Forty-year-old Antonio Valenzuela’s death didn’t spark widespread protests like George Floyd’s. In fact, the police killing of Valenzuela drew little attention outside Las Cruces.
The details about the death of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died in May at the hands of Minneapolis police resemble that of Valenzuela, a Mexican American man, who was killed in Las Cruces three months before global protests and outrage. Like Floyd, Valenzuela was killed by a choking maneuver during a struggle with an officer. In Valenzuela’s case, the officer was also Hispanic.
As national Black Lives Matter demonstrations grow, Latino activists are joining the multiracial protests while trying to draw attention to their deadly police encounters, some of which go back decades. Latino advocates and families of those killed by police say they aren’t trying to pull the focus away from Black lives but want to illustrate their own suffering from policing and systemic racism.
Activists say cases from Phoenix to Springfield, Massachusetts, show a pattern of police violence against Latinos like that against Black people. As with the killing of Black men and women, officers rarely face punishment in the deaths of Latinos. However, Latino cases seldom garner national attention, even when caught on video.
The lack of attention around encounters that go wrong between Latinos and police highlights a lack of knowledge among the general population about Latino history in the U.S. and racism endured in the American Southwest. It also brings attention to the backlash some Mexican Americans say they endure when trying to join the national conversation about race.
“It’s like they don’t care about Latinos and the racism we face,” said Frank Alvarado Sr., 76, a retired U.S. Marine whose son was shot and killed by police in Salinas, California, in 2014 while holding a cellphone officers said they thought was a gun. Alvarado has since joined Black Lives Matter protests in nearby Sacramento.
According to The Washington Post, between 2015 and April 2020, Black Americans were killed by police at the highest rate in the U.S., at 31 per million residents. Latinos were killed by police at the second-highest rate, 23 per million residents, according to the newspaper’s analysis. Both are disproportionate rates when matched against percentages of the population.
In Las Cruces, a city of about 100,000 where nearly 60% of residents are Hispanic, the rate of police killings from 2015 to April 2020 was 26.2 for every million residents, or two to three people a year, according to the Post. But that rate was the highest for any city in the nation, the Post reported.
New Mexico, a state with the largest percentage of Latino residents in the nation, also had the second-highest rate of all states for police killings, behind Alaska.
In the Valenzuela case, police video posted by the Las Cruces Sun-News shows officers chasing him after he fled from a traffic stop in February when he was found to have a parole violation. He was hit with a Taser twice but continued to struggle with officers.
Eventually, officers catch Valenzuela and Las Cruces police officer Christopher Smelser is heard saying, “I’m going to (expletive) choke you out, bro.” Valenzuela gasps for breath before going silent. The coroner determined that he died of asphyxial injuries and that he had methamphetamine in his system, which contributed to his death.
Smelser, who is also Hispanic, was fired and initially charged with involuntary manslaughter. Only after activists tied Valenzuela’s death to Floyd’s killing and Black Lives Matter protests hit Las Cruces did New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas file a second-degree murder charge against Smelser, in July.
Smelser’s attorney, Amy L. Orlando, called the new charge a political move meant to grab headlines.
“Officer Smelser used a technique that was sanctioned by the department,” she said.
The city of Las Cruces has agreed to pay Valenzuela’s family more than $6 million.
A string of police killings of Latinos in Salinas, California, in 2014 received national attention after Floyd’s death. That year, police shot and killed four Latinos in the city of 160,000.
Ana Barrera, 48, an activist and middle school teacher, said the shootings stirred normally quiet Latino farmworkers, who marched and expressed anger that officers weren’t facing discipline. She said immigration status and fear over losing easily replaced farm jobs might have prevented some from speaking out.
“That’s changed now,” said Barrera, who has since arranged meetings with Black Lives Matter organizers from Ferguson, Missouri.
Monica Muñoz Martinez, the author of “The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas,” said police killings of Latinos don’t evoke the same emotion nationally as those of Blacks because most Americans don’t know about this aspect of the violent history of the American West.
“This country also can’t discuss race outside of a Black-white binary,” Martinez said. “And that does not paint the true history of white supremacy.”
Marisol Márquez, an organizer with Los Angeles-based Centro CSO Community Service Organization, said Mexican American activists know this history but felt immediately after Floyd’s killing the need to “center” Black Lives Matter when demonstrating against police violence.
On June 7, the group convened a Black Lives Matter protest outside of Mariachi Plaza in Los Angeles. Aztec dancers, lowriders and elder pachucos gathered to memorialize Floyd and rally in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Black and Native American speakers addressed the crowd. But the high number of Latino speakers also drew a backlash.
“We got an angry message that said we really needed to have had way more speakers who were not Latino or Chicanos,” Márquez said. “I was so angry. Who they were referring to were people who had family members who had died at the hands of LAPD … Chicanos.”