By Jorge Reina Schement
Emeritus, Vice Chancellor, Dean
Distinguished Professor of Communications Policy, Affiliated American Studies,
and Latino Studies
Dept. of Communication & Media Studies
School of Communication & Information
Rutgers University—New Brunswick
Recently, the nation celebrated Juneteenth and the end of slavery. It’s an old holiday with roots in east Texas, yet for many Latinos it’s also a new holiday. When I read articles addressing Juneteenth, they nearly all recommend a sober reflection on America’s involvement in its most brutal institution.
But, there’s a different Juneteenth in my memory that goes back to my early childhood in my grandfather’s house on West Houston Street. He worked as a janitor for the Pullman Company at the Missouri Pacific Railroad station four blocks away. If you’re of a certain age, you know that the Pullman Company operated the sleeping cars on America’s railroads. And, if you know labor history, you know that the cars were staffed with Black Porters and Conductors famously organized by the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first labor union led by African Americans. But, in the Southwest, the union also included Mexicans. My grandfather was an active member.
In my mind, that Westside neighborhood still lives. Down the street from the station, the neighborhood provides homes for railroad workers. A pair of black sisters and their Pullman Company husbands live two doors down the street. The husbands travel the rails and the sisters raise chickens that supply the neighbors with eggs. My grandfather sometimes walks to the station with the husbands.
On a weekend around the middle of June, the house of the sisters becomes the setting for a day-long celebration. Red beans, rice, chicken, ribs, music, and laughing—lots of laughing—pure unbridled joy. One of the sisters comes over with some of the goodies balanced on a basket of eggs. Grandpa goes over to say hi to the men and takes me with him. I get to run around with nephews and nieces while Grandpa chats in his broken English and the men respond in their broken Spanish. On the walk back, Grandpa explains that the men and the sisters are the grandchildren of slaves celebrating their freedom. I hear a game of tag erupt onto the front lawn, and then one of the sisters sternly orders the children into the back yard. They may be free; but, the police, who cruise the neighborhood, are still predictable. But, even this caution doesn’t diminish the raucous joy that frames my earliest memories of Juneteenth.
Decades later, when I study the intertwined histories of Blacks and Mexicans in Texas, I learn about lynchings. In the century after the State’s independence, Texans lynched perhaps as many as a thousand Blacks and Mexicans. From the 15 Mexican men and boys lynched in Porvenir, to the 24 lynchings of Black men and women in Anderson County, we share a history of violent oppression. Juneteenth commemorates one moment in that history, but this is a complex story that doesn’t conclude in 1865.
Now, In the summer of 2022, Americans are defining a new holiday. What will it become? It’s a summer holiday, so perhaps summer is a good place to start. Cinco de Mayo, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day mark summer for many Americans. Each demands reflection. At the same time, each causes spikes in the purchase of hot dogs, buns, and beer. And there we find the tension—summer holidays offer opportunities to celebrate without reflecting on the meaning of the commemoration.
So, what should we do? We should reflect on the disturbing side of Texas history. But, at the same time, let’s pass the red beans, rice, chicken, and ribs, turn up the music, and laugh with the pure unbridled joy of freedom and liberation. And to remember why we’re laughing.