A History of Mexicans in the United States
By Manuee G. Gonzaees
Indiana University Press Copyright © 2009 Manuel G. Gonzales
All rights reserved.
SPANIARDS AND NATIVE AMERICANS
Mexican American is a term devoid of meaning before 1848. The number of Mexicans residing in the United States before the Mexican Cession was negligible. Yet it would be a mistake to begin this history with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, for the roots of Mexican American history are buried in the distant past. In order to understand the people and their culture it is necessary to go back at least to the sixteenth century. Like most other Latin Americans, Mexicans are predominantly mestizos; that is, they are products of race mixture. When Spaniards invaded the New World in the 1500s and initiated contact with Amerindians in Mexico, the genesis of the Mexican community in the United States began.
After a period of political and economic stagnation in the fourteenth century, the Renaissance, centered primarily in Italy, witnessed not only a momentous expansion of Europe's intellectual and artistic horizons but also an enormous widening of its geographical limits. The Age of Exploration represents the first major expansion of the Europeans, who subsequently came to dominate much of the globe, thanks primarily to their superior technological development. Inspired by God, Gold, and Glory, Europeans pushed their frontiers in all directions, with their most meaningful acquisition being the New World. America was named after an Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, but in the forefront of the process of discovery and conquest were the Spaniards, the chief beneficiaries of this initial wave of Western imperialistic activity.
Who were the Spaniards and why were they so successful? Building on the solid foundation laid by such notable twentieth-century giants as Américo Castro, Salvador de Madariaga, and Ramón Menéndez Pidal, modern-day Spanish scholars have found answers to these crucial questions in their country's vibrant past. They have discovered that like other Europeans, Spaniards are a product of a multiplicity of cultures. Spanish history can be traced back to the Upper Paleolithic period (35,000BCE–10,000 BCE), when primitive people dwelling in the Iberian Peninsula began to leave evidence of an emerging culture. Cave paintings, like those discovered in the 1890s in Altamira, near the northern port of Santander, illustrate the amazing creativity of these early inhabitants. These ancient pictures, mostly abstract depictions of animal life, have led modern scholars to designate the Upper Paleolithic the Cradle of Art.
The following millennia are shrouded in mystery, but the Iberian Peninsula, a natural bridge between two continents, must have attracted a variety of people. Among them were Iberians, "dwellers along the Ebro River," as they came to be called by the Greeks; Basques, whose origins are still much debated; Celts, who dominated the region in the period 900 BCE–650 BCE; Phoenicians, contemporaries of the Celts, who established colonies from their base in the eastern Mediterranean; and Greeks, who came at around 600 BCE to settle the coastal areas.
Undoubtedly, however, the most influential of the ancient peoples to arrive were the Romans. Victors against Carthage, a Phoenician colony in modern-day Tunis, Roman legions acquired Hispania, their name for Spain, as a prize in 202 BCE, at the end of the Second Punic War. The Celt-Iberians put up a mighty resistance, but in the end Rome's famed legions prevailed. Though exploited as colonials, the natives received valuable concessions from the Romans. Some of them went on to win fame and fortune within the Empire. Seneca, the brilliant Stoic philosopher, and Hadrian, one of Rome's most powerful Caesars, were from Hispania. The cultural contributions Rome bestowed far outweighed the material riches it extorted from its conquered subjects. Rome imposed its laws, one of its finest achievements. It contributed Latin, which eventually gave rise to Castilian Spanish, a language so beautiful that reading it is still an emotional experience, as well as Catalán and Gallego. Rome also brought a belief system, Christianity, which was made the official religion of the Empire in the fourth century and became a force second to none in shaping the emerging national character of the people.
Increasingly beset by political and economic problems, the Roman Empire weakened after the third century of the Christian era; and, overrun by Germanic tribes who administered the coup de grâce, the western half collapsed by the fifth century. Vandals now controlled North Africa, Franks reigned supreme in France, and even Italy found itself occupied, first by Ostrogoths, later by Lombards. The Visigoths, following other northern tribes, settled in Spain, establishing their capital in Toledo. However, Germanic ascendancy proved to be short-lived.
"Africa," Spain's detractors are fond of saying, echoing a statement originally attributed to Alexandre Dumas, "begins at the Pyrenees." In fact, the impact of African culture has been profound on the Spanish psyche, something Spaniards were unwilling to concede until recently. Taking their cue from the eminent philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, Spanish intellectuals in the early part of the twentieth century began to reassess the role of the Moors in their history. Now most Spaniards find the Moorish legacy a source of considerable pride. The distinguished historian Américo Castro felt that Spanish history began with the arrival of the Moors in 711, when Tarik ibn Zizad led seven thousand Berber troops, recent converts to Islam, on a religious crusade across the Strait of Gibraltar. The campaign was a huge success; the peninsula was overrun at breakneck speed. The Moors (Berber and Arab Moslems) penetrated into western Europe as far north as modern-day Poitiers or Tours—scholars differ on the precise location—where, with their religious zeal waning and their lines of communication overextended, they were finally stopped by Germanic Franks under Charles Martel. Retreating across the Pyrenees, Moslems began to consolidate their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, the western frontier of a vast empire. Islamic Spain came to be known as al-Andalus.
