LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Donald Trump's questioning of the impartiality of the Indiana-born federal judge based on his heritage has people talking about racism and bias. For many Mexican-Americans, it's a reminder that their identity as Americans is often questioned. From El Paso, Texas, NPR's Eyder Peralta sends this postcard.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: In some ways, El Paso is the perfect place to talk about American identity. It sits right along the Rio Grande and its downtown is filled with reminders that this is a place where two cultures collide, where a border fence beckons you to pick a side.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRESTAMELA A MI")
CALIBRE 50: (Singing in Spanish).
PERALTA: Berta Aceves owns a little store about four blocks from the border.
BERTA ACEVES: (Speaking Spanish).
PERALTA: She says Trump's words hurt. More than 30 years ago, she crossed the Rio Grande, got her papers and she worked hard to get her kids through college and start a business. She's angry that Trump would question her American identity.
ACEVES: (Speaking Spanish).
PERALTA: "It's probably easy for him to say those things," she says, "because he didn't have to struggle to become an American."
Just across the street, I meet historian David Romo in a neighborhood known as the Ellis Island of the borderlands.
DAVID ROMO: Being Mexican-American is one of the oldest ways of being an American.
PERALTA: What he means is that all the Southwest was once Mexico. Hispanics have been in this country from the very beginning. And Trump isn't the first one to cast them as the other. And he's also not the first one to conflate Mexicans with Mexican-Americans. Romo knows that from personal experience.
ROMO: Straight out of college, maybe a week after graduating from Stanford University, I thought I was a big shot. You come back to the border. And they ask you - you know, if you're walking around a barrio like this, they'll ask you - declare your citizenship.
PERALTA: On one occasion, Romo, who was born in California, refused to answer.
ROMO: I was frustrated. I didn't talk back to the Border Patrol. But I got put in a chokehold for doing that, right? So these are the experiences. So it doesn't matter what papers you have, what your level of education is, anything.
PERALTA: Romo says he tries not to let those indignations make him angry. Instead, he focuses on history. He likes to remind the American people, for example, how, in the past, the United States has rounded up millions and shipped them over the border. It happened in the '30s and '40s after the Great Depression. Hispanics were accused of taking jobs from Americans. And the same thing happen again in the '50s when Eisenhower launched what he termed Operation Wetback. It's a part of U.S. history that's not well documented. But we know it was deadly. And historians estimate that hundreds of thousands of American citizens were also rounded up.
ROMO: Rage isn't enough. We have to go back to the roots. We need to have a deeper understanding so that history doesn't repeat itself.
PERALTA: In fact, even before Trump questioned the American identity of Judge Gonzalo Curiel, he praised Operation Wetback. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, El Paso.
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