Friday, December 29, 2006

If We Weren't Different, We Would be the Same

I have returned to Boston. Some personal disappointments and a persistent cold kept this holiday season from being spectacular for GayProf. Such is the way with holidays it seems. All that anticipation usually leaves us with a touch of ennui.

As you know, I spent my holidays in the Land of Enchantment. Each time I visit New Mexico, I always try to gauge its political status. For many decades, New Mexico stood as the patch of Lefty Blue surrounded by the evil Right Red of Texas, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah on the electoral map. For most of the twentieth century, New Mexico’s populace adopted a “live and let live” attitude. The people of the state probably weren’t progressive as much as they simply became disinterested in interfering in others’ lives.

Of course that attitude emerged after a bloody and difficult coexistence in the nineteenth century. Contrary to popular mythology, Mexicans in New Mexico had no desire to become part of the United States. Indeed, the people of Santa Fe wept as the U.S. military raised Ol’ Glory above the governor's palace. U.S. soldiers reported being haunted by the women’s anguished wails for years after the event.

With such an unhappy invasion, nobody (except President Polk) found it particularly surprising that violence ensued. Mexicans relieved the first U.S. governor of his mortal toil just a few months into his administration. Americans, of course, extracted a bloody revenge.

Perhaps the greatest stronghold of antipathy to the U.S. existed in southern New Mexico. Mexicans there rarely put up with Americans or their shenanigans during the nineteenth century. In one 1860 incident, Mexicans forcibly cleared out all the Americans from their town after a Euro-American gambler shot a Mexican woman in the street (he missed his intended target of another gambler). Don’t get the idea this was just an armed-Mexican mob. No, no. An elected Mexican official issued an order stating that Americans were no longer welcome. He then deputized the townspeople to accomplish his purpose.

It all seemed reasonable to the Mexicans. “We gave it a good try to share our town with you, Americans,” they said, “It turns out that you were all gun-packing, greedy little monsters. Now it’s time for you to go. No hard feelings. If you have left anything behind, we will mail it to you. Good luck – Go with God.”

The incident reminded Americans that they were the uninvited guests at the dinner party. Even the Chicago Tribune fretfully noted that, in New Mexico, Mexicans “appear determined on revenge, and being largely in the majority, the danger is indeed serious.” For over a day, the Mexicans kept their town totally American-free. They did so without injuring a single American. They might have implied injury would follow if the Americans didn’t leave the town, but they didn’t actually shoot anybody in retaliation. Then some crybaby called in the U.S. army, which quickly deposed the democratically elected official.

Yet, even that incident showed the compromise that would later dominate New Mexico’s politics. Mexicans in the town probably knew they could not keep Americans out forever. U.S. Army officials knew they couldn’t keep coming back every other month simply to allow Americans to live in the town. Therefore, they brokered a compromise with the townspeople. Mexicans could retain control over most civic functions, conduct government affairs in Spanish, and police the town. In exchange, they wouldn’t run the invaders out at gunpoint. It all seemed so fair.

Eventually the violence subsided and an uneasy peace emerged in the form of institutionalized multiculturalism. While certain problems existed with this model, the territorial (and later the state) government guaranteed that New Mexico’s Euro Americans and Mexicans would be considered equal, including access to government services. That might seem obvious, but it was not the governing philosophy of neighboring Texas or Colorado during the same period.

New Mexico and Hawai`i (another blue bastion) were the only states with a non-white majority for most of the twentieth century (joined recently by California and Texas). The past few elections, however, have shown that New Mexico might be overrun with a new population coming from its hateful neighboring states.

During this trip, I had an anecdotal encounter that confirmed my worst fears about the changing demographics. Now, I don’t normally go out of my way to eavesdrop. True, people watching can pass the time. Most times, though, I don’t leave home thinking about intercepting other people’s conversations. My own life is much more interesting. In this case, though, I found it impossible not to overhear.

I had made arrangements to meet a friend for coffee at an Albuquerque Starbucks© near the university. My friend became a bit delayed and I had forgotten to bring a book with me. So, as I drank a grande hot chocolate (why didn’t I order the venti?), the conversation from the next table drifted over to me.

