Latinos in America

Territories populated by nomadic peoples were harder to conquer, and though the Spanish did explore a good part of North America, seeking the fabled “El Dorado”, the lost “City of Gold”, they made no concerted effort to settle the northern desert regions, in what is now the Southwest United States, until the end of the 16th Century, starting small settlements in what is now New Mexico. Modern day Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, California, Colorado and Wyoming were part of the Vice-royalty of New Spain and later formed part of the newly independent Mexican Republic.

“Colonial law with Spanish roots, but also with native originalities, was introduced, creating a balance between local jurisdiction (the Cabildos’) and the Crown’s, whereby upper administrative offices were closed to the natives, even those of pure Spanish blood. Administration was based on the racial separation of the population between the Republics of Spaniards, Indians and their combination – Mestizos.

By 1800, Spain had governed Mexico as a colony for almost 300 years. During the three centuries of colonial rule, less than 700,000 Spaniards, most of them men, settled in Mexico. After militarily conquering and pacifying the indigenous population, later settlers intermarried with indigenous women, fathering the mixed race (mestizo) descendants who today constitute the majority of Mexico’s population, something that simply did not occur in the English colonies – [probably because of the warrior culture of the North American tribes and the non-military settlement of the land up until the “Trail of Tears”].

The northern sections of Mexico, especially the lands north of the Rio Grande, were lightly populated well into the 19th century. Mexican government officials, merchants, and a few trappers and hunters from the U.S. lived in small settlements, mostly around a series of Catholic mission churches founded by Dominicans, Franciscans and Jesuits. Mexicans [a classification to be discussed in depth later, but historically meaning Aztec-Nahuan] first arrived in present-day New Mexico in 1598 and founded the city of Santa Fe in 1610. This arrangement remained largely undisturbed after Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821.

When Mexico took over control from Spain after their revolution in 1821, the new government ignored and isolated the “norteños” [inhabitants of Mexico’s Northern provinces – much as the British had done to their colonists after the “Glorious Revolution” in England in 1688], except to break up the Catholic mission system in California. The systematic Navajo and Apache raids on New Mexico villages and ranches were ignored, as was the vulnerability of California, as the [inept] central government pulled back its soldiers to use them in recurrent civil wars and factional battles in the south.

The Mexican name given to the northern state, including Texas, was Coahuila y Tejas. The Mexican government wanted the new settlers to maintain loyalty to Mexico, speak Spanish, and become practicing Roman Catholics. After a decade, so many North Americans had settled into Texas, the Mexican government decided to do something to ensure the continued loyalty of the territory. Beginning in the late 1820s, many immigrants from the U.S. and Europe settled in Texas (Tejas).

Starting in 1830, the Mexican government began implementing measures to restrict American immigration into the Texas territory. The government outright stopped American immigration to Texas, and it also raised tariffs on goods being imported from the U.S. [An interesting historical fact considering the early 21st Century issue of illegal immigration of millions of Mexican citizens into the United States and the opposition of the Mexican government of any measures by the U.S. to restrict the flow.]

Perhaps most disturbing to Tejanos however, was that the Mexican government abolished slavery nationwide in 1831. Anglo and Hispanic Texans joined to fight Mexico in 1836, defeating an invading army after the famous standoff at the Alamo (in present day San Antonio) and declaring the independence of Texas. The Texas Republic included Tejanos as leading citizens, but Mexico refused to recognize its legal existence.”

In 1846, everything changed. War broke out between the U.S. and Mexico over the American annexation of Texas.

“Many of these Americans who had settled in Texas were from the American South, where slavery was a central institution that formed the basis of social, political, and economic life. There were several thousand slaves in Texas at this time. The abolition of slavery greatly angered these immigrants, as well as others [like Tejanos] in the Texas area.

The final straw came in 1835 when a Mexican president, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, formed a more centralist government and brought about a new constitution for the country. These new laws were seen as extremely strict and disliked by many throughout Mexico, and numerous efforts to rebel began. One of those, most notably, was in the Mexican state containing Texas.

