By Aldo Mena
For the sake of those who might be unfamiliar with the trajectory of Heather Wilson’s illustrious political career, I’d like to preface my comments by reminding everyone that immediately prior to her arrival in El Paso in the spring of 2019 Wilson was loyally serving in a cabinet-level position in the Trump administration.
And so – straight from what can only be described as the most anti-Mexican American presidential administration in modern American history- Wilson, with Trump’s blessing, assumed the presidency of the University of Texas at El Paso-a Carnegie-classified Research 1 institution with a student population of approximately 24,000 students, the overwhelming majority of whom are Mexican American.
At least initially, Wilson’s nomination and subsequent appointment sparked significant levels of opposition from various sectors of the community including students, professors, local political figures, and activists. The “main point of contention,” as noted by the Texas Tribune and other sources, seemed to be her anti-LGBTQ voting record as a congresswoman representing New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District in the late 1990s and early 2000s. To be more specific, during her tenure in Congress, she had apparently voted in support of a federal amendment banning same-sex marriage and had voted against legislation “aimed at protecting LGBTQ individuals from hate crimes and employment discrimination.”
To many Mexican Americans, however, the problem with Heather Wilson was, well, her willingness to serve in the Trump administration. After all, at the risk of stating the obvious, Trump had fueled his political success by denigrating Mexicans and Mexican Americans and, in the process, managed to establish himself as a perennial enemy of the larger Mexican American community.
As Wilson begins her fifth year as president, however, one has to wonder if the Mexican Americans of El Paso have finally -if not embraced- than – at the very least- resigned themselves to Wilson and the ongoing slight to El Paso’s Mexican American community that her appointment as president of UTEP represents. At this point, as far as I have been able to determine, there does not appear to be any discernible active opposition to Wilson from within the university or any other sector of the El Paso community for that matter.
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Of course, it hasn’t helped this situation that local media outlets have, for whatever reason, always seemed more than willing to give Wilson a complete pass, a shameful abdication of journalistic responsibility that unfortunately continues to this day. I try to closely monitor local media coverage relating to Wilson but, to date, I am unaware of any interviews with Wilson that undertake a serious examination of her positions on a range of relevant political issues.
Wilson has been asked questions about what a typical day for her is like and what she enjoys doing in her free time and about her local flying experiences. At one point, she was even presented with a question that came dangerously close to actual journalism when she was asked if she had “expected” the opposition that her appointment as president of UTEP had generated. She was able, however, to easily pivot away from the obvious subtext of the question by simply noting that transitioning to a new president is a “hard time” for a university before she was conveniently allowed to proceed to a much more palatable question in which she was asked to share her “impressions” of El Paso.
Wilson seems fond of letting people know that she is learning Spanish and that she likes Mexican food. I guess she thinks we should be impressed by these condescensions. What Wilson seems unwilling to discuss, however, as far as I know, is whether she agreed with Trump’s seminal attack on Mexicans in which he claimed that Mexico was sending “rapists” and “criminals” to the United States. I’d like to know why this inflammatory comment and so many other similar attacks by Trump on Mexico and Mexican Americans weren’t enough to prevent her from serving in a cabinet-level position in his administration.
It wouldn’t be out of line, given her previous career in politics including her high-profile position in the Trump administration, to ask her if she still supports Trump and whether she recognizes President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. I’d also like to hear her thoughts about the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol and Trump’s role in this sordid incident. She should also be asked about the “symbiotic” relationship Trump has cultivated with white supremacists and why his well-documented alignment with these fringe elements of the American political spectrum didn’t deter her from serving in his administration.
We know from her congressional voting record that she supported the construction of a border wall in 2006. Does she continue to support the construction of a border wall at this point? And, by the way, how does she feel about Senate Bill 6, a recently approved proposal by the Texas Senate which, if approved by the Texas House of Representatives, would finance the construction of additional portions of the border wall in parts of Texas?
Speaking of border issues, I am also particularly interested in finding out why she apparently voted in support of an amendment to House Resolution 5441, an appropriations bill sponsored by Rep. Steve King of Iowa, which effectively prevented federal funds from being used to apprise the Mexican government of the location of the Minuteman Project volunteers, a border vigilante group with connections to white supremacist groups, that was active in the states of California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in 2006. And, yes, in case anyone was wondering, this is the Rep. King who liked to disparage Mexican immigrants even before Trump made it fashionable and who was also fond of meeting with prominent leaders of Europe’s far right including Geert Wilders of the Party for Freedom, Marine Le Pen of the National Front, and Frauke Petry of the Alternative for Germany party.
There are many other questions that also come to mind or have been suggested to me by sources I consulted for this article. Does Wilson even recognize, for example, the insulting irony of an official from the Trump administration being selected to preside over a university where the majority of students are of Mexican descent? Is she aware of the fact that UTEP has never had a Mexican American president and does she acknowledge the Mexican American community’s abiding and justified interest in seeing a Mexican American with political values that align with our community assume the presidency of UTEP?
Here are a few more. When does she plan on leaving UTEP? Will she adhere to the norm of remaining in office for the span of five to seven years or will she entrench herself in the presidency like her predecessor?
It’s difficult to overstate the significance of UTEP to the political interests of Mexican Americans not only in El Paso but throughout the region. UTEP is simply too important to surrender it to an exponent of Trumpism and a steadfast ally of Gov. Abbott. As Dr. Oscar Martinez, the author of Latinx El Paso: Odyssey of a Mexican American/Hispanic Community which incidentally contains a section devoted to Wilson, has astutely recognized, her appointment is, in all likelihood, a part of a larger effort by the Regents of the University of Texas to strengthen Republican control over institutions of higher education in Texas and, more specifically, to “facilitate the spread of conservative ideological thinking among college students in El Paso.”
Whether associated with the university or not, members of El Paso’s Mexican American community should finally initiate the process of holding Wilson accountable for her association with Trump by insisting that she hold a real press conference that is open to all members of the community including alternative media outlets. This press conference or whatever it might be called would ideally feature an independent moderator or panel of moderators capable of ensuring that all legitimate questions that are posed to Wilson are adequately answered.
As Mexican Americans prepare, once again, for what appears to be the increasingly inevitable prospect of confronting Trump in the 2024 presidential election, it’s important to clarify whose side Wilson is really on.
About the Author:
The Perimeter is by columnist Aldo Mena. Aldo N. Mena is a local educator, podcaster, freelance writer, and native El Pasoan who enjoys exploring issues of relevance to the Mexican American community. He is a graduate of the University of New Mexico where he received a B.A. in English and Political Science, and an M.A. in Latin American Studies with a research concentration in late colonial/early national period Mexican history.
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