Mexicanos: A History of Mexicans in the United States / Edition 2

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Newly revised and updated, Mexicanos tells the rich and vibrant story of Mexicans in the United States. Emerging from the ruins of Aztec civilization and from centuries of Spanish contact with indigenous people, Mexican culture followed the Spanish colonial frontier northward and put its distinctive mark on what became the southwestern United States. Shaped by their Indian and Spanish ancestors, deeply influenced by Catholicism, and tempered by an often difficult existence, Mexicans continue to play an important role in U.S. society, even as the dominant Anglo culture strives to assimilate them. Thorough and balanced, Mexicanos makes a valuable contribution to the understanding of the Mexican population of the United States—a growing minority who are a vital presence in 21st-century America.

Indiana University Press

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The best short introduction yet to the history of Mexicans in the U.S. could not have come at a better time." —Arkansas Democratic-Gazette

"Stress on facts and chronology make for clear explanations, especially for those just becoming acquainted with Mexican American history." — Arnoldo De León, Journal of American Ethnic History

"Gonzales’ book should be of much interest." —Tucson Weekly

Low Rider Magazine

"This book is definitely one that you need on your bookshelf." —Low Rider Magazine

Arkansas Democratic-Gazette

"The best short introduction yet to the history of Mexicans in the U.S. could not have come at a better time." —Arkansas Democratic-Gazette

Albuquerque Journal

"A must-read book for anyone interested in Southwest history." —

Tucson Weekly

"Gonzales’ book should be of much interest." —Tucson Weekly

California History
"Gratifyingly well written and illustrated, and featuring an extensive index and bibliography, Mexicanos is highly recommended for general readers, historians, and professors of Chicano studies." —Richard Delgado, California History

— Richard Delgado

Contra Costa Times

"It is a page-turner that reads more like a novel than a history book.... The book provides insight into a people non-Mexicanos should see, not as interlopers, but as the latest wave in a centuries-old migration of people and culture, and a movement that is parallel to the great western expansion from the east." —Contra Costa Times

Journal of American Ethnic History
"Stress on facts and chronology make for clear explanations, especially for those just becoming acquainted with Mexican American history." — Arnoldo De León, Journal of American Ethnic History

— Arnoldo De León

New Mexico Historical Review

"[A] general history survey must be accurate, compelling, and inclusive of all matter of historical and cultural experiences. To its credit, Mexicanos provides exemplary balance and perspective." —New Mexico Historical Review

California History - Richard Delgado

"Gratifyingly well written and illustrated, and featuring an extensive index and bibliography, Mexicanos is highly recommended for general readers, historians, and professors of Chicano studies." —Richard Delgado, California History

Journal of American Ethnic History - Arnoldo De León

"Stress on facts and chronology make for clear explanations, especially for those just becoming acquainted with Mexican American history." — Arnoldo De León, Journal of American Ethnic History

David G. Gutiérrez

"Especially good in weaving relevant historical developments in Mexico throughout the analysis. This... adds a much-needed transnational dimension to Mexican American history.... A readable, engaging, and lively synthesis." —David G. Gutiérrez, University of California San Diego