As Europe declined during its Middle Ages, the mantle of civilization shifted to the East—to Constantinople, the center of the Byzantine Empire, and to the Islamic world beyond. Moslem strength reached its zenith in the eighth century, when Islamic ships gained control of the Mediterranean, putting the Byzantines on the defensive. The caliphate was transferred from Damascus to Baghdad, in modern Iraq, in 750; and during the next few decades wealth from throughout the far-flung realm poured into that magnificent city, fueling an enormous upsurge of intellectual activity. Thereafter, the Islamic world itself began to weaken, mainly because of internal problems. In the year 1000 there were three caliphates instead of one, as Baghdad was now rivaled by Cairo in north Africa and Córdoba on the Iberian Peninsula. By this time, Moorish Spain, completely independent of Baghdad, had created a brilliant culture.
Moors occupied the Iberian Peninsula for over 750 years. During this period their influence came to permeate every aspect of life, especially in the south, in today's Andalucía, where they established their major cities, including Sevilla, Córdoba, and Granada. During their heyday in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, they developed a civilization that was the envy of their northern neighbors. Moorish scholars not only helped to preserve the classical heritage of the West, but also made significant contributions of their own, notably in the arts, literature, mathematics, and philosophy. The most original Moorish man of letters was Ibn Rushd, known to the West as Averroës (1126–1198), an authority on Aristotle and a powerful influence on Christian thinkers during the late Middle Ages.
The culture of al-Andalus was also enhanced by Jewish scholars. The diaspora into Iberia, which began as early as the second century CE, had produced a flourishing jewish community in Moorish Spain, which, though open to exotic elements, largely maintained its own traditions, a freedom conceded by Tarik and his successors. The Jews of Sepharad (the Hebrew word for Iberia) prospered. "Andalusia," the historian Howard M. Sachar observed, "offered Jews an arena for commerce unparalleled since the glory days of Rome." They established academies in Barcelona, Córdoba, Granada, and Toledo. They translated the Talmud into Arabic. Their men of letters were renowned throughout the realm. Undoubtedly the most celebrated of these Sephardic thinkers, possibly the greatest philosopher Spain has ever produced, was Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides (1135–1204), who lived in Córdoba, like his contemporary, Averroës.
While the Moors enjoyed a happy coexistence with the Jews—at least until 1146, when a fanatical Islamic sect from Morocco, the Almohades, introduced religious intolerance—their relationship with the rest of the conquered population was far more complicated. From time to time the two peoples, colonizers and colonized, got along reasonably well; trade took place and intermarriage occurred. Some Christians, called mozárabes, assimilated Moslem culture. These amiable relations, however, were the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, there was animosity on both sides. From the very beginning of Moslem colonization, a small enclave of resistance emerged in Asturias, in the mountainous northwestern part of the peninsula. Under the leadership of the legendary Pelayo, this liberation movement, called the Reconquista (Reconquest) by Spanish historians, was modest at first. But by the thirteenth century, when Christian successes, notably the famous victory by King Alfonso VIII of Castilla at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, forced the Moors to take refuge in Granada and its surrounding area, it had become a mass movement.
By now religion had come to play a vital role in Spanish life. Every campaign against the Moors was a holy crusade. Although the Age of the Christian Crusades is generally assumed to have begun in 1095, when Pope Urban II launched the first crusade against the Saracens in an effort to regain the holy city of Jerusalem, Spanish knights by this time had a long tradition of warring against their Islamic adversaries under the banner of Santiago (Saint James), their patron saint. As in Ireland after the Protestant Reformation, religion in Spain came to be wedded to nationalism. The result was a very militant form of Catholicism. The Spaniards' fanatical devotion to their faith, reflected later in the Holy Office of the Inquisition (1479–1812) and in the zeal with which they proselytized Amerindians, is rooted in these early military campaigns.
The Moors had a far-reaching impact on Iberian culture, on agriculture, music, and language; but none was more momentous than the profound religiosity that they wove into the fabric of life of the Spanish people. Thus, it is generally agreed, "Spain is perhaps the most avidly Roman Catholic country in Europe, both in the sense of its official affiliation with the church in Rome and to the degree that the culture is permeated and uniquely colored by it."
The marriage of Prince Ferdinand of Aragón and Princess Isabella of Castilla in 1469 paved the way for the final stage of the Reconquest. Los Reyes Católicos (the Catholic Kings), as they styled themselves, were deeply religious. However, both monarchs were equally absorbed with achieving political ends, especially Ferdinand, who was later used as a model by Machiavelli. In early January 1492, the mountainous kingdom of Granada, the last Islamic stronghold, was taken through force of arms, and the Moors were expelled from the country. Jewish expulsion followed two months later. The unification of Spain was now complete.
Both ethnic minorities, it should be added, could avoid expulsion by converting to Catholicism. Both Moorish and Jewish conversos (converts), however, were now subject to the Inquisition, which reached the height of its power under the infamous Tomás de Torquemada, who served as inquisitor general from 1483 to 1498.