Several hundred Mexican soldiers were sent to the Texas region to subdue the angry citizens. As a part of this crackdown, the Mexican government wanted a cannon returned to them that had been loaned out to the [Mexican] people of Texas. A Texas militia force [of  local citizens serving the state] banded together to protect the cannon, not wanting to return it to the national government. In early October, there was a small battle fought near Gonzales because of this dispute.

Soon after the Texas victory at Gonzales, the Texas army that had formed moved against several hundred Mexican troops at Fort Lipantitlan. In early November, Mexican troops abandoned the fort to Texas forces, another significant victory in the growing revolution in Texas.

Around this same time, Texas leader, American Stephen A. Austin, worked to transform the various militia groups in Texas into coherent armies. That same month, leaders from across the Texas region gathered together to form a provisional government. Henry Smith was made the first governor, and Sam Houston, a former U.S. Congressman who had immigrated to Texas in the 1830s, became the commander-in-chief of the nascent Army of Texas.

Just as preparations for war were underway in Texas, Santa Anna, the Mexican president, decided to leave his post to command an army against the Texas forces. Santa Anna wanted to quell the rebellion with a strong hand, and he intended to oversee the effort himself. Santa Anna quickly raised a 6000-man army to put down the insurrection, despite the approaching winter. Numerous soldiers in Santa Anna’s army, dubbed the Army of Operations, were either drafted or were former convicts. Santa Anna lost hundreds of troops in the desert winter while on the march, but arrived in Texas earlier than expected.

By late February, this force had reached San Antonio. Sam Houston, a former governor of Tennessee, had been gathering volunteers to face Santa Anna. The Texas soldiers in San Antonio were forced to retire into an old Spanish mission, known as The Alamo, which had been hastily barricaded into an impromptu fort. With Houston’s forces still in disarray and the Mexicans realizing that they had an opportunity for a notable victory, Santa Anna and his forces began a nearly two-week long siege of the Alamo, resulting in an attack that overran the fort on March 6, 1836.

In all, 187 Texans famously held out for thirteen days despite knowing they would not be able to live through the 6,000-man assault. All 187 Texans were killed, including their commander William Travis, and other notable persons such as David Crockett and JJim Bowie. The Mexican army suffered up to 1000 casualties. While the Texas forces lost heavily there, “Remember the Alamo” became a rallying cry for Texans to gather to the cause for independence. Santa Ana retired his army back into Mexico proper.

Just before the Alamo fell, Texas leaders had drafted and signed the Texas Declaration of Independence, making their cause official in their eyes and in the eyes of the world. Texas had declared its independence from Mexico. [Now, they needed to hold it.]

A short while later, at the Battle of Goliad, a force of 300 Texans was surrounded by elements of the retiring Mexican army. After three costly charges, the Mexicans called in cannons and reinforcements, and surrounded the Texans in the night. The Texans surrendered the following day. At the Goliad Massacre, General Santa Anna ordered the execution of all prisoners.

Despite the deaths of up to 400 Texans in these two battles, these two occurrences were vital to the Texas Revolution. These two strategically unimportant locations delayed the Mexican advance for several weeks, allowing Houston to gather much-need support in eastern Texas. Also, the martyrdom of those who willingly gave their lives at the Alamo, as well as the butchery at Goliad, galvanized the Texan cause.

Soon, Santa Anna, now unhindered, marched into the heart of Texas in pursuit of Houston. Houston, who knew his small but ever-growing army still could not hope to meet the Mexicans in battle, performed a classic strategic retreat eastward towards the border with the United States. Much of the Texan support was coming from the western frontier of the U.S. and as Houston retreated, his supply lines shortened. The Mexicans, who had limited food and supplies, were lengthening their supply lines from Mexico City every day. Houston also burned the towns and fields he passed through, so as to deny the Mexican army the ability to plunder and re-supply.

Then, an unexpected split of the Mexican army occurred, in which over half of Santa Anna’s forces, under the command of General Urrea (the general who had called for reinforcements on the first day at Goliad), turned south towards Galveston [on the coast], the temporary capital of Texas. Houston, at the demands of his 900 weary men, turned to face his enemy while he was only slightly outnumbered, with the Mexican forces now only numbering 1200.

