It’s hard to believe that a full year has passed since I last discussed Hispanic Heritage Month in the United States. As you might recall, I have ambivalent feelings about these racialized “months.” I appreciate the intent to at least try to give attention to the history of racial minorities in the U.S. I also think, though, that such months give the wrong impression that the history of racial groups is somehow distinct from the history of the U.S. African-American history is the history of the U.S. Latino History is the history of the U.S. These aren’t “add-ons” or footnotes. Rather, it has been the very core of this nation’s development.
Such were the things that I was thinking (again) in one of my classes. We had reached the U.S.-Mexican War in our chronology. That particular day, I inadvertently left behind half of my lecture notes in my office. Much to my surprise, it turns out that I can basically give that lecture without any notes. I could even remember details down to certain statistics about casualties (The U.S. bombardment of Veracruz, for instance, resulted in civilian causalities outnumbering military casualties 2:1). Yes, my lectures are well on their way to being just that stale and route. Good news for my future students!
Having knowledge of that war so deeply ingrained in my psyche makes me quite unique in this nation. Thanks to the ways that the U.S. structures its educational curriculum, most Americans have a hard time even identifying the right decade (and century) of the U.S.-Mexican War. Indeed, they most often confuse the Spanish-American War (1898 (think Puerto Rico)) with the U.S.-Mexican War (1846 (think Texas, NM, AZ, and CA)). It’s an easy mistake. They were both started to satisfy the U.S.’s imperial ambitions. They both also ended with a huge number of Latinos involuntarily being incorporated into the U.S.
None of that history, though, is really discussed in our nation’s public schools. The U.S.-Mexican War, when it is taught at all, is usually presented as a noble fight by brave [Anglo] Texans against a tyrannical government. Or it is (ahistorically) taught as a prelude to the U.S. Civil War. Whichever the case, the complex history of the Mexicans who got pulled into the U.S. thanks to that war are basically ignored. Indeed, so little is known about Latinos in the U.S. that the mainstream media is often befuddled when it is forced to grapple with them.
The other evening I happened to catch The Daily Show showing clips from Alberto Gonzales’ farewell party at the Department of Justice. Gonzales was such an abysmal failure and so entirely incompetent as Attorney General, it is horrific to me to even acknowledge that he was the highest ranking Latino government official to date. Regardless, The Daily Show made their usual fun of the situation and Gonzales’ exit. What they missed, though, was that the Department of Justice presented Gonzales a statue of four nineteenth-century Texas Rangers as a parting gift. That gesture alone shows just how little the Mexican perspective is taken into consideration in this nation.
For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Texas Rangers maintained Euro-American racial dominance over Mexicans through a campaign of harassment, terrorism, and murder. The Rangers' “heroic” reputation hinged on their ability to execute Mexicans and Native Americans, especially those who dared to challenge the racial status quo in Texas. Indeed, the Rangers were frequently implicated in the lynchings of many innocent Mexicans along the border. They were then often rewarded by the state government which gave the Ranger the dead Mexicans’ possessions.
To therefore present Mexican-American Alberto Gonzales a statue of “brave” Texas Rangers would be the same as presenting an African American with a statute of "daring" Bull Connor. Or a Jewish American a statue of "thoughtful" Adolf Eichmann (Truth in Advertising: I might be mingling my own personal issues with this incident. One of the last things that Liar Ex (Who Told Many Lies) ever gave to me was a “Texas Rangers” badge with my name imprinted on it as a “joke.” He just didn’t understand why I was horrified and repulsed. Instead, he dismissed me by saying “I made too big a deal out of it -- as usual.” In reality, he exposed (once again) just how little he respected the history that I cared about very deeply. Actually, screw respect, he didn't even try to learn that history. In our eight years together, I don't think that he ever bothered to crack a single book on Chicano history/Mexican history/the history of the U.S.-Mexican border/ or the history of race in the U.S. He was such a loser, self-centered fuckwad. -- Huh, clearly some unresolved issues there! Funny how they sometimes appear out of nowhere. Annnnnnyway . . .). The fact is that Mexicans’ abuse and death at the hands of the Texas Rangers has not reached the consciousness of most Americans, including The Daily Show (which has zero (o) on-air Latino correspondents).
After 150 years, the U.S. still pretends that people of Latin-American descent are “new” to this nation. Even the gay-oriented Logo network fell into this presumption. In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, Logo’s news division (a subsidiary of CBS) produced a documentary on gay Latina/os. I appreciate the effort, especially given that most gay media basically ignores Latina/os entirely. Still, Logo decided to given the documentary the unfortunate title “Los Otros” (literally “The Others”). The title reenforces the presumption of Latinos’ perpetual foreignness by literally naming them racial “Others” and by the intentional use of a Spanish title in an English-language program.
Such decisions obscure how deeply intertwined the United States and Mexico actually are (and have been). As much as Canada is often ignored or presumed to be an undifferentiated extension of the U.S. (because of its perceived status as a “white” nation (ignoring the Canada’s own immigration history)), Mexico (much less the rest of Latin America) is imagined as entirely foreign and irreconcilable to U.S. institutions (and perceived as non-white/sometimes white/white, but not really white).
The Mexican border’s “forbidden” status has created an image in U.S. popular culture that makes it a site of sexual intrigue and danger for Euro Americans. In the U.S., Mexican women have frequently been presented as the sexually available, but dangerous, “hot tamales.” Take, for example, a slew of songs that were popular during the middle of the twentieth century. Using tropes that had existed for over a century, these songs depicted lusty and untrustworthy Mexican women leading Euro-American men to their doom (often at the hands of cruel and evil Mexican men). Jay and the Americans recorded “Come a Little Bit Closer” in 1964. Set in a “little café just the other side of the border,” the song tells of a [Euro] American man being lured by an unscrupulous Mexican woman to “come a little bit closer.” At the end of the song, the American must flee for his life from the bar, for “she belonged to that bad man Jose.”
Similarly, Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” (a song, by the way, that I grew up listening to totally uncritically) centers on “wicked Felina,” a Mexican woman who dances for money at Rose’s Cantina. The song doesn’t mince words about Felina, telling us, “blacker than night were the eyes of Felina, wicked and evil while casting their spell.” This time around, the wanton ways of Mexican women resulted in the tragic death of not one, but two Euro-American men. Though Robbins would later write a sequel (and much less popular) song that told Felina’s side of the story, the original “El Paso” epitomized the U.S. perception of Mexicans as sexually deviant and dangerous to good, honest Americans. There is an unspoken fear that Mexicans and Euro Americans can’t possibly coexist in this nation without one group being destroyed.
We could see this most visibly in the immigration reform debacle this past summer. A creaky bipartisan bill that, among other things, would have granted undocumented workers a pathway to U.S. citizenship died from equally bipartisan opposition. Conservative Republicans argued that it wrongly provided “amnesty” to those who had broken the law. In a common contrivance, Republicans suggested that crossing the border without proper authorization was probably the lesser of many crimes that Mexicans commit in the U.S. Senator John Cronyn, one of the two Republican Senators from Texas, explained that he opposed the reform partly because “criminals might slip” through the process. Those on the political left also took issue with bill. Tom Harkin, a Democratic Senator from Iowa declared that the immigration bill would have driven down wages for Americans “on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.”
Rather than acknowledging the complicated history of Latino/as (both U.S. citizens and Latin-American nationals) who have lived for generations in this country, the most common image of Latinos in the mainstream U.S. is that of an undocumented and unskilled worker who threatens the economy, social services, and even the very foundation of the nation! Let’s discuss that for the next month.