From what I pieced together, the lead woman at the table recently moved to New Mexico from the dreaded state of Texas. Her table companions, originally from Seattle, came for a ski trip to the Land of Enchantment. They had little to say, though, as the Texan dominated the conversation.

Much of her time went to trashing the state. Nothing, according to her, was right about New Mexico. Here are some of the insights that she gave to her silent Seattle companions:

“There aren’t any Christians in this state. They are all Catholic.”

“I hate the food here. It’s always so spicy. People seem to like to see if you can tolerate the heat. It’s like a contest or something to see who can eat the hottest pepper.” [GayProf Note: This is true, though I have found that most restaurant food in the past decade has lost its edge to accommodate people like Texan-Girl]”

“Santa Fe is the only good place in the state. That’s because the Hispanics don’t control it anymore. If you go to the Hispanic towns, everything is run-down.”

“I went to a restaurant here and they had a section on the menu called ‘Gringo Food.’ That’s where they put things like hamburgers. I told the waitress that food was American food."

"Everything here is in Spanish and English: all the street signs, everything. This is the United States. We speak English in the U.S. This place has been part of the U.S. for, like, four hundred years. Get over it.” [GayProf Note: The U.S. invaded New Mexico in 1846, a mere 160 years ago, not 400. The U.S is currently 230 years old. Clearly she would not win any history awards.]

“It’s not like Texas. People here aren’t friendly. Some have even told me that I should go back to Texas if I don’t like it here.”

Now, I am not a psychologist, but it seemed to me that this annoying Texan-Girl had a mild case of culture-shock. She saw difference, became afraid, and reacted with hostility. Though Texan-Girl probably did not know it, her complaints and fears have circulated for the 160 years that Mexican-Americans have been part of the nation. Euro-Americans have long tried to stamp-out signs of cultural difference.

For whatever reason, they often obsessed about food. Much like Texan-Girl complained of the local cuisine, so also 1920s-Chicago social workers fretted about Mexicans’ diets in their city. They demanded that the recent arrivals to the city conform to their own arbitrary assumptions about “proper living.” They even established a recommended menu to replace the Mexican food that allegedly angered up the blood:

Breakfast: cornmeal mush with top milk, toast, coffee
Lunch: dried peas, bread with oleo, and stewed rhubarb
Dinner: pot-roast, bread, raisin pie, and coffee

Almost a hundred years later, it turns out that the Chicago social workers’ notions of “good American food” did not withstand the test of time. For some reason, most Americans just don’t find cornmeal mush a satisfying way to start their day. Meanwhile, Mexican food, or at least bastardized versions of it, has become so ubiquitous in the U.S. that few even think about it anymore. To my memory, I haven’t seen throngs of protesters circling the Taco Bell for being “un-American.”

Though her comments had racial undertones, I actually don’t think that racism per se fueled Texan-Girl’s disenchantment. In reality, I don’t think that her reaction would be unique to New Mexico or its population. I suspect that if she had gone to Massachusetts, she would have felt equally at odds with her surroundings and neighbors. Her complaints would be different, but not her basic frustration. What bothered her was that people lived and believed things different from herself. She did not expect to find a difference between Texas and the rest of the U.S. When she encountered it, she had nothing but ill-will.

This, it seems to me, is one of the (many) problems with the United States. A mythology exists that claims that “American” identity is universal. As a result, most Americans assume that how they live their lives must be how all Americans live. They interpret the expression “E Pluribus Unum” to mean that the nation must crush the differences of the many to make one.

Nostalgia for a mythical time of national unity paralyzes the nation. No such period ever existed. Instead, individuals and groups have come to understand their role in the United States based on their own experiences and practices.


Doug said...

There seems to be a lack of tolerance spreading throughout the country and the world. Our leaders seem to fuel the fire for their own purposes, political, religious, and otherwise. And we as a group seem to take the bait.