The religious zeal that had resulted in the campaigns against judíos (Jews) and moros (Moors) was soon transferred overseas. In 1492 a New World was discovered with millions of potential converts, and Spain was anxious to propagate the faith. The Spaniards were ideally situated to play this pioneering role not only because of their early creation of a unified national dynastic state but also because of their geographical position. Jutting out into the Atlantic, the Iberian Peninsula would be the launching pad for the early voyages of exploration.
It was the Portuguese, Spain's Iberian neighbors, who got off the mark first. Up to the twelfth century, Portugal was part of León, one of several provinces which emerged from the lands reclaimed from the Moors. During these years there developed a distinct Portuguese sense of nationalism as well as a separate language. By the end of the twelfth century, a robust dynastic state was competing with those in other parts of the peninsula. The most famous of the Avis, the ruling family that rose to power in the fourteenth century, was the son of King Joao I, Henrique, better known as Prince Henry the Navigator (1394–1460), who is credited with initiating Portugal's interest in overseas exploration and settlement. This fascination was primarily economic in nature. At first, the Portuguese sought to monopolize trade with West Africa, which was rich in gold reserves. Eventually, as is well known, they became obsessed with the quest for an all-water route to Las Indias (the Indies), a vague geographical area that consisted of Southeast Asia and its offshore islands, the source of the coveted spices which had enriched Indian, Arab, and especially Italian middlemen. The fantastic profits made by the veneziani (Venetians) and genovesi (Genoans) go a long way in explaining the Italian Renaissance. By the mid-fifteenth century, Portuguese mariners trained at Sagres, a maritime academy established by Prince Henry on Portugal's southernmost cape, were venturing out into the Atlantic. Having some knowledge of Africa's contours, apparently based on Phoenician sources, the Portuguese felt that by sailing south they could get around the continent, thus arriving on the Indian Ocean, the gateway to the vast riches of the Orient.
During the course of these epic fifteenth-century voyages, the Portuguese discovered and laid claim to several valuable islands, the Azores and the Madeiras being the most attractive to mainland entrepreneurs. They also initiated the slave trade in West Africa, the pernicious traffic in human beings which yielded fantastic financial profits to Europeans until its demise in the nineteenth century. A long series of arduous expeditions culminated in 1488 when Bartholomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Ten years later, in what is arguably the greatest maritime voyage of the Age of Exploration, according to the Spanish historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Vasco da Gama reached Calicut in India, thus inaugurating Portugal's short-lived golden age. In fact, this voyage brought about a momentous transformation in the balance of power. In the aftermath of da Gama's successful mission, the world's major theater of commercial activity was rapidly transferred from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, a shift signaling the economic decline of Italy, and ultimately of its cultural hegemony, and the rise of Western Europe. The primary beneficiary of this imperious change, however, was not Portugal, which declined so rapidly during the course of the sixteenth century that it was taken over by the Spanish Hapsburgs for sixty years beginning in 1580, but rather its larger and more powerful neighbor, Spain.
One of the supreme ironies in history is that the most famous figure in Spanish history, Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), should be an Italian. The Genovese Cristoforo Colombo was a native of a peninsula with a proud and glorious past but one rapidly eclipsed during his lifetime by his adopted homeland. Though ironic, Columbus's role is not surprising. The Renaissance was a cosmopolitan period when nationalism was only just emerging—in many parts of Europe, regional allegiances continue to predominate over national sentiments to this day—and movement between emerging nations, while limited by technological and financial impediments, was relatively easy. At a time when maritime skills were highly valued, Italian mariners, the best in Europe at the time, found their services much in demand, and they displayed little temerity in hiring out to foreign employers. Giovanni Caboto, who sailed for the English under the name John Cabot, and Giovanni da Verrazano, a contemporary and one of France's leading explorers, are good examples. Columbus himself seemed to have few qualms about living in Spain and serving its rulers.
The details of Columbus's life are vague, but its general outlines are clear enough. The son of a wool weaver, Cristoforo spent his youth learning the skills of seamanship, and by his early twenties he was already making regular trips throughout the Mediterranean aboard Italian vessels. Eventually, in 1479, he wound up in Lisbon, where he married Felipa Perestrello e Moniz, daughter of an Italian mariner and a member of one of Portugal's oldest families. They settled down in Porto Santo, a small island, part of the Madeira Archipelago, where Columbus went into the chart business.
This livelihood was but a means to an end; Columbus dreamed of tapping the enormous wealth of the Spice Islands, known as the Moluccas to the Portuguese. He was aware of Portuguese expeditions moving south along the African coast, but he came to believe that the fabled lands, rich in silks, spices, and gems, could best be reached sailing westward. He initiated a series of petitions in an effort to win financial backing to prove his theories. Upon the death of his wife in 1485, he left for Spain. After an initial rebuke, followed by many trials and tribulations, he convinced Queen Isabella, apparently won over by his charm and bulldog determination, to back the risky enterprise. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Mexicanos by Manuee G. Gonzaees. Copyright © 2009 Manuel G. Gonzales. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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