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'I'm From Here': Not All Hispanics Are Recent Arrivals

Image: San Miguel Mission

San Miguel Mission is the oldest church in the continental U.S., commissioned by Spanish settlers. Jessica Montoya Coggins / Credit: Jessica Montoya Coggins

In 1978, Patricia Madrid became the first woman elected to serve as a district court judge in New Mexico. Ten years later, she was the first woman elected Attorney General in the state.

Like many others in the Southwest, her family's presence in New Mexico goes back several centuries. Her mother can follow her roots back to settlers from a post-Civil War era, and like many Americans with a mosaic-like family history, she has a mix of Irish and German ancestry as well. Her father’s side dates back even further back, to the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico.

Americans whose Spanish and/or Latin American ancestry date back generations say their family histories are not what people think about when they think of a U.S. Hispanic.

“American history is always told from the point of the English rather than these earlier settlements coming from Latin America or Mexico,” says Madrid, who identifies as culturally Hispanic.

Americans whose Spanish and/or Latin American ancestry date back generations say their family histories are not what people think about when they think of a U.S. Hispanic.

University of New Mexico political scientist Gabriel Sanchez says many people are surprised to learn he can trace his family’s background in the U.S. to the 1500’s and he has no family in Mexico.

Settlements like San Gabriel and Santa Fe in New Mexico predate Jamestown, the first English settlement in the American colonies. Yet the lack of familiarity with the history of Latinos in the Southwest contributed to New Mexico’s rather late status in becoming an official state until 1912, argues Sanchez.

At the time, the majority of the population was not non-Hispanic white, but Hispanic and Native American. At play was “the role of race and the dynamic of what it is to be American,” he says.

San Miguel Mission, the oldest church in the mainland U.S., was built in the early 1600s by Tlaxcalan Indians from Mexico under the direction of a Franciscan friar, Fray Alonso de Benavides. At the time, New Mexico was part of the Spanish empire. Jessica Montoya Coggins

The history of America is taught as “east to west,” though Mexican origins in the U.S. defy this direction, says Carlos Velez-Ibáñez, an anthropologist and Director of the School of Transborder Studies at Arizona State University.

Velez-Ibáñez sees a story of two immigration tales. On the one hand, Ellis Island offered many immigrants a new opportunity - and often a new name. On the other hand, the U.S. Mexico border was a seemingly non-existent boundary which many traversed at will and with no consequences for several centuries.

“We used to go back and forth freely before there even was a border," says Velez-Ibáñez, who says it's only recent American policy which has created such a strict division between the countries.

Lisa Sanchez, a doctoral candidate at the University of New Mexico, is a descendant of Spanish settlers who received land grants from the King of Spain in the 17th century. She has distinct memories of being in school and bringing home forms to sign and not seeing an applicable race or ethnicity to identify her. “I would usually check ‘other’ and then write in the word "Spanish,” she says.

Lisa Sanchez’ paternal grandparents, Felipe C. Sanchez and Juana Maria Sanchez, taken in the 1930s. The Sanchez family, of Spanish origin, traces its presence in New Mexico to the 17th-century, when they came after receiving a land grant from Spain. courtesy of Linda Sanchez

Both of Lisa Sanchez' grandfathers fought in World War II, and she says patriotism is something the family takes very seriously. “Even though we identified as Spanish and are proud of that heritage, for my grandparents being American always came first."

Linda Sanchez’ grandfather, John S. Sanchez, entering the U.S. Army in 1944. The Sanchez family traces its presence in New Mexico to the 17th-century, where they received a land grant from Spain. courtesy of Linda Sanchez

Lisa Sanchez and her family consider themselves Americans of Spanish origin. In states like New Mexico there have been tensions between families with deep roots in the country who choose to identify as "Spanish" and those who are either more recent immigrants or choose not to identify as Spanish but as "Latino" or "Chicano" or "Hispanic."

Sanchez, who has done research on the topic, says there are political and cultural differences among the groups, which mirror some of the difficulties in seeing the Latino community as one singular group. Yet she has found a slight freeze in the tensions since the polarizing immigration debate of recent years has brought the groups closer together.

Northern New Mexico College professor Patricia Perea, who identifies as "Chicana," has traced her father's lineage to 1692 in present-day New Mexico; he is also of Santo Domingo Pueblo. She traces her ancestry on her mother's side to Mexican immigrants who came after the country's Civil War in 1910.

Northern New Mexico College prof. Patricia Perea's ancestor, Martita Baca, is shown in a picture with her children around 1900 in New Mexico - before it was incorporated as a state. Courtesy of Patricia Perea

Perea, who has also taught in the East Coast at Brown University, finds even students of Latino backgrounds from states like California or Texas have a "blind spot" about Hispanics' long ties in the U.S.

At Northern New Mexico College where she now teaches, students who want to research their family history have access to an array of resources, including bound copies of census records for much of the state and online access to ancestral documents.

The U.S. Mexico border was a seemingly non-existent boundary which many traversed at will and with no consequences for several centuries.

For many who have researched their roots, their family's and their culture's long history in the U.S. is something of a revelation.

“This deep-seated [Hispanic] history is not talked about,” says Perea.