Your reference to a mythical time of national unity rings true about a lot of "history" that I was taught in high school. More mythology than history. One can hope that the rise of blogs and independent media can help to shed light on the facts of history.

You said your Texan girl had a case of culture shock. That's more diplomatic than I would have been. I would have been one of those telling her to get her bitchy ignorant ass back to Texas.

I can't stand intolerance.

Anonymous said...

Didn't that chick know that hamburgers ARE gringo food? Sheesh.
Cornmeal mush and stewed rhubarb? Blech. I dunno how authentic is the Mexican food around here, but LAWD is it good.
I nearly fell off my chair laughing at the thought that Catholics aren't Christians. Damn, and all those nuns at my Catholic elementary school had it wrong.
I once overheard someone complaining about American Indians, and he followed up his tirade with, "I wish they'd go back where the came from."

Anonymous said...

Well put, GayProf.

This phenomenon exists on many levels. In Illinois (my home state) people in one end of the state talked the same way about the other end of the state.

Since moving from the US, I've found that many people outside the US assume that the US has a monolithic culture (and we ALL voted for dubya, apparently).

I've worked out that people outside the US get their notion of America from what they see on TV and in the movies. Could it be that many Americans form their false assumptions about the country the same way?

None of that excuses the near xenophobia of Texan Girl (and similar people), but it may help explain where it comes from. If it is true, it may make it even harder to change attitudes because it would be necessary to change the whole culture.

I thought what Doug said was so true: "One can hope that the rise of blogs and independent media can help to shed light on the facts of history." You're helping to do that, GayProf. I know I learned more about New Mexico history from this post than I ever learned in school. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

God damn.

You said what I wanted to say today, only better.

Elizabeth McClung said...

I wonder if elected officials in New Mexico could declare the anglo's "Enemy combatants"? - ahh, sorry getting sidetracked on the earlier story about clearing out the town of undesireables. I think you are partially correct on the idea that the US is a giant fondue pot or melting pot or whatever - because I guess treating the most recent immigrant group like sub-humans for a couple generations is the best way to integrate? Dunno - my notice of her remarks is that they contain the sort of head-on-sidewalk-pounding ignorance that one hears from the most vocal US representative overseas - that by somehow being different (like speaking other languages, or having laws that are different to the US) is a gigantic trick that is willing played by population and that people could drop this whole "act" of being different if they wanted to (that for instance all Italians could speak english, they just CHOOSE not to). Yes, all those catholics and thier giant cathedrals - what kind of religion is that again....?

tornwordo said...

Awesome chapter. Now let's assume this is the first chapter in your book. Each one a focus of anecdote and pondering with your acute style and conclusions on America/racism/culture/whateverhasyourpantiesinawad. I for one, wouldn't be able to put the book down. This might be my favorite piece of yours yet.

Earl Cootie said...

Well, she was from Texas. In Louisiana and Oklahoma, visiting Texans were known for their state, um, pride. "Everything's better in Texas," we were told (ad nauseum). "It's the biggest state in the country!" What about Alaska? "Oh, I'm talking about the real states."

Of course, not all native Texans suffered from such provincial arrogance, but those who did were just so much louder.

And, yes, I've often perceived Americans, as a whole, to be Texans on a national scale. Especially in this new century.

GayProf said...

Doug: That's more diplomatic than I would have been.

Well, I am not sure that I am that noble. My first title for this entry was, "Texan, Go Home."

Pacalaga: Oddly, hearing that Catholics aren't Christians is fairly common in Texas. When I teach Intro History, I even have to take time to point out that the Catholic Spaniards brought Christian missionaries. Evangelical Protestants don't imagine them as Christian at all.

I am astounded by the comment about Native Americans "going back where they came from." That's a new one for me. No wonder I drink.

Arthur: people outside the US assume that the US has a monolithic culture (and we ALL voted for dubya, apparently)

This is one of my worst nightmares. Actually, when I have traveled out of the country, I tended to go out of my way to work in that I disapprove of Bush somewhere into the conversation.

Rebekah: That's funny, because I thought your post was actually more elegant and to the point.

