Sylvia Acosta

The chairman of the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee, Georgia Democrat John Lewis, greets Sylvia Acosta, CEO of the YWCA El Paso del Norte Region, on Capitol Hill Thursday.

Chairman Lewis and members of the committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to testify. I stand before you as the CEO of an organization whose mission is to eliminate racism, empower women and promote peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all. This mission has no exceptions, and it has no borders.

My story

I am the daughter of an “immigrant” and a migrant worker where Spanish was my first language. My mother was an American citizen born in Oxnard, California, but moved to Mexico with her family in the 30s as part of the Mexican Repatriation Program.

The fear mongering directed at immigrants at the onset of the Great Depression forced my mother into a country she had never known. Years later, my mother returned to the United States and married my father, who was a bracero, a copper miner and later a real estate entrepreneur.

My parents were proud American citizens of Mexican heritage. Through their story, they taught me to value education, hard work and ethic. They also taught me to love my country. I am proud to say my parents were immigrants.

As much as my parents loved this country, they were not immune to discrimination. As a brown-skinned woman, I am familiar with that same discrimination. I have heard the stereotypical based upon my race.

Many times, I have had people try to re-label me as Spanish, Greek, Mediterranean, as if being Mexican American somehow limits my intelligence or ability. Although these acts would frustrate me, it never occurred to me that in 2019, someone’s skin color, immigrant story or ethnic identity could result in their murder.

Impact of hate

On Aug. 3 all of that changed. A gunman motivated by hate and anti-immigrant sentiments drove 10 hours to a Walmart in El Paso to murder 22 individuals and injure dozens more because they were Mexican, because he saw them as invaders. His diatribe spouted his hate of Hispanics and clearly outlined his goal: to stop the “invasion.”

The language of hate has historically caused acts of violence against innocent individuals. I wasn’t alive when Emmett Till was murdered. I was a baby when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

My whole life, I have empathized with African Americans who have been enslaved, lynched and murdered because of the color of their skin. My heart ached for the millions of Jewish people killed in Nazi Germany because of their faith. My husband is Native American and I have been horrified at the genocide faced by his people. Hateful and cruel treatment is not new.

In many communities, people of color are treated disdainfully and met with cruel words. Although I was consciously aware of the effects of hate-filled rhetoric, I did not internalize these feelings until it turned into mass murder.

Earlier this month, more than 200 El Pasoans came together to discuss the Aug. 3 attack and the rise of hate language in today’s society.

Present were:

• The pastor of a church whose daughter was shot three times during the attack.

• The sister of a man killed while protecting his wife and granddaughter.

• The attending physician at University Medical Center who received the wounded.

None of those mentioned were Hispanic. None of them were the expressed target of the shooter. Yet they were casualties of the hate that was meant for “Mexican Invaders.” The pain, the suffering, the deaths were not restricted to one skin color. Hate does not discriminate. Hate cannot be controlled or contained.

Hate is not a mental illness. Hate is a direct manifestation of intolerance, ignorance and fear that is fueled and disseminated through language. Hate dehumanizes and kills. If we allow the continued rise of hateful language, no one will be safe.

Today I call on members of Congress to unequivocally denounce hate speech. This is not a Republican or a Democrat issue – the denunciation of hate is not political or partisan.

And so I say to those who remain neutral in the fight against hate and hate language: Do not think you are safe. You may not be the target. You may not be the object of someone’s hate. But you or someone you love may one day be the collateral damage.

Thank you for the opportunity to submit this testimony. We look forward to working with you on these critical issues.

Sylvia Acosta is the CEO of the YWCA El Paso del Norte Region.