CHEYENNE – She was in the grocery store, her youthful curiosity leading her to question everything around her, when she pointed her tiny toddler finger at a bottle of Spic and Span and said something like “I know what a Spic is, that’s us, but Span, are those the people from New Mexico?”
Appalled that his niece was familiar with an ethnic slur at such a young age, her uncle sat her down over ice cream and talked for hours about what it means to be a Hispanic person – especially one growing up in Cheyenne.
Experiences like this later inspired Pascal to become an advocate for her community, and today she’s a retired consultant who uses her background in both business and activism to fight for an end to systemic racism.
The recent Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the nation are calling for the racial equity of black individuals, so we asked where Cheyenne’s largest minority group (an estimated 14.7% of the population in 2019, according to the United States Census Bureau), Hispanics/Latinos, fits into that equation as other people of color.
In a place as white as Wyoming, ACLU Advocacy Manager Antonio Serrano said making the distinction between black and brown is less important than standing in solidarity together.
“Latinos and immigrants are facing police brutality, racism, racial profiling – we’re facing all those things. (But) it’s not to the level that the black community is, so right now, the Latino community’s place in this movement is being an ally to our friends,” Serrano said. “In a place like Wyoming, where both of our communities are small, having that solidarity is important and vital to us making change for both our communities.”
Growing up in south Cheyenne as a Mexican-American, Pascal experienced many acts of racism, including an interaction with law enforcement when she was asked if she spoke English, and another when she was told she couldn’t bring her grandmother to get a haircut in a certain salon because they didn’t serve Mexicans.
Perhaps more hurtful, she added, was when teachers pointed out how her lighter skin made her look less Hispanic – and how that could be an advantage, if she’d stop hanging out with her cousins.
“Somebody said to me in second grade, and then again in junior high, ‘You can pass for white. You know you can be successful,’” she said. “(I thought) so you’re not only thinking of me as less, you’re breaking my heart, telling me to stay away from my family.”
Serrano also faced the reality of his skin tone when he was thrown on the ground by police officers at age 16 during a regular traffic stop in Cheyenne. After ripping apart his car during their search, Serrano said the officers laughed before telling him to have a good night.
During his time in elementary school, Serrano spent a lot of time physically fighting his white classmates to stand up for himself, yet saw no systemic change.
Different generations were given different tools to respond to racists. Pascal’s parents taught her that’s just how things are – Mexcian-Americans will always be treated differently – but she chose not to accept that reality.
“My generation, we were taught … to mind your own business,” Pascal said. “Don’t look for trouble. Work hard. Take care of your family. Don’t try and call attention to yourself. I didn’t get the memo.”
Pascal left Cheyenne in 1962 after a couple years studying at University of Wyoming. She was briefly a Los Angeles-based flight attendant before moving to Dallas to go into business. Her time in Texas coincided directly with the civil rights movement – she was just two blocks away from John F. Kennedy’s car Nov. 22, 1963, when he was assassinated – so she credits that movement with igniting her advocacy work.
Living in the South at that time led her to participate in several civil rights marches, and since then she’s done everything from write an honors thesis on Cheyenne’s Depression-era immigrant roundups to urge legislators to allow undocumented residents to renew their driver’s licenses once the REAL ID Act takes effect.
Serrano’s activism trajectory involves working on campaigns like WyoSayNo, which fought to prevent two private prison companies from building an immigration detention center in Uinta County, and the Wyoming Rapid Response Network, which documents actions of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in the state. He now works as an advocacy manager for the ACLU of Wyoming.
But even through his advocacy work, Serrano said he felt the voices of people of color were being ignored in Wyoming.
When marginalized communities point out issues – including the lack of representation of south Cheyenne on the Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees – Serrano said they’re still met with resistance from white residents and people in power.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, the mayor and police chief’s responses were somewhat “frustrating” for Serrano, who also called the leaders “genuinely good people.” Once again, he said those in power were “downplaying what’s happening and acting like we don’t have these issues here, when we do.”
However, Serrano and Pascal are both hopeful about the future for Cheyenne’s minority residents – especially when they look to the young activists showing up to local Black Lives Matter protests.
“A younger group, thank god a more outgoing and assertive group (is showing up),” Pascal said. “I am very optimistic and became even more so as I saw the diversity in the protests across the country related to the murder of George Floyd. Our young people are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.”
Although older generations were taught to fly under the radar and proceed with caution, Serrano said the youth aren’t afraid to speak up, even when it means making others uncomfortable.
“There’s a lot of young people who are just fed up. They’re like, ‘We want to do something, we want to organize, we want to fight back. We don’t want to just live in the shadows and have to be quiet because it’s Wyoming and this is the way it is,’” Serrano said.
According to Serrano, some Wyoming residents are unaware of how many Latinos and immigrants reside in the Equality State. He added that though racism is a commonly shared experience among people of color, being undocumented in the U.S. comes with its own host of issues.
That’s why Serrano founded Juntos, an advocacy group that connects marginalized groups to legal resources for issues with law enforcement or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The group provides “Know Your Rights” cards to populations at a higher risk of being stopped by ICE or the police, and helps immigrant families secure Emergency Information Packets made up of important legal documents.
Juntos also participates in protests for the equity of all minorities.
“We support black men and women whose families and lives have been torn apart because of a racist criminal justice system,” the Juntos website says. “We recognize that the centuries-long struggle of black people in America to win equality is still being fought. We join you in your fight because we believe Black Lives Matter.”
Much of Pascal’s advocacy work with this same population is through Immigration Justice Coalition of Laramie County, one of the groups listed as an ally on the Juntos website. When translated to English, Juntos literally means “together,” and Pascal said the group lives up to the name by partnering with the coalition to push for immigration reform for local residents of all backgrounds.
Although it’s her passion, Pascal is tired of organizing. She’s tired of demanding change from lawmakers, and she’s ready to pass the torch to the younger generation. Her main message for anyone who doesn’t understand their fight is simple:
“I hope to see a bigger appreciation of the various cultures that we have here in Cheyenne,” Pascal said. “Anglos don’t need to be afraid. They really don’t. We don’t want their life. We have a very rich life of our own in this country, and we’re not asking for handouts or anything else.”