5 Ways U.S. History Is More Latino Than We Think

Image: Albuquerque

New Mexico repeatedly rejected as a state because it was too Hispanic, recounts the author of a new book, "Our America." Alamy

The idea for historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto's new book came from a chance encounter while on the lecture circuit in 2007. The Notre Dame professor was in Colorado Springs, delivering a speech at the U.S. Air Force Academy, when one instructor mentioned that he wanted the U.S. to be welcoming to immigrants. The instructor also said: “people who come here must learn the native language.”

“I quite agree,” said Fernández-Armesto. “Everyone should learn Spanish.” The Air Force instructor seemed surprised, so Fernández-Armesto reminded him that “Colorado” itself is a Spanish word.

This was an "Aha" moment for Fernández-Armesto, a 63 year-old British historian of Spanish descent. “I discovered,” he said, “that these nice, cultured, well-educated people had little understanding of the country’s Hispanic past.” So he set out to write a book that examined American history from a fresh perspective. “I wanted to go beyond the traditional, from east to west, sea-to-shining-sea narrative,” he said. “The truth is that U.S. history crosses the continent in both directions, as well as from south to north.”

The result is Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States. “The U.S. has a longer Hispanic past than an Anglo (white) past,” he said, “and without acknowledging this, we are incapable of understanding what America is – and what America will be in the future.”

Here are five takeaways from Our America:

1. American colonial history does not start where you think it starts. Do you think it began with landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in 1620? Guess again. How about Jamestown, Virginia in 1607? No. St. Augustine, Florida in 1565? None of these answers is completely accurate. Fernández-Armesto writes that the true starting point of our colonial history was Puerto Rico in 1493, when Christopher Columbus landed on the island and named it San Juan Bautista. And the first Europeans to settle in what is now U.S. territory were three pigs and a few goats; Columbus released them with the idea that they might multiply and provide a food source for future settlers.

2. The history of Texas was shaped by undocumented immigrants – who happened to be white Americans. Once Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821, it allowed Americans to settle in Texas in order to populate its northern frontier. This liberal immigration policy arose in part because of the geographic and political distance between Texas and Mexico. In fact, Texas was so far from Mexico that Mexico’s President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna compared the relationship to Siberia and Russia. As Americans increasingly moved into Texas, Fernández-Armesto writes, “Mexico’s centralist government suspended the settlement policy, but immigrants from the United States continued to be the 'illegal aliens' of their day.” These settlers poured into Texas, and later came into conflict with Mexico over the issue of slavery, which was illegal in Mexico. By 1836, Texas had wrested its own independence from Mexico, and then became a state in 1845.

3. The Statue of Liberty went up just in time for immigration controls to begin. Prior to 1886, when Lady Liberty was erected in New York harbor, there were few restrictions on immigration. But by 1891, Congress set up a board of inspectors to process those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The government began rejecting people as undesirable or unsuitable, just as America’s growing industries hungered for immigrant labor (a situation not unlike today). Tightening the controls on immigration, however, proved an exercise in futility. “Even as the hoops got tighter,” Fernández-Armesto writes, “more people squeezed uncomfortably through them.”

The first Europeans to settle in what is now U.S. territory were three pigs and a few goats.

4. New Mexico was denied statehood for years because it was too Hispanic. Congress refused fifteen applications from the “Land of Enchantment” to become the 47th state. According to Fernández-Armesto, New Mexico was long excluded from statehood because of “xenophobia verging on racism and a narrow-minded understanding of what it means to belong to the United States.” In his view, the federal government was wary of bringing a territory into the union that was largely populated by Native Americans, Mexicans, and Hispanos (descendants of Spanish settlers). It wasn’t until the white population began to approach a majority tipping point that statehood was confirmed in 1912. Ironically, today the demographic pendulum has swung back the other way. With a population that is 47 percent Latino, New Mexico ranks first among the states in Hispanic population.

5. The civil rights movement of the 1960s owes a debt to a group of concerned Latino Dads. In Mendez v. Westminster School District (1946-47), a group of Mexican-American fathers in Southern California sued their local school district for insisting that their children go to a school reserved for Mexicans. The parents claimed that their children were being discriminated against, and that their equal protection rights were being violated. Ultimately the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in their favor, a decision that Fernández-Armesto cites as “the first breakthrough in anti-segregation customs and laws in the United States.” Not only did the Mendez case lead to the desegregation of California schools, it laid the legal groundwork for the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. The Board of Education (1954), which struck down segregation in public schools as unconstitutional.