Shooting of a young Hispanic male by police officer shines light on community’s race perceptions, their detrimental effects
The death of a Hispanic teenager over spring break in Addison at the hands of an off-duty Farmers Branch police officer exemplifies the problems young Latinos face in this country. It’s also a stark reminder of how hard it can be to be a young, minority male living in the United States.
On March 13, 16-year-old Jose Cruz and his friend, Edgar Rodriguez — who is also 16 — were doing something admittedly wrong: stealing the seats out of a car for a quick buck. When Ken Johnson, an officer with the Farmers Branch Police Department, saw the pair committing the crime in his apartment complex, he announced to the pair he was with the police before chasing them in his car.
Despite restrictions against such action from his own police department, Johnson eventually caught up to the pair and rammed them with his own vehicle. That’s when he got out and opened fire on the two, killing Cruz and sending Rodriguez to the hospital.
Johnson was later arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault.
When I heard about the incident, a lot went through my mind. What resonated with me the most, however, was just how easily Cruz could have been me.
Growing up as a Hispanic male, I truly became aware of my ethnicity when I was in high school. That’s not to say I didn’t know where I came from or didn’t appreciate my heritage, but it had never made me feel different from anyone else.
That all changed when I started to get into honors courses and realized how rare it was to see someone who looked like me in those classes. It all changed when I had a teacher my freshman year who said she wouldn’t allow Spanish to be spoken in her class. It all changed when my best friend and I, who is also Hispanic, had a run-in with the police where we almost got arrested.
For better or for worse, I started to realize just how much weight people really place on race, which — for Hispanic people — is difficult to define in the first place. Regardless, I began to simply accept it when I would go to events like my white friend’s wedding where, being one of the only two brown people in the room, I caught a fair share of odd glances.
Simply put, it’s no longer a secret to me that people look at young, Hispanic males a little differently than others. Sometimes it’s something as simple as being asked if you’re “part of the help” at a fancy dinner you’re attending — which actually happened to my family and me once — and sometimes it’s as serious as being chased down and shot in cold blood for a misdemeanor.
I’m not defending Cruz and Rodriguez for what they did. At the end of the day, they were committing a crime and should have been arrested. But what’s upsetting is that they didn’t even get that chance.
It’s times like this that I’m incredibly grateful for my father and what he did, or rather didn’t do, for me. Born in Mexico and brought over to the United States as a child, my dad, along with the rest of his family, had to scrape and fight for everything he had. It would have been easy if he, like so many of his peers, dropped out of school, got into the streets and went down a road he couldn’t come back from.
He took another route. He did things the hard way and set up a life for my siblings and I where we didn’t have to feel like it was different for us to do well in school and be successful simply because of who we are.
Looking back on that now, those decisions my father made may have saved my life. The truth is, young men of color bring out the worst fears in people. We don’t get the benefit of the doubt. If we mess up, it’s too often that we don’t get the chance to walk away and learn from our mistakes. We either end up in handcuffs, in a plane back to our home countries for those without documents or in a coffin. To stay on the straight and narrow isn’t a means to success, it’s a survival tactic.
It is equally frustrating and terrifying to deal with the racial realities of modern America. You want to believe situations are changing and people are becoming better, but maybe that’s not true. Maybe bigotry has taken on a more passive nature than before. Instead of calling us “spics” and “wetbacks,” people now use coded words like “illegals” to classify an entire group of people fleeing from some of the most deplorable conditions in the Americas as villainous. Even our leaders brag of building walls to ensure people who look like me stay out of this country.
That’s why I see myself when I see Jose Cruz. It’s not because of what he did that Cruz got killed; it’s because of what he looked like. It’s because people have made it normal to dehumanize young, Hispanic men from the get go. We’re not supposed to be successful. We’re not supposed to be forces for good.
In the dark depths of people’s hearts they don’t share, that only leaves one way for them to categorize us: as criminals who don’t deserve salvation.
When Jose Cruz was shot and killed, it wasn’t just a 16-year-old who was gunned down. It was another member of a community that has been told it is worth less than others. And when the world has been taught and trained to believe your life doesn’t matter, you cease to become a person. You become a target.