Santa Anna, who believed that the Texans would again retreat upon realizing that they were still outnumbered, ordered his men to set up camp along the banks of the San Jacinto River. Houston’s men however, [with the Alamo and Goliad on their minds] were eager to fight. Houston ordered an attack the following morning, unwittingly catching the Mexicans during their siesta hour. The unprepared Mexicans were massacred, with all soldiers being either killed or captured, including Santa Ana himself. The Texans lost nine.

The captured Santa Anna ordered General Urrea to return to Mexico City, and granted the Texans their independence. American President Andrew Jackson, as well as Great Britain, soon recognized the Republic of Texas as an independent nation. The newly-formed Republic lasted for several years, before finally petitioning the United States for statehood. It was granted in 1845, just before the outbreak of the Mexican-American War.

The Tejanos in Texas joined the revolution and supported the new Republic of Texas; the Hispanics in New Mexico and California were localistic and did not identify with the Tejanos or the regime in Mexico City. The “norteños” played a minor role in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, and when offered the choice of repatriating to Mexico or remaining and becoming full citizens of the United States, the great majority remained.

Only when large numbers of Americans arrived in Texas did the norteños develop a sense of “lo mexicano,” that is of “being Mexican,” and that new identification had little to do with far-off Mexico City. American entrepreneurs often cultivated alliances and partnerships with the Mexican propertied elites in the states of Texas and California, and the territories of New Mexico and Arizona. The Californios – who only numbered 10,000 in 1848, remained in California but were soon overwhelmed by the immigration of hundreds of thousands of newcomers looking for gold in California after 1849, and largely became invisible to European-Americans.

The Latino culture of the rest of the Southwest, especially New Mexico and southern Texas, called itself “Spanish” (rather than “Mexican”) to distinguish themselves from “los norteamericanos”. The Latinos emphasized their own religion, language, customs and kinship ties, and drew into enclaves, rural colonies and urban barrios, which los norteamericanos seldom entered. Intermarriage rates were low. Assimilation was essentially non-existent, foreshadowing current Hispanic-immigrant issues.

The Mexican-American War (1846-1848) marked the first U.S. armed conflict chiefly fought on foreign soil. It pitted a politically divided and militarily unprepared Mexico against the expansionist-minded administration of U.S. President James K. Polk, who believed – along with most Americans since Jefferson –  the United States had a “manifest destiny” to spread across the continent to the Pacific Ocean.

Initially, after Texas had gained its independence from Mexico in 1836, the United States declined to incorporate it into the Union, largely because northern political interests were against the addition of a new slave state. The Mexican government was also encouraging border raids and warning that any attempt at annexation would lead to war.

Annexation procedures were quickly initiated after the 1844 election of Polk, who campaigned that Texas should be “re-annexed” and that the Oregon Territory should be “re-occupied.” Polk also had his eyes on California, New Mexico and the rest of what is today the U.S. Southwest in order to “complete” the United States. [With this initiative, the often overlooked Polk became as significant as Jefferson in helping Americans realize their “Manifest Destiny.”]

When his offer to purchase those lands was rejected by Mexico, he instigated a fight by moving troops into a disputed zone between the Rio Grande and Nueces River that both countries had previously recognized as part of the Mexican state of Coahuila. The resulting border skirmish along the Rio Grande started off the fighting and was followed by a series of U.S. victories.

When the dust cleared, Mexico had lost about one-third of its territory, including nearly all of present-day California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico because, in keeping with the character of the Epoch of Conquest, it was unable to hold them and lacked the sine quo non for any nation-state – no allies willing to help with the effort.

On April 25, 1846, Mexican cavalry attacked a group of U.S. soldiers in the disputed zone under the command of General Zachary Taylor, killing about a dozen. They then laid siege to an American fort along the Rio Grande. Taylor called in reinforcements, and, with the help of superior rifles and artillery, was able to defeat the Mexicans in several battles.

Following those battles, Polk told the U.S. Congress that the “… cup of forbearance has been exhausted, even before Mexico passed the boundary of the United States, invaded our territory, and shed American blood upon American soil.” Two days later, on May 13, Congress declared war, despite opposition from some northern lawmakers. No official declaration of war ever came from Mexico.