As Mexican Americans continue to add to the multicultural face of the U.S., Professor Manuel Gonzales provides a balanced account the history of Mexicanos, especially in the Southwest. Beginning with background history from the 16th century on, Gonzales relates the trek northward of Spaniards, Native Americans, and mestizos. Whether seeking a better life, pushing forward the Mexican frontier, or being assimilated into parts of California, New Mexico and Texas, many Mexicans never considered themselves Americans but looked south to their roots in Mexico with strong family ties and the heritage of their Catholic faith. This notion began to change gradually during the "great migration," 1900-1930, as Mexicans continued to seek a better life for themselves and their families in the United States. Soon second generation Mexican Americans began to feel closer ties as citizens of the U.S. rather than to Mexico, even though they endured poor wages, exploitation and racism. Having struggled through the Great Depression and served the military during WW II, many Mexican Americans began to envy the prosperity that fo1lowed. Still others continue to contend with poverty, lack of education, and other disadvantages even as some made strides into the middle class. Significant changes were spurred by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and came to be reflected through the Chicano Movement. Outstanding among the movers and shakers of this period, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta galvanized the migrant farm workers into a national union, the United Farm Workers. Gonzales brings their story to life and continues on to discuss the ongoing saga of Mexicans, documented or not, who continue to arrive in theUnited States. By bringing his survey up to 1998, Gonzales provides a timely and candid picture of Mexican Americans. As he indicates in his introduction, he set out to write about their relationship within the American culture, avoiding the good-guy/bad-guy scenario, providing accomplishments instead of a "loser" mentality. Gonzales' concise survey of the history of Mexican Americans, based on a synthesis of many studies by Chicano scholars, dispels the misunderstandings about this growing minority. This introduction to Mexicans describes a rich and colorful culture that upper-level students should find helpful and eye-opening. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1999, Indiana Univ. Press, 322p, illus, notes, bibliog, index, 24cm, 98-50954, $16.95. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Mary T. Gerrity; Libn., Queen Anne Sch., Upper Marlboro, MD (retired), November 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 6)
Kirkus Reviews
A thoughtful, thorough survey of events in the history of Mexican-Americans, Chicanos, Mexicanos, Hispanos, and Latinos.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780253221254
  • Publisher: Indiana University Press
  • Publication date: 8/14/2009
  • Edition description: Second Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 424
  • Sales rank: 214,058
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Manuel G. Gonzales is Professor of History at Diablo Valley College. His books include Andrea Costa and the Rise of Socialism in the Romagna and The Hispanic Elite of the Southwest. He is editor (with Cynthia Gonzales) of En Aquel Entonces (IUP, 2000).

Indiana University Press

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



    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 tremendous 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 significant 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 theSpaniards, the chief beneficiaries of this initial wave of Western imperialistic activity.


    Who were the Spaniards and why were they so successful? Like other Europeans, Spaniards are a product of a multiplicity of cultures. Spanish history can be traced back to the Upper Paleolithic period (35,000 B.C.-10,000 B.C.), 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 B.C.-650 B.C.; Phoenicians, contemporaries of the Celts, who established colonies from their base in the eastern Mediterranean; and Greeks, who came at around 600 B.C. 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 B.C., 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, made the official religion of the Empire in the fourth century and 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 influence proved to be short-lived.

    "Spain," its 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 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 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; 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 empire 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 and Córdoba. 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 Andalusía, 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 they also made significant contributions of their own, notably in the arts, literature, mathematics, and philosophy. The most original Moorish man of letters was 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 A.D., 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 prospered. 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 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 corner 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, too, 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 (1480-1812) and in the zeal with which they proselytized Amerindians, is rooted in these early crusades.

    The Moors had a far-reaching impact on Iberian culture, on agriculture, music, and language; but none was more influential than the profound religiosity that they wove into the fabric of life of the Spanish people. "Spain is perhaps the most avidly Roman Catholic country in Europe," it is generally agreed, "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 Ferdinand of Aragón and 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, Granada, the last Islamic stronghold, was taken through force of arms and the Moors were expelled from the country. Jewish expulsion followed a few months later. The unification of Spain was now complete.

    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 took the lead at the outset. 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 Braganzas, the ruling family, 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 Indians, Arabs, and especially Italians. 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, 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, an economic shift signaling the decline of Italy, and ultimately its cultural hegemony, and the rise of Western Europe. The primary beneficiary of this imperious change, however, was not Portugal 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 should be an Italian. The Genovese Cristoforo Colombo (1451-1506) was a native of a nation 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 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.

    The Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María left the port of Palos de la Frontera on 3 August 1492. Taking on supplies at the Canary Islands, the tiny ships then struggled across the Atlantic. Having miscalculated drastically, the admiral was forced to alter his ship log to bolster the flagging morale of his men. On 12 October, his crew on the verge of mutiny, Columbus sighted land. He had arrived somewhere in the Bahamas. Sailing southwestward, the expedition came upon Cuba and Española, islands which would later be used as a springboard for exploration in every direction. Columbus returned to Spain with a small number of natives and just enough gold to convince his patrons of his success; and incidentally, as Alistair Cooke aptly notes, to initiate "the longest, most determined, and most brutal gold rush in history."

