John De Leon was 7 years old the first time he heard it; 49 years later, he can hardly forget it.
It was flung at him over the summer in his corner of South Texas where the neighborhood kids — most of them white but a few of them Hispanic — played in the streets from sunup to sundown, frolicking in the streets when they weren’t waiting their turn at the Little League baseball field.
That day, they rounded out their playtime by tossing around a football in the front yard of a friend’s house until that friend’s father, whom De Leon described as a “mean old guy,” came out to send the kids home. But he had a different directive for De Leon.
“He said, ‘Y’all need to get out of here. You can’t be playing out in the yard’,” De Leon recalled. “And then he singled me out and he said, ‘And you, you little spic Mexican, go back to Mexico.”
Having spent his entire life in the United States, De Leon didn’t fully comprehend the racist remark at first, but he was shocked and confused. By the time he made his way home, he feared the incident would somehow get him in trouble, so he did what any 7-year-old might do. He told his mom.
“When she heard me recite what was said, she was so angry,” De Leon said. “Part of the trauma was seeing how offended my mother was by what she heard. … That’s the concrete that stuck with me all these years. Whatever your trauma is, you don’t forget it, and that was the moment.”
State Rep. Armando Walle heard it at high school track meets and on the football field, particularly when his school was up against teams with mostly white players. But it followed the Houston Democrat all the way to his first campaign for a Texas House seat.
It was 2008, and Walle was trying to unseat an incumbent. While block walking across the district, he came up to a home that was fenced off, so Walle rang a large bell that hung from the gate.
An older white man opened the front door, listened to Walle introduce himself and shouted that he didn’t want any of his campaign materials because “we’re not voting for wetbacks.” Then came the “go back to your country.”
“At first you’re shocked and then you get angry and then you want to tell somebody off, but you just kind of let it go and walk away,” Walle said.
Growing up in the Dallas suburbs, Erika — who asked to be identified only by first name out of fear that speaking out would affect her at work — heard it so often that it “all kind of blends” together now that she’s 29.
She was just one of maybe five Hispanic kids and 10 students of color in her grade level throughout elementary school, where her classmates brought into the classroom what their parents were likely saying at home — “Why don’t you just go back?” “Go back to Mexico.” “You don’t belong here. You need to go back.”
It became even more hurtful when she heard it while going through middle school and high school, where kids were older and likely more aware of the hate they were spewing. Erika recalled one particular searing version that sought to emphasize she was not like her peers: “If you’re so angry about the way it is here or the conditions for your people, then you should just leave. You should get out and just go back to Mexico.”
“Even though I was born here, I feel like I’ve heard in the classroom. I’ve heard it in the hallways. I’ve heard little snide remarks that I’ve had to let go to not get in trouble,” Erika said.
As an adult, she’s realized that people are often more subtle about it. She’s run into it in the break room at work, where CNN is often playing and coworkers make hurtful comments under the guise of reacting to the news. They’re hardly explicitly directed at her, but she feels just as targeted, especially when they look back at her after they make the comment, she said.
“They’re saying it around me because they can see me,” Erika said. “There’s really no way to hide my brown skin and my brown features.”
De Leon, Walle and Erika each revisited those memories this weekend when President Donald Trump told four Democratic women of color in Congress to “go back” to the “broken and crime infested places from which they came.” He invited the four women to return to the supposed countries they “originally came from” even though all but one of them were born in the U.S.
The president’s racist words stung.
Erika has spent her entire life questioning whether she was American enough — Was she listening to the right music? Was her Spanish accent creeping into her English? How could she convince her mom to pack a different lunch for her that the other kids wouldn’t question?
Trump’s words reinforced her belief that she’s never going to be considered fully American because she’s brown.
“I’m always going to be seen as those congresswomen,” Erika said. “I’m always going to be seen as an other.”
Trump’s words dimmed Walle’s hopes that his young children would not face a world in which people are made to feel less American because of the color of their skin.
And Trump's words shocked De Leon, who tried to reason that “we’ve come too far and my parents have done too many of the right things.”
De Leon left his hometown many years back. He has worked in sales for nearly three decades. He is the father of two grown children — one about to graduate with a degree in chemical engineering and the other just starting college with dreams of becoming a dentist.
But when he read Trump’s words, it was like he was 7 years old again.
“It just took me right back to that yard,” he said.