Latinos Can Be White Supremacists

A mass shooting carried out by a Hispanic suspect who authorities said had “neo-Nazi ideation” caused some confusion. It shouldn’t have.

Adzel Marmita holds his daughter's hand at a vigil four days after a gunman shot and killed multiple people at the Dallas-area Allen Premium Outlets mall in Allen, Texas, on May 10, 2023.
Shelby Tauber / Reuters

A gunman turned a Dallas mall into an abattoir earlier this month, and parts of the American right reacted in disbelief. Not at the sixth mass shooting in a public place this year—by now these events have become numbingly routine—but that the suspect identified might have been motivated by white-supremacist ideology.

Why? Because the suspect was identified as one Mauricio Garcia.

As soon as the suspect’s name was reported, some conservative media figures declared that his name indicated that he could not have been a white supremacist. Twitter’s right-wing billionaire owner, Elon Musk, amplified suggestions on the social network that the reporting about Garcia’s ideological predilections was a “psyop,” a claim that proved particularly popular among those users desperate enough to pay him $8 a month to have their terrible opinions boosted by the network’s algorithm. Business Insider later reported that Twitter had apparently limited the visibility of the account of the website Bellingcat, which had first followed Garcia’s ideological paper trail to the far right. Musk has continued to insist that documentation of Garcia’s ideological background is a “psyop,” despite Texas authorities affirming Bellingcat’s assessment.

This disbelief is naive at best. Racial identity is a social reality, not a biological one, and Hispanic people can be of any racial background. “Latinos are a pan-ethnic group that have very many racial identifications within that grouping. So, you know, we can be Latino by ethnicity, but Latinos are also white, Black, Indigenous, Asian,” Tanya Katerí Hernández, a professor at Fordham Law and the author of Racial Innocence: Unmasking Latino Anti-Black Bias and the Struggle for Equality, told me. “We have white Hispanics, and there are some white Hispanics who hold very white-supremacist views.”

Reporters have uncovered a lengthy social-media trail testifying to Garcia’s racist and misogynist beliefs, and Texas authorities have described him as expressing “neo-Nazi ideation.” The initial reports in the aftermath of a mass shooting are often confusing and contradictory, and there’s nothing wrong with treating them with a little healthy skepticism. But the idea of a Hispanic person adhering to white-nationalist ideology is hardly ridiculous. The rest of the world does not conform to domestic American understandings of race, because race is an ideological concept, not a scientific one. Just because people classify you as one thing in America doesn’t mean they see you the same way everywhere else.

“Racial identity is not fixed. It’s not natural. It’s not biological. It’s not monolithic,” Ian Haney López, a law professor at UC Berkeley and the author of White by Law, told me. “Racial identity is culturally and politically produced. How people respond to it varies enormously. And that means that some people of whatever color respond to racism by saying, This is immoral and ugly. And other people respond to racism by saying, Yeah, I’m one of the superior races.” Indeed, two of the most prominent Hitler admirers in America are Kanye West and a guy with the surname Fuentes. America is nothing if not a land of opportunity.

Latin American countries have their own issues with racism. Although some countries present their “mixedness” as a cultural ideal, in practice, race and class tend to be closely intertwined.

“In the United States, there’s this binary that denies all the complexity of various other races and various mixtures, and also a cultural sense that race is strictly biological,” Haney López said. “And in Latin America it’s more of a continuum, with more room for social, economic, and cultural factors to be factored into one’s racial standards.”

A few examples drawn from the long history of race and racism in Latin America help illustrate the point.

Latin American countries, like the U.S., have a colonial history built on the displacement of native communities, and exploitation of African labor through the transatlantic slave trade. Less than 10 percent of enslaved Africans in the Middle Passage landed in North America; most of the rest landed in nations where the main languages spoken are French, Portuguese, and Spanish.

Although the social dynamics in these countries are not identical, as in the United States, their societies remain scarred by the legacy of that history. Evo Morales, the first Bolivian president of Indigenous descent, was mocked by his political opposition as a “poor Indian.” In 2021, the then–Argentine president remarked that “Mexicans came from the Indians, the Brazilians came out of the jungle, but we Argentines came from boats from Europe.” This was a reference to Argentina’s 19th-century immigration policy, which, much like that of the United States, attempted to socially engineer its population to be whiter—and it was not the only South American country to pursue such a policy. “After the abolition of slavery, a number of countries across Latin America—some successfully, some unsuccessfully—wanted to bring in European immigrants in order to undercut the number of now-free people of African descent,” Hernández said.

The Hispanic population of the United States is incredibly diverse, and its members subscribe to a wide array of views. Among the largely Hispanic communities along the Rio Grande Valley, many people are employed by the border-protection industry, and their views on immigration tend to be quite conservative. Fearmongering about illegal immigration, in terms that would be familiar to Tucker Carlson viewers, is prominent in Spanish-language right-wing media, which both illustrates the point that people of Hispanic descent can be as anti-immigrant as anyone else and raises the question of whether those contending otherwise are ignorant or dishonest. Several conservative commentators even blamed lax immigration policies for the Dallas shooting. Although Garcia, who was born in Dallas, might have been trying to martyr himself for the white-nationalist cause, to some conservative commentators, he was just another “illegal” because of his ethnic background.

And the question of how Hispanics fit within America’s constructed categories of race has long been contested. Mexican was included as a category on the 1930 census, but Hispanic was not included until 1980. From the 1930s into the ’60s, Haney López told me, many Hispanic advocacy groups pursued the same political strategy as Southern and Eastern European immigrants, seeking to distinguish themselves from African Americans and ultimately be accepted as white.

“With the civil-rights movement,” Haney López said, “you get this rapid, significant shift where a lot of folks in the leadership class and the more politically engaged elements of the community say, No, we’re not white. We’re actually brown, and we always have been brown. And we’ve been brainwashed, brainwashed ourselves into thinking we’re white, but actually, we’re brown, and we’re brown in a way that makes us similar to African Americans.

That shift, though, was hardly universal, Haney López said, pointing to a survey he worked on in 2020. Only about a quarter of Latinos saw the group as being “people of color,” he found, and those respondents tended to be more liberal.

The idea that a Hispanic American could be a white supremacist may seem confounding to those wedded to the idea that racial identity is both a biological fact and fixed throughout time. But neither is true. And it’s not at all surprising, given the history of racism in the United States, that someone would see such an ideology as a way to raise his status relative to others.

“You don’t have to look any particular way to want to be part of the club,” Hernández said.