    The Admiral of the Ocean Sea made three subsequent voyages to the New World. Although these expeditions were largely disappointing, since they earned him little fame or fortune, Columbus believed he had reached Asia, a misconception he apparently maintained to his death on 20 May 1506.

    It is not easy to assess Columbus's role in history. In the past, most historians have agreed with the eminent biographer Samuel Eliot Morison, who saw in Columbus not only a great mariner but also the most remarkable figure of his age. Today, however, the Italian explorer is perceived less favorably. Given the current loss of faith in Carlyle's Great Man Theory of History, scholars are less impressed by elites than they used to be. More importantly, however, Columbus is currently associated with European imperialism, a discredited and much-maligned phenomenon of the postcolonial world. Critics, especially in societies where multiculturalism has become increasingly popular, charge that Columbus saw Indians as inferior and treated them accordingly. His legacy was not confined to the exploitation of peoples; he is also vilified for initiating the European assault on the virgin environment. Kirkpatrick Sale in his popular 1990 work The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy argues trenchantly for this revisionist interpretation.

    While Columbus was guilty of ethnocentrism and exploitation of peoples and resources, he was typical of his age. While the period of the Renaissance and Reformation was an epoch of almost unprecedented artistic and intellectual achievement, it was also an age of barbarism and intolerance. "It was ... a time much given to terror, war, pestilence, famine, slavery and religious persecution, most emphatically not one to encourage gentleness or ecological concern." While Europeans took advantage of native Americans, it is also true that they victimized each other. Nor were the native peoples morally superior. "The innocence of the indigenous Americans," John Noble Wilford reminds us, "was more imagined than real. To one degree or another, they knew warfare, brutality, slavery, human sacrifice, and cannibalism." Certainly, there was nothing peculiarly European about exploitation; the Age of Columbus would not be the first time that the strong would take advantage of the weak, nor would it be the last. Finally, it can be argued, if Columbus was no better than his contemporaries, he was certainly no worse. While this era is sometimes called the Age of Titans, few of these so-called titans were noted for their saintly qualities, certainly not Machiavelli, nor even Luther. These individuals suffice to remind us that greatness is not defined by moral character but by influence. Perhaps the best assessment of the much-maligned explorer is given by the Oxford historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto: "The real Columbus was a mixture of virtues and vices like the rest of us, not conspicuously good or just, but generally well-intentioned, who grappled creditably with intractable problems."


    Although Europeans often saw the Americas as "virgin" territory, at the time of contact, according to current estimates, the two continents were occupied by almost one hundred million inhabitants. Under the mistaken assumption that he had reached Las Indias, Columbus referred to the people as Indios, and the term Indians came to be applied to them. Today, however, many tribal Americans prefer the term native Americans (Indian and native American will be used interchangeably in this work). From the very beginning, there was enormous heterogeneity among the native peoples of the Americas; indeed, as the historian Wilcomb E. Washburn has pointed out, there was probably more diversity among native Americans than there was among the various European ethnic groups who came to colonize the area. This diversity belies a common origin.

    The question of Indian origins is still the leading question of New World archaeology. While it can be stated categorically that native Americans did not evolve from lower forms of animal life independently in the New World—the genesis of human beings apparently occurred in east central Africa some three to five million years ago—there is much speculation as to their migration. One famous theory, endorsed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as well as a few non-Mormon scholars, is that all or most Indians are descended from people who migrated from the eastern Mediterranean basin. The most prominent hypothesis, however, has its origins in 1589 when a Spanish Jesuit, José de Acosta (c. 1539-1600), guessed that native Americans were descended from Asian peoples, a notion based on physical characteristics.