Elizabeth: I never really like the melting pot metaphor, or the salad metaphor. Maybe I just have an anti-metaphor agenda.

You are right that Americans are even more shocking when they actually leave the country. If Texan-Girl had problems with her neighboring state, just imagine what she would have been like in Europe!

When I used to watch Amazing Race, I often shuddered at the ways that the American contestants demanded that people speak English regardless of which country they appeared. I am not sure how much more entitled one could get.

Torn: Thanks -- I actually didn't imagine that this post would rank that highly. Go figure.

Earl: See, I go back and forth about whether Texas is actually the harbinger of things to come in the U.S. Texans are just more comfortable saying things that other Americans are thinking.

ChristopherM said...

1. The persistence of that myth of more peaceful times gone by is the biggest proof that despite how liberal academia is supposed to be, minorities are still virtually absent from pre-1960s history.

2. You went to that Starbucks on Central? See, that conversation is what you get for going there. Isn't that cute locally-owned coffeeshop/toy store across the street from the Starbucks? You wouldn't hear that kind of claptrap there.

3. Speaking of the yummy NM food, you forgot my food order AGAIN, didn't you? Darn you, Gayprof!

Anonymous said...

how big was her hair? that would give me some clue as to what part of texas she's from? we're not all like that...

Anonymous said...

I think you're right about the source of her comments. I remember way back when the Real World show was in London, and that kid from somewhere here (midwest?) was pissed - royally pissed - that he could NOT find Ranch dressing anywhere. It was like he was personally offended.

I loved that (and I like Ranch)!

As far as "unity" - the part people might have a problem with is how can we be United as a country while still being distinctly Southern, New Englander, Californian, Midwestern, Hawaiian, etc.

Well, we can all join the club. Think Edinburgh and London are identical? Naples and Venice? Montreal and Calgary?

In one sense, unity is like nationalism. That's not always the best thing, especially when inserting "social" in the middle of the word.

But in the US, the unity I was brought up to understand was a shared set of ideals of what the country could be - things carried on from the post-revolutionary years.

The thought that unity in this country just means "identicalness" is stupid. But many people believe it. I've visited a bunch of states and I love the fact that even if it's got unique foods, uniques accents, etc, it's still the US. I love it. Why would I complain about that?

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written! I wonder what the bigot would have to say if she moved to South Florida. Bigots. We should call people for what they are. Not "conservatives" or "traditionalists." Bigots.

Anonymous said...

Yikes! The Ugly American spews forth in her own country. All of us, of course, would have murmured dreamily, “All GayProf said is true, it is utterly enchanting.” One can easily imagine how this woman would act in Paris and return home complaining that the French hate us. While bitch-slapping her would give us great pleasure, I doubt it would change her mind. One can easily see our president supposing that our American form of government, corporations and lifestyle are what other parts of the world need. While bitch-slapping the president would give me great pleasure, I doubt it would change his mind. Okay, we see the problem, thank you, but what is the remedy?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, "hamburgers" are part of the uniquely American cuisine, just like beer, tacos, and eggrolls. Geesh.

Man, you got me all hot and bothered by bringing up one of my own areas of study, constructed historical narratives...

GayProf said...

Christopher: Yeah, I wouldn't have selected Starbucks. My friend, though, named the destination.

As for your food, I brought it all the way back to Boston. You've got to meet me half-way.

DBV: The hair was mousy-brown and done in a braided pony tail. She was probably in her late twenties/early thirities. She did mention participating in teen-Rodeo events growing up.

Atari: Did anybody tell Real-World-Boy he could make his own Ranch Dressing with a bit of sour cream and herbs?

It still surprises me that people have such a hard time with the diversity of the U.S. I think, though, that much of the U.S. lives in very segregated communities. As a result, they only know and see other people like themselves.

Words83: If South Florida is offering to take her, I think New Mexico would be happy to send her there. The state might even pay for it.

WayOut: All of us, of course, would have murmured dreamily, “All GayProf said is true...”

I just assume that this is what people are saying all the time.