At that time, only about 75,000 Mexican citizens lived north of the Rio Grande. As a result, U.S. forces led by Col. Stephen W. Kearny and Commodore Robert F. Stockton were able to conquer those lands with minimal resistance. Taylor likewise had little trouble advancing, and he captured Monterrey, Mexico in September.

With the losses adding up, Mexico turned to old standby General Antonio López de Santa Anna, the charismatic strongman who had been living in exile in Cuba. Santa Anna convinced Polk that, if allowed to return to Mexico, he would end the war on terms favorable to the United States. But when he arrived, he immediately double-crossed Polk by taking control of the Mexican army and leading it into battle. At the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847, Santa Anna suffered heavy casualties and was forced to withdraw. Despite the loss, he assumed the Mexican presidency, again, the following month.

Meanwhile, U.S. troops led by Gen. Winfield Scott landed in Veracruz and took over the city. They then began marching toward Mexico City, essentially following the same route that Hernán Cortés followed when he invaded the Aztec empire over 300 years before. The Mexicans resisted at Cerro Gordo and elsewhere, but were bested each time. In September 1847, Scott successfully laid siege to Mexico City’s Chapultepec Castle. During that clash, a group of military school cadets – the so-called niños héroes (child heroes) – purportedly committed suicide rather than surrender.

Guerilla attacks against U.S. supply lines continued, but for all intents and purposes the war had ended. Santa Anna resigned, and the United States waited for a new government capable of negotiations to form. Finally, on Feb. 2, 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo  was signed, establishing the Rio Grande and not the Nueces River as the U.S.-Mexican border. Under the treaty, Mexico also recognized the U.S. annexation of Texas, and agreed to sell California and the rest of its territory north of the Rio Grande for $15 million – precisely what Polk had proposed two-years earlier – plus the assumption of certain damages claims.

In California, Spanish Franciscan friars, [led by Father Junipero Serra, recently canonized a Saint of the Catholic Church] beginning in San Diego in 1769, had formed a string of mission churches,  designed to convert the indigenous people to Christianity. Along with the system of forts and land grants to favored associates of the king, the missions enabled small-scale Spanish settlements along coastal California by a few hundred Spanish immigrants. Very small Spanish-speaking settlements also were established near Dominican and Jesuit missions & forts in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas by the mid-18th Century. In 1829, the new Mexican government ended the role of the Catholic Church in state affairs.

Interestingly and unbeknownst to Mexico, gold was discovered in California just days before Mexico ceded the land to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. During the California Gold Rush, as many as 25,000 Mexicans arrived in California. Many of these Mexicans were experienced miners and had some success mining gold in California. Some Americans reacted with violence. Between 1848 and 1860, at least 163 Mexicans were lynched in California alone.

One more important piece of land changed hands – in 1854, when the U.S. bought what is now southern Arizona and New Mexico from the Mexican government for $10 million appropriated by Congress through the Wilmot Proviso. This land deal, known as the Gadsden Purchase, brought the U.S. a much-coveted railroad route, and helped open the Southwest to further expansion.

Thus, with two strokes of a pen, the larger nation had expanded its size by one-third. And almost overnight, tens of thousands of Mexican citizens had become residents of the United States. The result was unchallenged American control over a wide range of territory once held by Mexico, including the present-day states of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California.

The vast majority of Hispanic populations chose to stay and become full U.S. citizens. By and large, the Hispanic populations of these areas supported the new government. The Mexican government had become despotic under on-and-off-again President General Santa Anna and the US Government offered protection from Indian raids that Mexico had not prevented, meaning an end to civil wars of the sort that continuously wracked Mexico until 1920, and it promised much greater long-run prosperity.

Although the treaty promised that the landowners in this newly acquired territory would have full enjoyment and protection of their property as if they were citizens of the United States, many former citizens of Mexico lost their claims in lawsuits before State and federal courts. Even those statutes intended to protect the owners of property at the time of the extension of the United States’ borders, such as the 1851 California Land Act, had the effect of dispossessing Californio owners ruined by the cost of maintaining litigation, required by U.S. law, for years, over land titles.