    The rise of modern science has tended to substantiate this latter theory, now called the Bering Strait Hypothesis, though in a much more sophisticated form. According to this view, the first nomads entered the Americas via an ice or land bridge connecting modern-day Siberia and Alaska sometime between 50,000 B.C. and the end of the last Ice Age around 10,000 B.C. Today this body of water is the Bering Strait (hence the designation of the theory), named after Vitus Bering (1680-1741), a Danish navigator who sailed through it during the eighteenth century. The consensus of informed opinion is that the first immigrants were a small band of hunters and gatherers who came in search of large game animals in about 30,000 B.C. They were probably Homo sapiens sapiens, that is, anatomically they were identical to humans living today, though scholars are not in agreement here. It appears there were several incoming waves of nomadic hunters, with the Eskimos representing the last large-scale migration, sometime shortly before the time of Jesus Christ. Penetrating south along the slopes of the Rockies, these nomads eventually diffused in all directions over the course of several millennia, finally arriving at the southern tip of the Americas sometime around 8,000 B.C. This theory of Mongolian origin and north-to-south migration is supported by the artifact record, as well as specialized studies of blood types, dental records, and linguistic analysis.

    When Europeans first encountered them, native Americans were found throughout the Western Hemisphere. However, they were not living uniformly throughout the two continents. Clearly, there was a tendency by these early immigrants to avoid less attractive areas, tropical rain forests and deserts, and to seek healthier environments—preferably in moderate zones, or, when forced into the tropics, in highland areas. When Europeans arrived in the Americas, there were two large centers of population concentration: the Andean altiplano and Mesoamerica.

    While the tribal peoples of South America are fascinating, this area is not essential in explaining the roots of the people of Mexico and their communities in the United States. It is the tribes of Mesoamerica that provide the key to an understanding of the Mexicans' Indian legacy. The heavy population density of Mesoamerica reflected the advent of agriculture. The transition from a nomadic to a sedentary society seems to have occurred first in the highlands of south central Mexico. Certainly it was there, according to studies made by the Canadian anthropologist Richard S. MacNeish in the Tehuacán Valley in the state of Puebla, that corn (or maize), the basis of all Mesoamerican civilizations, was initially cultivated in around 5,000 B.C. From this source, the cultivation of maize spread both north and south. By the time Europeans arrived in the Americas, corn had been introduced into the Southwest and throughout the eastern part of North America via the Mississippi Valley. Amerindians cultivated a variety of crops, including beans, squash, tomatoes, avocados, potatoes, and pumpkins, but it was corn that made possible the rise of cities, the urban revolution which inaugurates the rise of civilization.

    The first of the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas developed in the lowlands of southern Vera Cruz and Tabasco, near the shores of the Caribbean Sea, not far from the cradle of agriculture on the central plateau. Discovered in the late 1930s, by the American archaeologist Matthew W. Stirling, the ruins of these first cities, San Lorenzo and La Venta being the most impressive, have been dated as early as 1200 B.C. Built by a people who came to be called the Olmecs, after a later tribe of the same name, these first urban clusters were actually ceremonial centers rather than full-fledged cities.

    The artifact record permits scholars to reconstruct a general outline of Olmec life. The economic mainstay of this advanced society, of all pre-Columbian civilizations, was agriculture. In addition to corn, farmers cultivated squashes, peppers, and tomatoes. However, there was also some manufacturing and considerable commerce. Having abandoned a nomadic lifestyle, the Olmecs, like other peoples in similar circumstances, began to develop a stratified society. At the top were priests, who exerted political power, which they shared with the nobility. Since warfare was common—the rise of civilization increases the amount of strife in society wherever it occurs—the nobles were a warrior aristocracy. Merchants and artisans constituted a small percentage of the population, but they exerted an influence far greater than their modest numbers might indicate, as there is evidence of an extensive trading network. The majority of the people, the commoners, were peasants. They lived on the outskirts of the ceremonial centers and in the surrounding countryside. At the bottom of the social pecking order were undoubtedly slaves, probably war captives from other tribes and Olmec citizens who forfeited their freedom because of mounting debts.