Chad: Yes, and her constructed historical narrative was poorly done.

Anonymous said...

As usual, I agree wholeheartedly with the substance of your post, and can't imagine why Miss Texas doesn't take the good advice she's been given and go back to the Dallas mall she came from. (Sadly, she might discover that Texas has its own Mexican cultural heritage that she was just too busy to see before.)

But, I have to ask...can I get a definition of "Euro-American" and "Mexican-American" and the differences you see between the two? There seems to be a divide that I think is overstated. The propensities for Catholicism and speaking Spanish that Miss T. whined about came from somewhere other than this side of the Tordesillas line. Conversely, "Anglo-America" or whatever isn't nearly as lily-white in its genealogy, language or culture as it likes to pretend.

GayProf said...

Huntington: Given that all ideas about race are social constructions, the categories are imprecise and vague. We are forced to work with the language that we inherit.

For me, I use Mexicans/Mexican-Americans to refer to individuals who consider their origins to be somewhere in the modern nation-state of Mexico. I prefer to use "Euro-American" over the more common "Anglo" because I think it suggests the greater diversity that exists for those of white heritage. Anglo, after all, does not adequately describe Irish, Teutonic, or other groups that immigrated to the U.S.

Anonymous said...

Bravo to you for your sense of self-control! I would have had to go order the venti hot chocolate, because she would have ended up wearing the grande!

Anonymous said...

I know, GayProf; it's just one of those standard usages that bugs me, since it's not as though Europe didn't dominate all the Americas. I just know that future generations will look at the way we describe racial and cultural identities created for hopefully transient social, political and economic purposes and roll their eyes. I use "Anglo" because at least it describes the linguistic picture somewhat accurately, but I get why that's inadequate, too.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, and somewhat depressing to read.

"One Nation, (under God - heh!) indivisible, with liberty and justice for all".

The Texan "gal" sounds like an arrogant **** for certain, but at the same time, it might be helpful for all sides to seek thier identity as Americans first, and to put away the "hyphens" from their midst.

Too much quibbling with identity politics spoils the fondue in the American melting pot, me thinks.

While the accession of the Euro- (largely Anglo-) culture to primacy in the USA was attained through some greed and compulsion, I am hard pressed to think that we would have been better off as a nation (had we come to exist as anything analogous to the current USA) if we had somehow left the Southwest as part of the "Greater Mexico" or even if we never took Napoleon on his offer to hock the Louisianna Territory so he could bankroll his wars.

Or, if by some chance that the USA had come into 20th Century as a Latino state, I do not think that it would have faired much better than Mexico or any other Latino state, given the track records of how those states have ruled.

Add to that the budding American social system, within which it would become easier to advance as long as one was resourceful and clever, as opposed to the entrenched systems of patronage and working within the nearly static class system... where such cleverness and talent might be meaningless if you happened to have been born to a low social station.

Perhaps it is unjust that the Anglo-European ethic of competition and expansionism tends to want to assimilate everything in its path like the Borg... but even despite that, I think that we live in a materially better world now than we might have if we never ventured beyond the Mississippi.

However, I do not think that evil-mindedness or expansionist tendencies are unique to Anglo/European-Americans. Though we might be particularly well practiced at it, given the legacy and the profusion of conflicting powers and traditions we had in European history, with which to hone our perfect blend of imperialistic nastiness.

Yet, Greed, Graft and general evilness abounds in the hearts of all humans, (Romans 3:23) and it is only the moral strictures that we choose to frame our conduct with (be it religion or some "philosophy") which helps to restrain our naturally evil tendencies.

How else could it be true that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" ?

Roger Owen Green said...

"Though her comments had racial undertones, I actually don’t think that racism per se fueled Texan-Girl’s disenchantment. In reality, I don’t think that her reaction would be unique to New Mexico or its population. I suspect that if she had gone to Massachusetts, she would have felt equally at odds with her surroundings and neighbors."

Yeah, but "that type" always finds some religious/ethnic hook to attsach it to. "Damn Irish". Or since she's already shown this bias: "Damn Catholics."