wondering why not us? Why don’t we get to go with you? When we asked why [we] couldn’t go, the little girl replied, ‘Because I am white,’” recalled Houston-Leyva.

person recording speakers on their phoneSarah M. Vasquez

The crowd was silent after hearing her story, but she shared it because she wanted her neighbors to realize that racism exists everywhere. “Saying my speech here, it hit home because they watched me grow up,” said Houston-Leyva. “I didn’t talk about my issues publicly, only with my family, and I think that made people realize like ‘Oh, wow. Dae is affected by this.’”

During the march, she saw a little girl holding hands with her mom. It reminded Houston-Leyva of her younger self, and that’s when she realized that it was important for her to speak her truth about racism. “I’m doing it for her because I don’t need her to go through what I went through,” said Houston-Leyva. “I don’t know who she is, but she gave me that courage. She gave me that strength and she doesn’t even know it.”

a photograph of Gloria Anzaldúa with a hat with the sea behind her

In the heart of the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, a beacon of hope and resilience was born. On September 26, 1942, Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa came into a world that wasn't quite ready for her. As a Chicana, a lesbian, and a feminist, Anzaldúa was set to challenge a predominantly Anglo-American and heteronormative society in a way that would forever change the discourse surrounding queer and Chicano identities.

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