Thursday, September 20, 2007

Let's Get This Fiesta Started

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.


vuboq said...

I learn more from one GayProf post than I did in all my history classes! I *heart* your gravitas.


pacalaga said...

LMAO @ vuboq's comment.
It's an interesting point you make about Felina. I always interpreted that story as a commentary on the stupidity of jealousy, and of trying to possess any woman. It never occurred to me that the song was blaming her. (After all, what moron would blame a woman for the fact that he committed murder?)
So. Bonehead never cracked a book on Latino history - what book(s) should he have cracked?

GayProf said...

VUBOQ: Alas, my gravitas is a gift and a curse...

Pacalaga: When I was growing up, I often thought of "El Paso" in much the same way (and I think that is one of the song's central themes). Since I tended to like the song, it kinda hurt to unpack it. While jealousy is the theme, Robbins suggests that wicked Felina put the ball in motion through her wantonness.

As for reading, Liar Ex had many options (basically all of my bookshelves). Juan González Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America is a good overview. Or there are some classics like George Sánchez's Becoming Mexican American; Deena González's Refusing the Favor: The Spanish Mexican Women of Santa Fe 1820-1880; Tomás Almaguer's Racial Faultlines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California; or David Montejano's Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986.

In truth, though, I might have been happy if Liar Ex had even bothered to put forward as little effort as reading a Wikipedia article.

Roger Green said...

Yeah, I have ambivalance about Black History Month, Women's History Month, etc. BTW, Census notes why Hispanic Heritage Month starts when it does:

Re: Liar Ex: I reckon that your next great relationship will be with someone who "gets" it; you won't be recommending books to him; he'll be recommending books to YOU.

Chad said...

Has anyone ever made a comparative study between Mexican-American socio-cultural relations and those between another two nationalities led by recognized, sovereign governments that lived in close geographical proximity but with disproportionate political weight and economic resources as well as divisive cultural and historical differences (i.e., England and Scotland before 1603, Russia and Poland in the 1700s, China and Korea at some point before the 1900s, etc.)? If not, I think such a study would be extremely interesting, especially if the study reveals whether or not the United States is "unique" in its "Othering" of Latin America because of the additional factor of the US' own struggles to construct and retain a lasting and historical national identity.

Marlan said...

I always knew there was something I didn't like about Walker, Texas Ranger--that is besides the tired acting of Chuck Norris and the tedius scripts. Who knew it was a cultural slap in the face against Mexicans?

Now I feel morally superior as well as artistically superior about why I never watched that show. Is that OK, or am I just borrowing a feeling?

David said...

I am woefully under-informed regarding the intertwined history of American of Latino heritage. I'm not sure I even knew about the Mexican-American war. Was that where "Remember the Alamo" came from? I hang my head.

Mike said...

I always got a kick out of the labeling on historical maps of the large yellow patch of the Southwest as "Mexican Cession." Like Mexico just gave it to the United States out of the goodness of their hearts and as a concession to "manifest destiny."

At the heart of a lot of immigration fears is that Mostly-White America will someday be overrun and outpopulated by "los otros", much like the Native Americans were centuries Europeans.

pacalaga said...

I read Chad's comment twice and I still don't know what it says.
Thanks for the book tips.

Marius said...

Excellent post. And you are right; it's a shame that many Americans don't recognize that some Hispanics have contributed great things to this country. Some Hispanics, as you mentioned, have been on US soil for a very long time--some close to two centuries, if my memory serves me right.

However, I think it's a bigger shame that most Hispanics don't know their own history. I've met Mexican-American activists who are clueless about Mexican history and culture. It's the cultural element that's quite surprising. There are clear regional differences in Mexico and the Southwestern US, a fact that many activists seem to ignore. But I guess that's another issue. Anyway, I think if you want others to appreciate your history and culture, you should educate yourself first.

Also, I remember reading a review of a book called De Los Otros. I think it was written by a psychologist or sociologist who studied the behavior of gay men in Mexico. So, I think that's where Logo got the idea of using Los Otros. And, if that turns out to be true, then Los Otros refers to the status of gay men in Latin America—they are seen as outsiders, as “the Others.” The truth is, it sucks to be a gay man in many Latin American countries.

GayProf said...

ROG: Finding somebody who "gets it" is high on my list of requirements for anybody with whom I will have an extended relationship (lasting more than a few hours). I wish to not repeat the many, many, many mistakes that I made by agreeing to be in a relationship with somebody like Liar Ex (Who Told Many Lies).

Chad: Probably the historical literature that would be most salient would focus on European imperialism and race. I don't know of a comparative study, though (or at least one that springs to mind).