After the “Santa Fe Ring” succeeded in dispossessing thousands of landholders in New Mexico, groups such as Las Gorras Blancas tore down fences or burned down interlopers’ farm buildings. In western Texas the political struggle sparked an armed conflict in which the Tejano majority forced the surrender of the Texas Rangers, but in the end lost their influence, offices, and economic opportunities.

In other areas, particularly California, the Hispanic residents were simply overwhelmed by the number of American settlers who rushed in, first in Northern California as a result of the California Gold Rush, then decades later by the oil boom in Southern California.

American miners drove Hispanic miners out of their camps, barred Hispanics from testifying in court and imposed exclusionary standards similar to what was called Jim Crowin the case of African-Americans. Some Hispanics, of whom Joaquin Murrieta was a legendary example and Tiburcio Vasquez a real one, responded by resorting to banditry.

About 20,000 Tejanos lived in South Texas in the 1850s. South Texans of Hispanic descent lived in a three-tiered society during the antebellum years. At the top stood the landed elite, the “Dons”, the owners of huge ranchos, many of which originated as haciendas in the Spanish colonial period. The elite based their economic lives on cattle raising.

They sold some cattle in Mexico and Louisiana and exported hides and tallow, but access to major urban markets outside the region was so limited that South Texas ranchers did not develop highly commercial operations during the antebellum years. This apparently suited most very well anyhow in that they viewed their ranches primarily as a way of life rather than a business investment and therefore focused on keeping their property intact as well as turning a profit.

Small landowners occupied the second rung of the South Texas economic and social ladder. These rancheros, as they were called, lived in one-room adobe houses and spent most of their time caring for their small herds of horses and cattle. Although a smaller part of the population, they can be compared to the plain-folk Americans of East Texas. That is, they differed from the elite only in the extent of their property, not in their dependence on the land or the way they tried to live.

Finally, South Texas had a lower class composed primarily of peóns, vaqueros, and cartmen. Peóns had a status above that of the slaves in antebellum Texas but below that of genuinely free men. They owned no property, could not travel or even call in a doctor without the permission of the estate owner (the patrón), and needed his approval for marriages.

When a peón was accused of an offense, the patrón acted as judge and jury. On the other hand, peóns were not property and therefore could not be bought and sold or treated as personal chattels in any way. Somewhere in an ill-defined place between that of slaves and free men, they served as “faithful servants” to the upper class.

Peóns worked at the direction of the patróns – planting and harvesting crops, herding goats, digging wells, and doing any sort of manual labor necessary. In return they received wages or credits at the estate’s store in amounts so small that they were constantly in debt. They lived in tiny one-room jacales, huts with walls of mud, adobe or any other material available – and thatched roofs. The one room served for both living and sleeping; cooking and eating took place in a separate enclosure made of grass or corn stalks.

The poor, landless class also included vaqueros, the men who herded and took care of cattle. Ranch owners and mission priests generally considered it beneath their dignity to do such work and thought of these first Texas cowboys simply as laborers riding horses.

No one involved could have imagined that millions of Americans would one day see working cattle as an ultimately romantic and heroic part of Texas’s past. At least vaqueros, as befitted their future image, had more independence than peóns. They were not bound to the land and could even expect to acquire property of their own someday.

Cartmen lived primarily in San Antonio or along the route from that city to Indianola on the Gulf Coast, southwest of Galveston, and earned their living by transporting food and merchandise from the coast to the interior. Using oxcarts, they virtually monopolized this particular freight route by moving goods quickly and cheaply. American competitors appeared by the 1850s but were unable to match the rates charged by the Tejanos. Carting appears to have been the most lucrative business open to poorer Tejanos during these years

In parts of south Texas and southern Arizona, Hispanic-Americans were able to obtain positions within local government while in New Mexico, Hispanic-Americans remained an absolute majority of the population until the end of the 19th century. The federal government delayed granting statehood to New Mexico because of its Hispanic-American political leadership’s refusal to assimilate into the American culture.

