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My New Book!
My New Book!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

January 26, 2012: Mexican American Homelands

[This week, I’ll be following up Monday’s post on Arizona’s assaults on the Tucson Mexican American Studies program and arguing for four crucial ways in which American identity and culture are interwoven with Mexican American Studies. This is the third in the series.]

The treaty that ended the Mexican American War did far more than that—it also displaced, psychologically but also in many cases physically, an entire, foundational American community.

While there remain many significant gaps in our national narratives about and inclusions of Native Americans, I think we’ve gotten a lot better in the last few decades at recognizing a couple core realities of Native American experience: the history of unbalanced and broken treaties that defined the government’s relationship with native tribes; and the removals from and losses of homelands and homes that said history produced. As I wrote in this post on the Trail of Tears, those narratives don’t do anything like full justice to Native American histories, nor do they help us much to engage with contemporary native lives and perspectives; but they’re definitely better than nothing. And when it comes to another community that saw their homes and homelands significantly altered by both federal action and encroaching Anglo settlers, Mexican Americans in the mid to late 19th century, “nothing” is about the extent of what our national narratives include.

As I wrote yesterday, the most significant and troubling aspect of our national misunderstandings of the Mexican American War isn’t related to the war itself—it’s about the longer histories and communities that we fail to recognize and incorporate into our narratives as a result. Without an awareness of the many, longstanding and deeply rooted Mexican American communities and identities in the Southwest and California, homes and homelands that went back in many cases to the first 16th and 17th century arrivals of Spanish explorers and settlers, it’s certainly impossible to understand with any complexity the war itself, and specifically how much it pitted American communities against one another, at least as much as it represented two distinct nations in conflict. But without such awareness it’s even more difficult to recognize how much the war’s conclusion, and the terms and effects of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo with which it closed, changed for those longstanding Mexican American communities and individuals.

Far from representing a negotiated peace settlement, the Treaty’s terms were mostly dictated by the US representatives—who were occupying Mexico City at the time—and the imbalance is obvious: the treaty is more exactly a land transfer, one equal to the Louisiana Purchase in its immediate and sweeping addition of an enormous area (comprising more than 500,000 square miles) to the United States. When it came to the many communities of Mexican Americans present within that region, the Treaty was in its terms quite generous, granting citizenship to them and expressing support for their maintaining of their lands and homes. Yet precisely as was the case with the aforementioned treaties with native tribes, the Treaty was immediately and consistently broken: both by arriving Anglo settlers who treated Mexican American land as available for the taking; and by subsequent legal decisions and governmental policies, which tended to side with those Anglo settlers. Much of María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s historical novel The Squatter and the Don (1885) focuses precisely on that history of broken promises and lost homelands; the book’s second chapter, “The Don’s View of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo,” should be required reading for all Americans if we are to understand the perspectives and experiences of Mexican Americans over these dark decades of displacement.

The story doesn’t end there, of course, and in tomorrow’s post I’ll try to bridge some of the gaps between those 19th century histories and our contemporary moment. More then,


PS. What do you think?

1/26 Memory Day nominees: A tie between Bessie Coleman, the first black woman in the world to earn an aviator’s license and, to my mind, an even more inspiring and pioneering aviator and American than Amelia Earhart (which is no knock on Earhart); and Paul Newman, not for his iconic and impressively long and diverse career in film so much as for his incredibly successful and inspiring work as a philanthropist and activist. So Coleman-Newman Day it is!

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