    The relative affluence of Olmec society permitted the rise of a complex and advanced culture. A rudimentary hieroglyphic writing system (not yet deciphered) evolved, perhaps—as in Mesopotamia and other early civilizations—an innovation introduced by merchants to facilitate financial transactions. A calendar permitted farmers to keep track of time. Another remarkable element of Olmec culture was art. Some experts have argued that the Olmecs superseded all pre-Columbian peoples in this regard. Their most prominent artistic creations were massive monolithic stone heads. Made of basalt, most stand about eight feet high. Evidence of a high degree of sophistication, these beautiful colossal heads may reflect an African influence. (Undoubtedly, as New World archaeology progresses, scholars will discover that there were many transoceanic contacts between the Americas and other continents, including Africa, only 1,500 miles from the Brazilian coast.) The most vital aspect of Olmec culture was religion, which influenced every aspect of life. The Olmecs believed in a variety of deities (polytheism). These gods were highly revered; and there is good reason to believe that they exacted, through their priests, continual sacrifices, including human sacrifices, one of the outstanding characteristics of virtually all Mesoamerican civilizations. In general, these civilizations displayed amazing similarities, which suggests that they had a common heritage, probably the Olmecs.

    Olmec civilization came to an end shortly before the Christian Era for reasons yet to be explained; but in the epoch between A.D. 300 and A.D. 900, the classical period of New World civilization, there was an extraordinary flowering of culture in Mexico. During this golden age, a number of civilizations rose to prominence. One centered on Monte Albán, an elaborate ceremonial citadel discovered in the 1930s in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Built by the Zapotecs, the city, high atop an artificially flattened hill, was the focal point of an extensive empire that was influenced by both Olmecs and Mayas. Dominated by a powerful priesthood, Monte Albán flourished until the ninth century. Occupied thereafter by Mixtecs, a neighboring tribe to the west, the city was eventually abandoned; and, overgrown with jungle, it soon sank into oblivion.

    In the Valley of Mexico, site of present-day Mexico City, the classical period witnessed the rise and fall of another mighty urban society, Teotihuacán, "the place of the gods," as the Aztecs later called it. With a population which may have reached 200,000 at its zenith in A.D. 600, it represents the largest metropolis in Mesoamerica up to that time. Its hub was the ceremonial center dominated by two gigantic monuments, the Pyramid of the Sun—its base larger than that of the Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt's Giza Valley—and the smaller Pyramid of the Moon. Dedicated to commerce, Teotihuacanos (it is not known what they called themselves) extended their economic influence over most of southern Mexico before their sudden and mysterious destruction around A.D. 750.

    The greatest civilization of the classical period, indeed the most advanced of all New World societies, was the Mayan. Beginning at about A.D. 300, a major cultural awakening took place in the inhospitable rainforests of Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and neighboring parts of Mexico, where the Mayas established their first city-states. Tikal, located in the Petén district of Guatemala, was the largest of these. Thought at first to be ceremonial centers like those of the Olmecs, with the population always dispersed in the surrounding area, it now appears that some Mayan sites were true cities. Cultural heirs of the Olmecs, the Mayas carried their inheritance far beyond their predecessors. Given their primitive technology, the advances made in the intellectual realm are astonishing. At their height in the eighth century, the Mayas tracked stars, developed the concept of the zero, and had the ability to perform simple brain operations. Their astronomers traced the path of Venus with an error of only fourteen seconds a year. They created the only true writing system in the Americas (about a third of their hieroglyphics have been deciphered) and an elaborate calendar which was more accurate than that used in Europe before the Gregorian calendar of the late sixteenth century. Their art and architecture, well represented in Mexico City's renowned National Museum of Anthropology (completed in 1964), are among their most cherished accomplishments.

    While they excelled in arts and sciences, the ancient Mayas—like the Greeks in the Old World—were unable to overcome their political differences. Divided into city-states controlled by warrior-kings, among the most celebrated being Pacal of Palenque, Shield Jaguar of Yaxchilan, and Yax-Pac of Copán, they proved incapable of creating a true empire. Warfare was endemic among them. Since the 1960s, scholars have discovered that human sacrifice was at least as characteristic of their society as it was of the Aztecs. Wars may account for the decline of urban life at about 900, when they mysteriously abandoned their cities in the southern highlands and migrated to the Yucatán Peninsula, which had been a peripheral area before. The archaeologist Sir Eric Thompson attributed the decline to peasant uprisings. Most scholars today, though, emphasize ecological problems, notably soil exhaustion.