Despite integration, new mixed-race Hispanic-Americans chose to retain their Spanish-based identity, language and local culture – perhaps because they were not “immigrants” and had not “left former lives behind” as historic immigrant groups had done – and so – proudly, though mistakenly – failed to consider or appreciate the value of assimilation into the dominant Northern European-American culture of the United States. “They were most successful in those areas where they had retained some measure of political or economic power, where Jim Crow laws imposed a forced separation or where immigrants from Mexico made up a significant percentage of the community.

Hispanic-Americans made up a significant number of workers in a number of industries, particularly the railroad and mining industries in the southwestern U.S. that led to the growth of Hispanic communities throughout the region. The employment needs of the railroad industry in the late 19th Century brought Mexican immigrants from more remote regions of Mexico, while the new industries integrated the border regions of the United States and Mexico. The railroad also led to the economic development of the Southwest region of the U.S., drawing Mexican immigrants in large numbers into agriculture in the early 20th Century, establishing a pattern that continued thereafter.

After 1911, the ferocious civil wars in Mexico led almost one million refugees to flee north across the border, which was generally open. Well educated middle-class families emigrated, as well as poor citizens. Over 500,000 returned after 1930, but many stayed.

World War I gave the Hispanics the opportunity to prove their full American citizenship. Like the “new immigrants” in eastern cities and African-Americans, who also constructed dual identities, members of the Nuevomexicano middle-class exuberantly participated in the war effort. They melded images of their heritage with patriotic symbols of America, especially in the Spanish-language press.

Nuevomexicano politicians and community leaders recruited the rural masses into the war [effort] overseas and on the home front, including the struggle for women’s suffrage. Support from New Mexico’s American establishment aided their efforts. Their wartime contributions improved the conditions of minority citizenship for Nuevomexicanos but did not entirely eliminate social inequality. For example, no Hispanics – not even the son of a regent – was allowed into a fraternity at the public New Mexico State University.

In New Mexico, Americans and Hispanics cooperated because both prosperous and poor Hispanics could vote and they outnumbered the European-Americans. Around 1920, the term “Spanish-American” replaced “Mexican” in polite society and in political debate. The new term served both the interests of both groups. For Spanish speakers, it evoked Spain, not Mexico, recalling images of a romantic colonial past and suggesting [a perceptive, enlightened and worthwhile goal] a future of equality in European-dominated America, [rather than an aboriginal-Spanish dominated Mexico].

For Americans, on the other hand, it was a useful term that upgraded the state’s image, for the old image as a “Mexican” land suggested violence and disorder, and had discouraged capital investment and set back the Statehood campaign. The new term gave the temporary impression that “Spanish-Americans” belonged to a true American political culture, making the established order appear all the more democratic.

Curiously, as “Spanish-Americans” were trying to demonstrate that they belonged to the American culture, the consulates of the Mexican government in major cities in the Southwest organized a counter-productive network of “juntas patrioticas” (patriotic councils) and “comisiónes honoríficos” (honorary committees) to celebrate Mexican national holidays such as the Cinco-de-Mayo – the target audience was the Latino middle class.

In 1915, in a precursor to the present day “La Raza” movement, a band of Latino radicals, with cultural identities more closely tied to Mexico than the U.S., issued the manifesto “Plan de San Diego” in south Texas, calling on Hispanics to reconquer the Southwest and kill all the “Anglo” men. Rebels assassinated opponents and killed several dozen people in attacks on railroads and ranches before the Texas Rangers smashed the insurrection.

Tejanos strongly repudiated the “Plan” and affirmed their American loyalty by founding the League of United Latin-American Citizens (LULAC) in 1929.   LULAC was formed on the premise that full acceptance of American social, educational and political values was the only way Latinos could reasonably expect to improve their political, economic, and social position in American society. LULAC, headed by professionals, businessmen and modernizers, became the central Tejano organization promoting civic pride and civil rights.

Unfortunately, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, a center-left party and member of the Socialist International, was founded in 1929 to unite all the factions of the Mexican Revolution and has held an almost hegemonic power in Mexican politics since then. [And, the spirit of La Raza still lives on in the hearts of many of the Mexican-American people.]

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