American Caudillo
The Atlantic|November 2020
Donald Trump is slowly making the U.S. into a likeness of the countries Latino refugees have been fleeing.
Por Luis Alberto Urrea

Many of the refugees who have arrived at the United States’ southern border in recent years were fleeing the gangs that the president claimed they belonged to.

My father was a Mexican citizen until the day he died. He lived here in the U.S. on a green card. A former military man and federal agent under several Mexican presidents, he remained patriotic and deeply conservative. Though he had been chased out of his beloved Mexico City by the toxic whims of a presidential strongman, he stayed loyal.

He loved Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. He joked that if he were an American citizen, he would have tried to vote for Nixon twice in 1968. He used to boast that Nixon was the first Latin American– style president America had ever elected. My father was a law-and-order man—once a cop, always a cop. He might have fallen for Donald Trump if he’d lived long enough. But Trump would have talked him out of it in his first televised anti- Mexican rant. At least I think that’s what would have happened.

DURING 2020’s apocalyptic summer, photographs circulated of immigrant farmworkers toiling in fields amid walls of smoke and fire as California burned around them. The pictures have visceral impact— they are frightening yet beautiful. But their effect on me was epiphanic: Here were perfect metaphors for the harvest of nearly four years of recklessly vicious rhetoric and policies, of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and cruel family separations, of toxic propaganda and the relentless boondoggle of the border wall. Here was the theater burning down as the hypnotist kept working the mic, like Jim Jones calling us all into the delirious excitement of sheer nihilism. The Book of Revelation for Suckers.

From the moment Trump descended on his golden escalator, head full of cynical texts of racial threat, the die was cast. For his new idea of a resurgent Great America to take hold, there had to be sacrifices. Human sacrifices. And imaginary hordes of raping “bad hombres” and their chain-migrating families were the perfect targets. He must have had visions of Andrew Jackson churning in his head: A Trail of Tears would have sounded good to him, as long as it didn’t point north.

Some four years later, as the new era that Trump promised struggles to be born, nursed by fire and hurricane, flood and drought, violence and pestilence, falsehoods and greed, I turn to the pictures of those unseen human beings risking their lives and health every day so you and I can have tomatoes and straw berries. I suspect that none of the fieldworkers pictured is secretly hoping to rape, sell drugs, or cheat the American university system into giving them free tuition. But sly old dragons like Trump know there’s money to be made—t sunamis of campaign donations from panicked party faithfuls who have absorbed their leader’s fever dreams; a steady flow of cash to round up and “house” our un documented guests.

Buckets of money and megawatts of power pour out of the poor if you know how to get your needles and hooks into them.

HOW MANY OF THE CHILDREN SEPARATED FROM THEIR FAMILIES AT THE BORDER WILL NEVER SEE THEIR PARENTS AGAIN? WHO IS EVEN KEEPING TRACK?

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM THE ATLANTICView All

THE SECOND CAREER OF MARTELLUS BENNETT

The former NFL tight end writes the kind of children’s books he would have loved as a kid.

10 mins read
The Atlantic
January - February 2021

THE COVID-19 MANHATTAN PROJECT

NEVER HAVE SO MANY RESEARCHERS TRAINED THEIR MINDS ON A SINGLE PROBLEM IN SO BRIEF A TIME. SCIENCE WILL NEVER BE THE SAME.

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
January - February 2021

THE LEGACY OF DONALD TRUMP

His reign of lies poisoned our minds and our politics, with effects that will long linger. But democracy survived.

8 mins read
The Atlantic
January - February 2021

The Most American Religion

Perpetual outsiders, Mormons spent 200 years assimilating to a certain national ideal—only to find their country in an identity crisis. What will the third century of the faith look like?

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
January - February 2021

THE MAKING OF A MODEL MINORITY

Indian Americans rarely stop to ask why our entrance into American society has been so rapid—or to consider what we have in common with other nonwhite Americans.

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
January - February 2021

More Than the Vote

The suffragists’ struggle produced undaunted trailblazers, Black and white, who continued to pursue social reform.

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
January - February 2021

The Committee on Life and Death

As COVID-19 has overwhelmed hospitals, the lack of clear bioethical guidelines has meant that doctors have had to make wrenching life-and-death decisions on the fly. The result has been chaos and unnecessary suffering, among both patients and clinicians. As the country prepares to distribute vaccines, we’re at risk of reprising this chaos.

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
January - February 2021

JEANS NOW, PAY LATER

Are the new online services that allow you to buy just about anything in installments—interest-free—too good to be true?

8 mins read
The Atlantic
January - February 2021

China's Rebel Historians

Defiant researchers chronicle a past that the Communist Party grows ever more intent on erasing.

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
January - February 2021

How Great Is Martin Amis?

Assessing the legacy of a comic master who grasps for seriousness

6 mins read
The Atlantic
January - February 2021