There was an interesting study, however, that examined intermarriage between South Asians and Mexicans entitled Making Ethnic Choices.

Marlan: I can truly say that I never saw an episode of Walker: Texas Ranger. Regardless of our political outlook, I think that is something that we can all claim as a badge of honor.

David: Yep, the Alamo is one of the early conflicts that ultimately resulted in the U.S. -Mexican War. Revolting Texans were slaughtered by the unscrupulous Santa Anna (who, btw, is considered a villain in Mexico as well as in th U.S. (but not at all for the same reasons)).

It would have been hard for you to learn this history because the education system in this nation has obfuscated most of this knowledge.

Mike: One of my pet peeves are maps that legitimated the completely made-up claims of the nineteenth-century Texas boundary that includes half of New Mexico. Nobody -- And I mean nobody -- in Mexico ever considered Texas to extend further than the Nueces River. The U.S., however, imagined things quite differently.

Pacalaga: I am always happy to recommend books...

Marius: I agree totally. I think all minorities (racial, sexual, gender) have a political obligation to learn about the past. It is hard to come by that knowledge because primary and secondary education in this nation omits it entirely. That is why individuals need to take responsibility for their own learning and thinking.

Many universities, including some of the "Ivy League" institutions, still don't have a historian who can teach Latino/a studies classes. The students at those universities should demand a change (especially students at universities located in cities where GayProf would like to live).

seekeronos said...

"--- At the heart of a lot of immigration fears is that Mostly-White America will someday be overrun and outpopulated by "los otros", much like the Native Americans were centuries Europeans. ---"

The solution to that nearly 152 years ago would have been to have absorbed the entirety of Mexico into the USA, per the "All of Mexico Movement" instead of just settling for the Guadalupe concessions. Of course, that would have had its issues with the (forcible) assimilation of the Indian and Mexican populations, to say nothing of compounding what had already been developing concerning slavery and states' rights.

Since history has either blessed us or cursed us by having elected to go with the Guadalupe concessions... what remains to be done is to effectively assimilate "los Otros" who do come legally migrate into our American Homelands, and see that they too, like our fathers before us, become non-hyphenated Americans.

Laverne said...

What's wrong with hyphenated americans?

Seriously? What's wrong with it?

It's not like most of us can claim generation upon generations of ancestors who lived here.

Oh wait.

None of those of us of European background anyway.

I spend a lot of time explaining to my students that California was part of Mexico first. And that briefly (Okay, for three weeks) it was its own country.

Agreements were made, then broken, about the language(s) which would be spoken, and Rancheros that wouldn't be broken up...

And next thing you know, it's "go back to your own country if you can't speak English."

Gayprof... don't worry. I'm teaching the young ones about our history. All of it. They seem to think that racism was only about blacks and whites and Nazis and Jews.

Nope. And it's more a part of their lives today than they care to admit.

Steven said...

Many thanks to sharing your wisdom on this topic. It's not necessarily learning of the subject matter, but definitely learning from a perspective that adds "understanding" to it.

In regards to the various heritage months, I just saw a marquee at the park district that made mention that Hispanic Heritage Month is 9/15 - 10/15. Was September and October both taken by other groups that they had to go with the middle of the month?

seekeronos said...

What's wrong with hyphenated americans?

Seriously? What's wrong with it?

It's not like most of us can claim generation upon generations of ancestors who lived here.

Oh wait.

None of those of us of European background anyway.

Actually, that's the best reason for loosing the hyphenations.

T.R. (Theodore Roosevelt) was one of the earlier proponents of pan-Americanism, where all of the disparate xyz-Americans would move beyond their tendency to group into ethnic enclaves, but to forge a (then) new and distinct identity/ It was the same age that saw the USA transformed from "the united states of America are a nation..." to the United States of America is a nation..."

While we cannot pretend that various socio-economic differences would vanish over several decades, much less "overnight", I still think that if we make a concerted effort (especially educators) to emphasize the similarities and common heritage we have as Americans instead of politicizing and getting into polemics over the differences, our young Americans who follow behind will have a far greater bond of pride and tradition as Americans to identify with.

Now, while the America of our parents was largely built upon the recognition of, and contributions of an Anglo-Saxon-Celtic (how's that for hyphenation..!) we can also recognize the inexorably changing makeup of America as well.

Perhaps our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will inherit a nation that speaks a sort of a "Spanglish" - I hope it will be one that will look upon the unifying similarities of the Spanish and Northern European cultures - and those which converge to the edification of the United States, and not the many differences which can lead to so many fights and factions.