Rep. Manny Espitia of Nashua moved to New Hampshire in 2015. (Courtesy)
Early last week, Rep. Manny Espitia’s friend – Nashua Alderman Tom Lopez – told him that white supremacists had left a tag on a community mural near the rail trail, in a neighborhood that is predominantly Latino.
The messages included “Keep New England White,” “Defend New England,” and “Death to Israel.”
Espitia’s first reaction was to publicly denounce those messages.
“I immediately posted,” he said. He wanted to tell people, “Hey, this is real. This is happening.”
In part, that’s because of an attitude in New Hampshire that racism doesn’t exist here, Espitia said. It’s an attitude that he has become familiar with since he moved to the state in 2015.
“I wanted to let everyone know so everyone is aware,” Espitia said. Lopez, who is involved in the art scene in Nashua, cleaned up the graffiti right away.
That was on Tuesday. On Friday, a white nationalist group called the National Socialist Club, or NSC-131, the same group behind the tags, targeted Espitia. They posted a message on Telegram, a social media platform that has become a hotbed for right-wing extremism. The app has grown to more than 500 million users worldwide, fueled in part by the Capitol insurrection, and is known for its relaxed policies around content moderation.
Espitia said that in Nashua, the NSC group has been operating mostly in the shadows, but this isn’t the first time they’ve been active. In October, they put stickers up around the neighborhood. Not all incidents end up getting reported, Espitia said.
“Anyone with a name like ‘Manny Espitia,’ State Rep or not, has no moral right to throw shade at any true (White) Nationalist New Hampshirite,” the white nationalist group wrote.
“You have no right to be here, you’re an occupier here & the days of these types trampling on New England are coming to an end,” it said.
Espitia said that the days since receiving the message have been crazy. He worries about his own safety, and the safety of his fiancée, Adriana, who is half Colombian and half Puerto Rican. And he worries about his Nashua neighbors – the mostly Latino community he represents. Of the 10,000-person district, about 28 percent are Latino.
There’s also been an outpouring of support from friends and family.
After Espitia received the message from the white nationalist group on Friday, he met up with a friend for drinks at his favorite bar. When they were leaving, Espitia spotted a sticker of Hitler on a mailbox outside. But he also saw a local business owner at work peeling it off. That gave him hope.
“I think that’s what we gotta do,” he said. “We have to get this out of here.”
Republican Speaker of the House Sherman Packard has spoken out against the incident, as has Democratic leadership, including House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing, who called it a blatantly racist attack.
“The fact that Representative Espitia is being threatened in the neighborhood where he lives and was elected to represent highlights how active racism and racist groups are in New Hampshire,” Cushing said in a written statement on Friday.
“No person should fear for their own or their family’s safety,” Cushing said.
The mayor of Nashua also spoke out against the threats to Espitia.
“Nashua is opposed to these hateful and racist acts,” said Jim Donchess, who said the city would not tolerate threats.
This isn’t the first time Espitia has encountered racism, but last week’s message reached a new, disquieting level.
He said the incident made him think about Kiah Morris, the Vermont state representative who resigned in 2018 after receiving threats of violence. At the time, Morris was the only Black woman serving in the House of Representatives. A recent report found that the Bennington police discriminated against both Morris and her husband “on the basis of race and color” in the way they responded to the case.
The message from white nationalists last week is not an isolated event, Espitia said. When he was endorsed by a gun violence prevention group, some people responded by questioning his citizenship.
“It’s always something that I knew that would happen but not to the level of threatening my person,” Espitia said.
“There are folks who legitimately do not want people like myself to be here.”
That’s a reality Espitia has had to face in a predominantly white state like New Hampshire – but growing up that wasn’t the case. Espitia was raised in Santa Ana, California, in a predominantly Mexican community where almost everyone spoke Spanish.
He didn’t realize it was anything out of the ordinary to grow up speaking both Spanish and English, until he got a scholarship to attend a private high school. He left his bubble, as he calls it, and started forming his own identity as a Chicano, who is proud of his Mexican American heritage.
In college, Espitia studied history at Princeton with a minor in African American studies. His classmates came from around the world, but he was always aware that the institution was primarily white.
After he graduated, a friend recruited Espitia to work on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. He went to New Mexico and fell in love with campaigning and community organizing: knocking on doors, making phone calls, getting people together around a common goal. He said it was one of the best experiences of his life. That’s when he knew he wanted to spend his life doing that work, which has brought him all around the country, until he settled in New Hampshire.
“I like it here,” he said, in spite of the recent turmoil. He and his fiancée have no plans to leave. They recently bought a house. “We’re committed,” he said.
Of the threats, Espitia said, “I think it’s just showing that now more than ever, we need solidarity.”
Local and federal authorities, in addition to the Attorney General’s Office, are currently looking into the incident.
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