By Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez
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OUR AMERICA—A Hispanic History of the United States
(With some quotes by Allen Barra, who reviewed the book for several outlets in the U.S.)
A fascinating book has recently come our way that does much to dispel many of the beliefs that millions of citizens of the United States have long cherished. The book is OUR AMERICA—A Hispanic History of the United States (Norton, $27.95). Written by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, a professor of history at Notre Dame University, the book is especially relevant at this moment when a U.S. Congress noted for mostly doing very little is about to commence a serious (!?) effort to reform an immigration policy that has long-since stumbled into senility.
Most North Americans are brought up on the belief that the first permanent European settlement in what is now the United States was Jamestown. Not true, writes the good professor. Santa Fe, New Mexico and El Paso, Texas were controlled by Spanish troops in 1598—a full decade before the colonization of Jamestown!
Moreover, those two well-known cities were latecomers. The first permanent colony in what is now the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico was founded more than a century before any Europeans reached Virginia.
Professor Fernandez-Armesto’s declared purpose in writing the book “is to show that there are other U.S. histories than the standard Anglo narrative: in particular, a Spanish history, rolling from south to north and intersecting with the story of the Anglo frontier.” He believes that America has “no single frontier, no single language, or tradition, or identity, no ‘manifest destiny’” (the term, he notes, was coined to justify the war with Mexico) “and no culture that deserves to be hegemonic.”
Contrary to what many Latino-phobes may think, Spanish has a longer history than English, and the cultures endemic to both languages share common traits such as “the legacy of colonialism and revolutionary wars.” The professor has, however, no illusions about Spain’s aims in the New World or about Spanish policy toward American Indians. “Spaniards and Indians traded atrocities: beheading on the one side, scalping on the other.” As one reviewer has remarked, “The English and Spanish — and for that matter, the French — were rival empires, forced to contend with yet other aspiring empires, particularly the Comanche in the Southwest and the Sioux to the north, both of whom were aided considerably by Spain’s gift to the Americas, the horse.”
The U.S. government was never against the idea of illegal immigration when it served its own interests. Thomas Jefferson thought that U.S. immigrants “could be the means of delivering to us peaceably what may otherwise cost us a war.” One could even go back before Jefferson to the Pilgrims, who “were not, of course, pilgrims but migrants,” like those “from across the Rio Grande who are their real successors today.”
There were many points of conflict between Anglo immigrants to Texas and the Mexican government, but as Fernández-Armesto puts it: “The chief cause of conflict between settlers and the Mexican government was black slavery. Mexico freed its slaves in the liberal glow of independence [from Spain]. Laws of 1821 decreed that slaves automatically became free when they stepped on Mexican soil.” Texans of U.S. origin “lived in constant fear that antislavery laws would be enforced.”
As the author correctly observes, “Racism was not just an Anglo vice. Mexicans themselves were not exempt from sentiments towards Indians as contemptuous as those of Anglos for Hispanics.” He thinks an authentic multicultural future in North America will not come easily, but forecasts that the movement will begin in Florida. He also believes that “without understanding the past, the U.S. will never be able to understand its present or its future.”