Last November, a delegation of citizens from the far West Texas border city of El Paso made the long journey to Plymouth, Massachusetts. The purpose of the El Pasoans’ visit was to challenge Plymouth’s long-held—and nearly universally accepted—claim that it was the site of the first Thanksgiving to be held on what is now United States soil.
“Al contrario,” said the residents of El Paso. Instead of having taken place in Plymouth in 1620, the first Thanksgiving was held near El Paso 22 years previously, in 1598. Moreover, asserted the revisionists, the United States should honor a long-forgotten hero, Juan de Onate, the leader of the caravan of brave Spanish settlers and conquistadores who not only celebrated the first American Thanksgiving but staged the first play ever performed on what is today American soil.
The historical mini-controversy soon fizzled out. But the story of Juan de Onate and his expedition symbolizes an aspect of America’s cultural identity that is destined to grow. As the contributions of Hispanics to North American history are brought into sharper focus, the United States has no choice but to ascertain who the Hispanics are. How did they get here, and how do they fit into the nation’s consciousness? Inevitably, this leads to the question not only of assimilation, but of the real meaning of assimilation as the world moves in the direction of greater global integration.
No region of the country is as influenced by Hispanic culture as the Southwest. The history of the Spanish and their Hispanic-Indian descendants in the Southwest began with the wanderings of Alvar Nufiez Cabeza de Vaca. The survivor of a shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico, Cabeza de Vaca—along with two companions, one of whom was a black Moor—walked across Texas and northern Mexico beginning in 1536. Soon after Cabeza de Vaca’s return to Spanish civilization in northern New Spain (modern-day Mexico), the first Spanish expedition into today’s Southwest occurred between 1540 and 1542 under the leadership of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. Members of this expedition trekked over modern-day Arizona, New Mexico, and Kansas, and were the first Europeans ever to witness the spectacular beauty of the Grand Canyon. One of my best friends—an El Pasoan, it so happens—claims to be a descendant of a member of this expedition.
In the 17th century, Spain proceeded to establish settlements along a north-south corridor that includes modern-day El Paso, Texas (historically more a part of New Mexico and Chihuahua than of Texas), and Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico. In the 18th century, settlements such as San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles were established in modern-day Texas and California. Roman Catholic proselytizing always attended Spanish political conquest. To the historian Herbert Eugene Bolton, the Southwest was, therefore, the “rim of Christendom.”
In 1807 the first meeting of the Anglo-American and Spanish cultures occurred when an expedition under the command of Zebulon Montgomery Pike was captured north of Santa Fe. Soon thereafter, fur trappers and traders began to make their way into the region, often converging on the village of Taos; and after Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, Anglo-American incursions metamorphosed into a highly prized trading relationship that made the Santa Fe Trail between New Mexico and Missouri a veritable bridge between Anglo and Hispanic America. Simultaneously, the Mexican government awarded Anglo-Americans in Texas grants to settle rich farmland. By 1836 they had revolted and won their war for independence.
For nearly a decade, Texas was an independent republic, but in 1845 it was annexed by the United States, an act that provoked war with Mexico. By 1848, the United States had prevailed and Mexico was forced to cede the greater part of what is today the U.S. Southwest. Significantly, at the time of the so-called “Mexican Cession,” there were perhaps seventy-five thousand Mexican inhabitants in the entire region. Among those who remained were the ancestors of Mexican-Americans such as my friend who claims descent from a member of the old Coronado expedition. (When his son’s Anglo-American girlfriend asked him a couple of years ago when his family had come to the United States, my friend correctly responded that it was the United States that had come to his family.) In point of fact, however, the ancestors of the majority of today’s Mexican-American population, including my own, would not come to the Southwest until after it was a part of the United States.
In addition to place names, terms from the Spanish colonial period are either still used by inhabitants of the region or are so much a part of popular folklore that they have been fully assimilated into American culture. These include ranching terms such as rodeo, mustang, lariat, and buckaroo. Spanish terms such as fiesta, siesta, fandango, and, certainly, adios are well-known to Anglo-Americans who do not speak Spanish. Mexican music performed by American and Mexican entertainers flood the airwaves of the Southwest. Walk in the plaza of El Paso or the streets of downtown San Antonio and you will likely hear far more Spanish than English. Whether painted by Anglo-Americans or Hispanic-Americans, art in the Southwest often has a pronounced Mexican flavor. Mexican food is one of the most popular ethnic cuisines not only in the Southwest but in the entire United States.
The Hispanic heritage lives on even in the law. As riparian, or water, law throughout the region is often based on custom, courts in the Southwest often demand to know the history of water usage in a given locale for centuries back, thus implicitly lending weight to Spanish law. Here and there, the 13th-century Spanish legal code known as “la Ley de las Siete Partidas” still plays a role in Southwestern jurisprudence. Those who would downplay these real and far-reaching contributions, and who persist in the notion that the Hispanics of the Southwest were little more than foils for John Wayne movies, are simply uninformed. Those who see danger in Hispanic culture before they see richness and a different kind of order are alarmist at best, bigoted or xenophobic at worst.
However, there is no denying that a certain danger does exist in the growing tendency to exalt the contributions of minority groups. Specifically, such an orientation inevitably runs the risk of disparaging the culture that has produced the majoritarian institutions that hold the nation together. There is in fact reason to be deeply concerned that from California to Texas the traditional notion of the melting pot is being increasingly sneered at today. Instead, ethnic activists, ethnic politicians, and their liberal and libertarian patrons increasingly employ metaphors about society and culture that stress separateness. For them, the United States is a “patchwork quilt,” a “mosaic,” a “salad bowl.” Anything but innocuous, this assault on the supremacy of the melting pot metaphor translates into the exaltation of ethnicity over citizenship.
