The Spanish used to have a phrase to describe the American version of Spain’s history in the New World – “la leyenda negra,” the black legend. It referred to the fact that the English version of the conquest of the North American continent was extremely whitewashed while their version of Spain’s conquest of South America was over-the-top with atrocities.
Ever since Dee Brown published Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee in 1970, the battle of historical accuracy has raged. In the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant version of American history, Washington threw a silver dollar over the half-mile wide Potomac at the age of 62 and Americans put the native population in reservations for their own good. Newt Gingrich’s and Rush Limbaugh’s favorite phrase for describing any attempt to correct the historical record is “revisionist history,” meaning that historians were trying to revise history for a liberal perspective instead of correcting its errors.
Let’s get this straight right off: the Americans didn’t liberate the people of Texas or California. They conquered both those states. They wanted slavery in Texas, which was against Mexican law, and the wanted California’s access to the Pacific and resources. Zorro is an Anglo myth, not a Mexican legend. The people of California were no worse off under Spanish rule than any people in a top-down, rich-man’s control situation, and they sure as hell were better off under Mexican rule in Texas without slavery.
In Tucson, Arizona, the school board has decided that students should not have access to any facts about the WASP conquest of this continent. They sent in goons to seize books from classrooms and out of students’ hands. The majority of books seized were by Native American authors ranging from the twenty-year old text book Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years co-edited by that radical Hispanic Bill Bigelow to N. Scott Momaday’s The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee and a picture book of Mexican landscapes.
When Star Trek: Voyager premiered, there was some criticism from Native Americans of the casting of Mexican-American actor Robert Beltran as an Southwestern Native American. Beltran explained, rather emphatically and somewhat angrily, that most Mexicans are Native Americans, not Spaniards. Latin America was always racially divided. At the political and economic top were the Spaniards like my grandparents – a closed society of immigrants who were frequently the younger members of upper-class and aristocratic Spanish families and their descendants. In the middle were the mix-bloods, descendants of Spanish soldiers and lower-class immigrants who intermarried with the native population. At the bottom, the overwhelming majority of inhabitants of Mexico, the continent, the islands and the isthmus, were Native Americans. The Mexican Civil War of 1909-13 was fought along these racial lines.
At the core of the school board’s decision (which interestingly enough included banning Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but not Othello) is the personal agenda of Arizona state superintendent of public instruction John Huppenthal, who campaigned for his office on the promise to “stop la raza.” “La Raza” refers in an narrow sense to Partido Nacional de La Raza Unida, a Chicano political party that as founded in the 1970s to work for better conditions of Mexican-Americans. In Huppenthal’s usage, it means all Latin-American peoples who want equal opportunity, equal rights and preservation of their culture.
The Tucson school board has informed teachers of Mexican-American studies that they are to avoid any class units where “race, ethnicity and oppression are central themes.” So, they are forbidden to teach the Trail of Tears, the genocidal Indian Wars, the reservations on land that could not support agriculture, the truth in all its uncomfortable forms?
So-called “revisionist history” seeks to correct the American mythology by providing the other side of the story – the facts about the Indian Wars and the conquest of the Southwest. It is not a liberal agenda, but an agenda of truth and fact. It is an assertion of who really built this nation and what those men and women contributed to it and who suffered for it.
I can hear the complaints now – you live in New England, so what the hell do you know about the Mexican border? What I know is that the northern border and Canadians are the same situation as the southern border and Mexicans, just less obviously because of the racial factor. The entire northern tier from the Atlantic to the Dakotas was settled by the French Canadians. They settled as far south as Colorado and all along the Mississippi Valley. They founded Louisiana before the expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia. Canadians and Canadian-Americans crossed back and forth over the border as though it didn’t exist until 2001. There were hundreds of little roads that were unmonitored border crossings. My husband’s grandparents crossed the border twice a year with their entire brood of children in the back of the truck, following the seasonal work. No one questioned that practice. It was the same on the southern border. The borders didn’t exist in the minds of those who lived along them. In point of fact, our immigration laws did not initially include any reference to Mexicans and Canadians. The hysteria over 9-11 – and in this regard it was pure hysteria – damaged the cultures of both borders. It denied us the right to do what had been done since before any of these three nations existed, maintain contact with friends and relatives no matter where they lived, take jobs that shifted with the seasons. There is nothing in the Canadian-American border vocabulary that parallels the word “tejano” – the culture of the border. One Canadian explained it to me thusly: these were for the most part illiterate laborers. They couldn’t write letters to the families they left behind, but they could get in their cars or trucks and visit. Those who didn’t do that were deemed to have been swallowed up by America, lost to their families and friends. In a Québeqois family reunion, the presence of descendants of the lost ones is a big deal. It re-establishes connections thought to be gone for all time.
Arizona has a population of 6.4 million. The non-Hispanic white population is 57.8% of that. Hispanics are 29.6%. Native Americans make up only 4.6% of the population. The remaining 8% of the population is “other” or mixed race. One third of the population is Hispanic and Native American, while the non-white population is over 40%. Huppenthal wants to deny 40% of the population of his state access to anything other than the Anglo white-washed version of history and Anglo literature. He wants Arizona children to be raised to think there has never been racial prejudice, racial injustice or even a multitude of races in this country. He wants a curriculum of lies. The Tucson high school students who compared the seizing of their books to Nazi Germany had it right. The Nazis wanted an ethnically and religiously pure nation, too.
The Republican charge that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama “apologize” for America is part of this battle over historical accuracy. The United States has done some stupid things over time, especially as part of the Cold War. We supported vicious, butchering dictators because they said they were “pro-America,” including men like Saddam Hussein and Augusto Pinochet, whose body count in Chile was higher than Hussein’s in Iraq. We did this. That is historical fact. It is not an apology to acknowledge it. The acknowledgment shows that as a nation we – or at least some of us – have grown beyond the fascist nationalism of the Cold War era.
There is a minor benefit to men like Huppenthal, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. They have gotten arrogant. They believe that there is enough support in this country for their bigotry that they can drop the facade of inclusiveness. They think they are free to pursue their agendas that denigrate, demean and deny the wide range of ethnic and racial identities in America. They think that the color of my skin will make me their ally. They do not understand that even whites have been victims of discrimination over time and that there is a strong sense among Americans that oppression and repression based on ethnicity or race or culture is fundamentally wrong.
The more secure they think they are in such overt expressions of bigotry, the more they turn good Americans against their agenda.