    Yucatán witnessed the rise of new centers, including Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Mayapán. The northern migration revitalized their culture during the next few centuries, but the Mayans never regained their former eminence. The final decline began after the mid-thirteenth century. When the Spanish encountered the Mayas in the sixteenth century, they were a mere shadow of their old selves, their days of glory practically forgotten by now. During the postclassic period, from 900 to the Spanish Conquest, there were few intellectual and scientific advances.

    Physical evidence discovered at cities in Yucatán, especially Chichén Itzá, indicates that during this postclassic era the Mayas were influenced profoundly by some alien culture, possibly that of the Toltecs. Scholars know that this warlike tribe entered central Mexico from the northern arid steppes sometime around the tenth century. Establishing their capital at Tula—north of Teotihuacán, an abandoned city by that time—in the modern state of Hidalgo, the Toltecs assimilated the superior culture of the tribes of the Valley of Mexico, whom they came to dominate as they adopted an aggressive expansionist policy. Perhaps it was the opposition of these tribes which eventually forced the Toltecs to forsake Tula in the twelfth century and descend from the highlands to the shores of the Caribbean. They bequeathed a number of impressive aspects of their culture to the people they subjugated, among them their chief deity, the benign Quetzalcóatl. Often depicted as a plumed serpent, this god would be incorporated into the religious beliefs of both Mayas and Aztecs.

    Like the Toltecs, the Aztecs trace their origins to the northern deserts of Mexico—a term derived from Mexica, which is what they called themselves—though the site of their mythical homeland, Aztlán, continues to be the object of intense speculation. Náhuatl speakers, both tribes emerged from the Chichimecs ("the dog people"), a generic name for the wild tribes of the North. The Aztecs appeared in the Valley of Mexico, which they called Anáhuac, sometime in the early thirteenth century. Despised by stronger and more advanced tribes, they were forced to continue a nomadic existence in search of a homeland for many years. According to ancient prophecies, the sight of an eagle perched on a cactus plant with a serpent in its mouth would signal the spot where they were to stop, build a capital, and inaugurate their quest for hegemony. Apparently this event came to pass in 1325—scholars are able to decipher their calendar, which differs significantly from that of the Mayas—for in that year they began to build Tenochtitlán (present Mexico City) in the midst of Lake Texcoco.

    Having constructed their capital, the Aztecs embarked on a series of military campaigns which resulted in the creation of a vast empire at a phenomenal speed. By the end of the fifteenth century, a Triple Alliance, consisting of Tlacopan, Texcoco, and Tenochtitlán, had been forged, but the Aztecs were first among equals. When the Spaniards entered their expanding domain in 1519, they encountered a militaristic and theocratic kingdom of more than six million inhabitants stretching throughout southern Mexico. A desire for war captives, dictated by a mystical religion which demanded continuous human sacrifice, seemed to motivate these conquests. The most bloodthirsty of their deities was Huitzilopochtli, their war god. Not all sacrificial victims were war captives; occasionally, their own citizens were offered up to the gods. "There is no indication of voluntarism among victims," Inga Clendinnen notes, "although some appear to have acquiesced in their fate." Like the Romans, whom they resemble in many ways, Aztecs were master builders as well as valiant warriors. An extensive system of highways helped consolidate their power. Trade became as pivotal as warfare in spreading Aztec culture. What they contributed to their vassals was not insignificant.


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Table of Contents

1. Spaniards and Native Americans, Prehistory-1521
2. The Spanish Frontier, 1521-1821
3. The Mexican Far North, 1821-1848
4. The American Southwest, 1848-1900
5. The Great Migration, 1900-1930
6. The Depression, 1930-1940
7. The Second World War and Its Aftermath, 1940-1965
8. The Chicano Movement, 1965-1975
9. Goodbye to Aztlán, 1975-1994
10. The Hispanic Challenge, 1994-Present
Appendix A: NACCS Scholars of the Year
Appendix B: Hispanic-American Medal of Honor Recipients
Appendix C: Mexican-American Historical Novels

Indiana University Press

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