Fifteen years ago when I was a graduate student at a Midwestern university, the renowned English social historian E.J. Hobsbawm met with a small group of would-be historians on the occasion of one of his infrequent visits to this country. After fielding a few obligatory questions about his work on revolutions in Europe, he suddenly raised the issue of the growing presence of Hispanics in the United States. I can’t remember his exact words, but his question went something like this: “What in the world is going on here?”
The answer, in a word, was “immigration.” It is hardly coincidental that historical revisionism in the Hispanic community should coincide with one of the major demographic trends of our time, the massive rate of entry into the United States of Hispanic immigrants from all over Latin America. This phenomenon began in the latter 1960’s and continues virtually unabated to this day. From the seventy-five thousand in the Southwest in 1848, the number of Hispanics has grown to approximately 23 million today. Though they come from all over Latin America, half or more are of Mexican descent.
It is the numbers that are proving problematic, not the Hispanic-ness (or the Asian-ness) of the new immigration. Those who know their U.S. immigration history will recall that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson both expressed concerns about the creation of large enclaves of non-English immigrants in the United States in the 18th century. Their fears arose not because the newcomers were not of English stock, per se, but because the immigrants’ affinity for their own language and legal customs tended to impede assimilation, which in turn raised questions about separatism. The Founding Fathers’ concerns over German immigration proved that racism per se need not be a motive in addressing such issues. In our own day, if francophone Quebec can bring the Canadian confederation to the brink of disintegration even though France lies an entire ocean away, should there not at least arise a certain reflectiveness about our own Southwest, which lies contiguous to an overpopulated Third World nation?
The inchoate fear that immigrants are not assimilating is not without a degree of justification. While rates of Hispanic assimilation are probably at an all-time high, so too is the expansion of an impoverished immigrant underclass. The dichotomy must not be overlooked or downplayed. Though its significance can in fact be exaggerated, the rioting begun by Salvadoran aliens in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C., in May 1991 certainly did nothing to assuage concerns over this phenomenon. If similar riots have not occurred in the Southwest, there is nonetheless a degree of dangerous, slow-motion alienation to be found in skyrocketing intra-ethnic gang fighting and other antisocial activity, particularly in California and Texas. The majoritarian community is certainly not free of such pathologies, but disproportionate levels of poverty tend to yield disproportionate levels of crime, and the fact remains that minorities are disproportionately poor.
Several million inhabitants of the Southwest today are not, in fact, citizens of this country. Whether or not they have attained legal status, the low rate of naturalization among Hispanics can hardly be said to nurture assimilation and national unity. The highly-skilled, well-paid worker on a temporary visa is one thing, but the increasing presence of vast numbers of low-skilled, low-income workers has in fact produced ethnic enclaves and socioeconomic and political alienation that can only yield resentment against the more prosperous majoritarian community over time. Consider that even immigrants and their first-generation children complain about “discrimination” today. Caught in the middle are those citizens of Hispanic origin who are trying to respect the unwritten covenant of full membership in the polity in return for learning English and respecting the civic culture of the country.
Today more than ever before, the American nation must draw the line between the inalienable right to enjoy a non-majoritarian ethnic heritage and the tendency to exalt ethnicity to the point of discrediting certain or all aspects of the nation’s civic culture, none of which is more important than the dominance of the English language in the conduct of public business. However greater in importance the historical contributions of Hispanics and other ethnic groups may grow, the civic culture of the United States must remain largely Anglo-Saxon. There is no inherent reason why Hispanics cannot or should not follow in the footsteps of previous generations of European immigrants of Nordic, Teutonic, and Mediterranean origin.
All Americans, including ethnic minorities, should support a color-blind, skill-based immigration policy because of the threat that faces the Southwest and the entire nation in its continued absence. The loss of the common glue that has held the nation together since the age of democratic revolutions in the 18th century would imply the disintegration of the republic itself. America would cease to be America. It would deteriorate into something else, something less desirable—not because its civic culture was no longer Anglo-Saxon, but because the erosion or toppling of that Anglo-Saxon civic culture would, in the context of a new pluralist paradigm based upon the exaltation of ethnicity above citizenship, dissolve the United States in a witch’s brew of contending, chaotic regions. We would become balkanized.
It is at that point that one of the greatest ironies in world history would materialize: along with the demise of the Anglo-Saxon civic culture so often derided by those historical revisionists who are indifferent to or supportive of ever-greater levels of immigration to this country, America’s long-standing and unparalleled attraction to the diverse cultures of the globe would have died as well. The nation’s great and noble motto, “E pluribus unum” (“Out of many, one”) will then have deteriorated into “Every tribe for itself.”
In the end, instead of celebrating both the Thanksgiving of the English Pilgrims and that of the Spanish Conquistadores—with the understanding that the Anglo-Saxon civic culture of the nation must continue to reign supreme in the interests of stability and prosperity for everyone—each region of the former United States would then be free to celebrate only that event and those historical figures who reflected the dominant ethnicity of their region. (Instead of being taught both the glories of Shakespeare and those of Cervantes, students would be forced to learn one or the other.) Having reached that particular desideratum, the millions of inhabitants of the distinct nations in which Plymouth and El Paso would be located would have precious little for which to give thanks.
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